One of the tattered books in my library is a paperback edition of Sheldon Vanauken’s award-winning bestseller, A Severe Mercy. I made brief mention of the book in my post on November 13th. This picture (to the left) is my copy, torn spine, stained and yellowed pages. Inside, there are markings, personal notes and key observations underlined in red. (Reading a book for me is usually a shared experience, a conversation between the author and myself. My interaction with the book is my response.)
This treasured book unfolds the love story of the author and a woman named “Davy.” (If you’d like additional biography for Vanauken, the Wikipedia entry provides numerous details I will urge you to read there.) Reading the book itself is actually the preferable choice.
A Severe Mercy invites you into the lives and world of two young people (both born in 1914 and now deceased) who experienced a love so passionate, they agreed to live an inseparable life (not two distinct though complementary lives) and wall themselves off from any and all experiences they could not share together. (Hence, they agreed not to have children because Vanauken couldn’t experience childbirth as Davy could.) They called this united front, this no-secrets, inviolable bond of oneness The Shining Barrier.
Aside: Throughout the ages, couples have always believed the love they shared was so deep, so passionate … the phrase that comes to mind is “no one has ever loved like this before.” Call me a cynic (realist) but this kind of naiveté often makes me chuckle.
Still, I didn’t laugh when I read this book. I think many couples believe their love stands uniquely above all others … and to them, it does. But just to them.
In my first reading of Vanauken’s book, I excused that aspect of their story. Written from his perspective, there’s no question he loved Davy deeply. Presumably, she felt the same. The intensity of their feelings for one another is evident throughout and the reader understands keenly how knit together their lives were. Vanauken poignantly communicates both his love for Davy, the betrayal he felt when The Shining Barrier was first breached, and the grief they were forced to acknowledge (as Davy’s health deteriorated).
The book contains a number of sonnets written by Vanauken. But a rondeau he wrote shows the serious commitment these lovers had to The Shining Barrier that represented their love. Because the pair enjoyed sailing, they agreed to end their lives together. This poem reflects that aim.
IF THIS BE ALL
If this be all to glorify
The end of love and to deny
The parting that alone we fear −
When wasted days for one draw near,
Surrender them without a sigh −
We’ll sail, then, seawards, you and I,
And sink our ship and so we’ll die
Still, still together, oh my dear!
If this be all.
In light we loved in days gone by;
As darkness shudders down the sky
We’ll plight again, and death − austere
Dark minister − shall wed us here,
Together under night to lie,
If this be all.
As often happens though, things changed. The Shining Barrier lost its radiance.
Beyond Vanauken’s fine narrative, their correspondence with C. S. Lewis makes the narrative all the more compelling. Lewis delivers clarity and compassion as the young couple wrestles with issues of life and death, joy for what they’ve shared, wrath and sorrow for a life and love abruptly cut short. Lewis is both teacher and confidant, a minister of empathy and grace. He is the gentle master who reminds that the cloak of temporality we grow so tired of in this world provokes our inconsolable longing for eternity, the world for which we were created.
Read the book. Then read it again. I hope my post hasn’t provided details that would discourage you from actually reading the book itself. It is a great read.