Monday, February 2, 2009

A Great Love

Many years ago I watched a BBC adaptation of Vera Brittains book '' Testament to Youth".

It is a simple but tragic story. The agonizing story of a lost generation - the youth who fought and died during the First World War. A story of anguish, pain, horror and waste. It is a poignant and heart rending story told from the heart by the author Vera Brittain.

Vera is a very bright and capable girl. She meets a very bright and talented young man, a scholar and a poet called Roland Leighton who is studying at Oxford University. They fall in love and plan their future together. It is a great love in the nature of all true love - a great wonder, a great magical alchemy, a great facet of the spiritual dimension and a very great gift from the gods.

In the midst of this love the second world war intervenes and Roland goes off to war. He is posted to France. Vera is of course at her wits end worrying about his safety. Later all her fears are confirmed by the news that Roland has been killed on the slaughter fields of the western front.

Close to the time of his death Roland writes Vera a prophetic poem. This poem haunts me still, long after hearing it spoken in the BBC dramatisation. It is one of those poems which because of the context of the story and its real life, heart breaking loss, clutches at my throat. It takes my breath away not only because of a real sense of tragedy of that loss, but because of the audacity of its wisdom, its prophetic quality, its love, its tenderness, its giving and its attempt to set free. It also stands as a symbol of all the lost young love of a generation destroyed by war

Hedauville. November 1915.

The sunshine on the long white road
That ribboned down the hill,
The velvet clematis that clung
Around your window - sill,
Are waiting for you still.

Again the shadowed pool shall break
In dimples round your feet,
And when the thrush sings in your wood,
Unknowing you may meet
Another stranger, Sweet.

And if he is not quite so old
As the boy you used to know,
And less proud, too, and worthier,
You may not let him go
(And daisies are truer than passion - flowers)
It will be better so.

Roland writes with words that show an emerging poetic gift, a gift cut down well before its prime. He manages with sparseness of line and graphic imagery such tenderness of heart and mind. Such amazing wisdom well beyond his young years.

When I read the poem I have an image in my mind of Roland standing amongst the mud of the trenches and the futile banality of war. He has a butterfly cupped in his hands. He offers his hands skyward and opens them. In his love and in his wisdom he lets her go. He is saying - go, live your life. Don't look back. Where you go I cannot follow. It will be all right - my heart gives you permission to love again - and he releases the butterfly onto the winds of the future.

This is the archetypal act of great love - to truly love is to run the risk of losing that love. Letting go for the growth and happiness of the other.

But the heroism of this story does not stop there. Vera goes on to be a writer and an antiwar campaigner. Years later she meets another young man, who knows of her story. He has always admired her from a distance. He courts her with sensitivity, intelligence and devotion. They are married and have a family. The marriage isn't a great love, (And daisies are truer than passion flowers), rather one of affection, friendship and devotion.

I think there is a lesson here, and it is this. If you have a great love in your life then nurture it, feed it, grow it, cherish it, fight for it, live it - and unless some extraordinary circumstance requires you to do so - while you have breath in your body, never, never, never let it go.


Katherine said...

Inspirational words. Thanks, Pal.

Mr. Kinder said...

Yes, inspirational. One way to hone the edge love is to keep in mind its impermanence.

As I remind myself daily, "I must be separated from ALL I hold dear." Keeping impermanence in mind helps me treasure/inhale/nurture what's here in the present.

Alden said...

Yes Katherine - Vera Brittains story is inspirational - as they say "Love is what makes the world go round" - unfortunately in her case the loss of it (love) meant that for a while she was thinking "Stop the world I want to get off"

Alden said...

I am not sure that I agree that you "must be separated from ALL I hold dear" I don't think you have to be separted from things, indeed in a state of mindfulness you are closer than ever to the essence of all things - including love in its many forms - I think the key is the concept of 'attachment' - one can be involved emotionally, but with the proviso that everything in the end is transient, in a flux, continually changing - I think this is the Buddhist approach and perhaps what Jesus was meaning when he said to "be in the world but not of it"

Delwyn said...

Your comments reminded me of an old adage that I often told clients and that is:
Love is like bread - you have to make it every day.

People get caught up in the romantic ideal of love and wonder why love fades and loses its first thrill. Love is a verb and requires action to work in a relationship.

Alden said...

Delwyn, I think that what you say is true enough. It reminds me of the words of M.Scott Peck in his well known book "The Road Less Travelled". He said that he wanted to yell at the warring spouses he was councilling and say, "Love is not a feeling, it is an action, you don't just give up when the feeling goes"

- and he is right of course - putting up with the idiosyncracies and habits of another person (just washing their plain old underwear and their smelly socks - let alone their driving habits etc) is enough to tax the good intentions of anyone.

But romantic love has its uses. When it fades and loses its first thrill it lies like embers ready to be fanned into flames from time to time by passion and desire. It is the romantic underwear (plain or otherwise) that is hauled out of the drawer to add spice, to invigorate, to revisit an old mutally shared history.

