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Posts Tagged ‘Oscar Wilde’

14 FEBRUARY, 2014

The Most Beautiful and Timelessly Bewitching LGBTQ Love Letters in History

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A sublime manifestation of the highest hope one soul can have for a union with another.

What is love? This question haunts the human psyche perhaps more persistently than any other. It has occupied our collective imagination for millennia, it has baffled scientists, taunted philosophers, and tantalized artists. So mystified by love were the Ancient Greeks that they itemized six types of it. But nothing defines it with more exquisite expressiveness than the love letter. At its best, it makes the personal universal, then personal again — a writer from another era or another culture captures the all-consuming complexity of love with more richness and color and dimension than we ourselves could, making us feel at once less alone and more whole in our understanding of love and of ourselves.

As we turn the leaf on a new chapter of modern history that embraces a more inclusive definition of love — both culturally and, at last, politically — here is a celebration of the human heart’s highest capacity through history’s most beautiful and timelessly bewitching LGBTQ love letters.

VIRGINIA WOOLF AND VITA SACKVILLE-WEST

The gender-bending protagonist in Virginia Woolf’s pioneering novel Orlando, which subverted censorship to revolutionize the politics of queer love, was based on the English poet Vita Sackville-West, Woolf’s onetime passionate lover and lifelong dear friend. In fact, the entire novel is thought to have been written about the affair — so much so that Sackville-West’s son, Nigel Nicolson, has described it as “the longest and most charming love-letter in literature.” Be that as it may, the two women also exchanged some gorgeous love letters in real life, found in the altogether wonderful collection The 50 Greatest Love Letters of All Time (public library). Here is one from Virginia to Vita from January of 1927, shortly after the two had fallen madly in love:

Look here Vita — throw over your man, and we’ll go to Hampton Court and dine on the river together and walk in the garden in the moonlight and come home late and have a bottle of wine and get tipsy, and I’ll tell you all the things I have in my head, millions, myriads — They won’t stir by day, only by dark on the river. Think of that. Throw over your man, I say, and come.”

On January 21, Vita sends Virginia this disarmingly honest, heartfelt, and unguarded letter, which stands in beautiful contrast with Virginia’s passionate prose:

…I am reduced to a thing that wants Virginia. I composed a beautiful letter to you in the sleepless nightmare hours of the night, and it has all gone: I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, with all your undumb letters, would never write so elementary a phrase as that; perhaps you wouldn’t even feel it. And yet I believe you’ll be sensible of a little gap. But you’d clothe it in so exquisite a phrase that it should lose a little of its reality. Whereas with me it is quite stark: I miss you even more than I could have believed; and I was prepared to miss you a good deal. So this letter is really just a squeal of pain. It is incredible how essential to me you have become. I suppose you are accustomed to people saying these things. Damn you, spoilt creature; I shan’t make you love me any more by giving myself away like this — But oh my dear, I can’t be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that. Too truly. You have no idea how stand-offish I can be with people I don’t love. I have brought it to a fine art. But you have broken down my defenses. And I don’t really resent it.

On the day of Orlando’s publication, Vita received a package containing not only the printed book, but also Virginia’s original manuscript, bound specifically for her in Niger leather and engraved with her initials on the spine.

MARGARET MEAD AND RUTH BENEDICT

Margaret Mead endures as the world’s best-known and most influential cultural anthropologist, who not only popularized anthropology itself but also laid the foundation for the sexual revolution of the 1960s with her studies of attitudes towards sex. In addition to broadening cultural conventions through her work, she also embodied the revolution in her personal life. Married three times to men, she dearly loved her third husband, the renowned British anthropologist Gregory Bateson, with whom she had a daughter. But the most intense and enduring relationship of her life was with a woman — the anthropologist and folklorist Ruth Benedict, Mead’s mentor at Columbia university, fourteen years her senior. The two shared a bond of uncommon magnitude and passion, which stretched across a quarter century until the end of Benedict’s life.

Margaret’s love letters to Ruth, posthumously gathered in To Cherish the Life of the World: Selected Letters of Margaret Mead (public library) — which also gave us Mead’s prescient position on homosexuality — are a thing of absolute, soul-stirring beauty, on par with such famed epistolary romances as those between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, and Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

In August of 1925, 24-year-old Mead sailed to Samoa, beginning the journey that would produce her enormously influential treatise Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilisation. (Mead, who believed that “one can love several people and that demonstrative affection has its place in different types of relationship,” was married at the time to her first husband and they had an unconventional arrangement that both allowed her to do field work away from him for extended periods of time and accommodated her feelings for Ruth.) On her fourth day at sea, she writes Benedict with equal parts devotion and urgency:

Ruth, dear heart,

. . . The mail which I got just before leaving Honolulu and in my steamer mail could not have been better chosen. Five letters from you — and, oh, I hope you may often feel me near you as you did — resting so softly and sweetly in your arms. Whenever I am weary and sick with longing for you I can always go back and recapture that afternoon out at Bedford Hills this spring, when your kisses were rained down on my face, and that memory ends always in peace, beloved.

