First expressed in 1839, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s assertion that, “The pen is mightier than the sword” is still as pertinent as ever. The extent to which words can encourage or dissuade, wound or comfort should not be underestimated – after all, they can remain in the memory almost indefinitely, and certainly long after a flesh wound might reasonably have been expected to heal.
The humble letter dates back to around 500 BC when the first example is thought to have been sent by Queen Atossa of Persia. However, this form of communication grew in popularity as more people gradually became literate. Indeed, some letters have literally been responsible for changing the course of history.
Henry VIII, for example, famously wrote a love letter to Anne Boleyn whilst he was still married to his first wife, Catherine of Arragon. And it was his infatuation with Anne that ultimately changed the religious structure of Britain forever, causing him to break away from the Roman Catholic Church in 1533 in order that he could remarry.
Abraham Lincoln’s trademark beard is also alleged to have been influenced by a letter; that of an 11-year-old girl who purportedly wrote that he ‘would look a great deal better’ if he were to ‘let (his) whiskers grow’. This was apparently on account of Lincoln’s face being ‘so thin’ and the fact that ‘all the ladies like whiskers’ and might, therefore, ‘tease their husbands to vote for (him)’!
Of course, Charles Darwin, Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King are all further (incredibly formidable) examples of highly influential figures for whom the written word has proven a powerful tool, bringing about pivotal moments in history.
As a child, being made to write long thank you letters in the 3 or 4 days after Christmas was an arduous task. I was more than happy to acknowledge (with gratitude) the kindness of distant relatives but trying to sum up the main events of the past year (whilst also remembering to ask after a son or daughter whom I’d never actually met) seemed extraordinarily taxing. Added to which, my neat handwriting (and reasonably reliable spelling) seemed to earn me a substantial share in this particular duty and memories of countless sheets of Basildon Bond writing paper lying discarded upon my bedroom floor haunt me even now – a far cry from the brief thank you texts of current times and that unsung hero, the backspace key!
The advent of electronic mail brought with it a whole range of advantages. It was now possible to communicate with, and respond to, others much more quickly, the costs involved were relatively low and (in addition to being able to share attachments in a wide range of formats) the significant reduction in the amount of paper used (Basildon Bond included!) meant that it was much better for the planet too.
However, one distinct disadvantage of this ‘new’ form of communication was that many of the formalities previously adhered to were casually discarded too – eloquence of language, observation of social etiquette and the careful consideration of syntax being summarily replaced by a familiarity of tone rather more indicative of a conversation. And with many of the time-consuming rituals of traditional letter writing now alleviated (not to mention the inviting nature of that perilously cavalier ‘send’ button) businesses and individuals alike have fallen victim to torrents of abuse the likes of which would arguably have failed to make it into an envelope, let alone the postal system ‘back in the day’. In essence, we have moved towards ‘communication without a filter’.
Whilst the humble ‘pen’ might have been superseded by the trappings of technological advancement, we all still have a moral duty to consider (very carefully) the impact that our words can have upon others. After all, “A broken bone can heal, but the wound a word opens can fester forever” (Jessamyn West).