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On Letter-writing Post by :zeelver Category :Essays Author :A. G. Gardiner Date :October 2011 Read :15599

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On Letter-writing

Two soldiers, evidently brothers, stood at the door of the railway carriage--one inside the compartment, the other on the platform.

"Now, you won't forget to write, Bill," said the latter.

"No," said Bill. "I shall be back at--tonight, and I'll write all round to-morrow. But, lor, what a job. There's mother and the missus and Bob and Sarah and Aunt Jane and Uncle Jim, and--well, you know the lot. You've had to do it, Sam."

"Yes," said Sam, ruefully; "it's a fair teaser."

"And if you write to one and miss another they're offended," continued Bill. "But I always mention all of 'em. I say 'love to Sarah,' and 'hope Aunt Jane's cold's better,' and that sort of thing, and that fills out a page. But I'm blowed if I can find anything else to say. I just begin 'hoping this finds you well, as it leaves me at present,' and then I'm done. What else is there to say?"

"Nothing," said Sam, mournfully. "I just sit and scratch my head over the blessed paper, but nothing'll come. Seems as though my head's as empty as a drum."

"Same here. 'Tisn't like writing love-letters. When I was up to that game 'twas easy enough. When I got stuck I just put in half a page of crosses, and that filled up fine. But writing to mother and the missus and Sarah and Jim and the rest is different. You can't fill up with crosses. It would look ridiklus."

"It would," said Sam.

Then the train began to move, and the soldier in the train sank back on his seat, took out a cigarette, and began to smoke. I found he had been twice out at the front, and was now home on sick leave. He had been at the battle of Mons, through the retreat to the Marne, the advance to the Aisne, the first battle of Ypres, and the fighting at Festubert. In a word, he had seen some of the greatest events in the world's history, face to face, and yet he confessed that when he came to writing a letter, even to his wife, he could find nothing to say. He was in the position of the lady mentioned by Horace Walpole, whose letter to her husband began and ended thus: "I write to you because I have nothing to do: I finish because I have nothing to say."

I suppose there has never been so much letter-writing in the world as is going on to-day, and much of it is good writing, as the papers show. But the case of my companion in the train is the case of thousands and tens of thousands of young fellows who for the first time in their lives want to write and discover that they have no gift of self-expression. It is not that they are stupid. It is that somehow the act of writing paralyses them. They cannot condense the atmosphere in which they live to the concrete word. You have to draw them out. They need a friendly lead. When they have got that they can talk well enough, but without it they are dumb.

In the great sense letter-writing is no doubt a lost art. It was killed by the penny post and modern hurry. When Madame de Sevigny, Cowper, Horace Walpole, Byron, Lamb, and the Carlyles wrote their immortal letters the world was a leisurely place where there was time to indulge in the luxury of writing to your friends. And the cost of franking a letter made that letter a serious affair. If you could only send a letter once in a month or six months, and then at heavy expense, it became a matter of first-rate consequence. The poor, of course, couldn't enjoy the luxury of letter-writing at all. De Quincey tells us how the dalesmen of Lakeland a century ago used to dodge the postal charges. The letter that came by stage coach was received at the door by the poor mother, who glanced at the superscription, saw from a certain agreed sign on it that Tom or Jim was well, and handed it back to the carrier unopened. In those days a letter was an event.

Now when you can send a letter half round the globe for a penny, and when the postman calls half a dozen times a day, few of us take letter-writing seriously. Carlyle saw that the advent of the penny post would kill the letter by making it cheap. "I shall send a penny letter next time," he wrote to his mother when the cheap postage was about to come in, and he foretold that people would not bother to write good letters when they could send them for next to nothing. He was right, and the telegraph, the telephone, and the postcard have completed the destruction of the art of letter-writing. It is the difficulty or the scarcity of a thing that makes it treasured. If diamonds were as plentiful as pebbles we shouldn't stoop to pick them up.

But the case of Bill and Sam and thousands of their comrades to-day is different. They don't want to write literary letters, but they do want to tell the folks at home something about their life and the great things of which they are a part. But the great things are too great for them. They cannot put them into words. And they ought not to try, for the secret of letter-writing is intimate triviality. Bill could not have described the retreat from Mons; but he could have told, as he told me, about the blister he got on his heel, how he hungered for a smoke, how he marched and marched until he fell asleep marching, how he lost his pal at Le Cateau, and how his boot sole dropped off at Meaux. And through such trivialities he would have given a living picture of the great retreat.

In short, to write a good letter you must approach the job in the lightest and most casual way. You must be personal, not abstract. You must not say, "This is too small a thing to put down." You must say, "This is just the sort of small thing we talk about at home. If I tell them this they will see me, as it were, they'll hear my voice, they'll know what I'm about." That is the purpose of a letter. Keats expresses the idea very well in one of those voluminous letters which he wrote to his brother George and his wife in America and in which he poured out the wealth of family affection which was one of the most amiable features of his character. He has described how he had been to see his mother, how she had laughed at his bad jokes, how they went out to tea at Mrs. Millar's, and how in going they were struck with the light and shade through the gateway at the Horse Guards. And he goes on: "I intend to write you such volumes that it will be impossible for me to keep any order or method in what I write; that will come first which is uppermost in my mind, not that which is uppermost in my heart--besides I should wish to give you a picture of our lives here whenever by a touch I can do it; even as you must see by the last sentence our walk past Whitehall all in good health and spirits--this I am certain of because I felt so much pleasure from the simple idea of your playing a game of cricket."

There is the recipe by one of the masters of the craft. A letter written in this vein annihilates distance; it continues the personal gossip, the intimate communion, that has been interrupted by separation; it preserves one's presence in absence. It cannot be too simple, too commonplace, too colloquial. Its familiarity is not its weakness, but its supreme virtue. If it attempts to be orderly and stately and elaborate, it may be a good essay, but it will certainly be a bad letter.

(The end)
A. G. Gardiner's essay: On Letter-Writing

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