A few days later:

Ruth, I was never more earthborn in my life — and yet never more conscious of the strength your love gives me. You have convinced me of the one thing in life which made living worthwhile.

You have no greater gift, darling. And every memory of your face, every cadence of your voice is joy whereon I shall feed hungrily in these coming months.

In another letter:

[I wonder] whether I could manage to go on living, to want to go on living if you did not care.

And later:

Does Honolulu need your phantom presence? Oh, my darling — without it, I could not live here at all. Your lips bring blessings — my beloved.

Letter from Margaret Mead to Ruth Benedict, October 1925 (Library of Congress)

In December of that year, Mead was offered a position as assistant curator at the American Museum of Natural History, where she would go on to spend the rest of her career. She excitedly accepted, in large part so that she could at last be closer to Benedict, and moved to New York with her husband, Luther Cressman, firmly believing that the two relationships would neither harm nor contradict one another. As soon as the decision was made, she wrote to Benedict on January 7, 1926:

Your trust in my decision has been my mainstay, darling, otherwise I just couldn’t have managed. And all this love which you have poured out to me is very bread and wine to my direct need. Always, always I am coming back to you.

I kiss your hair, sweetheart.

Four days later, Mead sends Benedict a poignant letter, reflecting on her two relationships and how love crystallizes of its own volition:

In one way this solitary existence is particularly revealing — in the way I can twist and change in my attitudes towards people with absolutely no stimulus at all except such as springs from within me. I’ll awaken some morning just loving you frightfully much in some quite new way and I may not have sufficiently rubbed the sleep from my eyes to have even looked at your picture. It gives me a strange, almost uncanny feeling of autonomy. And it is true that we have had this loveliness “near” together for I never feel you too far away to whisper to, and your dear hair is always just slipping through my fingers. . . .

When I do good work it is always always for you … and the thought of you now makes me a little unbearably happy.

Five weeks later, in mid-February, Mead and Benedict begin planning a three-week getaway together, which proves, thanks to their husbands’ schedules, to be more complicated than the two originally thought. Exasperated over all the planning, Margaret writes Ruth:

I’ll be so blinded by looking at you, I think now it won’t matter — but the lovely thing about our love is that it will. We aren’t like those lovers of Edward’s “now they are sleeping cheek to cheek” etc. who forgot all the things their love had taught them to love —

Precious, precious. I kiss your hair.

By mid-March, Mead is once again firmly rooted in her love for Benedict:

I feel immensely freed and sustained, the dark months of doubt washed away, and that I can look you gladly in the eyes as you take me in your arms. My beloved! My beautiful one. I thank God you do not try to fence me off, but trust me to take life as it comes and make something of it. With that trust of yours I can do anything — and come out with something precious saved.

Sweet, I kiss your hands.

As the summer comes, Mead finds herself as in love with Benedict as when they first met six years prior, writing in a letter dated August 26, 1926:

Ruth dearest,

I am very happy and an enormous number of cobwebs seem to have been blown away in Paris. I was so miserable that last day, I came nearer doubting than ever before the essentially impregnable character of our affection for each other. And now I feel at peace with the whole world. You may think it is tempting the gods to say so, but I take all this as high guarantee of what I’ve always temperamentally doubted — the permanence of passion — and the mere turn of your head, a chance inflection of your voice have just as much power to make the day over now as they did four years ago. And so just as you give me zest for growing older rather than dread, so also you give me a faith I never thought to win in the lastingness of passion.

I love you, Ruth.

Letter from Margaret Mead to Ruth Benedict, January 1926 (Library of Congress)

In September of 1928, as Mead travels by train to marry her second husband after her first marriage crumbled, another bittersweet letter to Ruth leaves us speculating about what might have been different had the legal luxuries of modern love been a reality in Mead’s day, making it possible for her and Ruth to marry and formalize their steadfast union under the law:

Darling,

[…]

I’ve slept mostly today trying to get rid of this cold and not to look at the country which I saw first from your arms.

Mostly, I think I’m a fool to marry anyone. I’ll probably just make a man and myself unhappy. Right now most of my daydreams are concerned with not getting married at all. I wonder if wanting to marry isn’t just another identification with you, and a false one. For I couldn’t have taken you away from Stanley and you could take me away from [Reo] — there’s no blinking that.

[…]

Beside the strength and permanence and all enduring feeling which I have for you, everything else is shifting sand. Do you mind terribly when I say these things? You mustn’t mind — ever — anything in the most perfect gift God has given me. The center of my life is a beautiful walled place, if the edges are a little weedy and ragged — well, it’s the center which counts — My sweetheart, my beautiful, my lovely one.

Your Margaret

By 1933, despite the liberal arrangements of her marriage, Mead felt that it forcibly squeezed out of her the love she had for Benedict. In a letter to Ruth from April 9, she reflects on those dynamics and gasps at the relief of choosing to break free of those constraints and being once again free to love fully:

Having laid aside so much of myself, in response to what I mistakenly believed was the necessity of my marriage I had no room for emotional development. … Ah, my darling, it is so good to really be all myself to love you again. . . . The moon is full and the lake lies still and lovely — this place is like Heaven — and I am in love with life. Goodnight, darling.

