When it comes to the greatest love letters ever written, many like to credit those extraordinary intellects of the 12th century, Peter Abelard and his gifted pupil and lover, Heloise. The besotted pair, whose passionate trysts included making love in a corner of the refectory of the convent in which Heloise had been cloistered, were reduced to expressing their affection via written words after Abelard was castrated by Heloise’s enraged uncle (as he recounts to a friend in the aptly titled letter, “Historia calamitatum”).
Out of respect (or perhaps in deference to his deleted part), Heloise addresses him only as Abelard, but the letters Peter-less Abelard and Heloise exchanged lamenting their predicament offer resplendent examples of the art of translating love into language. “Your looks were the beginning of my guilt;” wrote Abelard, “your eyes, your discourse, pierced my heart; and in spite of that ambition and glory which tried to make a defense, love was soon the master.”
Heloise is less abstract: “I call God to witness, if Augustus, ruling over the whole world, were to deem me worthy of the honour of marriage, and to confirm the whole world to me, to be ruled by me forever, dearer to me and of greater dignity would it seem to be called thy strumpet than his empress.”
(While it’s tempting to use Heloise and Abelard as a model, each couple invents its own vocabulary of desire. Napoleon, for example, presumed upon some private understanding when his courier presented a hastily written love note to Josephine saying that he would return to the capital in two weeks, and imploring her, “Don’t bathe.”)
Even while lacking both Abelard’s intellect and Napoleon’s tastes, it’s possible to immortalize one’s passion in the epistolary form. But to inscribe your love upon the human heart, you must attend carefully to every detail of the letter with which you convey your affection.
The back of a cocktail napkin may have been sufficient, on occasion, to arouse the interest of the unescorted drinker beside you at the bar with a scrawled vulgarity followed by a question mark. But for a love letter, don’t depend upon paper that’s provided to sop up spilled beer. Get yourself instead to a stationer, where you should select a sheet of hand-pressed, deckle-edged 100 percent cotton paper.
The grain of such stationery, designed like your note to be neither glossy nor slick, hints at your character and may (if Freud wasn’t totally wrong) also subliminally suggest to your beloved those other cotton sheets you hope to share. In fact, all the characteristics of such fine paper commend it as the medium of a love letter: its textured face gives purchase to the trembling fingers that will unfold your letter for the first time; later, the slight shadows cast by the raised grain will conceal tear stains after your fickle heart has cooled (as well as disguise the creases when it’s crumpled into a ball to be hurled at your indifference); and finally, the heft of the sheet will withstand the decades of surreptitious rereading, your lover long since having settled for marriage to another, less literate, person.
Warning: Do not succumb to the temptation to employ your own personal stationery imprinted with your name and address. Such handsome lettering makes identification of the author appallingly easy for your lover’s attorney. (Imagine, if you are not quite convinced of the danger, the disapproving nod as each juror examines your name and address engraved above your pledges of undying love—and support.)
Remember, too, that if your beloved actually needs your name and address on such an intimate declaration to distinguish your note from the others he or she regularly receives, perhaps your relationship hasn’t yet matured sufficiently for your emotions to be immortalized in ink.
Henry Ford’s position on the color of the Model T should guide your choice. You can write a love letter in any color you like, so long as it is black.
No, you may not use blue, unless your imagination tends to the pornographic. As William Gass reminds us in his book-length meditation On Being Blue, the color serves as a synonym for the lewd (e.g., a “blue” movie). So if you’re intent upon scorching your lover with salacious prose, you may suggest a certain droll wit by penning your indecencies in blue.
If you sense that might be a mistake, stick to black. Why? Because it is serious, elegant, and stains more deeply and permanently than anything else. So should your words.
Though our age continues its accelerating devolution toward the casual, resist any inclination toward rumpled informality. Opt, as you have in your choice of ink, for the elegant, that style toward which all other styles aspire to be reduced.
What exactly is it? Elegance is a refinement of simplicity rather than a flourish of excess. Elegance prompts wit rather than comedy, sentiment rather than sentimentality. Such restraint is the lens through which all the diffuse sensations of desire are focused into the flame of passion.
When it comes to length, learn from that great epistolary writer Blaise Pascal. In closing an unusually long letter, the French mathematician and philosopher apologizes for its length. “I had not time,” he explains, “to make it shorter.” Similarly, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, in “a plain long letter,” details for the man with whom she would elope a few weeks later the insistence of her father that she marry another. The very length of the letter is offered as proof of her consternation: “My Letter is too long. I beg your pardon. You may see by the situation of my affairs tis without design.” Long-winded elegance is oxymoronic. So length does matter, but in writing, less is more. Distill your prose until just a few sentences can intoxicate their reader.
