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Malcolm Guite picks up his pen, and remembers men of letters

16 February 2018

Malcolm Guite picks up his pen, and remembers men of letters

I STILL like to write some things by hand, though my handwriting is not very good.

There is something in the forming of the letters themselves, in the contrast of ink and paper, and maybe some muscle-memory that engages a connection with one’s own deep past, with the child first learning to form these letters, and perhaps with the deeper past of our culture, with the whole long beautiful history of literacy.

I was moved to discover that, at the height of his fame, Charles Dickens could still consciously remember being taught by his mother to write. He said to his friend, and future biographer, John Forster: “I faintly remember her teaching me the alphabet; and when I look upon the fat black letters in the primer, the puzzling novelty of their shapes, the easy good nature of ‘O’ and ‘S’ always seem to present themselves before me as they used to do.”

It’s wonderful to be given this glimpse of the moment Dickens becomes, in every sense, a writer. Before the trauma of the blacking factory, before the parliamentary reporting, before the first sketches by Boz, here he is, a little child carefully forming the letters O and S, and already, in imagination, endowing these characters with character, with the “easy good nature” that would be made immortal in Mr Pickwick.

And for Dickens, the sheer continuity of writing would have been clearer, since he continued throughout life to write all his novels on paper with a dip pen — as did C. S. Lewis, long after fountain pens were invented; for Lewis maintained that the pause to lift the pen and to dip it in ink every few lines gave him just the time he needed to revolve his thoughts and continue.

Hilaire Belloc, by contrast, celebrated his fountain pen as “a pen that runs straight away like a willing horse, or a jolly little ship”. But all these writers were doing something in continuity with their childhood, whereas we, who press virtual keys on flat screens, have broken that line.

Dickens was not alone in feeling that the letters themselves had character, that there was something alive and magical about them. Rimbaud’s famous sonnet about vowels has a similar sense, about the letters themselves; a vivid synesthesia, giving each vowel a different colour:

A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu: voyelles.

It is interesting that his O is blue, like the beautiful O of the earth, glimpsed from the moon 85 years later.

In his poem “Alphabets”, Seamus Heaney, too, records vivid memories of learning his letters, though characteristically he looks from the letter to the world itself, and to the whole world as a kind of divine letter:

Smells of inkwells rise in the classroom hush
A globe in the window tilts like a coloured ‘O’

For Christian writers, there is a still deeper meaning in the mystery of letters, the spell of spelling: that mystery whereby the world herself and all the letters, the lovely shapes and sounds that she contains, arise out of the Word. As George Herbert put it: “Thy Word is all, if we could spell.”

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