Over the years that followed, both Margaret and Ruth explored the boundaries of their other relationships, through more marriages and domestic partnerships, but their love for each other only continued to grow. In 1938, Mead captured it beautifully by writing of “the permanence of [their] companionship.” Mead and her last husband, Gregory Bateson, named Benedict the guardian of their daughter. The two women shared their singular bond until Benedict’s sudden death from a heart attack in 1948. In one of her final letters, Mead wrote:

Always I love you and realize what a desert life might have been without you.

See more of their gorgeous correspondence here.

ALLEN GINSBERG AND PETER ORLOVSKY

From the wonderful 1998 anthology My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters Through the Centuries (public library) — a diverse collection of missives covering the universalities of romantic love, from longing and infatuation to jealousy and rejection to tenderness and loyalty — comes the correspondence of Beat Generation godfather Allen Ginsberg and the poet Peter Orlovsky. The two had met in San Francisco in 1954, embarking upon what Ginsberg called their “marriage” — a lifelong relationship that went through many phases, endured multiple challenges, but ultimately lasted until Ginsberg’s death in 1997.

Their letters, filled with typos, missing punctuation, and the grammatical oddities typical of writing propelled by bursts of intense emotion rather than literary precision, are absolutely beautiful.

Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky in San Francisco, 1955

In a letter from January 20, 1958, Ginsberg writes to Orlovsky from Paris, recounting a visit with his close friend and fellow beatnik, William S. Burroughs, another icon of literature’s gay subculture:

Dear Petey:

O Heart O Love everything is suddenly turned to gold! Don’t be afraid don’t worry the most astounding beautiful thing has happened here! I don’t know where to begin but the most important. When Bill [ed: William S. Burroughs] came I, we, thought it was the same old Bill mad, but something had happened to Bill in the meantime since we last saw him . . . . but last night finally Bill and I sat down facing each other across the kitchen table and looked eye to eye and talked, and I confessed all my doubt and misery — and in front of my eyes he turned into an Angel!

What happened to him in Tangiers this last few months? It seems he stopped writing and sat on his bed all afternoons thinking and meditating alone & stopped drinking — and finally dawned on his consciousness, slowly and repeatedly, every day, for several months — awareness of “a benevolent sentient (feeling) center to the whole Creation” — he had apparently, in his own way, what I have been so hung up in myself and you, a vision of big peaceful Lovebrain. . . .

I woke up this morning with great bliss of freedom & joy in my heart, Bill’s saved, I’m saved, you’re saved, we’re all saved, everything has been all rapturous ever since — I only feel sad that perhaps you left as worried when we waved goodby and kissed so awkwardly — I wish I could have that over to say goodby to you happier & without the worries and doubts I had that dusty dusk when you left… — Bill is changed nature, I even feel much changed, great clouds rolled away, as I feel when you and I were in rapport, well, our rapport has remained in me, with me, rather than losing it, I’m feeling to everyone, something of the same as between us.

A couple of weeks later, in early February, Orlovsky sends a letter to Ginsberg from New York, in which he writes with beautiful prescience:

…dont worry dear Allen things are going ok — we’ll change the world yet to our dessire — even if we got to die — but OH the world’s got 25 rainbows on my window sill. . . .

As soon as he receives the letter the day after Valentine’s Day, Ginsberg writes back, quoting Shakespeare like only a love-struck poet would:

I have been running around with mad mean poets & world-eaters here & was longing for kind words from heaven which you wrote, came as fresh as a summer breeze & “when I think on thee dear friend / all loses are restored & sorrows end,” came over & over in my mind — it’s the end of a Shakespeare Sonnet — he must have been happy in love too. I had never realized that before. . . .

Write me soon baby, I’ll write you big long poem I feel as if you were god that I pray to –

Love,

Allen

In another letter sent nine days later, Ginsberg writes:

I’m making it all right here, but I miss you, your arms & nakedness & holding each other — life seems emptier without you, the soulwarmth isn’t around. . . .

Citing another conversation he had had with Burroughs, he goes on to presage the enormous leap for the dignity and equality of love that we’ve only just seen more than half a century after Ginsberg wrote this:

Bill thinks new American generation will be hip & will slowly change things — laws & attitudes, he has hope there — for some redemption of America, finding its soul. . . . — you have to love all life, not just parts, to make the eternal scene, that’s what I think since we’ve made it, more & more I see it isn’t just between us, it’s feeling that can [be] extended to everything. Tho I long for the actual sunlight contact between us I miss you like a home. Shine back honey & think of me.

