Famous lust words
“The frankest and freest product of the human mind and heart is a love letter,” wrote Mark Twain, but some of the worst (in the sense of technically inept) love letters are the most famous, and by the biggest hitters.
The so-called “Immortal Beloved” letters, for example, were unsent letters found among Beethoven’s papers after his death. Their intended recipient is thought to have been Antonie Brentano, the wife of a merchant from Frankfurt. Reading them, you’re relieved for her that Beethoven ran out of stamps.
…I can only live, either altogether with you or not at all. Yes, I have determined to wander about for so long far away, until I can fly into your arms and call myself quite at home with you, can send my soul enveloped by yours into the realm of spirits – yes, I regret, it must be…
What longing in tears for you – You – my Life – my All – farewell. Oh, go on loving me – never doubt the faithfullest heart
Of your beloved
Why is this bad? Because it’s so… thunderous. The language is empty and clichéd. It aspires to appassionata but might have been written by a machine.
“For what reason is Nelson skipping cheesecake? Heartburn? Flatulence? Has Lady Hamilton been teasing him about his flabby bottom?”
Still, it could be worse. It could be as formulaic as another anthology stalwart, the playwright William Congreve, in his letter to Arabella Hunt, a lutenist at court who had been married to a man called James Howard but filed for annulment after six months on the grounds that he was really a cross-dressing widow called Amy Poulter. (Hunt claimed that Howard/Poulter was a hemaphrodite, but a crack team of midwives examined him/her and decided he/she was biologically female.)
Not believe that I love you? You cannot pretend to be so incredulous. If you do not believe my tongue, consult my eyes, consult your own. You will find by yours that they have charms; by mine that I have a heart which feels them. Recall to mind what happened last night. That at least was a lover’s kiss. Its eagerness, its fierceness, its warmth, expressed the god its parent. But oh! Its sweetness, and its melting softness expressed him more. With trembling in my limbs, and fevers in my soul, I ravish’d it. Convulsions, pantings, murmurings shew’d the mighty disorder within me: the mighty disorder increased by it…
Congreve’s effort has the virtue of competence, even if its erotic flourishes are rather forced. But what about Nelson’s lacklustre letters to fascinating, chameleonic Emma Hamilton, the blacksmith’s daughter turned diplomat’s wife who became his lover in 1798? On the basis of a single line – ‘Nelson’s Alpha and Omega is Emma!’ – Nelson’s love letters have been acclaimed. But it’s all downhill from there. To wit:
I can neither Eat or Sleep for thinking of You my dearest love, I never touch even pudding. You know the reason.
Well, she might, but we don’t. For what reason is Nelson skipping cheesecake? Heartburn? Flatulence? Has Emma been teasing him about his flabby bottom? Freud, meanwhile, would not have taxed himself interpreting this:
In one of my dreams I thought I was at a large Table You was not present, Sitting between a princess who I detest and another. They both tried to Seduce Me and the first wanted to take those liberties with Me which no Woman in this World but Yourself ever did. The consequence was I knocked her down and in the moment of bustle You came in and taking Me in Your embrace wispered I love nothing but You My Nelson. I kissed You fervently And we enjoy’d the height of love.
Was ever an erotic dream – at least, I assume that’s what it is – rendered so flatly?
If what Twain said about “anything going” in love letters is true – that they are a hallowed space where you should be allowed to be whatever you want: angry, jealous and afraid as well as smug and self satisfied – should they perhaps be judged less harshly than “normal” letters? Should they even be judged at all? Remember Heloise’s remark to Abelard: “In spite of all our misfortunes you may be what you please in your letter.”
Keats was what he pleased in his letters to Fanny Brawne – and suffered for it. The publication of 37 of his letters to Fanny in February 1878 caused outrage and, in some quarters, the total collapse of his reputation.
Partly this was because their publisher, H Buxton Forman, was held to have infringed Keats’s privacy. Other objections had to do with what the letters revealed about Keats, personally and aesthetically.
Matthew Arnold regarded the letters as those “of a youth ill brought up, without the training which teaches us that we must put some constraint upon our feelings and upon the expression of them”.
Dismayed by the letters’ emotional gushiness, he felt that “we cannot but look for signs in [Keats] of something more than sensuousness, for signs of character and virtue.”
Algernon Swinburne, in an entry for the 1882 (ie post-Fanny) edition of the ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica’, was able to get away with calling Keats “a vapid and effeminate rhymester in the sickly stage of whelphood” and thought his love letters “ought never to have been written… [E]ven a manly sort of boy, in his love-making or in his suffering, will not howl and snivel after such a lamentable fashion.”
“The intended recipient of the ‘Immortal Beloved’ letters is thought to have been Antonie Brentano. Reading them, you’re relieved for her that Beethoven ran out
Hang on, you want to say. These are love letters! They weren’t written for public consumption. On the contrary, Keats was so keen to keep Fanny’s letters to him private that he requested they be buried with him, which they were.
George Saintsbury, writing not long after the publication of John Keats’s letters to Fanny – an event he deplored – urged his readers not to give in to the base impulse to snoop: “There are, it is to be hoped, few people who read such letters without an unpleasant consciousness of eavesdropping.” But as the public prepare to enjoy Betjeman’s missives to his missus, it seems our ignoble desire to read others’ love letters is as insatiable as ever.
John O’Connell is the author of ‘For The Love of Letters: The Joy of Slow Communication’ published by Short Books at £12.99. You can hear John discussing the book at London’s School of Life on 12th Dec 2012 and The Idler Academy on 10th Jan 2013.
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