The Love Letter | A Brief History in Time
LOVE IS in the air. And, in most regions this weekend, so is the chill of frigid arctic temperatures. To melt your true love’s heart this Valentine’s Day, you may want to consider a more romantic way to express your affection. And, that’s through a love letter. Writing down one’s sentiments isn’t always easy. So, here is a brief look at the history of the Love Letter for a little inspiration.
Love Letters Through the Ages
Love letters throughout the ages have been a heartfelt way to convey one’s sincere emotions. One of the earliest examples comes from ancient times. In the Bible’s Song of Solomon, two lovers express their feelings for each other through an exchange of dialogue set in a series of lyrical poems laced with flattering compliments.
In the Middle Ages, the love letter evolved into chaste missives of courtly love between brave gentlemen and fair ladies during the Age of Chivalry. King Henry VIII of England, an oppressive and violent ruler, was also a great romantic. In a series of secret letters to Anne Boleyn written during their courtship, he professes:
“But if you please to do the office of a true loyal mistress and friend, and to give up yourself body and heart to me, who will be, and have been, your most loyal servant, (if your rigour does not forbid me) I promise you that not only the name shall be given you, but also that I will take you for my only mistress, casting off all others besides you out of my thoughts and affections, and serve you only…”
Later, in the 18th century, romantic correspondence became more personal and tender and often had a humorous touch. While in the 19th century, love letters went beyond mere notions, becoming more intellectual, self-reflective, and spiritual. As German composer Ludwig van Beethoven penned to his unnamed “Immortal Beloved”:
“…can our love endure without sacrifices, without our demanding everything from one another, can you alter the fact that you are not wholly mine, that I am not wholly yours?–Dear God, look at Nature in all her beauty and set your heart at rest about what must be–Love demands all, and rightly so, and thus it is for me with you, for you with me– but you forget so easily that I must live for me and for you…”
Beethoven’s ten-page dispatch was written in three parts during what seems to have been two emotionally wrought days. The letter was never sent, and its recipient remains the subject of scholarly speculation.
How Do I Love Thee…
History is filled with written romantic exchanges. And, from poets to politicians, these letters are more than declarations of love. They are intimate relationships evolving through the written word.
When I come back from seeing you, and think over it all, there never is a least word of yours I could not occupy myself with, and wish to return to you with some … not to say, all … the thoughts and fancies it is sure to call out of me. There is nothing in you that does not draw out all of me. You possess me, dearest … and there is no help for the expressing it all, no voice nor hand, but these of mine which shrink and turn away from the attempt. So you must go on, patiently, knowing me more and more, and your entire power on me, and I will console myself, to the full extent, with your knowledge- penetration, intuition- somehow I must believe you can get to what is here, in me, without the pretence of my telling or writing it.Robert Browning to Elizabeth Barret, Post-mark November 10, 1845. The Gutenberg Project e-Book
Exchanging over 574 letters in under two years, Victorian-era poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning fell in love as they wrote and shared their thoughts and ideas on writing and philosophy. From his first letter of introduction in which Robert writes, “I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett…,” to the last note she pens to him just before they flee to Italy, their correspondence portrays their courtship, their love, and their forbidden marriage. Digitized versions of the Brownings’ original letters have been made available and can be found online through Baylor University Libraries, and transcriptions are available at The Gutenberg Project.
Another literary love story that played out through written communication was that of famed American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald and his darling Zelda. Having met while Scott was in the army, the two fell in love immediately. While their 20-year marriage was sometimes turbulent, the couple could not bear to be apart.
“Why is there happiness and comfort and excitement where you are and no where else in the world?”Zelda Fitzgerald, Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda: The Love Letters of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald
“Your photograph is all I have: it is with me from the morning when I wake up with a frantic half dream about you to the last moment when I think of you and of death at night.”F Scott Fitzgerald, Dearest Zelda: The Love Letters of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald
A collection of their 333 letters can be found in Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda, The Love Letters of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Fitzgerald, Jackson R. Bryer (Editor), Cathy W. Barks (Editor).
Nobel Prize-winning novelist Ernest Hemingway, known for his adventurous lifestyle and enduring masculinity, is also remembered for the extraordinary women he loved. Through 61 letters that spanned 10 years, Hemingway and the legendary actress Marlene Dietrich shared an intimate and flirtatious affection for each other, yet their endearing friendship remained platonic.
“Dearest Marlene: I always love you and admire you and I have all sorts of mixed up feelings about you […] please know that I love you always and forget you sometimes as I forget my heart beats. But it beats always.”
Behind Every Great Man…
THE WORLD of politics has its own fair share of renowned communiqués des amoureux. While French military leader and emperor Napoleon Bonaparte is remembered for his cunning and ruthless tactics, he is also known for the passionate love he had for his first wife, Josephine. His letters to her are some of the most romantic of all time.
