- Ilinca Stroe
Veronica Micle and Mihai Eminescu: the Love that Fed Romania’s Finest Poetry
Sexist as it may possibly be deep down, had there not been a Veronica Micle, there might not have been a Mihai Eminescu, either. The “woman as Muse” stereotype worked well in the case of Romania’s national poet of all times, the “last great European Romantic”. But muses are, it is a well-known fact, capricious beings. Veronica was no exception, and the genius poet’s work mirrored minutely the tormenting ups and downs of their sheer romantic passion - like an open wound.
They met in Vienna in 1872. She was a young mother of two and the wife of a professor thirty years her senior. He was a young student. It was an instant coup de foudre. He was besotted with her “pretty angel’s face”, her wit, intelligence and femininity. She had read his poems, infallibly sensed his genius and was probably already in love with “the God of poetry” “whose mind mirrored the universe”, whose “great being” she felt unworthy of and unable to understand.
A chaste romance flared up once they both returned to Iaşi in Romania. He started visiting her literary salon. They wrote letters to each other; they met furtively and took walks together; he dedicated poems to his “sweet wonder”, his “blonde angel”; she responded penning delicate verse for him. The husband turned a blind eye to it, presumably flattered that his own spouse served as muse to the brilliant young poet.
However, the two innamorati were feeling nervous and uneasy about the situation. In one letter he reproaches her for her cruel nonchalance (“you’ve turned my dream into a caprice of yours”), in response she swears to God that she feigns indifference so that the intensity of their feelings is not exposed (“you were all love in my presence, so little in control of yourself that even a fool could figure out you were in love with me; so I had to deny that and hide the mutuality of such great love from inquiring eyes”). On one occasion, as they fall out with each other briefly, he thanks fate in a poem for ridding him of her “without committing, Madam, the ancestral sin”. Only to come round a while later, and admit to her, “I miss you, you poppet, gentle and sweet woman, intelligent and radiant, the beauty of beauties and flower of flowers.”
Years pass of anguishing unfulfilled passion, in the shadow of the potential guilt-ridden adultery. “For two years, madam, I have been unable to work on anything, pursuing like an idiot a hope not only vain, but also undignified.” And all this while “you were an idea in my head and I loved you as someone would love a painting.” But then one day in February 1876, when the husband was out of town, Eminescu gets a whole hour of intimacy with her: “It was the happiest day of my life,” he writes down. “I held Veronica in my arms, I held her close to my chest, I kissed her. She gave me blue flowers which I will keep all of my life.”
Such was the ingenuousness and gentle charm of that two-poet romance. Until August 1876, when, we find out from another letter to her, written with candid yet modest contentment, their love was at last consumed: “So I kiss the hands without gloves, the eyes without glasses, the brow without a hat and the legs without stockings, and I ask you please don’t forget me, especially when you sleep.”
Presumably burdened by guilt, they went separate ways, though. He went to Bucharest in 1877 to pursue his literary career, she stayed on in Iaşi with the husband and their two daughters. When the old professor dies, in 1879, Eminescu jumps at the occasion: “My life, strange even today and inexplicable to all of my acquaintances, has no meaning without you.” They decide to try to start a family. She travels to Bucharest, they appear together in public, he introduces her around as his fiancée.
But any real romance must be tragic, and the hostile gods of jealousy were watching Veronica and Mihai’s fate closely. And one of them had a name: Titu Maiorescu. He was Eminescu’s mentor and sponsor, the poet’s professional and financial status depended considerably on him. He had known Veronica since she was 14 and testified against him in a morality trial (Maiorescu, a teacher, had presumably harassed a teenage student). And he did bear a grudge now. He strongly opposed Eminescu’s idea of marrying Veronica and he opined that as long as their love remained unofficialised and precarious, his protégé could still be a great poet able to “weep so beautifully” over his capricious muse. Maiorescu also did his best to portray Veronica as a frivolous, unfaithful woman who was insensitive to Eminescu’s needs and aspirations, and who had been born “only to unsettle the destinies of great men”. The male literary establishment that made up Eminescu’s daily social milieu embraced that vision. Finally, there was one more hostile force which prevented the two poets’ marriage from happening: poverty. Eminescu was simply too poor to have a family of four, and so Veronica could not afford to lose her widow’s pension and have no money to raise her daughters.
A few exhaustingly excruciating years passed, recorded in wildly passionate letters. Veronica, back in Iaşi, reproached Eminescu his aloofness, his passiveness, his inability to put together a decent income for their projected family future. She accused him of seriously compromising and damaging her honour. He, on the other hand, tired, sick, poor and struggling to make it in Bucharest, admitted to his weakness and declared himself unworthy of her devotion. They both had affairs with other people – and let each other know about that! There were violent bouts of jealousy followed by indescribably graceful forgiveness. And a stillborn child…
“You are and have always been my life, it all started and ended with you, and if I don’t live to at least think about you, then I have nothing to live for… I will never love another woman, and you keep being in my mind and soul what you have always been: the golden dream of my life,” he reasserted his feelings in 1882. Rejecting a couple of financially convenient proposals, she, too, stuck to her love: “I’d rather remain Eminescu’s lover than become a prince’s wife.”
In 1883 he was diagnosed with syphilis (today’s doctors maintain he was also bipolar), and his physical and mental health declined steadily from then on. He died in June 1889. Veronica retired to the Văratec monastery immediately afterwards, drafted Love and Poetry, a volume collecting his poems dedicated to her and her own poems, and when that work was done, she one day, 50 days after his death, went to the pharmacy, bought arsenic, took it, agonised for 24 hours and died on 3 August 1889.
They had both been born in 1850. Their mothers had died almost the same day. And Veronica made sure Mihai and she passed away the same year. Their intertwined feelings and poems were sprinkled with coincidences and baked in uncannily intense reciprocity, and their story had, overall, the fateful flavour of a Greek tragedy. Out of it sprang vigorously the finest, most sublime and comprehensive expression of the Romanian soul: Mihai Eminescu’s poetry.
Still, the final note goes to Veronica per se. She did go down in the (male) history of Romanian literature as Eminescu’s capricious “muse”. Yet she was a poet herself. One of Romania’s first women poets. Her work belongs to late Romanticism as much as Eminescu’s and it makes up a true “poetic diary of love”, comprising the whole range of love’s facets: joy, anger, passion, protest, fear and apprehension, confession, sweet conciliation… In the end, it is perhaps a woman critic’s words that really capture the extraordinary nature and life course of this poetess of fateful love:
“You cannot but wonder when Veronica Micle, in just 39 years, had time to be a brilliant student, a musical voice that was offered jobs at the Opera, a witness in a trial against Maiorescu, a perfect wife to Ştefan Micle, the mother of two daughters (whom she gave a good education), a charity nurse during the Independence War, a poet and translator, a good pianist, a widow in financial distress and, above all, Eminescu’s passionate and inspired lover.”
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