He ends the letter with a short verse:

Goodbye Mr. February.
as tender as ever
swept with warm rain
love from your Allen

EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY AND EDITH WYNN MATTHISON

In 1917, during her final year at Vassar College — which she had entered at the unusually ripe age of 21 and from which she was almost expelled for partying too muchEdna St. Vincent Millay met and befriended British silent film actress Edith Wynne Matthison, fifteen years her senior. Taken with Matthison’s fierce spirit, majestic beauty, and impeccable style, Millay’s platonic attraction quickly blossomed into an intense romantic infatuation. Edith, a woman who made no apologies for relishing life’s bounties, eventually kissed Edna and invited her to her summer home. A series of disarmingly passionate letters followed. Found in The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay (public library) — which also gave us Millay on her love of music and her playfully lewd self-portrait — these epistolary longings capture that strange blend of electrifying ardor and paralyzing pride familiar to anyone who’s ever been in love.

Writing to Edith, Edna cautions of her uncompromising frankness:

Listen; if ever in my letters to you, or in my conversation, you see a candor that seems almost crude, — please know that it is because when I think of you I think of real things, & become honest, — and quibbling and circumvention seem very inconsiderable.

In another, she pleads:

I will do whatever you tell me to do. … Love me, please; I love you. I can bear to be your friend. So ask of me anything. … But never be ‘tolerant,’ or ‘kind.’ And never say to me again — don’t dare to say to me again — ‘Anyway, you can make a trial’ of being friends with you! Because I can’t do things that way. … I am conscious only of doing the thing that I love to do — that I have to do — and I have to be your friend.

In yet another, Millay articulates brilliantly the “proud surrender” at the heart of every materialized infatuation and every miracle of “real, honest, complete love”:

You wrote me a beautiful letter, — I wonder if you meant it to be as beautiful as it was. — I think you did; for somehow I know that your feeling for me, however slight it is, is of the nature of love. … nothing that has happened to me for a long time has made me so happy as I shall be to visit you sometime. — You must not forget that you spoke of that, — because it would disappoint me cruelly. … I shall try to bring a few quite nice things with me; I will get together all that I can, and then when you tell me to come, I will come, by the next train, just as I am. This is not meekness, be assured; I do not come naturally by meekness; know that it is a proud surrender to you; I don’t talk like that to many people.

With love,

Vincent Millay

ELEANOR ROOSEVELT AND LORENA HICKOK

Eleanor Roosevelt endures not only as the longest-serving American First Lady (1933-1945), but also as one of history’s most politically impactful, a fierce champion of working women and underprivileged youth.

But her personal life has been the subject of lasting controversy.

In the summer of 1928, Roosevelt met journalist Lorena Hickok, whom she would come to refer to as Hick. The thirty-year relationship that ensued has remained the subject of much speculation, from the evening of FDR’s inauguration, when the First Lady was seen wearing a sapphire ring Hickok had given her, to the opening up of her private correspondence archives in 1998. Though many of the most explicit letters had been burned, the 300 published in Empty Without You: The Intimate Letters Of Eleanor Roosevelt And Lorena Hickok (public library) — at once less unequivocal than history’s most revealing woman-to-woman love letters and more suggestive than those of great female platonic friendships — strongly indicate the relationship between Roosevelt and Hickok had been one of great romantic intensity.

On March 5, 1933, the first evening of FDR’s inauguration, Roosevelt wrote Hick:

Hick my dearest–

I cannot go to bed tonight without a word to you. I felt a little as though a part of me was leaving tonight. You have grown so much to be a part of my life that it is empty without you.

Then, the following day:

Hick, darling

Ah, how good it was to hear your voice. It was so inadequate to try and tell you what it meant. Funny was that I couldn’t say je t’aime and je t’adore as I longed to do, but always remember that I am saying it, that I go to sleep thinking of you.

And the night after:

Hick darling

All day I’ve thought of you & another birthday I will be with you, & yet tonite you sounded so far away & formal. Oh! I want to put my arms around you, I ache to hold you close. Your ring is a great comfort. I look at it & think “she does love me, or I wouldn’t be wearing it!”

And in yet another letter:

I wish I could lie down beside you tonight & take you in my arms.

Hick herself responded with equal intensity. In a letter from December 1933, she wrote:

I’ve been trying to bring back your face — to remember just how you look. Funny how even the dearest face will fade away in time. Most clearly I remember your eyes, with a kind of teasing smile in them, and the feeling of that soft spot just north-east of the corner of your mouth against my lips.

Granted, human dynamics are complex and ambiguous enough even for those directly involved, making it hard to assume anything with absolute certainty from the sidelines of an epistolary relationship long after the correspondents’ deaths. But wherever on the spectrum of the platonic and romantic the letters in Empty Without You may fall, they offer a beautiful record of a tender, steadfast, deeply loving relationship between two women who meant the world to one another, even if the world never quite condoned or understood their profound connection.

OSCAR WILDE AND SIR ALFRED “BOSIE” TAYLOR

Even as we make historic progress on the dignity and equality of human love, it’s hard to forget the enormous indignities to which the lovers of yore have been subjected across the 4,000-year history of persecuting desire. Among modernity’s most tragic victims of our shameful past is Oscar Wilde, who was imprisoned multiple times for his “crime” of homosexuality, run into bankruptcy and exile, and fell to an untimely death. But Wilde’s most “sinful” quality — his enormous capacity for passionate, profound love — was also one of the most poetic gifts of his life.

