Terminus

Terminus
By Edith Wharton

Wonderful were the long secret nights you gave me, my Lover,
Palm to palm breast to breast in the gloom. The faint red lamp,
Flushing with magical shadows the common-place room of the inn
With its dull impersonal furniture, kindled a mystic flame
In the heart of the swinging mirror, the glass that has seen
Faces innumerous & vague of the endless travelling automata,
Whirled down the ways of the world like dust-eddies swept through a street,
Faces indifferent or weary, frowns of impatience or pain,
Smiles (if such there were ever) like your smile and mine when they met
Here, in this self-same glass, while you helped me to loosen my dress,
And the shadow-mouths melted to one, like sea-birds that meet in a wave–
Such smiles, yes, such smiles the mirror perhaps has reflected;
And the low wide bed, as rutted and worn as a high-road,
The bed with its soot-sodden chintz, the grime of its brasses,
That has borne the weight of fagged bodies, dust-stained, averted in sleep,
The hurried, the restless, the aimless–perchance it has also thrilled
With the pressure of bodies ecstatic, bodies like ours,
Seeking each other’s souls in the depths of unfathomed caresses,
And through the long windings of passion emerging again to the stars…
Yes, all this through the room, the passive & featureless room,
Must have flowed with the rise & fall of the human unceasing current;
And lying there hushed in your arms, as the waves of rapture receded,
And far down the margin of being we heard the low beat of the soul,
I was glad as I thought of those others, the nameless, the many,
Who perhaps thus had lain and loved for an hour on the brink of the world,
Secret and fast in the heart of the whirlwind of travel,
The shaking and shrieking of trains, the night-long shudder of traffic,
Thus, like us they have lain & felt, breast to breast in the dark,
The fiery rain of possession descend on their limbs while outside
The black rain of midnight pelted the roof of the station;
And thus some woman like me, waking alone before dawn,
While her lover slept, as I woke & heard the calm stir of your breathing,
Some woman has heard as I heard the farewell shriek of the trains
Crying good-bye to the city & staggering out into darkness,
And shaken at heart has thought: “So must we forth in the darkness,
Sped down the fixed rail of habit by the hand of implacable fate–
So shall we issue to life, & the rain, & the dull dark dawning;
You to the wide flare of cities, with windy garlands and shouting,
Carrying to populous places the freight of holiday throngs;
I, by waste lands, & stretches of low-skied marsh
To a harbourless wind-bitten shore, where a dull town moulders & shrinks,
And its roofs fall in, & the sluggish feet of the hours
Are printed in grass in its streets; & between the featureless houses
Languid the town-folk glide to stare at the entering train,
The train from which no one descends; till one pale evening of winter,
When it halts on the edge of the town, see, the houses have turned into grave-stones,
The streets are the grassy paths between the low roofs of the dead;
And as the train glides in ghosts stand by the doors of the carriages;
And scarcely the difference is felt–yea, such is the life I return to…”
Thus may another have thought; thus, as I turned may have turned
To the sleeping lips at her side, to drink, as I drank there, oblivion….

About the Poem

Wharton fell in love with Europe and the freedom and intellectual stimulation she found there. While seemingly a conventional Edwardian, often photographed corseted and draped in pearls, furs, and silk, Wharton was quietly rebelling against her family, country, American high society, and empty hours. She read, wrote, travelled adventurously, and collected friends. Eventually, she met a wholly unsuitable man—the elusive, bisexual, and philandering journalist Morton Fullerton. Morton has been described as “Singularly attaching… a dashing well-tailored man with large Victorian moustache and languid eyes, a bright flower in his buttonhole, and the style of a ‘masher’.” (A masher is a fashionable man in the late Victorian era, especially one who makes often unwelcome advances to women.)

After graduating, Morton was intimate with philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist George Santayana and close to American art historian Bernard Berenson. Upon moving to London, he befriended English poet, songwriter, and novelist Charles Hamilton Aidé and became the lover of British sculptor Lord Ronald Gower, who was famously implicated, along with several society figures, in the Cleveland Street Scandal, where a male brothel was raided by police. From 1906 to 1909 Morton famously had an affair with Wharton. They met in the summer of that year after being introduced by mutual friend Henry James. She undoubtedly considered him the love of her life, describing him as her “ideal intellectual partner”. However, they were never ‘officially’ together, as Wharton was already married, and Fullerton’s highly promiscuous personality prevented him from ever committing to a serious relationship.

