The swiftness of the spoken word is the exact opposite of the written word – they can be equally destructive (Dear John….Goodbye) or uplifting (how can I comfort you) but in their delivery we have the contrast of the lightening strike against the flight of a butterfly.
In an urban setting we are bombarded with the written word in virtually every aspect of our daily lives; the back of a bus, the wall up he escalator, wayside pulpit, hoarding or government health warning on a cigarette packet. Unless we are seeking direction most of the time we manage to blank out the dross. Even in the haven of our home the deluge continues; texts, email, Spam, junk-mail, internet, television some welcome but the majority an intrusion. Am I alone when I am delighted to receive a hand written card or letter from a friend? It gets my attention. I am aware that even as I write this I am adding to the very thing I am commenting on. Even the greatest poetry, sonnet or scripture can become like wall paper.
Whether the purpose for the written script is to be read, spoken, recited or sung the very act of putting pen to paper, or in this day and age finger to keyboard, the process is slower and the writer thinks about the words they will use to express themselves.
It is the purpose of the task and the recipient that will dictate the depth of thought which will go into any written work whether a note for the milkman (Yes we still have milk men in some parts of the UK), or a letter of condolence (to bring comfort to those in pain).
Of the Great War (first world war) the poet soldier Wilfred Owen 1893 – 1918 wrote:
“If in some smothering dream you too could pace behind the wagon that we flung him in, and watch the white eyes writhing in his face, his hanging face, like a devil sick with sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud, of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, my friend, you would not tell with such high zest to children ardent for some desperate glory, the old lie, Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori.” (It is sweet and right to die for one’s country).
On the eve of the second world war Winston Churchill broadcasting to the US and Britain in 1938 said in the defence of freedom and peace “It is this very conflict of spiritual and moral ideas which gives the free countries a great part of their strength. You see these dictators on their pedestals, surrounded by the bayonets of their soldiers and the truncheons of their police. On all sides they are guarded by masses of armed men, cannons, aeroplanes, fortifications, and the like – they boast and vaunt themselves before the world, yet in their hearts there is unspoken fear. They are afraid of words and thoughts; words spoken abroad, thoughts stirring at home – all the more powerful because forbidden – terrify them. A little mouse of thought appears in the room, and even the mightiest potentates are thrown into panic. They make frantic efforts to bar our thoughts and words; they are afraid of the workings of the human mind. Cannons, airplanes, they can manufacture in large quantities; but how are they to quell the natural promptings of human nature, which after all these centuries of trial and progress has inherited a whole armoury of potent and indestructible knowledge?”
In the fight against racism Martin Luther King 1929 – 1968 declared ‘To our most bitter opponents we say, ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-co-operation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is co-operation with good, and so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country, and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, but we’ll still love you. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.’
These words inspired nations. I could have quoted Shakespeare but I plucked three men from the twentieth century from different generations whose words, composed like a symphony, changed world events. There are other equally evocative poems by Owen and I could have chosen the “We will fight them on the beaches” from Churchill or “I had a dream” from Luther King, they would have been equally as powerful and inspirational also influencing the course of history.
These men thought about their every word, weighed them, polished every sentence for they knew the power of words, reaching out to touch the hearts and minds of men and women alike.
Listen to the whole of Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum est Pro patria mori.” On uTube
Photograph courtesy of Christopher Kennedy Facebook Vintage Post Card Group