In June of 1891, Wilde met Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, a 21-year-old Oxford undergraduate and talented poet, who would come to be the author’s own Dorian Gray — his literary muse, his evil genius, his restless lover. It was during the course of their affair that Wilde wrote Salomé and the four great plays which to this day endure as the cornerstones of his legacy. Their correspondence, collected Oscar Wilde: A Life in Letters (public library), makes for an infinitely inspired addition to the most beautiful love letters exchanged between history’s greatest creative and intellectual power couples.

In January of 1893, Wilde writes to Bosie:

My Own Boy,

Your sonnet is quite lovely, and it is a marvel that those red rose-leaf lips of yours should be made no less for the madness of music and song than for the madness of kissing. Your slim gilt soul walks between passion and poetry. I know Hyacinthus, whom Apollo loved so madly, was you in Greek days.

Why are you alone in London, and when do you go to Salisbury? Do go there to cool your hands in the grey twilight of Gothic things, and come here whenever you like. It is a lovely place and lacks only you; but go to Salisbury first.

Always, with undying love, yours,

Oscar

Letter from Oscar Wilde to Bosie, November 1892 (The Morgan Library)

In early March of 1893, Wilde channels love’s exasperating sense of urgency:

Dearest of All Boys — Your letter was delightful — red and yellow wine to me — but I am sad and out of sorts — Bosie — you must not make scenes with me — they kill me — they wreck the loveliness of life — I cannot see you, so Greek and gracious, distorted with passion; I cannot listen to your curved lips saying hideous things to me — don’t do it — you break my heart — I’d sooner be rented* all day, than have you bitter, unjust, and horrid — horrid.

I must see you soon — you are the divine thing I want — the thing of grace and genius — but but I don’t know how to do it — Shall I come to Salisbury — ? There are many difficulties — my bill here is £49 for a week! I have also got a new sitting-room over the Thames — but you, why are you not here, my dear, my wonderful boy — ? I fear I must leave; no money, no credit, and a heart of lead –

Ever your own,

Oscar

* “renter” was slang for male prostitute in London

Their affair was intense, bustling with dramatic tempestuousness, but underpinning it was a profound and genuine love. In a letter from late December of 1893, after a recent rift, Wilde writes to Douglas:

My dearest Boy,

Thanks for your letter. I am overwhelmed by the wings of vulture creditors, and out of sorts, but I am happy in the knowledge that we are friends again, and that our love has passed through the shadow and the light of estrangement and sorrow and come out rose-crowned as of old. Let us always be infinitely dear to each other, as indeed we have been always.

[…]

I think of you daily, and am always devotedly yours.

Oscar

In July of the following year, Wilde writes:

My own dear Boy,

I hope the cigarettes arrived all right. I lunched with Gladys de Grey, Reggie and Aleck York there. They want me to go to Paris with them on Thursday: they say one wears flannels and straw hats and dines in the Bois, but, of course, I have no money, as usual, and can’t go. Besides, I want to see you. It is really absurd. I can’t live without you. You are so dear, so wonderful. I think of you all day long, and miss your grace, your boyish beauty, the bright sword-play of your wit, the delicate fancy of your genius, so surprising always in its sudden swallow-flights towards north and south, towards sun and moon — and, above all, yourself. The only thing that consoles me is what Sybil of Mortimer Street (whom mortals call Mrs. Robinson) said to me*. If I could disbelieve her I would, but I can’t, and I know that early in January you and I will go away together for a long voyage, and that your lovely life goes always hand in hand with mine. My dear wonderful boy, I hope you are brilliant and happy.

I went to Bertie, today I wrote at home, then went and sat with my mother. Death and Love seem to walk on either hand as I go through life: they are the only things I think of, their wings shadow me.

London is a desert without your dainty feet… Write me a line and take all my love — now and for ever.

Always, and with devotion — but I have no words for how I love you.

Oscar

* The fortuneteller’s prophesy apparently came true — Wilde and Douglas travelled to Algiers together the following January.

In 1895, at the height of his literary success, with his masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest drawing continuous acclaim across the stages of London, Wilde had Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, prosecuted for libel. But the evidence unearthed during the trial led to Wilde’s own arrest on charges of “gross indecency” with members of the same sex. Two more trials followed, after which he was sentenced for two years of “hard labor” in prison. On April 29 of that year, having hit emotional and psychological rock-bottom, his reputation ruined and his health deteriorating, Wilde wrote to Douglas on the eve of the final trial:

My dearest boy,

This is to assure you of my immortal, my eternal love for you. Tomorrow all will be over. If prison and dishonour be my destiny, think that my love for you and this idea, this still more divine belief, that you love me in return will sustain me in my unhappiness and will make me capable, I hope, of bearing my grief most patiently. Since the hope, nay rather the certainty, of meeting you again in some world is the goal and the encouragement of my present life, ah! I must continue to live in this world because of that.

