Nothing against a passionate text of I ♥ U, but an actual love letter is more likely to set a heart fluttering for its effort, its thoughtfulness and its legacy.
This Friday, Feb. 10, 2012 photo shows a detail of the first love letter sent by poet Robert Browning to poet Elizabeth Barrett in January of 1845, on display at the Margaret Clapp Library on the campus of Wellesley College, in Wellesley, Mass.
In an old song, love letters were written in the sand. In a famous play, a guy with a big nose wrote them to woo a woman on behalf of his loser friend. Before the digital age, romance arrived on pieces of paper that were saved in bundles tied with ribbon.
Some of you have no idea what we’re talking about, do you?
Sad to say, the love letter of romantic lore is disappearing. There are various reasons, but the chief culprit likely is the advance of technology. (It can’t be that we’re less romantic — can it?)
E-mails let us converse across thousands of miles in the time it takes to hit “send.” We can convey affection, even lust, with a particular arrangement of punctuation marks.
We already spend great swaths of time before our computers, laptops or smartphones, so it’s easy to rhapsodize, cut and paste, delete and italicize to our heart’s delight. Some programs even let you convert your typing to “handwriting,” then make a printout that appears as though you actually put pen to paper. (If love is blind, maybe.)
Anna Essendrup, 24, suspects that many of her friends think love letters take too much time — “writing the letter, buying the stamps, finding a mailbox if they can’t mail it directly from home.”
For her, it’s time well-spent.
“Holding something in your hands that your loved one held before gives you a greater connection to the words that were personally written by him,” she said. “Writing letters myself helps me to feel connected to what I’m writing, especially in a world where I am shooting e-mails to co-workers, supervisors, family and friends.”
The Edina woman said she saves the most meaningful of her love letters, tucking them into her pajama drawer or into a box under her bed. Saving the letters has, unexpectedly, helped her cope when a relationship unravels.
“After a bad breakup, they usually go in the campfire or fireplace, which can also be therapeutic.”
‘I love you like guitars’
Absence makes the heart write letters, especially when distance isn’t easily bridged by phone.
The Beatles’ John Lennon was a prolific and passionate writer to his girlfriend, Cynthia Powell, as the band bounced between Liverpool and Hamburg, Germany, in its earliest years. One eight-page missive embellished with drawings is famous for what can only be a rocker’s highest praise: “I love you like guitars.”
Ken Burns’ documentary “The Civil War” brought to light Union officer Sullivan Ballou’s deeply romantic letter to his wife, Sarah.
“Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break,” he wrote.
Perhaps divining his fate, he continued: “But, O Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you … and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.”
Ballou died a week later at the first Battle of Bull Run.
For centuries, war also has inspired chronicles of love.
Shannon Delliger and her wife wrote love letters while Delliger was in basic training, then while deployed in Bosnia. “Let me tell you, those letters meant more to me than ever, especially being away from home for the first time,” Delliger said. Once she even received a “letter in a bottle” — a romantic flourish that probably wouldn’t make it through security these days.
Now back under one roof in Brooklyn Park, the couple find they no longer write love letters as much. “We send quick texts saying ‘I love you’ and cute stuff to make each other’s day, though.”
Note that word: quick.
While speed is a wondrous thing, Janelle Schliep of Apple Valley said there’s nothing like the delicious agony of waiting for a sweetheart’s response to appear in the mailbox. “It’s more exciting,” she said, and far better than getting a text, if for no other reason than there’s “a way lot less LOLs.”
Keepsake? Or time bomb?
If kids wants to see a parent leap across the room in one bound, all they need to do is bring out a bundle of letters they found in the box labeled “old Beanie Babies.”
The letters may not even be all that steamy, but to the recipients, they represent moments that in some ways remain more private than any other.
(We are, of course, assuming that letters from old flames have been extinguished. Or kept in the box labeled “tax returns.”)
With technology, an easily deleted e-mail (or text, tweet, Instagram, gif, hashtag, etc.) leaves no trace, only memories. For many, that’s fine.
Yet Heather Radcliff of North St. Paul remains in love with love letters, finding them not only more personal, but also physical — sometimes in the most sentimental ways.
“There’s also the smell, whether that person is on a battleship and the letter smells of diesel fuel and close quarters, or you can tell they were at a restaurant and it smells like a burger and fries,” she said. “Quaint, perhaps, but lovely.”
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185