byron, the original SEXIEST MAN ALIVE

byronMad, bad, and dangerous to know.

That’s how Lady Caroline Lamb described George Gordon, Lord Byron — the English Romantic Poet whose dashing mop of dark hair, devilishly sensual pout and scandalous reputation secured his reign as the 18th century’s Sexiest Man Alive.  Byron was born January 22, 1788 and reached his artistic peak at a time when poets were rock stars.  He went on European tour, trailing an entourage including the young personal physician John Polidori, who was offered 500 pounds by a publisher if he’d keep a diary of his adventures.  As English majors, we watched our professors light up when the syllabus got to Byron.  In my particular seminar the professor had us rapt with attention as he described eager emulators affecting everything from his hairstyle to Byron’s limp in an attempt to be like him.  It’s hard to imagine that happening 250 years ago.  With no Instagram or Twitter?  If you’ve read his poems as I have and struggled to find in them this rakishness he’s so notorious for, here’s a little reminder.  Byron penned this swoon-worthy love letter and then slipped it into a book he had borrowed from the Italian Countess Teresa Guiccioli.  I would have loved to have been a butterfly on the wall of that garden when she discovered it . . . .

My dearest Teresa,
I have read this book in your garden, my love, you were absent, or else I could not have read it.  It is a favorite book of mine.  You will not understand these English words, and others will not understand them, which is the reason I have not scrawled them in Italian.  But you will recognize the handwriting of him who passionately loved you, and you will divine that, over a book that was yours, he could only think of love.
In that word, beautiful in all languages, but most so in yours – Amor mio – is comprised my existence here and thereafter.
I feel I exist here, and I feel that I shall exist hereafter, to what purpose you will decide; my destiny rests with you,
and you are a woman, eighteen years of age, and two out of a convent, I wish you had stayed there, with all my heart,
or at least, that I had never met you in your married state.
But all this is too late.  I love you, and you love me, at least, you say so, and act as if you did so, which last is a great consolation in all events.  But I more than love you, and cannot cease to love you.
Think of me, sometimes, when the Alps and ocean divide us, but they never will, unless you wish it.

Byron

 

As our emails, catalogs, and store windows clutter up with love tokens for sale these next few weeks, why not put those aside and read something charming instead?

 

From a more serious but no less smitten Victor Hugo

My dearest,
When two souls, which have sought each other for,
however long in the throng, have finally found each other
…a union, fiery and pure as they themselves are…
begins on earth and continues forever in heaven.
This union is love, true love,…
a religion, which deifies the loved one,
whose life comes from devotion and passion,
and for which the greatest sacrifices are the sweetest delights.
This is the love which you inspire in me…
Your soul is made to love with the purity and passion of angels;
but perhaps it can only love another angel, in which case I must tremble with apprehension.

Yours forever,
Victor Hugo

 

And this from a boyish (and besotted) Mark Twain

Livy dear,
I have already mailed to-day`s letter, but I am so proud of my privilege of writing the dearest girl in the world whenever I please, that I must add a few lines if only to say I love you, Livy.  For I do love you, Livy…as the dew loves the flowers; as the birds love the sunshine; as the wavelets love the breeze; as mothers love their first-born; as memory loves old faces; as the yearning tides love the moon; as the angels love the pure in heart…
Take my kiss and my benediction, and try to be reconciled to the fact that I am
Yours forever,
Sam
P.S.– I have read this letter over and it is flippant and foolish and puppyish. I wish I had gone to bed when I got back, without writing. You said I must never tear up a letter after writing it to you and so I send it. Burn it, Livy, I did not think I was writing so clownishly and shabbily. I was in much too good a humor for sensible letter writing.

 

 There are four questions of value in life, Don Octavio.  What is sacred?  Of what is the spirit made?  What is worth living for and what is worth dying for?  The answer to each is the same. Only love.

