One of the most profoundly moving testimonies I have ever read on love, and letting go even as you love, is a poem by E.E. Cummings. This is why it is in my upcoming book, Ten Poems to Say Goodbye. True to Cummings' idiosyncratic taste in punctuation, it is called "it may not always be so; and i say." The realization that it may not always be so reminds me of an early conversation with a woman I lived with for 13 years in England. We could sense that we were going to live together almost as soon as we met, and yet we also knew it would only be for a certain period of time. How long, we didn't know, but we shared the same intuition, and it was strangely awkward to acknowledge it so early on. It was why, in spite of a rich and primarily nourishing life together, we never married.
Unlike the couple in Cummings' poem, our eventual parting was due not to some other love coming between us, but to the gradual differences of life purpose and direction. It was like sand slipping, almost imperceptibly, between our fingers over time. In Cummings' poem, the slipping away of the lovers' bond might have been gradual too. Or it may have happened in an afternoon. Either way, what struck me on reading it was the tenderness and selflessness of the poet's love for his beloved. Cummings gives us a heartfelt example of how to love even as love is leaving.
He is aware that he may be losing her, that someone else may now be enjoying the intimacy he himself once knew in time not far away. Yet his response is extraordinary:
if this should be, i say if this should be-
you of my heart, send me a little word;
that I may go unto him, and take his hands,
saying, Accept all happiness from me.
I wonder how many of us have been able to bow so gracefully to the very person our beloved is turning toward, even as our beloved turns away from us. Cummings shines a light on the human capacity to truly love. He accepts the way life moves and has its own intelligence. He accepts the reality that we are never entirely in control of the way things go.
In loving what is mortal, we know that sooner or later, the object of our love will pass away, as everything does. Even so, Cummings loves utterly, without reserve. And to let go when it is time to let go -- which is often not the time we would have chosen -- is perhaps the final, most absolute mark of that love.
And yes, there is a cost. The poem ends with these lines:
Then shall i turn my face, and hear one bird
sing terribly afar in the lost lands.
A heartrending cry of loss such as this would be moving in any context. It is even more moving when it follows immediately upon such a generous expression of love as the one Cummings makes earlier in his poem. Letting go of his beloved in the way he does, freeing her to follow her heart's deepest affections, does not mean to deny the feelings he has toward her, but on the contrary, to raise them to their subtlest and finest station.
The greatest gift of love is the gesture of open arms -- let come what comes -- not because you don't care, or because you hope to steel yourself against pain, but because you care so much that you are helpless to do anything else. And you accept the cost, the inevitable blow to the heart. Better in this life, after all, for the heart to be broken -- to take on the rich, the tender vulnerability of being human -- than not. Then we can say with another poet, Philip Larkin, that "What will survive of us is love."
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Roger Housden's book, Ten Poems to Say Goodbye, comes out on February 21st with Crown Books. You can pre-order it here on Amazon.
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