There is something so beautifully poignant and so romantically unsurpassable, encapsulated in the history of the written words of Love, as three times I have discovered in the last few weeks alone.
Before Frank Thompson was posted to the Middle East He and Iris Murdoch visited Westminster Cathedral together “Frank lit a candle to the Madonna. He left behind with Iris a ring-bound folder of his typed poems”.
Seven months later (after a 2 month bout of septicemia) he wrote to his parents that he had just heard from Iris ‘Gloomy and as always when she hasn’t seen me for a long time, full of affection’. Iris and Frank’s letters were to continue for almost four years, many of them said to be “gifted, energetic letters, which Iris refers to as a ‘flow of talk’. They are very much ‘still alive’ even today”. In Peter J Conradi’s biography of Iris Murdoch: A Life it says “Frank repeatedly makes clear how good they were to receive: ‘It seems strange to compare your gentle letters with flint but the simile has this much aptness. They strike fire immediately. And when one arrives, as has yours….I am impelled forthwith to answer it”. Iris made clear the emptiness she feels in his absence and of how intensely lonely she felt in ‘busy London/and then latterly great and beautiful and exciting London’, and of how ‘much in need of his intellectual intimacy’ she was, that only he offers her. Frank was uniquely, ‘the patient mind which is prepared to comprehend my own & toss me back the ball of my thought’.
Conradi goes on to say “Iris’s habitually intense reserve inspired awe throughout her life. To the absent Frank she now began to reveal the ‘inward’ unconfident soul who suffered ambition and insecurity, was lost and confused in the ordinary way of young mortals. With few other friends does she ever reveal herself thus. Iris once wrote ‘the more letters I get from you, the more I admire you’, she was expressing no more and no less the truth. Frank wrote to Iris that there were only four people in England to whom he could speak almost as clearly on paper as with his lips ‘three of them are my closest kin and the other one is you’. He never cherished any others letters as he did hers. Iris’s letters alone he kept.”
Conradi writes “A relationship maintained only by letter must be precarious. How much belonged to the realm of Fantasy? Iris after all had not been a body to him ‘for nearly four years”. Even though they had never physically consummated their relationship, Iris wrote to tell him that ‘I have parted company with my virginity’, (which she thought both freed and calmed her) Iris’s lovers it was implied were inferior substitutes for Frank, and although it pained her to tell him, she felt compelled to do out of a deeper love for sharing her all with him, with every letter destined a deeper more intimate love, a love of each others soul. Iris writes to her family “Letters matter intensely to Frank. He gets ‘down’ when they are delayed, feeling it impossible to believe he has kin anywhere; then , when a letter arrives, he ‘feels as though home were only a five-minute walk away’ In October 1942 he wrote to Iris ‘Three years and a bit since I joined the Army. More than that since you and I first exchanged Weltanschauungs in a room in Ruskin. Write whenever you can. A letter is a golden gift, a winged gift – worth more than a half a world to a mortal in depression.’ On being sent a picture of Iris reciting Homer in the underground, he writes, ‘many must be the tired stockbroker whose heart is melted and his vision beautified’ Iris and Franks four-year correspondence betokens the tenacity of their feelings, as does the quality of their letters. In January of 1942 he translated Pushkin’s short early poem ‘I loved you once’ (‘ya vas Lyubil’) managing to convey the explosive compression, and also the calm peace and sheer stylishness of the twenty-year-old Pushkin’s Russian:”
I Loved you once in silent desperation/Shyness and envy wracked me numb with pain/I loved you once. God grant such adoration/So true, so gentle, comes your way again
In their early correspondence he naively writes a story about a certain Gunner Perkins who wishes to express his passion by letter to his girlfriend Helen, rather than thoughts about books and politics. ‘if only he had the courage before he left, (as did Frank). Now it was too late, you could never break down barriers by letter’.
