Written by Christie Basson
The 21st century loves a good power couple. From the unshakability of Michelle and Barack Obama to the creative genius of Beyoncé and Jay-Z to the classic elegance Meghan and Harry — the masses have supported the coupling of powerful people for decades. Honestly, there is nothing better than two awesome creative spirits joining forces and elevating each other to new levels. This holds especially true in the literary world. While many romanticize the tortured writer, sitting in the lonely dark with nothing but their typewriter, we need not look far to see proof that creativity feeds creativity. Therefore, with Valentine’s day fresh in our minds, I think it’s worthwhile to delve deeper into some of my favorite weird and wonderful literary power couples who shook up their social circles and the rest of the world with their love (and writing).
Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning
Both authors were successful even before they united forces. Elizabeth had published two volumes of poetry (Seraphim and Other Poems and Poems by Elizabeth Barrett) and a number of Greek translations, while Robert had published works such as Pauline and Sordello. Though Elizabeth was born wealthy, she had weak lungs that led her to be reclusive in her younger years. Her poor health was a big part of her life and her work. It was therefore with much hesitation that she started a relationship at all — she feared she could only bring heartbreak to a suitor, who would probably outlive her. She met Robert when he wrote to her in admiration of her poetry, his praise quickly progressing from that of her work to her personally. Elizabeth’s father was also very strict about her suitors and did not think Robert was worthy of his daughter. This may be another reason she was hesitant to start a relationship with him, but ultimately his devotion convinced her to let herself fall in love with him.
From their letters an enduring love blossomed and on September 12th, 1846, they secretly eloped and fled to Italy where they lived together for fifteen years. They had one son and much success before her death in 1861. Her work like Aurora Leigh and especially Sonnets from the Portuguese outshone her husband’s (so much so that he was sometimes referred to as Mrs. Browning’s husband by socialites). Though the Sonnets is one of Browning’s most popular works, she was originally hesitant to publish it because it centers around the couple’s courtship and marriage. While Emily thought it might be too intimate to share, Robert persuaded her to share it. He himself received acclaim for works like The Ring and The Book and My Last Duchess. The couple dealt with some unique challenges, such as Emily’s health and the fact that he was younger than she (at thirty-six, Elizabeth was seen as a spinster by Victorian society) but their relationship was strong and built upon mutual support. One has to look no further than the Portuguese Sonnets to find proof of their devotion.
Life in a Love
While I am I, and you are you,
So long as the world contains us both,
Me the loving and you the loth,
While the one eludes, must the other pursue.
My life is a fault at last, I fear:
It seems too much like a fate, indeed!
Though I do my best I shall scarce succeed.
But what if I fail of my purpose here?
It is but to keep the nerves at strain,
To dry one’s eyes and laugh at a fall,
And, baffled, get up and begin again, —
So the chase takes up one’s life, that’s all.
While, look but once from your farthest bound
At me so deep in the dust and dark,
No sooner the old hope goes to ground
Than a new one, straight to the self-same mark,
I shape me —
– Robert Browning
From the Portuguese Sonnets:
How Do I Love Thee? (Sonnet 43)
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
– Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley
Another couple whose relationship was not approved of by others was Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and Percy Bysshe Shelley. The two met when Percy studied under Mary’s father at the Godwin house. Percy was already married to Harriet Westbrook (with whom he had eloped when she was sixteen) — but that didn’t stop the couple from secret rendezvous in the graveyard. Eventually, they eloped to France with Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont in tow (Yes, that is the same Claire who would later have an illegitimate child with Lord Byron — this family had a whole walk-in-chamber of skeletons). The trio enjoyed their adventures through Europe until the money ran out and they returned to England in 1814. Mary fell pregnant shortly after and was often abandoned as the other two went on outings. There’s been some speculation that Percy and Claire also had an affair, but diaries from the time have mysteriously disappeared.