Another letter, written on August 31, 1897, shortly after Wilde’s release from prison, reads:

Café Suisse, Dieppe
Tuesday, 7:30

My own Darling Boy,

I got your telegram half an hour ago, and just send a line to say that I feel that my only hope of again doing beautiful work in art is being with you. It was not so in the old days, but now it is different, and you can really recreate in me that energy and sense of joyous power on which art depends. Everyone is furious with me for going back to you, but they don’t understand us. I feel that it is only with you that I can do anything at all. Do remake my ruined life for me, and then our friendship and love will have a different meaning to the world.

I wish that when we met at Rouen we had not parted at all. There are such wide abysses now of space and land between us. But we love each other. Goodnight, dear. Ever yours,

Oscar

Oscar and Bosie in 1893

But perhaps the most eloquent articulation of their relationship comes from a letter Wilde wrote to Leonard Smithers — a Sheffield solicitor with a side business of printing erotica, who became the only publisher interested in Wilde’s books in his post-prison years — on October 1, 1897:

How can you keep on asking is Lord Alfred Douglas in Naples? You know quite well he is — we are together. He understands me and my art, and loves both. I hope never to be separated from him. He is a most delicate and exquisite poet, besides — far the finest of all the young poets in England. You have got to publish his next volume; it is full of lovely lyrics, flute-music and moon-music, and sonnets in ivory and gold. He is witty, graceful, lovely to look at, lovable to be with. He has also ruined my life, so I can’t help loving him — it is the only thing to do.

More of their exquisite correspondence appears in Oscar Wilde: A Life in Letters, but that one sentence alone — “He understands me and my art, and loves both.” — is an immeasurably beautiful addition to history’s most profound definitions of love, a sublime manifestation of the highest hope one creative soul can have for a union with another.

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21 JANUARY, 2014

The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde

By:

“To you the Cathedral is dedicated. The individual side chapels are to other saints…”

London in the 1880s was a city where a woman could create a life of her own, socially, intellectually, and artistically. Art schools and galleries began to fill with young women, no longer satisfied with simply playing the muse, who desired to create. For a middle class of women who were neither required to work nor aristocratically obligated to marry, art offered both intellectual fulfillment and the possibility of a career.

These women were encouraged by the Aesthetics, a fashionable social set that included painters James MacNeil Whistler and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, actress Ellen Terry, and poet Charles Swinburne. It was a circle in which young Constance Lloyd found herself enthralled and seduced by its rising star, the critic, poet, and playboy Oscar Wilde, the twentieth century’s first pop culture celebrity.

Constance’s life with Oscar was brief — a little more than ten years as London’s most famous literary couple — when in 1895 the secret life he led with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas exploded publicly, first in a libel suit, then in a criminal suit for sodomy that sent Wilde to prison for two years. But as Franny Moyle reveals in Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde (public library), Constance Lloyd was a driven, creative, passionate, humorous, and fiercely modern woman, both when she wed Wilde and when she separated from him.

Constance in her early-twenties, before her marriage to Oscar Wilde. She is wearing controversial “aesthetic” dress, with a loose-fitting blouse and sleeves for extra movement.

With a comfortable income provided by her grandfather, Constance Lloyd had the luxury of viewing marriage as a choice. In the fall of 1880, twenty-one-year-old Constance was living apart from her mother and experiencing London life fully for the first time. She wrote to her brother:

I cannot say I prefer the life I am leading at present. If I eventually do not marry, I will not live with Auntie all my life, I shall do something… I want something specific to do to prevent my continually dreaming ‘til I get perfectly morbid.

London in the 1880s was a place where women could increasingly roam freely among certain artistic circles, especially among the Aesthetics. Grosvenor Gallery welcomed women and their friends to converse with artists and sometimes show their own art. London’s first restaurant for women, Dorothy’s, opened on the highly-trafficked Oxford Street with a radical proposition — a place for women to sit and eat alone.

William Powell Firth, A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881. To the right, Oscar Wilde and his set are portrayed in aesthetic dress while listening to his lecture.

In these new places, Constance found like-minded men and women with whom she could converse and engage with socially and intellectually. In her first letters to her new beau Oscar, she dared to disagree with his opinions on art:

I’m afraid you & I disagree in our opinion on art, for I hold that there is no perfect art without perfect morality, whilst you say they are distinct & separable things.

When she married Oscar, Constance had only experienced the creative half of bohemian life — the sexual side remained the domain of Oscar alone, first with women, and then passionately with men.

In 1882, the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act was an improvement on the previously nonexistent legal rights held by married women. When Constance married Oscar in 1884, a woman could now own, buy, or sell property, was responsible for her own debts, and was her own legal entity, separate from her husband. (In 1858, Isabella Robinson, on trial for adultery, wasn’t even allowed to be present in the divorce court — her only voice was her diary, read aloud by the prosecution.)

Archibald Grosvenor, an idyllic poet, from Gilbert and Sullivan’s 'Patience.' The hit musical, was a satire on the Aesthetic movement and its most famous members, including Oscar Wilde.

