In 1818, eighteen year old Fanny Brawne met and fell in love with aspiring Romantic poet, John Keats. Keats was about twenty-three at the time, and not well known. Fanny’s parents disapproved of their courtship because Keats had given up a career in medicine to pursue poetry and he had no money and no prospects. Keat’s patron Charles Brown also disapproved of the relationship because he felt that love was a distraction for a working poet. Their romance blossomed nevertheless and inspired some of Keat’s most well-known work. In one of the hundreds of letters he wrote to Fanny, he said, “I have been astonished that men could die martyrs for religion – I have shudder’d at it – I shudder no more – I could be martyr’d for my religion – Love is my religion – I could die for that – I could die for you.” Keats died a year later in Rome from tuberculosis. He was only 25 years old.
It’s easy to imagine how easy it would have been for Fanny to reject Keats. Keats was a starving artist. He had no family and very dim prospects. He was also sickly and prone to depression, and her family disapproved. But haven’t we all been attracted to people who we wouldn’t or can’t marry? Throughout the ages, men and women have fallen in love even when it has cost them their fortune, their reputation, or their lives. When two souls recognize that they belong with each other, hardly anything can keep them apart.
Our society classifies human beings into two categories: single and married. The single ones are on the market, so to speak, while the married (and partnered) ones are strictly off limits. However, nature does not make those distinctions, and human nature does not abide well by rules that are contrary to its instincts.
When I first met Art, I knew him as married but not as polyamorous. I did not know for the first six months that he and his wife has had an open relationship for twenty years and that she currently had another partner. He had a voice I liked to hear on the phone, and a face with abundant grey hair and beard like a crazy hippy. I was not into that so much. We worked together and talked by skype regularly, but did not meet in person because he lived in Canada and I lived in Pennsylvania. Once I did learn about his relationship status, the boundary between professional and personal quickly eroded, and we talked easily about our relationships, feelings, and other intimate subjects.
Then one day he was in Pennsylvania visiting his mother. His hair had been cut and his beard trimmed. We met up for dinner, where we talked like old friends who had been separated a long time. He followed me home where we talked some more on the porch in the summer evening. He reached out to caress the hairy shih-tsu in my lap, who had been relishing my caresses all night, and this gesture felt like an invitation, a reaching across boundaries. I knew if I did not seize the moment it would pass and he would be back in Canada, where I wouldn’t see him again for another year.
Just as he was getting ready to leave I asked, “Would you hold my hand?”
He looked at me hopefully and said, “Are you looking for more?”
“I wouldn’t mind.” I responded.
We moved to the couch where he put his arm around me and held my hand in his lap, our knees touching. His unexpected nearness and the transgression of it took my breath away. It was not merely our age status, our history of working together, or our other partners that made this development so strange and exciting to me. The strength of my feelings towards him took me quite by surprise. My whole being responded to him as if we had known each other in a past life and were suddenly reunited. I kissed him and he kissed me back. We embraced a long time before he left at half past eleven.
The next few days were spent in a daze of euphoria and disbelief. My thoughts went from, “Oh my god, I seduced my boss,” to “Oh my god, how did it take this long? He is my match in every way.”
I told my husband, of course, about what happened. He too, thought I was crazy. But I think he has come to expect the unexpected from me.
It took six weeks before I saw Art again, and the results were as expected: we were passionately in love. I had no doubt that it was what I wanted, but what did that mean? What could this turn into? He already had a wife and family, and they had just moved to Ontario, Canada together. I could only foresee a relationship where my role as a secondary was determined not only by our marital status but also by logistics. Arthur l said it was a journey he was excited to embark on, yet we had no map and few resources to aid us.
In life there are lots of situations where we might enter into a romantic relationship with someone that we have no (or very low) possibility or intention of marrying. Sometimes it’s just timing and logistics. You live on separate continents or have different plans for the future. Sometimes you are thrown together for a short time and you know when the relationship will end. Sometimes you want a sexual encounter without having a romantic relationship.
Most of the time, we don’t fall in love (or lust) because we are looking for commitment, but for the joy of it. Whether the other is a soulmate, a summer romance, or a casual encounter, each relationship is magical and meaningful in its own way. Polyamory is the courage to love people for the sake of love. It is to be a devoted romantic who believes that love is first and foremost, an act of pleasure. We do it because it gives us joy, and not because we hope to get security or commitment out of it. It is knowing that all relationships have something to teach us. It is living life to the fullest.
Too often, we pursue relationships with the goal of guarding against their loss. We secure the other person’s affection, and then lock it down with commitments and marriage. When the other person has said, “’til death do we part,” do we finally feel safe. But the reality is we are never safe. Even married, our partner could fall out of love, leave us, or die at any time. Losing love hurts, but if we loved only when we know we wouldn’t be hurt, then we wouldn’t love at all, and we wouldn’t live much either.
Fannie Brawne mourned Keats for six years after his death. But she eventually married, had three children, and lived into her sixties. Her romance with Keats which lasted only two years was never consummated, but it inspired some of the most beautiful poems in the English language. Their love is a gift to us, a reminder to seize the opportunity and let go of it when it is over.
Photo credit: From the movie “Bright Star” by Jane Campion starring Abbie Cornish and Ben Wishaw in the roles of Fanny and Keats.