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A Visit with Vanauken

Guest Column

By Richard Rotondi | June 1990
Richard Rotondi is a student at Georgetown Universi­ty.

Recently I had the good fortune of meet­ing Sheldon Vanauken. For those of you who have yet to savor his corps d’oeuvres, Vanauken is a historian, poet, and author primarily known for his autobiographical A Severe Mercy, a book full of storms and rich earthiness and sudden suns. It is about the great romance between Vanauken and his wife, Davy. Theirs was a passion right out of Ovid’s Metamor­phoses — an earthly rendition of Orpheus and Eurydice, one of those rare instances of myth made flesh, or, the reader marvels, partly flesh. For there is such an ethereal quality to A Severe Mercy — it takes place in such para­dises as the estate of Glenmerle (Vanauken’s boyhood home) and Hawaii; in C.S. Lewis’s Oxford, with a cameo appearance by the master himself; and on the yacht Grey Goose, merrily skimming southern seas — that we are not quite sure how real it is, real to you and me who have dirt under our fingernails and bills to pay. The love itself, loving “in the old high ways of love,” is as piercing and beauti­ful as the birds that wanton in the air, but rather far removed from those of us who labor under Adam’s curse. Yet we are glad that our tainted nature can boast this pair of real lov­ers, and readers cannot help but sighing after the couple who, for a time at least, win a love that earns the envy of the gods.

Few people would envy Vanauken now; the gods, as gods will, were able to destroy the happiness they could not share. The Glenmerle that ravished us in A Severe Mercy has vanished. Davy is dead. The author now lives in a one-room cottage — quaint and cozy, and furnished with the old cherrywood and maple of his youth, yes, but not the same. The author was kind enough to show me the Glenmerle bookcases, the studio knocker (from his residence in Oxford), the figurehead of the Grey Goose mounted bravely over the fireplace (Westward Ho!), and yet now, far from envying him, my own ignorant heart squirmed at the thought of being emp­tied, razed, haunted by unsubstantial ghosts of the past.

Then came the pictures of Davy, and my heart writhed even more. A sudden illness took her at the height of her youth and in-love-ness with her spouse. Their love was allowed the honor of ending with a bang; but there is something to be said for long drawn out whimpers, I thought, especially when they produce children and grandchildren, the whole fabric of domesticity that is a chief com­fort of old age. The Vanaukens’ love was too burning and brief, too concentrated to diffuse itself into that comfort. But his love for his wife, chronicled in A Severe Mercy, has spawn­ed spiritual children, a hundred times more children than mortal flesh can bear. Hundreds of doors are open to him; a thousand faces are ready to greet him. But not one of the thou­sand faces is Davy’s.

Vanauken held nothing back from his love; husband and wife poured out their lives unstintingly, counting not the cost, gambling all. But spouses die (all the more quickly when the gods are angered); to my frightened eyes Vanauken appeared, in his one-room house, alone, spent. More to be pitied.

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