Morton would surface, and she adored him. Then he would drop out of sight. While quite taken with her, Fullerton had a sordid and rakish, but appealing nature and moved from woman to woman, and apparently from man to man as well.  Months of stolen meetings left Wharton euphoric and yet fearful: the cost of opening herself up could be high, and she worried about the possibility of scandal and blackmail, and, no small issue, what the servants would think. After the affair ended, Wharton, who was fiercely guarded when it came to her private life, requested that Fullerton destroy every letter she had ever sent him to avoid any scandal. The affair itself, although suspected, was not confirmed until the 1980s. Fullerton had ignored Wharton’s request and had kept all her letters, which were eventually published as a book, The Letters of Edith Wharton, in 1988.

During the affair, Wharton sturgged to find a place for the two to meet without prying eyes. Finally, in 1909, Wharton found an unlikely secret place to meet her lover, in the small moments of her life, while in transit, without servants. Their rendezvous was in an unromantic Victorian terminal hotel, which fronted a London railway station with six platforms. The Charing Cross Hotel had been a place to catch or meet a train and break a journey since Victorian times.  In dingy Room 91, something rather extraordinary happened. Forty-five-year-old Wharton became a “sensual heroine” and made passionate love for perhaps the first time. And as she lay in her lover’s arms, she felt profoundly connected to humanity, to travelers who had also loved in just this kind of place. Out of the experience, she wrote the poem “Terminus”:

…And lying there hushed in your arms, as the waves of rapture receded,
And far down the margin of being we heard the low beat of the soul,
I was glad as I thought of those others, the nameless, the many,
Who perhaps thus had lain and loved for an hour on the brink of the world,
Secret and fast in the heart of the whirlwind of travel,…

Fullerton proved faithless and Wharton, a tough-minded realist, broke off the affair. But she gained from the experience and never forgot: “I have drunk the wine of life at last,” she confided in her diary. “I have known the thing best worth knowing, I have been warmed through and through never to grow quite cold again until the end…” She thereafter wrote of love from personal experience and went on to live a brave and spirited life. She divorced, relocated to France permanently, wrote more novels, and created beautiful gardens; she entertained and proved a loyal friend. 

Her experience in Room 91 at the Charing Cross Hotel mirrors those fleeting moments many gay men have had through history, whether it was a hotel where proprietors turned a blind eye, a public restroom, or in the wooded areas of a park. Gay men often found themselves in these brief moments of passion where like Wharton, “something rather extraordinary happened.” Unlike Wharton though, gay men had the possibility of being caught and imprisoned for sodomy. While things have gotten better for most gay men, there are still closeted gay men, and some very out gay men, who still use cruising, or as many do, hook-up apps, as a means of anonymous, and sometimes not so anonymous, moments of ecstasy. While “Terminus” is about Morton and Wharton, it could, with a few changes in gender, be any number of gay male experiences throughout history. 

About Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton’s vocation was confirmed already in childhood, when her most “intense & enduring” pastime was improvising long narratives before she had even learned to read: “This devastating passion grew on me to such an extent that my parents became alarmed.” When in 1902 she showed her first novel, set in eighteenth-century Italy, to Henry James, he expressed admiration for her writing (“exquisitely studied and so brilliant & interesting from a literary point of view”) but strongly encouraged her to turn her attention to her own time and place: “There it is round you. Don’t pass it by—the immediate, the real, the ours, the yours, the novelist’s that it waits for. . . Do New York! The 1st-hand account is precious.” The immediate fruit of this advice was a masterpiece, The House of Mirth, in which Wharton cast a revealing light on the world of privilege in which she grew up, and whose dissection of the hidden social barriers and pressures among the upper classes of turn-of-the-century New York remains unsurpassed. A long series of masterful novels and stories followed, ironic, richly detailed, and capturing both the high comedy and the tragic contradictions of her world.

I personally have always enjoyed the writings of Edith Wharton. I read Ethan Frome in high school and The Age of Innocence in graduate school. Probably my favorite is her short story “Roman Fever,” which begins with the sentence, “From the table at which they had been lunching two American ladies of ripe but well-cared-for middle age moved across the lofty terrace of the Roman restaurant and, leaning on its parapet, looked first at each other, and then down on the outspread glories of the Palatine and the Forum, with the same expression of vague but benevolent approval.” Few authors have ever evoked imagery the way Wharton did. When reading Wharton’s work, I always felt like I was there in the places that she wrote. Not everyone enjoys Wharton’s writing like I do, but as Henry James said, her writing was “exquisitely studied and so brilliant & interesting.”

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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