In a letter after their engagement, Constance was nothing but smitten with her love:

How can I answer your letters, they are far too beautiful for any words of mine, I can only dream of you all day long…If you had your magic crystal you would see nothing, believe me, but your own dear image there forever, and in my eyes you shall see reflected nought but my love for you.

But over the next ten years, Constance and Oscar shared a life of increasing public fame and domestic sadness. The pair had two children immediately after their wedding, but as Constance labored hard through her second pregnancy, Oscar began to reconsider the romantic and sexual nature of their life together. He wrote to a friend:

There are romantic memories, and there is the desire of romance—that is all. Our most fiery moments of ecstasy are mere shadows of what somewhere else we have felt, or what we long someday to feel…Sometimes I think the artistic life is a long and lovely suicide, and am sorry that it is so.

By dividing his devotion to marriage with his romantic pleasures, Oscar and Constance experienced a partnership that expanded the definition of what it meant to be independent, and what it meant to be alone. Constance became a champion of dress reform, and a figurehead of Oscar’s new women’s magazine, in which he advocated that “we should take a wider range, as well as a high standpoint, and deal not merely with what women wear, but with what they think, and what they feel.” Less generous admirers saw Constance as a fanatic, dipping her toe into whatever cause was fashionable, from votes for women to spiritualism.

Oscar Wilde, photographed by Napoleon Sarony in New York in 1882, two years before his marriage to Constance.

Perhaps her interests were wide-ranging because unlike a conventional married woman of the time, she didn’t simply live one life, with one devotion to house and home. Oscar taught her the ways of a divided love, as freeing or as painful as that might be. In his second book of fairy-tales, Constance was surprised to read Oscar’s dedication to her:

To you the Cathedral is dedicated. The individual side chapels are to other saints… The candles that burn at the side altars are not so bright or beautiful as the great lamp of the shrine which is of gold, and that has a wonderful heart of restless flame.

Constance lived at the edge of what was fashionable and what was acceptable. A champion of women’s rights, she used her place as the queen of London’s literary society to accomplish social and political reform. When she died in exile in Italy at the young age of forty, she was separated from Oscar and living under a pseudonym. Her grave had no mention of her famous husband until many years later, when her brother added the no-longer-tarnished title, “Wife of Oscar Wilde.”

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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27 AUGUST, 2013

Oscar Wilde on Art

By:

“The temperament to which Art appeals … is the temperament of receptivity.”

Oscar Wilde may have been the twentieth century’s first and most tragic pop celebrity, and a masterful writer of love letters, but he was also a poignant observer of culture and custodian of the creative spirit. His 1891 essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism (public library; free download), written mere months after The Picture of Dorian Gray was published, explores the social structures of art with equal parts libertarianism, anarchism, and genuine concern — but more than a political treatise, at the heart of it is a profound meditation on what it means to create, to live, and to be human.

He begins with a beautiful addition to history’s finest definitions of art:

The temperament to which Art appeals … is the temperament of receptivity. That is all.

If a man approaches a work of art with any desire to exercise authority over it and the artist, he approaches it in such a spirit that he cannot receive any artistic impression from it at all. The work of art is to dominate the spectator: the spectator is not to dominate the work of art. The spectator is to be receptive. He is to be the violin on which the master is to play. And the more completely he can suppress his own silly views, his own foolish prejudices, his own absurd ideas of what Art should be, or should not be, the more likely he is to understand and appreciate the work of art in question.

In a sentiment that Frank Lloyd Wright would come to echo in asserting that “an expert is a man who has stopped thinking because ‘he knows,’” Wilde admonishes that education in the formal sense subtracts from, rather than adds to, our capacity to enjoy art — a subtle suggestion that true art, like true science, requires a degree of benevolent openness and innocent ignorance:

An educated person’s ideas of Art are drawn naturally from what Art has been, whereas the new work of art is beautiful by being what Art has never been; and to measure it by the standard of the past is to measure it by a standard on the rejection of which its real perfection depends. A temperament capable of receiving, through an imaginative medium, and under imaginative conditions, new and beautiful impressions, is the only temperament that can appreciate a work of art.

He goes on to explore how the appreciation of art differs across creative disciplines:

True as this is in the case of the appreciation of sculpture and painting, it is still more true of the appreciation of such arts as the drama. For a picture and a statue are not at war with Time. They take no count of its succession. In one moment their unity may be apprehended. In the case of literature it is different. Time must be traversed before the unity of effect is realized. And so, in the drama, there may occur in the first act of the play something whose real artistic value may not be evident to the spectator till the third or fourth act is reached. Is the silly fellow to get angry and call out, and disturb the play, and annoy the artists? No. The honest man is to sit quietly, and know the delightful emotions of wonder, curiosity, and suspense. He is not to go to the play to lose a vulgar temper. He is to go to the play to realize an artistic temperament. He is to go to the play to gain an artistic temperament. He is not the arbiter of the work of art. He is one who is admitted to contemplate the work of art, and, if the work be fine, to forget in its contemplation and the egotism that mars him – the egotism of his ignorance, or the egotism of his information.