However by 1943 ‘the unmoved mover’ (Iris) was increasingly in love with the absent Frank. They shared an affinity. Her opening address moves from ‘my brave and beautiful buccaneer’ to ‘Dearly beloved’ to ‘Darling Frank, old friend, I love hearing your voice crying in the wilderness – cry often, & at great length – oh & for Christ’s sake don’t get hurt in this business. Keep safe. The Gods protect you’ both believing the war is not only to protect a bad old world from Fascism, but to help forge a new one. They share their love of literature and languages, Frank being the more brilliant linguist. Both were highly intelligent, politically aware and writers in the making. Iris writes In a letter 24th November 1942 ‘Lately I reread The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. I feel a sort of reverence for that book – for that man [T.E. Lawrence] – which is hard to describe. To live such a swift life of action & yet not to simplify everything to the point of inhumanity – to let the agonizing complexities of a situations twist your heart instead of tying your hands – that is real human greatness – it is that sort of person I would leave everything to follow’. Iris notes that Frank’s romanticism has the requisite streak of realism in it – She tells him ‘I think I am just a dreamer. Shout in my ear please, much love’. Frank once wrote: ‘Without going all James Barry….the real enduring people have kept something of the child within them.’ Here lies one key to their glowing affinity. His friend Gabriel Carritt always spoke of Frank’s ‘sancta simplicita’. Iris saw this. She had her own too.
16 September 1943 Iris writes Frank a poem. Not far from the green garden, folded in/Your room, your story & your arms, I gauged/With a heart quietly beating the long/Long gulf between us, summer hung/Its colours on the window, & a song/Swept over us from the gramaphone./Now in a sad september, gilt with leaves, I am without you, & as many miles/Of sea and mountain part us, as my thoughts/Could then imagine of our seperateness./Yet you speak simply & your human voice/Gentle as ever: Yet listening at last I have caught/That human echo in your tone that might/Call me to Love. Nearer, far nearer to my heart/You lie now distantly in your greif’s desert than/When all your candid years did homage then.
In his last eloquently warm though heartbreaking letter to Iris he says ‘you know quite well there’s no danger of your succumbing to weariness of soul. You have springs within you that will never fail. Does this restore your faith in yourself and your mission? It certainly should’.
The devastatingly heart breaking news eventually had to be broken to Iris of Frank’s capture and execution. Many years later in a dream in 1980 she says ‘I was with Frank and he told me he loved me. (As he did on that day in autumn 1938 in New College) I was very moved but not sure what I felt (as then). He went away and then I realized I Loved him. (As I really did come to love him later) In the dream, realising I loved him I felt great joy at the thought that I could tell him now, and I sent for him. He appeared at the top of a steep slope, dressed as a soldier, with a black cap on As I climbed up the slope towards him I felt sudden dismay, thinking I can not marry him, I am married already’. Eventually in her soul, she found a way of being happy, married eternally to her beloved Frank ‘made young and perfect forever’. and so to John.
In Matthew Hollis’s Now All Roads Lead to France we follow the final years of the poet Edward Thomas. As Edward Thomas leaves for the Front line, just as his first collection of poems nears publication. His wife (although for some time their relationship had been undemonstrative and cool) remembers on what was to be their final parting. The enormity of the situation seamed too much to speak of. Helen could no longer reign back her desperation and felt engulfed by an uncontrollable grief, she would recount his tenderness at that moment. He read to her and carried her to the bedroom in his great coat. ‘Helen……helen, remember that whatever happens, all is well between us forever and ever.’
In the last pages of his war diary he writes “I never understood quite what was meant by God. and in pencil the following three lines; Where any turn may lead to Heaven/Or any corner may hide hell/Roads shining like river uphill after rain”.
“The sorrow of True Love is a great sorrow and True Love parting blackens a bright morrow. Yet almost they equal joys, since their despair is but hope blinded by its tears and clear above the storm the Heavens wait to be seen”.
There is something so beautifully poignant and so romantically unsurpassable, encapsulated in the timeless written words of Love, as I have discovered within the last few weeks alone.