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On Love Letters Past and Present

Below is another reflection on the life of a publicist from Michelle Rafferty. Rafferty has been a Publicity Assistant at Oxford University Press since September 2008. Prior to Oxford she interned at Norton Publishing for a summer and taught 9th & 10th grade Literature. She is chronicling her adventures in publishing every Friday so be sure to visit again next week.

Not long ago a friend and I discussed the art of a really good romantic e-mail exchange—one with just the right mix of cultural allusion, flirtation and wit. While e-mail has killed the suspense of the old fashioned epistolary exchange, it is not nearly lamentable as the rapid fire (and often lazy) text message. Although the love letter has been reduced to 160 characters, it still stands as an imperative in modern day courtship.So, how do you think you would survive in a time when romantic exchanges were made through handwritten letters and sonnets? That was the question I pondered while reading Edna St. Vincent Millay’s biography What Lips My Lips Have Kissed: The Loves and Love Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay. In 1999 Daniel Mark Epstein was one of only two biographers granted access to the poet’s diary entries and the letters she exchanged with her many lovers and family, up until her death in 1950. There was so much overlap in her poetry, letters, and love live, that he was able to piece together her life story, which I tore through like a salacious romance novel; her reputation as the “sex goddess of Greenwich Village” was well deserved.

Millay was always involved in at least one or more affairs, and over the course of her life she exchanged hundreds upon hundreds of fervent love letters and poetry with men and women alike. Many fell in love with her based on her poetry alone. Before ever meeting Millay the Latin American poet Salomon de la Selva wrote to her:

I love you, ugly or beautiful. But if you are beautiful you will always be a thing apart from me, somehow, like a lovely music. But if you are ugly, I will take your face in my hands and kiss you very deeply, until your face pales and glows like a star and I feel how nothing that God made is ugly, and then you shall be beautiful with the beauty of a dream that I bear in my heart.

Millay’s longest love affair was with poet Arthur Ficke; despite the fact that they were probably intimate only one or two times, their relationship spanned over three decades. It began with the exchange of letters, in which Ficke offered Millay “avuncular literary advice and criticism of her poems. He sent her his books of verse; he mailed her a volume of Blake, whom she had never read.” The married Ficke put on a “gallant” show of resistance in response to her flirtatious letters, even clipping out inappropriate passages, but this did not stop their exchanges. When they met in person six years later, it was “love at first sight,” but then Ficke was shipped to war, where he wrote her a number of sonnets which prompted her to write the greatest sonnets of her book Second April. Throughout their respective marriages to other people, the two remained close, and the relationship ended just as it began: with an exchange of letters. As Ficke lay on his death bed in 1949, he wrote to Millay: “I like to think that your and my very strange, very fluctuant, profound love for each other has, in all these many years, been evocative of the very finest things in each of us, many a time.” At his funeral she read the famous sonnet “And you as well must die, beloved dust,” which she wrote for Ficke 30 years prior.

As I pored over the loves and love poems of Millay, I found myself touched, even brought to tears, but also wondering if such an emotional correspondence is possible via email. A computer screen can’t substitute for the personality of a hand written letter (smell, remnants of the writers lunch, idiosyncratic penmanship, origami), and prose becomes a little less magical when a delete button is involved—you can feel the passion and sweat infused in a really good love letter that has been outlined and drafted 3-4 times. The perfect e-mail does exist, but I believe its effect will always be less than that of a hand written letter.

Then again, I could be wrong. Maybe one day a biographer will scour through your text messages, e-mails, and facebook account, admiring the perfect balance of wit and compassion you strike in 30-second-response-time on your QWERTY keyboard, or your ability to transpose pop culture references, song lyrics, hyperlinks, and digital photos in all the right places. You might be a modern Millay.

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  1. Bruce Oksol

    This post is why I am happy that I am following your blog. Thank you.

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