~ Byron (1788-1824)


 

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love song for galway kinnell

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

gkinnellWhen Shakespeare wrote in his Sonnet 18 that loveliness lives on in the immortal lines of the poet, I think he was writing about Galway Kinnell, the American poet who died Wednesday of this week at the age of 87.  As a passionate reader, Kinnell is one of those writers I longed to sit under trees with.  To sit under a tree on a summer afternoon, listening to him talk or tell stories.  To notice perhaps his gentle eyes tracing the flight of birds overhead or his strong wrinkled and freckled hands trembling a little as they smooth down the grass along the edge of our blanket.  I’d tell him how I never could get the man I keep to like the name Maud, how I can’t stop dreaming about hair sprouting in the moonlight, how haunted I am by the wind crying across stones.  The wages of dying is love, he’d say.  We’d read from a book I’ve brought, his Selected Poems.  And we’d start with the first poem “Two Seasons” and read straight through sunset to the last poem, “Flying Home.”  Mine is a 1982 paperback, black with creased corners and pencil-marked pages.  Would he linger at all over my notes, I doubt.  In the margin on page 129 nothing stays the same    impermanence   A faded blue post-it note on page 115 The last blackbird lights up his gold wings: farewell

When a beautiful soul departs the earth there’s always that sad reminder of our own mortality, but when we share pieces of ourselves with others, when we extend our hands and utter words, when we write them down, especially, a part of us lives on.

 

Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens,
and those who lead many to righteousness,
like the stars for ever and ever.

~ Daniel 12:3


 

Two Seasons (1946)

I

The stars were wild that summer evening
As on the low lake shore stood you and I
And every time I caught your flashing eye
Or heard your voice discourse on anything
It seemed a star went burning down the sky.

I looked into your heart that dying summer
And found your silent woman’s heart grown wild
Whereupon you turned to me and smiled
Saying you felt afraid but that you were
Weary of being mute and undefiled

II

I spoke to you that last winter morning
Watching the wind smoke snow across the ice
Told of how the beauty of your spirit, flesh,
And smile had made day break at night and spring
Burst beauty in the wasting winter’s place.

You did not answer when I spoke, but stood
As if that wistful part of you, your sorrow,
Were blown about in fitful winds below;
Your eyes replied your worn heart wished it could
Again be white and silent as the snow.

 

Flying Home (1980)
1

It is good for strangers
of few nights to love each other
(as she and I did, eighteen years ago,
strangers of a single night)
and merge in natural rapture—
though it isn’t exactly each other
but through each other some
force in existence they don’t acknowledge
yet propitiate, no matter where,
in the least faithful of beds,
and by the quick dopplering of horns
of trucks plunging down Delancey,
and next to the iron rumblings
of outlived technology, subways up for air,
which blunder past every ten minutes
and botch the TV screen in the next apartment,
where the man in his beer
has to get up from his chair over and over
to soothe the bewildered jerking
things dance with internally,
and under the dead-light of neon,
and among the mating of cockroaches,
and like the mating of cockroaches,
who were etched before the daybreak
of the gods with compulsions to repeat
that drive them, too, to union
by starlight, without will or choice.

It is also good—and harder—
for lovers who live many years together
to feel their way toward
the one they know completely
and don’t ever quite know,
and to be with each other
and to increase what light may shine
in their ashes and let it go out
toward the other, and to need
the whole presence of the other
so badly that the two together
wrench their souls from the future
in which each mostly wanders alone

and in this familiar strange room,
for this night which lives
amid daily life past and to come
and lights it, find they hold,
perhaps shimmering a little,
or perhaps almost spectral, only the loved
other in their arms.

2

Flying home, looking about
in this swollen airplane, every seat
of it squashed full with one of us,
it occurs to me I might be the luckiest
in this planeload of the species;
for earlier,
in the airport men’s room, seeing
the middle-aged men my age,
as they washed their hands after touching
their penises—when it might have been more in accord
with the lost order to wash first, then touch—
peer into the mirror
and then stand back, as if asking, who is this?
I could only think
that one looks relieved to be getting away,
that one dreads going where he goes;
while as for me, at the very same moment
I feel regret at leaving
and happiness to be flying home.

3

As this plane dragging
its track of used ozone half the world long
thrusts some four hundred of us
toward places where actual known people
live and may wait,
we diminish down into our seats,
disappeared into novels of lives clearer than ours,
and yet we do not forget for a moment
the life down there, the doorway each will soon enter:
where I will meet her again
and know her again,
dark radiance with, and then mostly without, the stars.