“Ever since I left you, I have been sad. I am only happy when by your side. Ceaselessly I recall your kisses, your tears, your enchanting jealousy; and the charms of the incomparable Joséphine keep constantly alight a bright and burning flame in my heart and senses. When, free from every worry, from all business, shall I spend all my moments by your side, to have nothing to do but to love you, and to prove it to you? I shall send your horse, but I am hoping that you will soon be able to rejoin me. I thought I loved you some days ago; but, since I saw you, I feel that I love you even a thousand times more.”
* From a letter from Napolean Bonapart to Josephine as translated by Henry Fuljambe Hall in 1901, from the original French
The Foundations of Love
In U.S. history, 2nd President John Adams and his wife Abigail are perhaps the most prolific writers of love letters in political history. Their correspondence is filled with loving sentiments and intellectual sophistication as they debate public policy and the road to Independence. The President and his first lady went to great lengths to preserve their letters for future readers. For nearly 40 years, the Adams’ exchanged more than 1000 letters. Archival information on President Adam’s papers can be found online at the National Archives.
In more recent times, late U.S. President George Herbert Walker Bush, while stationed overseas, wrote numerous romantic letters to his then-betrothed, Barbara. Sadly, most of their correspondence was lost during a move soon after they were married. The one letter that did survive conveys George’s overwhelming joy upon the announcement of their engagement.
“This should be a very easy letter to write- words should come easily and in short it should be simple for me to tell you how desperately happy I was to open the paper and see the announcement of our engagement, but somehow I can’t possibly say all in a letter I should like to. I love you, precious, with all my heart and to know that you love me means my life. How often I have thought about the immeasurable joy that will be ours some day. How lucky our children will be to have a mother like you…”
The Art of Love Letters
With several great works of art entitled The Kiss by artists including Gustav Klimt, Edvard Munch, and Francisco Hayez, it’s clear to see Love itself is a muse. Intensely passionate and often explosive, relationships between artists inspire and fuel their talent.
Iconic and provocative Mexican painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera are considered one of Art history’s most flamboyant and fiery couples. While the pair’s on-again-off-again love affair captivated the world, Kahlo and Rivera created some of Mexico’s most significant works of art. Their relationship’s instability is contrasted by the loving hand-written letters Frida sent to Diego for over 25 years.
Mirror of the night.
Your eyes green swords inside my flesh. waves between our hands. All of you in a space full of sounds â€” in the shade and in the light. You were called AUXOCHROME the one who captures color. I CHROMOPHORE â€” the one who gives color. You are all the combinations of numbers. life. My wish is to understand lines form shades movement. You fulfill and I receive. Your word travels the entirety of space and reaches my cells which are my stars then goes to yours which are my light.”
A collection of Frida Kahlo’s letters appears in
The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait by Carlos Fuentes.
Paint Me a Picture of Love
ACCLAIMED PAINTER Georgia O’Keeffe’s steamy affair and subsequent marriage to renowned American photographer Alfred Stieglitz is portrayed in their affectionate and sometimes spicy letters.
Georgia to Alfred:
“Dearest – my body is simply crazy with wanting you – If you don’t come tomorrow – I don’t see how I can wait for you – I wonder if your body wants mine the way mine wants yours – the kisses – the hotness – the wetness – all melting together – the being held so tight that it hurts – the strangle and the struggle.”
Alfred to Georgia:
“- How I wanted to photograph you – the hands – the mouth – & eyes – & the enveloped in black body – the touch of white – & the throat -“
Often writing 2 or 3 times a day, their letters amassed to a total of more than 5,000. From writing about mundane matters to more sultry situations, the passion Georgia and Alfred felt is embedded in their written words and, perhaps, in her more figurative flower paintings.
* UNITED STATES OF AMERICA – CIRCA 2002: A stamp printed in the USA shows Photo by Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), Hands and Thimble, series featuring hands of Georgia O’Keeffe, Masters of American Photography, circa 2002
What a Good Thing They Had
In music, the legendary Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash shared a love that stood the test of life. Many of their songs were born of the troubles they endured and the deep love the pair shared. In a message to June on her 65th birthday, John wrote:
“Happy Birthday Princess,
We get old and get use to each other. We think alike.
We read each others minds. We know what the other wants without asking. Sometimes we irritate each other a little bit. Maybe sometimes take each other for granted.
But once in awhile, like today, I meditate on it and realize how lucky I am to share my life with the greatest woman I ever met. You still fascinate and inspire me.”
John and June were married for more than 30 years.
Let Your Love Shine Through
As we’ve seen, a love letter is not necessarily a highly crafted piece of prose. You can open your heart and throw caution- and, yes, even, grammar– to the wind. Let your honest feelings come forth. Tell your love how they make you feel, what you admire about them, and express what they mean to you. Because a love letter is one of the most romantic ways to let your steadfast love shine through.
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Many thanks to the following sources: Austen, Brainpickings, CNN, Glamour, Independent, Insider, invaluable, masslive, NYT, ScoopWhoop
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