Romantic love is the flash cover of the book of relationships. The fat insides of the book contain the hard work, but a book without a flash cover looks decidedly like an arranged marriage - or a marriage of convenience - or a marriage of security wrapped in a cloak of boredom, appeasement and resignation.

If romantic love is the bomb, passion and desire are the fuse - an explosion is the result - anything else would be a damp squib. ---- And this result is determined by a context and the two individuals involved. There are no real rules any more than there is a universally definitive pattern or analysis -

Delwyn said...

Lots to respond to here Alden:

1. Many arranged marriages result in a very real love

2.Many people do not know how to fan the embers to keep the fire alive let alone flare

3 speaking as a woman, as well as passion and desire the fuse is likey to be a connection borne out of common values, interests, goals and respect for mutual needs

4. I'm not convinced you need to repeat the first flush of love to feel a sustained and sustaining attachment, longing and desire for your mate. Perhaps it can be maintained though acts of love...

Alden said...

I don't disagree with anything that you are saying Delwyn. At the conclusion of my posting I stated:

.. "I think there is a lesson here, and it is this. If you have a great love in your life then nurture it, feed it, grow it, cherish it, fight for it, live it." .....

So I don't really think we are at cross purposes here at all.

Each of us responds within our cultural tradition and our expectations. For myself I would choose romantic love as the initial basis for a relationship over say an arranged marriage, but in doing so I would not judge the veracity of other arrangments. At the end of the day (as they say) we all make our choices, take responsibility for our actions and live with the consequences.

Delwyn said...

Yes nothing is black and white. Love comes in all colours and forms. All love is worthy of cherishing, appreciating and nourishing.
Erich Fromm says love is an art. I like that . It is an art that requires practice and dedication, whether it be romantic love or filial, self love or love for God. -Love is both an attitude and an orientation of character.

Alden said...

Yes I have agreed all along regarding the need to nurture and work on this love.

When I stated: "If you have a great love in your life then nurture it...... " the part that is interesting is "a great love".

Why? because it begs the question, 'What constitutes a great love?' - a great love could be the result of an arranged marriage or it could be the result of the passion of a great initial romantic interest. I would argue that the definition is necessarily within the eyes of the lovers, it is they that hold and shape this definition.

But whatever the genesis, the long term outcome is dependent much like a good garden on the amount of attention it gets.

Delwyn said...

And the last comment from me:

any love ~ great or small ~if you value it - is worthy of effort.

Alden said...

A good last comment Delwyn and if you don't mind I will sign my name to it too :-)

Delwyn said...

You are most welcome my friend :-)

VenDr said...

Was Vera Brittain's first or second love her "great love"? The dynamics of love are wonderfully explored in the ancient legend of Tristan and Iseult. The story is complex, but Tristan is beloved of two women, both called Iseult. He is passionately in love with Iseult The Fair, wife of his uncle and mentor King Mark -and she with him. He is married to Iseult of the White Hands, a far less exciting, but nevertheless faithful and good woman. There are many versions of the story but in the best of them, these two loves are contrasted and judgement is never made as to which is the greatest. The love for Iseult the Fair is an affair that endures for all their lives, and is always the great love of their lives - but it never has to stand the test of time together- there is no need to see what will happen to the grand passion when there are squabbles over money who who leaves the toilet seat up. Iseult of the White Hands is a loyal and faithful wife to Tristan. Together they form a working and, despite what might be expected, successful partnership - they make a home, raise children, get on with it.

The great loves of history and literature - eg Romeo and Juliet, Abelard and Heloise are snuffed out before they have to endure the weight of turning them into marriages. We tip toe away from Lizzy and Darcy and countless others just at the point where the rubber hits the road (and sorry for the unfortunate metaphor)so they can be forever young and passionate. The thing about being in love,is that it is a fantasy. It is all about projection and wishful thinking. In the best cases, when the fantasy fades the partners each finds themselves in relationship with very compatible people and a successful long term relationship is built by hard work, forgiveness and compassion. But with the "great" loves the curtain falls before you get to that bit.

Alden said...

My take on the legend of Tristan and Iseult is that both the woman in the legend are called Iseult because in fact they are the same aspects of the same person, and represent / symbolise two aspects of the one love.

Romance, passion, 'a great love' eventually morph into the love of affection, friendship etc. And as you rightly point out if there are shared interests and compatible personal traits the transition and maintanence of this evolved love will be easier. To me this is the lesson of the myth / legend - that these women are one aspect of the same love.

The fact that the post 'heights of passion landscape' has to be worked at has been a consistent theme of my comments and one would be a fool to expect the white hot scintillation of a romance to continue forever - one would hope and work hard at the transition to something deeper, long lasting, meaningful and in a sense spiritual.