Very likely she has always understood
what I have slowly learned
and which only now, after being away, almost as far away
as one can get on this globe, almost
as far as thoughts can carry—yet still in her presence,
still surrounded not so much by reminders of her
as by things she had already reminded me of,
shadows of her
cast forward and waiting—can I try to express:

that love is hard,
that while many good things are easy, true love is not,
because love is first of all a power,
its own power,
which continually must make its way forward, from night
into day, from transcending union always forward into difficult
day.
And as the plane descends, it comes to me,
in the space
where tears stream down across the stars,
tears fallen on the actual earth
where their shining is what we call spirit,
that once the lover
recognizes the other, knows for the first time
what is most to be valued in another,
from then on, love is very much like courage,
perhaps it is courage, and even
perhaps
only courage. Squashed
out of old selves, smearing the darkness
of expectation across experience, all of us little
thinkers it brings home having similar thoughts
of landing to the imponderable world,
the transcontinental airliner,
resisting its huge weight down, comes in almost lightly,
to where
with sudden, tiny, white puffs and long, black, rubberish smears
all its tires know the home ground.

originally published in New York Review of Books, July 17, 1980 • Volume 27, Number 12

Those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. – See more at: http://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/eternal-life,-nature-of#sthash.lor6ya4c.dpuf
Those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. – See more at: http://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/eternal-life,-nature-of#sthash.lor6ya4c.dpuf
Those who have insight will shine brightly like the brightness of the expanse of heaven, and those who lead the many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. – See more at: http://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/eternal-life,-nature-of#sthash.lor6ya4c.dpuf

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the true love, the deepest, the only joy

Children are our crop, our fields, our earth. They are birds let loose into darkness. They are errors renewed.

~ James Salter, Light Years

The other evening I could not sleep.  It wasn’t typical of other sleepless nights where I lie awake for an hour and eventually fall back to sleep.  I had this sense of alertness like I was meant to be doing something, like I was meant to rise and start the day.  Only it was pitch dark and completely still.  Three o’clock and then four o’clock turning into five and I tossed about as the rest of the house settled in slumber.  On nights like these, I often imagine God is trying to talk to me only it’s so aggravating because I don’t know what to do or whether what I’m hearing is real or just a confused projection of some subconscious will working its way to the surface.  Suddenly I hear a stirring downstairs and then footsteps on the floorboards coming toward my room.  My oldest daughter has had a nightmare and wants to crawl into my bed.  Still clutching her blanket, she squeezes in next to me and we spoon like best friends, her body as long as mine, heavy with fatigue.  She smells my hair and wraps her arms around me, and even though I am turned towards the wall with knees half out of the bed, I reach around to rest my fingertips against her cheek.  We cling to each other despite the discomfort, and I know then I was meant to be awake for the rest of the night so I could remember this love forever.

 

She was forty-seven. Her hair was rich and beautiful, her hands strong. It seemed that all she had known and read, her children, her friends, things which had at one time been disparate, were quiet at last and had found their place within her. A sense of harvest, of abundance, filled her. She had nothing to do and she waited.

They lay in the holy sun which clothed them, the birds floating over their heads, the sand warm on their ankles, the backs of their legs.  She, too, like Marcel-Maas had arrived. She had arrived at last. A voice of stillness had spoken to her. Like the voice of God, she did not know its source, she only knew she was bidden, which was to taste everything, to see everything with one long, final glance. A calm had come over her, the calm of a great journey ended.

Read to me, she would ask.

In the tall brown grass of the dunes, a pagan couch that overlooked the sea, she sat clasping her knees and listening while Franca read . . .  It was Troyat’s life of Tolstoy, a book like the Bible, so rich in events, in sorrow, in partings, so filled with struggle that strength welled up on every page. The chapters became one’s flesh, one’s own being: the trials washed one clean.  Warm, sheltered from the wind, she listened as Franca’s clear voice described the landscape of Russia, on and on, grew weary at last and stopped. They lay in silence, like lionesses in the dry grass, powerful, sated.

Of them all, it was the true love. Of them all, it was the best. That other, that sumptuous love which made one drunk, which one longed for, envied, believed in, that was not life. It was what life was seeking; it was a suspension of life. But to be close to a child, for whom one spent everything, whose life was protected and nourished by ones own, to have that child beside one, at peace, was the real, the deepest, the only joy. ~ James Salter, Light Years

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