Simon Boyle's queer history column for our January edition
Love letters have become an aspiration. To write a love letter to someone else means, to some, the quintessential romance of a lifetime. To write love in a way that takes up pages of sheets, laboured over, thought about enough to sit and write about – that is devotion. It, in my eyes, is an entirely different world, the way we write now, versus the eras prior. To write a letter was simple, it was the only way. Now, it is a form of effort unexpected: a feat even. We have added the word ‘love’ to something that will always exist, but never be the same. And in honour of this love, considering the sheer mass of love letters between queer people is a beautiful experience. Obviously, queer expression was more constricted in previous millennia, of course, and reflecting on that can be an essential experience. Besides, the yearning behind queer people's words? Insurmountable. It never hurts to read love so pure, as a reminder of what has come before us, what we can have, and will never lose.
To start with a piece of desperate love, we turn to Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. To me, the letters between the two soldiers are a whirlwind of mourning, pain, tension, desire, as well as love. It is every ounce of humanity, in the written word. Many of us may know Wilfred Owen from his poem Dulce et Decorum Est which is an incredible poem about the realities of war. For context, Owen and Sassoon wrote to each other during the first World War. My favourite letter of theirs is as follows:
“You have fixed my life – however short. You did not light me: I was always a mad comet: but you have fixed me. I spun round you a satellite for a month, but shall swing out soon, a dark star in the orbit where you will blaze.”
– Wilfred Owen to Siegfried Sassoon, 1917.
When reading this I imagine the way it would have been written, how it must feel to know the face of death is in your eyes. To know it is at your door, and to write of love so passionately, to remind your partner that they are the sky’s shining lights - that above, they are what they cannot be below: together. It is so fascinating to me, how two poets can write to each other knowing one may arrive too late, but wish anyways, to pass on their love. This is perhaps one of my favourite love letters, so simple but clear: found and loved, a sky is the only thing to describe their lives, so vast that nothing contained them.
There seems to be a pattern with love letters wherein ornaments of the sky are used. Virginia Woolf asks Vita Sackville West to think of her whenever the stars dartle, in a spectacular display of what it means to always think of one another:
“So goodnight: and watch the stars from your tower and when one dartles, that’s me.”
– Virginia Woolf to Vita Sackville West, 1939.
Maybe I’m just a fan of simplicity, but I thoroughly enjoy the straightforward approach Woolf has for West. She is brashly honest in her hopes, what she wants is clear. She wants to be sought, thought of, seen. Oh, how to be seen was difficult for queer people! Everywhere but nowhere, to find a place in the muddle of it all, well, you can see clear as day that Woolf doesn’t want to be forgotten, but rather, remembered, savoured. Even so, Virginia is also writing to remind Vita of who she is: “a bright and constant star,” as Vita had put it:
“Please, in all the muddle of life, continue to be a bright and constant star. Just a few things remain as beacons: poetry, and you, and solitude.”
– Vita Sackville West to Virginia Woolf, 1926.
Virginia’s ability to remember over a decade later, words from Vita, astounds me. To collect the words of a lover in your head so much that references become constant, one becomes the star, the other the astronomer. One watches the sky, the other is watched, and desired. And to imagine that in the insanity of time, Vita finds herself at peace alone, alone with poetry, or with her lover, it is a testament to the realms where love was allowed. Only in solitude did Vita feel herself for the most part, she implies, and to so readily express that to someone, to trust so readily, it is a trust that we all wish for.
To remember, as Virginia has, being called a star, much as Wilfred Owen had to Siegfried, tells us just how lasting these words are. These love letters are reminders that photos could hang on walls, but the letters were so ingrained, so lasting, so much more than a speciality, that the impact they create on each person's heart is as great as the comets they write of.
Essentially, when I write of these letters, it’s to remind everyone that what they were writing was simple: it was to those they adored, in one of the only ways they felt safe. The expression has changed vastly since then, and continues to, of course, but to compare someone to the sky, meteors, the entire world, your solace, that is a passion once felt in private, and now can be revealed to the world. Love has changed, and we must always change with it.