I have a professed love of letter writing. Frankly, I believe it is a dying art, but it is one that should be rescued from this terminal malaise.
Letters provide the opportunity to visually express thoughts and emotions; they stimulate the imagination and memory; they require thought, intention and time.
There is nothing more romantic than a love letter, even if that letter is written to a lost lover and placed on his lifeless chest before burial.
Nearly a decade ago, a historic discovery was made when archaeologists unearthed a Korean tomb in which resided a mummified man, well preserved and enclosed with a moving eulogy penned by his pregnant wife.
The letter was discovered under layers of his clothing atop his chest, close to his heart.
Poignant does not even begin to describe the emotions evoked by this tale. I visualize Eung-Tae’s heartbroken widow bent over her writing table, tears streaming down her face, as she pours out her heart and soul lamenting the loss of her truest love, accusing him of betraying their sworn oath, asking herself, wondering, “How could you go ahead of me?”
This letter unwittingly offers us a glimpse into the inner turmoil of a woman who feels she has lost her place in the world. Her words reach forward five centuries to draw us back to her world.
To Won’s Father
June 1, 1586
You always said, “Dear, let’s live together until our hair turns gray and die on the same day.” How could you pass away without me? Who should I and our little boy listen to and how should we live? How could you go ahead of me?
How did you bring your heart to me and how did I bring my heart to you? Whenever we lay down together you always told me, “Dear, do other people cherish and love each other like we do? Are they really like us?” How could you leave all that behind and go ahead of me?
I just cannot live without you. I just want to go to you. Please take me to where you are. My feelings toward you I cannot forget in this world and my sorrow knows no limit. Where would I put my heart in now and how can I live with the child missing you?
Please look at this letter and tell me in detail in my dreams. Because I want to listen to your saying in detail in my dreams I write this letter and put it in. Look closely and talk to me.
When I give birth to the child in me, who should it call father? Can anyone fathom how I feel? There is no tragedy like this under the sky.
You are just in another place, and not in such a deep grief as I am. There is no limit and end [to my sorrows] that I write roughly. Please look closely at this letter and come to me in my dreams and show yourself in detail and tell me. I believe I can see you in my dreams. Come to me secretly and show yourself. There is no limit to what I want to say and I stop here.
~via Archaeology Magazine
The letter has been dated to 1586, decades before the world-renowned tales of romance, heartbreak and tragedy penned by Western Europe’s most famous playwright and poet, William Shakespeare, famous for his love sonnets.
But Shakespeare was not the first figure of historical note to create beautiful images of love and desire.
More than 500 years before The Bard of Avon burst forth (both literally and figuratively) onto the public stage with his tragic tale of forbidden love between Romeo and Juliet, one of history’s most celebrated couples exchanged the words of their hearts and minds in an affair that scandalized Europe.
Abelard was a French philosopher and one of the most celebrated, albeit controversial, thinkers of the era; Heloise was the niece of Canon Fulbert, an important figure in the cathedral of Paris. Fulbert had (in retrospect, unwisely) employed Abelard as a tutor for his young niece. A love affair blossomed. When discovered, the affair of Abelard and Heloise ended in tragedy and a brutal mutilation, and the lovers were permanently separated, spawning their famous correspondence. Heloise writes to her lover and confidant:
I have your picture in my room; I never pass it without stopping to look at it; and yet when you are present with me I scarce ever cast my eyes on it. If a picture, which is but a mute representation of an object, can give such pleasure, what cannot letters inspire? They have souls; they can speak; they have in them all that force which expresses the transports of the heart; they have all the fire of our passions, they can raise them as much as if the persons themselves were present; they have all the tenderness and the delicacy of speech, and sometimes even a boldness of expression beyond it.
~Via: Sacred Texts
How beautiful! Restrained from ever seeing the love of her life again, Heloise finds comfort in the correspondence that, she explains, has the ability to relate the tenderness of her heart and passions—the written word, on occasion, even capable of surpassing speech in its capacity for expression.
Of course, love letters are restricted neither to this millennium nor women. Even powerful statesmen of the ancient period left evidence of their romantic desires.
Gaius Caecilius Cilo, better known as Pliny the Younger, was a lawyer, author, politician and statesman of Ancient Rome. His writings serve as some of the most informative sources for administrative life and culture in the 1st century AD. He also provides history with compelling and complete descriptions of the infamous eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
What Pliny is less well known for is the personal correspondence that passed between him and his wife Calpurnia. She was his third wife, his first two having died childless, and his fondest hopes for his marriage was to provide himself with an heir. He found much more in this unexpected romance. In a letter to his cherished love he tells her:
You kindly tell me my absence very sensibly affects you, and that your only consolation is in conversing with my works, which you frequently substitute in my stead. I am glad that you miss me; I am glad that you find some rest in these alleviations. In return, I read over your letters again and again, and am continually taking them up, as if I had just received them; but, alas! this only stirs in me a keener longing for you; for how sweet must her conversation be whose letters have so many charms? Let me receive them, however, as often as possible, notwithstanding there is still a mixture of pain in the pleasure they afford me. Farewell.
~Source: Project Gutenberg
Although his desire to procreate and ensure his family’s posterity, he loudly proclaimed that his marriage to Calpurnia was more than a mere political or financial arrangement. She was a central figure in his later life.
Longing and despair, courtesy and connection, comfort and pleasure—all expressed through the medium of ink and paper. Love letters are conversations and history is enriched by their existence, allowing us, as outsiders, true glimpses of the worlds, thoughts, dreams and loves of times long past.
Such a rich history of the expression of love in letters!
And yet, even with this bounteous background of literary intercourse supplying a tapestried backdrop of impassioned communication, today we eschew this fine art and are reduced to emails, tweets, instant messages and Facebook relationship status updates.
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Editor: Bryonie Wise
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