A historical, cultural, and poetic inquiry into the love letter tradition.
By Diana Kobetic, Associate Arts and Culture Editor
Looking back at the vast body of texts encompassing humanity’s attempts to express ourselves through the written word, it seems as though love letters have marked a truly universal range of works — from marginalia adorning wildly expensive and ornately decorated religious works, to today’s bad Notes App pseudo-poetry.
In reading the letters of long-gone lovers, we become clandestine voyeurs, peeking behind the curtains in other people’s homes to reveal intimate revelations that hold a near-magical magnetic quality. In so vulnerably expressing this fundamental human experience, authors of letters from centuries past feel (for better or for worse) as real and human as the couples we meet in our everyday lives.
Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel evocatively describes this experience of falling in love with and through literature and its capacity to wreak havoc upon our day-to-day existence, as the novel’s protagonist Eugene concludes that “[h]e did not want his ghosts and marvels explained. Magic was magic.” That final line is crucial to the way that love letters, both our own and those of others, hold an almost mystical quality. They allow us to believe for a moment that magic is in fact magic, and do so in a way that is simultaneously exalted and everyday, at once achievable and beyond our wildest dreams. In having this experience, we are welcomed into a glorious ritual that has intermingled itself with our written tradition from the very beginning.
The oldest love poem known to date is The Love Song for Shu-Sin (c. 2000 BCE), originating from fertility rituals in ancient Mesopotamia. The poem narrates the love between a king named Shu-Sin and his new bride, and was performed each year as part of a ceremony of “sacred marriage” in which the king would symbolically marry a fertility goddess to obtain her protection and patronage for his people in the upcoming year.
The poem opens with a gentle evocation of the beauty and goodness of the beloved, beginning a grand tradition of similar poetic gestures:
Bridegroom, dear to my heart,
Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet,
Lion, dear to my heart,
Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet.
In the Old Testament’s Song of Solomon, thought to be the earliest recorded semblance of a love letter before the discovery of The Love Song for Shu-Sin in the 19th century, two lovers similarly express their devotion to each other in an interlaced set of lyrical poems:
Behold, you are beautiful, my love.
Behold, you are beautiful.
Your eyes are like doves behind your veil.
The development of the modern form of love letters that we think of today likely stems from the early 14th-century, with the medieval Age of Chivalry inciting flowery but chaste expressions of fin amour and courtly love, fit for the heroes of chivalric romances.
In the margins of a 16th-century devotional Book of Hours, intimate notes between Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII reveal concerns about their relationship. According to Andrea Clarke, a scholar of this text, it is highly significant that Henry chose to write his letter on “a page depicting the man of sorrows, thereby intentionally presenting himself as the lovesick king.” However, Anne placed her response “below an image of the Annunciation, with the Archangel Gabriel telling the Virgin Mary that she would bear a son,” thereby implying that she could provide him with a male heir, succeeding in the wake of his previous wives’ failures. Still, reading the following words with the knowledge of what was in store for the pair casts a shadow over these loving words:
Henry: If you remember my love in your prayers as strongly as I adore you, I shall scarcely be forgotten, for I am yours. Henry Rex forever.
Anne: Be daily prove you shall me find
To be to you both loving and kind.
By the 18th-century, love letters had become more personal, eschewing the highly structured form of earlier iterations, and moving towards an attempt at charm and self-aware humour that remains popular today. This tradition evolved yet further into the 19th century, as these notes became increasingly reflective and spiritual.
The identity of the recipient of Ludwig van Beethoven’s unsent love letters to his “Immortal Beloved” has long been sought, but still remains a topic of scholarly debate. Some even argue that this figure is not a person at all, but a personification of music itself:
Even in bed my ideas yearn towards you, my Immortal Beloved, here and there joyfully, then again sadly, awaiting from Fate, whether it will listen to us. I can only live, either altogether with you or not at all.
What longing in tears for you — You — my Life — my All — farewell. Oh, go on loving me — never doubt the faithfullest heart
Of your beloved
Oscar Wilde wrote short, sweet notes to his muse, Lord Alfred Douglas, in line with the growing trend of these shorter missives:
My Own Boy,
Your sonnet is quite lovely, and it is a marvel that those red rose-leaf lips of yours should be made no less for the madness of music and song than for the madness of kissing. Your slim gilt soul walks between passion and poetry. I know Hyacinthus, whom Apollo loved so madly, was you in Greek days.
In the early 20th century, many wartime lovers held letters close to their hearts, as these were often the only forms of communication available for long stretches of time. It was even claimed that the act of writing and the rush of anticipation stemming from the necessarily reflective process of letter-writing could induce or expand feelings of love.
Today, many people express concern over the replacement of these handwritten notes with dollar store greeting cards, and even more so with the encroachment of technological methods of communication. After all, can rereading old text messages really compare to finding a long-forgotten piece of paper in the back of a drawer, with sensory details flooding your mind with long-lost memories?
Only time will tell whether today’s innovations will be judged worthy of inclusion into this now-great canon, but regardless, our capacity to engage with others’ works on the subject and attempt to formulate our own responses remains as strong as ever.
Writing under the persistent threat of Soviet communism, Czech poet Miroslav Holub described love with grace and simplicity in the following words:
Two thousand cigarettes.
A hundred miles
from wall to wall.
An eternity and a half of vigils
blanker than snow.
Tons of words
old as the tracks
of a platypus in the sand.
A hundred books we didn’t write
A hundred pyramids we didn’t build.
as the beginning of the world.
Believe me when I say
it was beautiful.
In these sparse but moving closing lines, Holub seems to echo Wolfe in noting the capacity of the simplest words to evoke a sense of magic and wonderment, reminding us of what we may be failing to recognize in our own everyday lives. And yet — if love can at once be represented in all these forms, simultaneously a pile of dust and a vast expanse, why shouldn’t its representations themselves be worthy of that same flexibility?
Today’s writings may only be dust, but perhaps they can be beautiful all the same.