Thank goodness. There are few blessings in growing older, but this has to be one. Who wants to be out there dating in today’s impersonal hook-up culture? (Well, other than you frisky young people.) As I write this nostalgic commentary freighted with remembrance of love’s labors lost, the old song from “Casablanca” reassures me:
You must remember this
A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh.
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by.
To which I say: Maybe, but what about love letters? They were once a fundamental thing. Now I fear that this great literary art form has gone the way of the passenger pigeon or the liberal Republican.
It was not always thus. Once upon a time, a young man had to write romantic letters because he would go off into the service for years and letters were the only means to help fan the flickering candle of love back home.
And you know what? The young woman would keep those letters tied with a pink ribbon in a special box until he returned. Then she would sell them to one of his friends for blackmailing purposes and use the proceeds to go overseas herself.
When asked for an explanation, the young woman would have to explain as kindly as possible that it was his flowery metaphors that put her off — that and the flowery analogies. Ah, those were the days.
What has caused me to think of love letters in the absence of receiving any lately is an AP story concerning 573 love letters exchanged by 19th-century poet Elizabeth Barrett and fellow poet Robert Browning, her future husband.
Here’s an example of a letter written from her to him on June 4, 1846: “You are too perfect, too overcomingly good & tender — dearest you are, & I have no words with which to answer you.”
How sweet! How like something Newt Gingrich, the famous lover and historian, would write to himself — except the part about having no words to answer.
Starting on Valentine’s Day, the story said, the Brownings’ famous love letters would become available online to be viewed just as they were, written with quill pens.
You will note the irony. What has killed the love letter more than any other thing? Surely, online communications and new media.
If Browning and Barrett were hooking up today, I expect they would be sending text messages, perhaps even tweeting.
“Liz, u r gr8,” his thumbs would play as if on an enchanted lyre.
And someone somewhere would weep. But with letter-writing a dying art, how can a young person make his affections known without recourse to writing love letters, the most difficult of the romantic arts next to telling the girl’s father why you stayed out past midnight? And, has the lack of love letters changed the very language of love? I fear so.
I turn to an old joke concerning a young man who seeks to employ pretty phrases to solicit a young woman’s favor. The young man is awkward in the presence of the opposite sex. But he has a worldly pal who has learned girls respond well to colorful conversation. So he instructs his young friend in what to say when next he spies the girl of his dreams.
The girl arrives. “Excuse me,” the novice lover says, with growing confidence, “but I could not help noticing your hair — it is like flaxen gold.” The girl blushes. “Thank you,” she says. “And your blue eyes — your eyes sparkle like limpid pools in a mountain stream.”
The girl smiles coyly, but the boy forgets what else to say and in terror blurts: “Wanna go to da mall?” The moral is that he should have written a letter back when it was still popular. Now, it seems, we are at the mall stage of romantic evolution. Time to round up the usual suspects.
Reg Henry is a columnist or the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.