To John Keats, his love letters to Fanny Brawne are only half as precious as her responses, every one of which he called "the Letter you must write immediately." To Emily Dickinson, her letters to Susan Gilbert Dickinson are a "flying retreat to my own little chamber, where with affection, and you, I will spend this my precious hour."
To the poets Lewis Carroll, Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Charles Olson, Alexander Pope, Gertrude Stein, Walt Whitman, and W. B. Yeats, love letters are the means by which they can send "A hundred thousand kisses, darling!" (Joyce) or just "a hundred and eighty-two" (Carroll), whether they have been "prepared by drinking" (Pope) or written "wildly...not stopping to think" (Dunbar).
Never having met Alice Nelson, Paul Laurence Dunbar sent his first love letter to her on April 17, 1895. He was already well-known as a writer, and he included two poems, "Frederick Douglass" and "Phyllis," which was dedicated to Nelson. Still, she took her time to respond, to the point that, when she finally did write to him, she invented an elaborate excuse for her belatedness:
Your letter was handed to me at a singularly inopportune moment—the house was on fire...
Nonetheless, this initial exchange sparked a two-year romance conducted solely through correspondence and eventually led to their secret marriage on March 5, 1898. These years—when their relationship was built on letters—were some of their happiest. They separated in 1902.
W. B. Yeats, referring to his relationship with Maud Gonne, said that "the tragedy of sexual intercourse is the perpetual virginity of the soul." Gonne was an Irish nationalist and heiress who inspired many of Yeats's poems, including "Aedh wishes for the Cloths of Heaven" as well as "When You are Old." He proposed to her at least four times before she eventually married another man. In Maud Gonne's letter to Yeats, dated July 26, 1908, she praises the benefits of a dreamed embrace over a realized one, writing, "Material union is but a pale shadow compared to it." Though they never married, Gonne remained a love interest throughout his life. Yeats kept all of her letters with great care, though much of what he sent to her is now lost.
D. H. Lawrence's letters to Frieda Weekley were not only kept; some were housed by the English judicial system as evidence for his Weekley's subsequent divorce. When Lawrence first met her, she had three children and was married to Ernest Weekley, one of Lawrence's former professors. Their letters mark the beginnings of a relationship that was to last the rest of their lives. Some of them, when not dealing with the troubling implications of their affair, are remarkably simple. One sent soon after they met states in its entirety: "You are the most wonderful woman in all England."
Many gestures of affection, particularly those of long-standing relationships, are brief but no less moving. Take the indecipherable love notes of Gertrude Stein to her "Dear dainty delicious darling," Alice B. Toklas. Besides the difficulty of interpreting her handwriting, the messages themselves leave out much of the daily conversation needed to fill in the gaps. In any intimate correspondence, the lovers' language is a shared one, riddled with inside jokes—as when, for example, Stein addresses her letters to "Mama Woojums" (Toklas), signed by none other than "Baby Woojums" (Stein). This particular joke, however, was shared with "Papa Woojums" (Carl Van Vechten, Stein's literary executor).
Similarly, James Joyce's Nora Barnacle becomes not only Nora but "Nora mia, Norina, Noretta, Noruccia"—among other pet names.
Despite the stereotype of Emily Dickinson as a recluse, her letters stand as evidence to a rich, if limited, social life. When examining the relationship between her and her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert Dickinson, it is best to get the news from its source:
Sue - I have lived by this.
It is the lingering emblem of the Heaven I once dreamed, and though if this is taken, I shall remain alone, and though in that last day, the Jesus Christ you love, remark he does not know me - there is a darker spirit will not disown it's child.
Though Dickinson is believed to have loved Susan Gilbert, Sue married Emily's brother, Austin, in 1856. The three lived next door to each other for the rest of their lives. Sue remained a muse with whom Dickinson developed the emotional intensity which fueled her poems, including "One Sister have I in our house," which ends:
I spilt the dew -
But took the morn -
I chose this single star
From out the wide night's numbers –
Sue – forevermore!
Walt Whitman's exuberance, on the other hand, seems quieter in his letters than in his poetry. Writing to Peter Doyle on August 21, 1869, the poet is not addressing all of America, as he often does in his poetry—"The carpenter...The mason...The boatman...The shoemaker"—he's writing to a single man, and the nature of their relationship in many ways called for privacy.
Though the poet doesn't often stray too far from anything more than "brotherly" love in his correspondence, the affection in Whitman's voice is clear:
My darling, if you are not well when I come back I will get a good room or two in some quiet place, and we will live together and devote ourselves altogether to the job of curing you, and making you stronger and healthier than ever.
Love being a flexible emotion, each of these poets meet the challenge of presenting it with his or her own personality. In a letter to Gertrude Chataway, for example, the poet Lewis Carroll imagines an elaborate trip to the doctor in which he is diagnosed with love sickness and is ordered to abstain from kissing. The message is accompanied with an empty box, supposedly full of 182 kisses. Alexander Pope also keeps his usual tendency for satire, taking the occasion of writing a letter in praise of Martha Blount, to praise himself: "Every one values Mr. Pope, but every one for a different reason."
It is through the individual experience that one taps into the universal—
just as when Charles Olson, by way of the U. S. post, becomes both the man who loves Constance Wilcock and the romantic poet who proclaims:
Today it was your hair again which tangled my heart! and your long legs which snared my body!...Your hand held is all the world, or it is beside the bed at Ipswich when quickly we were in each others arms two Buddhas of desire. These things happen to me. It is always a birth. I love you, Constance.
He writes in a mode unlike his epic verse, yet informed by it.
The precedent set by these poets' love letters is a precedent of adaptability. When Osip Mandelstam was detained by the Stalinist regime for writing poetry, his wife had no means of contacting him. In her memoir, Hope Abandoned, Nadezhda Mandelstam includes what she wrote to the imprisoned poet on October 22, 1938, three months before his death. The letter was never sent. But it was written, beginning:
I have no words, my darling, to write this letter. I am writing it into empty space. Perhaps you will come back and not find me here. Then this will be all you have left to remember me by. Life can last so long. How hard and long for each of us to die alone. Can this fate be for us who are inseparable? Puppies and children, did we deserve this?
It ends: "It's me: Nadia. Where are you?"