Wednesday, February 22, 2012

"I Cannot Breathe Without You"

I don’t ‘do’ Valentine’s Day. It’s nothing to do with being (or not-being) in a relationship at all, and far more to do with how generic a holiday it seems to have become. More than anything, I miss love letters. Real, honest to goodness love letters that were not produced in assistance with Hallmark or 1-800-Flowers. So, to that end, let’s take a look at some real Romantics, and see how the pros practiced the art of the love letter...

For sheer frenzies of passion, you can’t do much better than John Keats (1795-1821). Impoverished, chronically ill and Romantic both in art and in temperament, Keats brief career was perhaps one of the most influential of his era. Much has been made lately of his intense relationship with Fanny Brawne, who he met sometime in the autumn of 1818, and his letters to her leave no doubt of the debt of his feelings:

Sweetest Fanny,

You fear, sometimes, I do not love you so much as you wish? My dear Girl I love you ever and ever and without reserve. The more I have known the more have I lov’d…Can I help it? You are always new. The last of your kisses was ever the sweetest; the last smile the brightest; the last movement the gracefullest…My Mind has been the most discontented and restless one that ever was put into a body too small for it. I never felt my Mind repose upon anything with complete and undistracted enjoyment—upon no person but you.[1]

It was a source of constant pain and fear for Keats that his bleak financial prospects meant the likelihood of an eventual marriage to Fanny nearly impossible and his health was so poor that he harbored no illusions about the likelihood of growing old with her. His doctors suggested he move to Italy with his friend Joseph Severn in the hopes the worst symptoms of his tuberculosis could be alleviated. Just before his departure, Keats wrote to his love,

My dearest Girl,

I wish you could invent some means to make me at all happy without you…I feel it almost impossible to go to Italy—the fact is I cannot leave you, and shall never taste one minute’s content until it pleases chance to let me live with you for good…I wish I was either in your arms full of faith or that a Thunder bolt would strike me.[2]

In the end, the trip was disastrous, and Keats died in Rome on February 23, 1821. Fanny remained in mourning for him for six years, and would be devoted for the rest of her long life to protecting Keats’ memory. Though he died fearing he left nothing behind worth remembering, thanks to Fanny his letters have been preserved for the rest of us.

While the eternal legacy of George Gordon, Lord Byron is being “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” (a lasting gift from Lady Caroline Lamb, whom Byron described in turn as “a villainous intriguante…,mad and malignant—capable of all and every mischief”), his letters certainly shed light on a somewhat different man.[3] Far be it from me to imply anything about the soul of the great Lord Byron, but bearing in mind Byron’s reputation, think about this letter, written to the woman who would become his wife, Anne Isabella Milbanke, after her (very) tentative acceptance of his proposal:

Are the “objections”—to which you alluded—insuperable?—or is there any line or change of conduct which could possibly remove them?—I am well aware that all such changes are more easy in theory than practice—but at the same time there are few things I would not attempt to obtain your good opinion—at all events I would willingly know the worst…[4]

It takes quite a remarkable person to be willing to face the very worst in their nature for their spouse, don't you think?
In the end, sadly, Byron’s demons did prove too much, and Annabella left after less than two years of marriage, though she would remain devoted to him for the rest of her life. And there is no doubt at all that Byron was terrible marriage material—his escapades after his separation are legendary—but the affection between him and Annabella was certainly real. Nothing about the following letter, written when she first asked for a legal separation—seems anything but genuine. And though he wrote plenty of sentimental letters later in life, none of them strike quite the same chord:

All I can say seems useless—and all I could say—might by no less unavailing—yet I still cling to the wreck of my hopes—before they sink forever.—Were you then never happy with me?—did you never at any time or times express yourself so?—have no marks of affection—of the warmest and most reciprocal attachment passed between us?....I do not require these questions to be answered to me—but to your own heart.[5]

And now we turn to my favorite letter-writer, and all-around fascinating Romantic, Alexander Pushkin. A Freemason, secret member of the Decemberists and a man who fell in love as easily and often as most people eat cupcakes, Pushkin was a master of language and a phenomenal letter-writer—he frequently admitted to being a much more amiable person on paper than in person. Similar to Byron, much of the charm of Pushkin’s letters comes from their honesty—frequently far more honest than was socially acceptable, but I doubt many of his correspondences minded very much. Take this letter, written to one of his favorite paramours, Anna Petrovna Kern:

I had the weakness to ask you for permission to write you, and you the thoughtlessness or the coquetry to permit me to do it. A correspondence leads to nothing, I know; but I do not have the strength to resist the desire to have a word from your pretty hand…Farewell, divine one. I am frantic and I am at your feet…
[And added to the letter at the bottom:]

I take up my pen again, because I am dying of boredom, and I can’t get you off my mind. I hope you will read this letter in secret…Write me all that comes into your head, I entreat you. If you fear my indiscretion, if you do not wish to compromise yourself, disguise your handwriting, sign with a fictitious name—my heart will be able to recognize you. If your words should be as sweet as your glances, alas! I shall try to believe them or to be deceived; it’s all the same. [6]

But his epistolary talents were especially notable when he had no hope of seeing the object of his affections again. Indeed, it was most likely for a young serving maid who worked in a house he was visiting that he wrote one of the most famous love poems in Russian:

I loved you once: perhaps that love has yet

To die down thoroughly within my soul;

But let it not dismay you any longer;

I have no wish to cause you any sorrow.

I loved you wordlessly, without a hope,

By shyness tortured, or by jealousy.

I loved you with such tenderness and candor

And pray God grants you to be loved that way again.

The magic of this poem is that it is nearly impossible to translate without breaking up the meter. Whole essays have been written about the levels of meaning it has in Russian, not to matter the speculation over just what lady would inspire such devotion.

To round out the real Romance of Pushkin’s life, he was killed in a duel with his brother-in-law, Georges-Charles d'Anthès, who was most likely carrying on an affair with Pushkin’s less-than-devoted wife (rumors are that she was also carrying on with Tsar Alexander I, as well). Speaking of which, if you want to learn how to write a note that will incite a duel, check out Pushkin. The letter he sent to d'Anthès is a masterpiece of withering scorn.

Fortunately, it doesn’t take a poetic master, or a long-gone Romantic, to write a great love-letter. My favorite love letter is still the one a colleague described to me a few years back from a librarian to his wife. They used the Dewey Decimal System as code in their letters, so “You are my 525 & 521” loosely translates to “You are my Earth and Stars”. How about you?

[1] John Keats, Bright Star: Loe Letters and Poems of John Keats to Fanny Brawne (London: Penguin, 2009), 43-44 {Because love isn’t complete without proper footnoting!}

[2] Keats, 64-66

[3] Ed. Leslie A Marchand, Lord Byron: Selected Letters and Journals (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1982), 112

[4] Ed. Marchand, 106-107

[5] Ed. Marchand, 121

[6] Trans. J. Thomas Shaw, The Letters of Alexander Pushkin, Vol. 1 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963), 233-34

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