On February 15th of 1815, tragedy struck, as Mary’s daughter was born two months premature and only lived for two weeks. Percy’s apathy concerning the death and Mary’s subsequent depression drove a wedge between the two, although they remained together during this period. They decided a change of scenery might help Mary recover and traveled for a while, eventually meeting up with Lord Byron. What follows is, of course, the famed tale of how each writer created their own frightening story, with Mary creating the first science fiction book with Frankenstein. With Frankenstein, Mary (eventually) found literary acclaim, but shocked the Victorian society with her gruesome subject matter — few could believe the tale came from a woman. She would later pen novels like Lodore and Falkner (which centered around strong female characters and included her political critique) and The Last Man, a story about a post-apocalyptic world dealing with the aftermaths of a plague. Percy was much more famous during their time, even with all his controversies, and published works like Queen Mab: A Philosophical Poem, Prometheus Unbound, as well as many contentious texts on society and religion such as “The Necessity of Atheism”. In 1816, two years after he had left her, Percy’s wife, Harriet, committed suicide. She was only twenty-one and in her suicide note, she left instructions concerning the care of their two children. A few weeks later, Percy and Mary got married. They spent six more years together before Shelley drowned in a boating incident. The two often influenced each other’s work, proving that in regards to their publications, their literary relationship played as a big a role as their romantic one (which was at times rocky).
for what should I do here
for what should I do here,
Like a decaying flower, still withering
Under his bitter words, whose kindly heat
Should give my poor heart life?
– Mary W. Shelley
The fountains mingle with the river
And the rivers with the ocean,
The winds of heaven mix for ever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single;
All things by a law divine
In one spirit meet and mingle.
Why not I with thine?—
See the mountains kiss high heaven
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister-flower would be forgiven
If it disdained its brother;
And the sunlight clasps the earth
And the moonbeams kiss the sea:
What is all this sweet work worth
If thou kiss not me?
– Percy Bysshe Shelley
From Mary’s diary:
“How happy I shall be, my own dear love, to see you again. Your last was so very, very short a visit; and after you were gone I thought of so many things I had to say to you, and had no time to say.”
Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky
Allen Ginsberg met Peter Orlovsky in 1954 in San Francisco, when both were in their twenties. They started a relationship that ended only with Ginsberg’s death in 1997. They first met through a painting Ginsberg had seen and admired for which Orlosvksy was the model. Ginsberg later claimed he was in love with Orlovsky before he ever met him. They wasted no time in moving in together, determining they would be each other’s “life-long loves.” Two years into their relationship Ginsberg published Howl and Other Poems which remains some of the most revolutionary work of the Beat Movement. Among his works, Kaddish and Other Poems and The Fall of America also stand out.
Orlovsky was not a poet before the two met, but with Ginsberg’s encouragement, he started to write and share his own work. Orlovsky became a central figure among the Beat poets, teaching at Jack Kerouac’s School of Disembodied Poets and acting as inspiration for various characters in Kerouac’s books. His relationship with Ginsberg was not without problems — both had other lovers and took time apart every now and then — but they always found their way back to each other. Running with the Beat crowd meant life in itself was a bit of an adventure — the Beats were known for sex, drugs, and experimental poetry after all — but the couple themselves centered their lives around experiencing life to the fullest, traveling as often as possible and embracing new ideas and cultures. They had an open relationship that often led them on their own journeys and by many standards, the Beat Movement was their liberator — they experienced freedom from the constrictions of conservative America at the time to explore not only their desires but their fascinations with human nature and its complexities. They remained “married” until Ginsberg died from liver cancer at age 70.
Letters they wrote to each other:
“but I do feel good and so dont worry dear Allen things are going ok — we’ll change the world yet to our dessire — even if we got to die — but OH the world’s got 25 rainbows on my window sill. . . ”
“I read Bill your poems, I’ll type them & send them soon, everything is happening so fast. I feel like I can write even. Are you OK? Write me happy letter, don’t be sad, I love you, nothing can change love, beautiful love, once we have it. . . .” – Ginsberg
“I’m making it all right here, but I miss you, your arms & nakedness & holding each other — life seems emptier without you, the soulwarmth isn’t around. . . .” – Ginsberg
When we parted in Tanger
We said ten years or perhaps a few months
Whatever fate and railroads bring, whatever cities or deserts —
Now I am in the holy land, alone
Reading Cavafy — it’s half past twelve.
My letters haven’t reached you, yet you’re somewhere here, Petra or Syria
Perhaps have entered the gate to this land and are looking for me in Jerusleum —
I wrote to all your addresses and to your mother
Tonite I am reading books & remembering our old nights together naked —
I hope fate brings us together, a letter unanswered, held in the red hand —
or crossing some modern street corner, look joyfully in each other’s eyes.