[…]

No spectator of art needs a more perfect mood of receptivity than the spectator of a play. The moment he seeks to exercise authority he becomes the avowed enemy of Art and of himself. Art does not mind. It is he who suffers.

Like Hugh MacLeod, who famously asserted that “the best way to get approval is not to need it,” Wilde cautions that writing for acclaim — or even being overly aware of one’s ability to “biff” the audience — is a fatal flaw for literature:

With the novel it is the same thing. Popular authority and the recognition of popular authority are fatal. … A true artist takes no notice whatever of the public. The public are to him non-existent. He has no poppied or honeyed cakes through which to give the monster sleep or sustenance. He leaves that to the popular novelist.

Wilde then considers the notion of authority not by the public but over the public, turning to the political regimes — or lack thereof — best suited for fostering art:

People sometimes inquire what form of government is most suitable for an artist to live under. To this question there is only one answer. The form of government that is most suitable to the artist is no government at all. Authority over him and his art is ridiculous. It has been stated that under despotisms artists have produced lovely work. This is not quite so. Artists have visited despots, not as subjects to be tyrannized over, but as wandering wonder-makers, as fascinating vagrant personalities, to be entertained and charmed and suffered to be at peace, and allowed to create. There is this to be said in favor of the despot, that he, being an individual, may have culture, while the mob, being a monster, has none. One who is an Emperor and King may stoop down to pick up a brush for a painter, but when the democracy stoops down it is merely to throw mud. And yet the democracy have not so far to stoop as the emperor. In fact, when they want to throw mud they have not to stoop at all. But there is no necessity to separate the monarch from the mob; all authority is equally bad.

Wilde — who was imprisoned multiple times for his “crime” of homosexuality, then run into bankruptcy and exile, largely by the church and its tentacles of terror and the era’s mob mentality — goes on to construct a taxonomy of despots:

There are three kinds of despots. There is the despot who tyrannizes over the body. There is the despot who tyrannizes over the soul. There is the despot who tyrannizes over the soul and body alike. The first is called the Prince. The second is called the Pope. The third is called the People. The Prince may be cultivated. Many Princes have been. Yet in the Prince there is danger. One thinks of Dante at the bitter feast in Verona, of Tasso in Ferrara’s madman’s cell. It is better for the artist not to live with Princes. The Pope may be cultivated. Many Popes have been; the bad Popes have been. The bad Popes loved Beauty, almost as passionately, nay, with as much passion as the good Popes hated Thought. To the wickedness of the Papacy humanity owes much. The goodness of the Papacy owes a terrible debt to humanity. Yet, though the Vatican has kept the rhetoric of its thunders, and lost the rod of its lightning, it is better for the artist not to live with Popes.

[…]

There is danger in Popes. And as for the People, what of them and their authority? Perhaps of them and their authority one has spoken enough. Their authority is a thing blind, deaf, hideous, grotesque, tragic, amusing, serious, and obscene. It is impossible for the artist to live with the People. All despots bribe. The people bribe and brutalize. Who told them to exercise authority? They were made to live, to listen, and to love. Someone has done them a great wrong. They have marred themselves by imitation of their inferiors. They have taken the scepter of the Prince. How should they use it? They have taken the triple tiara of the Pope. How should they carry its burden? They are as a clown whose heart is broken. They are as a priest whose soul is not yet born. Let all who love Beauty pity them. Though they themselves love not Beauty, yet let them pity themselves. Who taught them the trick of tyranny?

Instead, he proposes that individualism offers the most fertile ground for the seed of art:

Individualism does not come to man with any sickly cant about duty, which merely means doing what other people want because they want it; or any hideous cant about self-sacrifice, which is merely a survival of savage mutilation. In fact, it does not come to man with any claims upon him at all. It comes naturally and inevitably out of man. It is the point to which all development tends. It is the differentiation to which all organisms grow. It is the perfection that is inherent in every mode of life, and towards which every mode of life quickens. And so Individualism exercises no compulsion over man. On the contrary, it says to man that he should suffer no compulsion to be exercised over him. It does not try to force people to be good. It knows that people are good when they are let alone. Man will develop Individualism out of himself. Man is now so developing Individualism. To ask whether Individualism is practical is like asking whether Evolution is practical. Evolution is the law of life, and there is no evolution except towards Individualism. Where this tendency is not expressed, it is a case of artificially-arrested growth, or of disease, or of death.

[…]

What is true about Art is true about Life.

This Individualism, Wilde argues, ignites the most generous glow of the human spirit and cultivates the highest potential of the human soul:

What man has sought for is, indeed, neither pain nor pleasure, but simply Life. Man has sought to live intensely, fully, perfectly.When he can do so without exercising restraint on others, or suffering it ever, and his activities are all pleasurable to him, he will be saner, healthier, more civilized, more himself. Pleasure is Nature’s test, her sign of approval. When man is happy, he is in harmony with himself and his environment.

Pair The Soul of Man Under Socialism with Henry Miller on art and the future of humanity.

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