Regular readers know I am a great fan of Patrick O’Brian and his Aubrey-Maturin series of novels. I am again reading the lot one after another and today I happened to come across one of those references to good handwriting in ‘The Commodore’. In the days O’Brian is writing about, handwriting was used in many official naval documents: ship’s logs, maps, Admiralty orders, pretty much everything, and the ability to write in a good hand was much valued. Perhaps it was so in Plato’s time also.
Stephen said, ‘Will I tell you another of Plato’s observations?’
‘Pray do,’ said Jack, his smile briefly returning.
‘It should please you, since you have a very pretty hand. Hincksey quoted it when I dined with him in London and we were discussing the bill of fare: “Calligraphy,” said Plato, “is the physical manifestation of an architecture of the soul.” That being so, mine must be a turf-and-wattle kind of soul, since my handwriting would be disowned by a backward cat; whereas yours, particularly on your charts, has a most elegant flow and clarity, the outward form of a soul that might have conceived the Parthenon.’
Jack made a civil bow, and pudding came in: spotted dog.
Of course, Stephen is a doctor and who ever heard of a doctor with good handwriting. And if anything, Stephen is the proof that Plato’s observation does not always stand the test. But whereas a bad hand is not always a condemnation, a good hand is certainly always a recommendation.
Ever since time began, man felt the need to express all his thoughts, feelings and desires within the format of the written word. It is very likely that man evolved the concept of writing long before he established the capacity for any form of intelligibly audible exposition.
The earliest forms of writing were more than likely simplistic scratchings on clay, sand or rock. Recently, certain clay tokens were found which had the possibility of being the earliest example of written communication in ancient times. In the prehistoric times, certain pictograms upon numerous cave walls have been collectively acknowledged to be the fundamental precipitators of the written word as we know it today. Interestingly enough, the pictures operated with the same underlying compulsions which would have spawned the written word; the need to convey thoughts, ideas and the ability to mark and record daily business transactions in a tangible and understandable medium. For the longest time, writing consisted of pictographs recorded on malleable substances such as clay or soft rock. Cuneiform and ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics combined elements of pictures and words to express thoughts as fully as possible in what is considered some of the most advanced writing systems at those times. In the Orient, however, the standard for the written characters of most Oriental cultures stems directly from one source... the Chinese; whose influence is established in the writing systems of both Vietnam and Japan.
The Evolution of Writing
Writing would then continue to evolve in varying states from culture to culture. The Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and many other cultures would go on to develop extremely sophisticated writing systems, but with a rudimentary element of established format which would allow for easier accessibility to many as opposed to just a few specialized learners. In addition, the change in writing materials, from papyrus and parchment to the invention of paper in about 100 A.D., writing would become more widespread and less time consuming. (When compared to the previous materials available, that is.) The Eastern cultures, in particular, would yield some of the most dynamic writings and evolution of complex writing systems ever known. The Arab culture, with its particularly difficult codex of written language, relied on Western cultures to simplify its writings into something more manageable.
The continuation of the evolution of writing would eventually yield one of man's most significant tools for written communication... a standardized Alphabet representative of a variety of sounds established by a series of vowels and consonants. With the advent of the Alphabet, sounds could be more easily conveyed into a tangible medium for a more comprehensive understanding of what the written text represented. Roughly about the fourth millennium, there are a number of examples of such systems being used in the writing of those times, but it wasn't until about 1850 B.C. that a formally standardized Alphabet was used for purely such a purpose. And in about 100 A.D., the Romans gave us what would eventually become the single most recognized system of writing in the world, our modern 26 letter Alphabet.
Who says the Romans never did anything for anyone?
Image: The Rosetta Stone on display at the British Museum since 1802 by Chris Devers
Well shipmates, it seems the subject of handwriting is the talk of the town right now. Today Marketwatch (one of my favourite financial hangouts) published this video entitled ‘Write on: Wendy Bounds discusses the fading art of handwriting, pointing out that new research shows it can benefit children's motor skills and their ability to compose ideas and achieve goals throughout life’. No kidding? Does that mean the old ways are sometimes better than the new ways?
Here are some quotes about letter-writing, by which we mean writing letters by hand in the ‘old-fashioned’ way. They follow on very nicely from my post of Umberto Eco’s The lost art of handwriting and my own thoughts on the matter here and here.
I like the one about the old hotel.
In an age like ours, which is not given to letter-writing, we forget what an important part it used to play in people's lives. Anatole Broyard
It seems a long time since the morning mail could be called correspondence. Jacques Barzun
Take pains ... to write a neat round, plain hand, and you will find it a great convenience through life to write a small and compact hand as well as a fair and legible one. Thomas Jefferson
I stayed in a really old hotel last night. They sent me a wake-up letter. Steven Wright
In a man's letters you know, Madam, his soul lies naked, his letters are only the mirror of his breast, whatever passes within him is shown undisguised in its natural process. Nothing is inverted, nothing distorted, you see systems in their elements, you discover actions in their motives. Samuel Johnson
When he wrote a letter, he would put that which was most material in the postscript, as if it had been a by-matter. Francis Bacon
In the midst of great joy do not promise to give a man anything; in the midst of great anger do not answer a man's letter. Chinese proverb
The word that is heard perishes, but the letter that is written remains. Proverbs
You don't know a woman until you have a letter from her. Ada Leverson
To find out your real opinion of someone, judge the impression you have when you first see a letter from them. Arthur Schopenhauer
Letter writing is the only device for combining solitude with good company. Lord Byron
One good thing about not seeing you is that I can write you letters. Svetlana Alliluveya
Letters have to pass two tests before they can be classed as good: they must express the personality both of the writer and of the recipient. E. M. Forster
I have received no more than one or two letters in my life that were worth the postage. Henry David Thoreau
Please write again soon. Though my own life is filled with activity, letters encourage momentary escape into others lives and I come back to my own with greater contentment. Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey
Sir, more than kisses, letters mingle souls; for, thus friends absent speak. John Donne
A letter is a blessing, a great and all-too-rare privilege that can turn a private moment into an exalted experience. Alexandra Stoddard
We lay aside letters never to read them again, and at last we destroy them out of discretion, and so disappears the most beautiful, the most immediate breath of life, irrecoverable for ourselves and for others. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
A letter always seemed to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend. Emily Dickinson
Letters are among the most significant memorial a person can leave behind them. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Letters are like wine; if they are sound they ripen with keeping. A man should lay down letters as he does a cellar of wine. Samuel Butler
The tender word forgotten,
The letter you did not write,
The flower you might have sent, dear,
Are your haunting ghosts tonight. Margeret Elizabeth Sangster
It does me good to write a letter which is not a response to a demand, a gratuitous letter, so to speak, which has accumulated in me like the waters of a reservoir. Henry Miller
I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had the time to make it shorter. Blaise Pascal
A person who can write a long letter with ease, cannot write ill. Jane Austen
Letter writing is an excellent way of slowing down this lunatic helterskelter universe long enough to gather one’s thoughts. Nick Bantock
Poets don’t draw. They unravel their handwriting and then tie it up again, but differently. Jean Cocteau
A Letter is a Joy of Earth -
It is denied the Gods. Emily Dickinson
Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful, for beauty is God's handwriting. Ralph Waldo Emerson
I am a little pencil in the hand of a writing God who is sending a love letter to the world. Mother Theresa