Reading someone else’s love letters can be a little like watching your parents soul kiss. The experience may be enjoyable to them, but it’s a bit embarrassing to you. That feeling of embarrassment is only enhanced when the letters you read come from the rich and famous. It’s shocking to discover that those who seem larger than life are no more in control of their emotions than we mere mortals.
For example, unbridled passion virtually flows from Beethoven’s glorious Ninth Symphony, yet the German composer himself sounds like any other lovesick fool in his now-famous letter to the anonymous “Immortal Beloved.”
“Even when I am in bed my thoughts rush to you, my eternally beloved, now and then joyfully, then again sadly, waiting to know whether Fate will hear our prayer,” he wrote to the still-unidentified woman in 1811 or 1812. “To face life I must live altogether with you or never see you.”
What, it’s fair to ask, is the source of our embarrassment here? Is it the discomfort of watching our own inner-most needs being played out by those who, in our minds at least, should know better? Is it the fear that our own needs in respect to love may never be fulfilled? Whatever the answers, love endures as a cultural obsession and, as such, a favorite theme of artistic expression.
For example, director Bernard Rose created a whole movie, “Immortal Beloved,” around Beethoven’s letter. More specifically to this story, though, author Ronald Tamplin used the same missive as a centerpiece of his book “Famous Love Letters: Messages of Intimacy and Passion” (Reader’s Digest, 160 pages, $25).
Rose was working in fiction, in contrast to Tamplin whose concern is for the very words provided by various lovers themselves. And since today is Valentine’s Day, it’s only fitting to examine Tamplin’s book and the declarations of love included therein.
To begin with, Tamplin finds in his examination of the world’s oldest human emotion (save its counterpart, hatred) that love is a universal feeling. As he writes, “The experience of every individual is unique, but some things in love never change.”
One constancy involves the existence of love at first sight.
At a ball in 1873 given in honor of a future Russian czar, Lord Randolph Churchill, 24, first met a beautiful 19-year-old American woman named Jennie Jerome. They talked throughout the night.
The next day he proposed, and she accepted. Though his family objected, the couple persevered.
“Dearest if you are as fond of me as I am of you,” he wrote to her, now departed for Paris, “nothing could keep us long apart. The last week has seemed an eternity to me; Oh, I wld give my soul for another of those days we had together not long ago.”
Churchill didn’t have to give away near that much. His family ultimately relented, and he married his “dark beauty” on April 15, 1874.
If sudden love is a familiar tale, then so is the struggle that lovers wage to stay together in the face of family objection. Churchill knew this, as did the English poet John Keats.
The man who one day would be anthologized in numerous surveys of English literature with his poems “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “Ode to a Nightingale” was, in 1818, merely another struggling writer. Then just 24, he met 18-year-old Fanny Brawne and by summer was in love.
By the following October, Keats was expressing his passion in words.
“Love is my religion,” he wrote, “I could die for that. I could die for you. My Creed is Love and you are its only tenet. You have ravish’d me away by a Power I cannot resist; and yet I could resist till I saw you; and even since I have seen you I have endeavoured often `to reason against the reason of my Love.’ I can do that no more - the pain would be too great. My love is selfish. I cannot breathe without you.”
He wasn’t lying. Brawne’s family was reluctant to let her marry a man with no visible prospects.
Though they continued to correspond, their time together was limited. In 1820, Keats began showing signs of tuberculosis. He died a year later in Rome, and Brawne mourned his passing for six years.
Family is only one obstacle that can separate lovers. Sometimes it is the duty of office, the imperative of history, that keeps them apart.
Much has been written about Napoleon Bonaparte and his love affair with Josephine, whose proper name was nothing less than Marie-Josephe-Rose Tascher de la Pagerie. But only Napoleon’s actual words can portray the depth, not to mention the turbulent nature, of his emotions.
“I love you no longer; on the contrary, I detest you,” he wrote in the spring of 1797 while serving with his army in Italy. “You are a wretch, truly perverse, truly stupid, a real Cinderella. You never write to me at all….”
Yet by letter’s end, his hatred had dissipated.
“In truth, I am worried, my love, to have no news from you; write me a four-page letter instantly made up from those delightful words which fill my heart with emotion and joy. I hope to hold you in my arms before long, when I shall lavish upon you a million kisses, burning as the equatorial sun.”
More than a century later, 18-year-old Zelda Sayre wrote with a similar kind of intensity to a 23-year-old Army officer by the name of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
“Scott - there’s nothing in the world I want but you - and your precious love,” she wrote in the spring of 1919. “All the material things are nothing. I’d just hate to live a sordid, colorless existence - because you’d soon love me less - and less - and I’d do anything - anything - to keep your heart for my own….”
Then there’s the kind of love that survives, even thrives, events that would kill lesser souls.
When the 12th-century scholar Peter Abelard was castrated by the vengeful uncle of Heloise, the young woman he’d fallen in love with, both sought solace in religious orders.
Yet Heloise’s feelings of earthly love for her teacher and husband continued. She acknowledged the fact that they would never live together as a married couple, yet she implored him to help her accept the situation.
“And so, in the name of God to whom you have dedicated yourself, I beg you to restore your presence to me in the way you can - by writing me some word of comfort, so that in this at least I may find increased strength and readiness to serve God…. give ear to my pleas, and I will finish a long letter with a brief finish; farewell, my only love.”
Not all aspects of love survive, of course. Passion, for instance, tends to wither. Or turn upon itself.
Heloise lost her Abelard, Napoleon divorced Josephine, and Zelda Fitzgerald wound up in a sanitarium.
Yet there is a kind of love that survives all that life throws at it.
In 1839, 30-year-old Sophia Peabody wrote this note of affection to her 35-year-old husband, the American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne:
“What a year this has been to us! My definition of Beauty is, that it is love, and therefore includes both truth and good. But those only who love as we do can feel the significance and force of this.”
She meant what she wrote. Sophie and her Nathaniel, married in 1842, remained happily married until his death in 1864.
It’s fitting, then, for Sophie Hawthorne to have the last word here. Of her life, she wrote, “God has turned for me the silver lining and for me the darkest cloud has broken into ten thousand singing birds.”
And if that revelation expresses joy, then it, too, is an embarrassment.
Though only of riches.
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