A minefield for the unwary, the greeting invariably gets one off on the wrong foot. Surely the addressee's name is superfluous in such private correspondence, and mere flattery is more dangerous than one might suppose. The 19th-century British author Thomas Hood must have thought himself the perfect poet in adopting so grandiloquent a tone when he opened a love letter to his wife with "My own dearest and best." Unfortunately, Mrs. Hood, if well educated, would have recalled that the use of the superlative is reserved for comparisons of three or more. The question of which other two or more ladies Hood had found in his experience to be deficient to his spouse may have nagged at her imagination and spoiled the effect he sought. Avoid the temptation of bombast.
But if you nonetheless insist upon a formal salutation, unrestrained adulation may be your best course. Consider the example elicited by Martha Blount. The rumored mistress of Alexander Pope risked the wrath of the Wasp of Twickenham when she addressed him as “Dear Creature.” Charmed, however, the poet responded in a letter beginning with the simple but always effective, “Most Divine!” Even an excessively scrupulous lover would not likely object to your plagiarism of such an opening nor find offense in the comparison.
We call it the body of the love letter for good reason, but recipients won’t necessarily be moved by your appeals to their physical parts. Even four centuries later, Henry's confession to Anne Boleyn of his royal wish to find himself “in my Sweethearts Armes whose pritty Duckys I trust shortly to kysse” still sounds cringingly silly.
So pay attention to your words. Remember, it’s “scent,” not “odor.” Your beloved doesn’t “smell” good; her “fragrance” is enchanting.
If you find yourself stuck, begin with a quotation. Shakespeare is a safe bet, especially his Twelfth Night, in which one woman, disguised as a man, woos another woman on behalf of the actual man the first woman secretly loves. Yes, it's complicated, but you can learn from the Bard’s play how a woman might woo if she were a man—an invaluable lesson in imagining what the object of your affections wants to hear.
And, even if you have a knack for them, no pornographic drawings.
Ulysses S. Grant peppered his love letters to Julia Dent with blank spaces, which, he was forced to explain to the baffled lady, were an attempt to suggest feelings that words could never express. It worked for Grant, who married Miss Dent after four years of courtship. It might work for you.
Use metaphor, not euphemism. If you don’t know what a metaphor is, rent Il Postino. In the film, the exiled poet Pablo Neruda explains the concept to his postman, and the metaphors invented by Mario, the tongue-tied mailman, win the heart of his gorgeous Beatrice.
Neruda's own poetry is also an invaluable trove. His book Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair is full of examples (and its final song may prove of comfort if your letter fails).
A few rules apply. No cute goofiness. No financial metaphors, particularly employing the conceit of what an excellent investment your lover is. Food is a good choice, but be careful. Fashionable vegetables may be all the rage at that little bistro where you take your beloved after a film like Il Postino, but a fiddlehead fern may be more attractive on the plate than on the page.
If your lover is female, you can compare her to a flower. Jorge Luis Borges, always intrigued by labyrinths, reminds us that one of the immortal metaphors of poetry pairs a woman with a flower. You should realize, though, that roses (and oysters, for that matter) are associated with love in part because of their physical resemblance to a particular part of a the female anatomy. When Bobby Burns sings, “O, my luve’s like a red, red rose,” he’s speaking literally as well as figuratively. So consider carefully all the implications of the metaphors you strew.
Fernando Pessoa, the great Portuguese poet, insists that immortality depends upon the grammarians. He knows what he’s talking about.
Consider the case of Confederate officer William F. Testerman, for example, who penned these concluding sentences to his beloved: “Direct your letters as before and dont forget your best friend so I will end my few lines but my love to you has no End remember me as ever your love and friend. Excuse bad riting.” Perhaps Miss Jane Davis, to whom the soldier's letter was addressed, forgave his prose. He did, after all, write from the battlefield. But you, in composing your love letter, seek to make eloquent those reasons of the heart most resistant to glib formulation. “Bad riting” won't ease your task.
Make subjects agree with verbs, and pronouns, with their antecedents. Do not say, “Everyone love their mother, and I love you.” (Actually, there are quite a few reasons not to put that in a love letter.) Proofread. Then proofread again.
Be extravagant. As much as you might mean it, don’t end with “Sincerely,” “Cordially,” “Affectionately,” “All best wishes” or “Yours truly.” Their punctilious formality smacks of someone who wears wing tips to bed. “Your humble servant” is appropriate, but only for certain kinds of relationships. Something closer to “Truly, Madly, Deeply,” the title of the British film about undying (for awhile) love, might do.
On the other hand, if you’ve done your job up till the last sentence of so intimate a letter, the swooning reader won’t notice the omission of this epistolary convention. Be bold. Skip it.
If you can’t bring yourself to close without a signature, limit yourself to your first initial. And try to be illegible here. There’s no reason to make the job easier for a lawyer someday.
Avoid overnight delivery services; they make you look too anxious. And, contradictorily, they take too long. Instead, bribe whomever you must to have the letter placed directly upon the beloved's pillow.
Accepting an Answer
Let your lover express gratitude without interruption. There should be nothing left for you to say, anyway, and no improvisation will match the perfectly crafted sentences of the letter that has brought you to what ancient poets called, not without reason, the bower of happiness.