Teachers of sorrow: Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, and breaking-up letters

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The meaning of sorrow…

Oscar Wilde went to prison for his erotic letters Lord Alfred Douglas – yet he wrote to Douglas sadly in 1896, “I had passed through two long years of imprisonment without ever having received a single line from you, or any news or message even, except such as gave me pain.”

Then he wrote this:  “I had always thought that my giving up to you in small things meant nothing: that when a great moment arrived I could reassert my will-power in its natural superiority. It was not so. At the great moment my will-power completely failed me. In life there is really no small or great thing. All things are of equal value and of equal size. …”

“All things are of equal value and of equal size.” Because of that passage, I have been thinking about that letter for two days.  It may be true, after all – and if so, perhaps the most important thing he ever said.  The letter concludes: “You came to me to learn the Pleasure of Life and the Pleasure of Art. Perhaps I am chosen to teach you something much more wonderful, the meaning of Sorrow, and its beauty.”

From the title of The Atlantic series,  ‘This Was Like Dating a Priest’: Famous Authors’ Breakup Letters,” you might expect these letters to be pure snark. Don’t believe it.  The Atlantic‘s  title is taken from a 1945 letter from Anaïs Nin to C. L. Baldwin, in which she sounds rather impressed with herself.  But some of the others are truly poignant, intelligent, and painfully self-aware.

“I’m going mad again.”

For instance this one, Virginia Woolf‘s final letter to her husband Leonard Woolf during the bombing of Britain in 1941.  Afterwards, she put stones in her pocket and drowned herself in the River Ouse:

“Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that—everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.”

Worth a read here.


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2 Responses to “Teachers of sorrow: Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, and breaking-up letters”

  1. Tine Hreno Says:

    “All things are of equal value and of equal size.” Is that from the long letter that Oscar wrote to Bosie in prison?

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Yes.

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