The point you make that being in love is a 'fantasy' is a good one. I think it IS a 'fantasy' but we would be making a mistake if we used the word 'fantasy' in a perjorative sense i.e dismissing it as "Well, its only a fantasy" with the idea that somehow it is something that is not real or has no value.
Fantasy is the engine room out of which reality is built and surprisingly often the reality is a lot better than the fantasy.
Another word for 'fantasy' might be 'dream' - It is interesting how the 'I have a dream' speech of Martin Luther King has perhaps begun its long road to reality in recent American history and in an unexpected way - not with the timbre of a Jesse Jackson, but with a different and wonderfully new ease and grace with Barack Obama - reality can fulfil fantasy in surprising ways. I will give you another example.

Towards the end of last year and as I got a bit fed up with work I started to fantasise about a holiday sail to the Bay of Islands. It was an idylic fantasy -a romp up the coast under spinnaker, easy days, no problems, not a care in the world.
The reality was quite different - right from the start on the first day it was head winds all the way, hard work, hard decisions and a lot of water had to go under the keel (twice the amount because we were tacking) before a safe harbour was reached. Apart from the idylic interlude in the middle of the voyage, the journey back was harder than ever.
My conclusion on the whole adventure afterwards was that the REALITY was far better in every aspect to the FANTASY --- but the fantasy was a valuable requirement in the beginning to get the whole adventure underway in the first place.
Without the fantasy / reality of romance the human species would have died out a long time ago, or there would be very little in the way of meaningful relationships between the sexes.

Kathryn said...

I am inclined to agree with VenDr, that often the passionate 'great' love is that because it is a love that was in the beginning stages of freshness, wonder, passion and romance and has been lost for whatever reason (death, divorce, physical separation for any reason). It often has been a heartbreak, which is why it is remembered as a 'great' love. It was great because the monotony had not set in and the little habits had not yet become annoying.

But real love, the love we have for our fellow man is the one that challenges me the most. It is easy to love the lovely but not so easy to love the unloveable or unlovely. That is my aim.

VenDr said...

Yes, Kathryn that's exactly my point. The "great" loves of literature and history are all ones that ended in that first stage before the hard work had to be done.
And Alden, perhaps fantasy is not the best term, although I think it is accurate. Madness is better. When we are in love we have a distorted view of reality. We see the other not as they are but as we are - to shift an old cliche. The whole world looks different This madness has an evolutionarily designed purpose though. It glues a couple together for long enough for a real relationship to begin to build.After all, it is quite easy to present only our best side during the infatuation phase of the relationship. When the long nights lying awake and the poetry writing fades, the couple will see what they have really got. Often, nothing - Sometimes, if they are very lucky, enough commonality to make the work of building a solid relationship possible -even, in some cases, easy.

One of the great loves I know of is a couple in their 90s, both in a rest home. Every day, with great effort, he toddles up to her bed and sits holding her hand. She lacks the energy to speak loudly enough for him to hear,so they can't communicate; but they sit all day, content to just be in each other's company. I know their story quite well. They had a very romantic beginning (their story would make a GREAT film as long as noone stuffed it up by putting Abba music into it) but after that charming start there was 60 years of marriage. And that longevity, as with any lifetime spent together, was not achieved by warm feelings and palpitating hearts.

VenDr said...

And no, I disagree. I think the 2 Iseults represent 2 different types of relationship. In fact, in some versions of the story there are 3 Iseults - the third being an elderly mother figure. This is a legend: they could do what they bloody well liked. The usual mythological convention, if it had been 2 aspects of the same love - would have been to have an iseult who changed from one thing to another by some magical means, or twins, or some other such device. I think the story is mostly about Tristan - and the pull of duty or of romance which many men struggle with

Alden said...

Ok, I will defer to your greater knowledge of mythological convention.
So the myth is defining two concepts of what constitutes a 'Great Love' - the one - love in its mania stage cut off off at the knees by death (Romeo and Juliet, Abelard and Heloise, Elizabeth and Darcy etc)
The other - a love that starts in the 'mania' stage and develops over a lifetime to arrive in a place you describe where your two ninety years old are.

The myth contrasts these two concepts - but despite this I will put my own definition on these concepts. The so called great truncated loves of history and literature that don't develop I wouldn't personally call 'Great Loves' - I would call these so called 'great loves' the romance stage of a potential great love - In my definition it will only be a 'great love' it if lasts the distance and sails the sea of all those adjustments and vissitudes that are required to take love out of mania and into a working reality - so again I guess it is a question of ones definition.

I concur with your thoughts about the pull between romance and duty in men - sometimes I wonder if men are actually more romantic than women in some ways - with women bringing a much more practical sense to relationships borne out of ( despite the feminist polemic) perhaps washing far too much dirty underwear and smelly socks.

VenDr said...

...and what a wonderful thing when romance and duty pull in the same direction.

Alden said...

Yes, when the passion and the new duty reach critical mass the "tow haired boy and the lovely stroppy little blonde haired girl" sell their P classes and become a skipper and crew together in a new vessel.