The world is full of paper.
Write to me.
Agha Shahid Ali
I found a box of old letters in my attic. It was full to the brim of all sorts of messages from school friends, work colleagues, letters from family letting me know they’re still alive! Notes of thanks, beautiful love-letters from Berlin, postcards from Amsterdam, Basil, Hawaii, even a telegram from New York wishing me well in my college exams, this was the Golden Age, long before the dawn of emails or mobile phones and I’ll tell you some of them had me in tears. My goodness what a treasure trove and you know when it comes to memorabilia I am quite the hoarder so finding the bundles of memories wasn’t too surprising but what did catch me off-guard though was the over-whelming sense of nostalgia, how emotional I found re-reading about myself, my past, the people I knew, places I’d been and how in letters everything is so much more intense, more profound than talking face to face or on the telephone. You can really get to the heart of somebody through their letters, in fact I think it was the columnist Phyllis Theroux who said writing letters is a way of going somewhere without moving anything but your heart. And it just got me wondering about how the great poets, writers and thinkers of our time tackle the art of letter writing, what letters mean to them, how in their written world, relationships can evolve and deepen through correspondence. So I’ve chosen a couple of poems on the theme, poems that moved me or spoke to me in some way and I’d like to juxtapose these with actual love letters, maybe not mine but the most heartfelt words written by some very famous people including Beethoven, Albert Einstein and Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. We’ll have music too from Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Nick Cave and more….
So it’s not nosey to steal a look what the Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had to say, we’re just curious okay!
When he was a little known musician he fell in love with a girl named Aloysia Weber, a successful singer from a musical family. She didn’t feel the same however but in 1782 when Aloysia’s father died the Weber’s rented rooms in their house to cover the bills, Mozart, now a promising musician moved in, and soon fell in love with Constanze — the third Weber daughter. In August of that year the two were married and remained together, very much in love, until Mozart’s death nine years later.
Shortly before his sudden death, Mozart wrote to Constanze from Frankfurt, where he had gone to find work to ease the family‘s debt burden. He starts off explaining a few things then he’s unable to mask the depth of his feeling and his playful nature spills onto the page. He writes:
Dearest little Wife of my heart!
I get all excited like a child when I think about being with you again — If people could see into my heart I should almost feel ashamed. Everything is cold to me — ice-cold. — If you were here with me, maybe I would find the courtesies people are showing me more enjoyable, — but as it is, it’s all so empty — adieu — my dear — I am Forever
your Mozart who loves you
with his entire soul.
Sometimes it’s difficult to hold yourself back when you’re in love and I suppose when you’re writing a love letter you imagine it will only ever be read by it’s recipient, but happily for us some of the greatest minds were prudent with their correspondence. I wonder if people would be interested in my love letters a hundred years from now? I wonder if the people I sent them to kept them like me or tore them up and threw them away? Who knows J Someone who held onto his was German born Physicist Albert Einstein. His correspondence with his fellow student and future wife Mileva Maric began in 1897. His family totally disapproved, not least because Einstein was only 21 and they felt that settling down so young would compromise his career prospects. She was his intellectual equal however and based on these letters, he felt that in Mileva he had found his soul mate. When I think of Einstein I think of the philosophy of science, physics, that most famous equation but thinking about him in terms of relationships and love makes him so much more normal.
He and Mileva spent many summer’s apart holidaying with their respective families and during one such absence, he writes:
When I’m not with you I feel as if I’m not whole. When I sit, I want to walk; when I walk, I’m looking forward to going home; when I’m amusing myself, I want to study; when I study, I can’t sit still and concentrate; and when I go to sleep, I’m not satisfied with how I spent the day. No matter what happens, we’ll have the most wonderful life in the world. Pleasant work and being together.
Kissing you from the bottom of my heart,
Leafing through a book called the 50 Greatest Love Letters Of All Time by David Lowenherz I was struck by the missives of Ludwig Von Beethoven, the worlds most beloved composer, who never married but in his forties fell in love with a mystery woman referred to only as his immortal beloved. Again when I think of Beethoven I think of the symphonies or the great mass Missa Solemnis but reading his love letters is something completely new. They are breath-taking and what makes this story even more tragic is that they were found among his personal possessions, they were never mailed. One reads:
Even when I am in bed my thoughts rush to you, my immortal beloved, now and then joyfully, then again sadly, waiting to know whether Fate will hear our prayer — To face life I must live altogether with you or never see you… Oh God, why must one be separated from her who is so dear. Be calm; for only by calmly considering our lives can we achieve our purpose to live together — be calm — love me — Today — yesterday — what tearful longing for you — for you — you — my life — my all — all good wishes to you — Oh, do continue to love me — never misjudge your lover’s most faithful heart.
Imagine receiving a letter like that? Words can be irresistible can’t they?
Finally, James Joyce was one of Ireland’s most celebrated writers. Famous of course for his work Ulysses which brought us Leopold and Molly Bloom and also for his unconventional, yet loving relationship with Galway woman, Nora Barnacle. Well she loved him enough to leave Ireland for him in 1904, living in Europe for most of the rest of their lives. Around 1909 however when Nora was in Trieste raising their two children and Joyce working in Dublin there began a period of quite explicit correspondence, actually one of these letters set a Sotheby’s world record in London in 2004 when it was sold to an anonymous buyer for an astonishing £240,000! So whatever you do don’t destroy any of those old love letters you never know who’ll be interested in them in a few years. So I’ve some extracts here from the Selected Letters of James Joyce by Richard Ellman. Sometimes Joyce wrote to Nora in the third person as a way of further conveying his depth of feeling for her, then he tackles the thorny issue of a false infidelity before completely breaking out the poetry. He writes:
Twice while I was writing these sentences tonight the sobs gathered quickly in my throat and broke from my lips.
I have loved in her the image of the beauty of the world, the mystery and beauty of life itself, the beauty and doom of the race of whom I am a child, the images of spiritual purity and pity which I believed in as a boy.
Her soul! Her name! Her eyes! They seem to me like strange beautiful blue wild-flowers growing in some tangled, rain-drenched hedge. And I have felt her soul tremble beside mine, and have spoken her name softly to the night, and have wept to see the beauty of the world passing like a dream behind her eyes.
I love you deeply and truly, Nora. I feel worthy of you now. There is not a particle of my love that is not yours. In spite of these things which blacken my mind against you I think of you always at your best… Nora, I love you. I cannot live without you. I would like to give you everything that is mine, any knowledge I have (little as it is), any emotions I myself feel or have felt, any likes or dislikes I have, any hopes I have or remorse. I would like to go through life side by side with you, telling you more and more until we grew to be one being together until the hour should come for us to die. Even now the tears rush to my eyes and sobs choke my throat as I write this. Nora, we have only one short life in which to love. O my darling be only a little kinder to me, bear with me a little even if I am inconsiderate and unmanageable and believe me we will be happy together. Let me love you in my own way. Let me have your heart always close to mine to hear every throb of my life, every sorrow, every joy.
So there you have it, Letters – of love, of tragedy, of truth, they may change our lives, some may take us our whole lives to write but there’s a magic and intensity to the written word, an enchantment from one warm hand across an ocean to another that cannot be replicated by texts or emails or phone-calls. So go write …. write for your life!
Also on the show today, Frida Kahlo, Diane Wakoski, Yusef Komunyaaka, Diane Thiel.