HOW DO I love thee . . .? How do I tell you in writing how I do love thee? How do I put my most intimate feelings in writing? How do I write a letter, let alone a love letter? How in the world did Elizabeth Barrett Browning do it?
In a rushed world of telephones and faxes, that most graceful and genteel art of communicating passion through letters seems increasingly rare -- and increasingly difficult. (Think, when was the last time you wrote any letter? Not a note on the windshield of the car in your parking space. Not a memo to your boss. Not a Federal Express order. A letter -- with words and thoughts and feelings.)
And now, here it is, Valentine's Day . . . How do you say you love him/her? Roses, balloons and singing telegrams are effective, no doubt -- as would be diamonds, emeralds and furs -- but a love letter would be so romantic.
"I see people standing in the store and reading card after card and saying 'No, not right. No, this one's not right.' And it would be so much better and so much more romantic to take the time to say what you mean," says Ellen Kreidman, author of "Light His Fire" and most recently "Light Her Fire" (Dell $4.99).
Just do it, suggests Fred Guy, chairman of the history and philosophy department at the University of Baltimore, who has not only done historical research on relationships but also has written and received love letters himself.
"We have become a fairly lazy society, especially visually -- technology has hastened that -- and now we don't take the time and take the effort to express ourselves in any way, much less romantically."
"It has been the telephone, I think, that has killed the love letter," says David Bergman, professor of English at Towson State University, who also has written the occasional romantic note. "Love letters have always been an expression of the things you cannot -- and would not -- say face to face. Now you can just phone."
If the thought of penning flowery and sentimental verse to the one you adore gives you the chills, consider: Historically, men and women had far more practice in written communications, says Allison Kyle Leopold, author of "Victorian Keepsakes: Select Expressions of Affectionate Regard From The Romantic 19th Century."
In years gone by "they were much more accustomed to writing letters: of introduction, of love, to school friends. They wrote many, many more letters than we do." But, she added, "The love letter had to be the most carefully composed because this was a letter that was going to be saved. And possibly if the relationship didn't work out as one hoped, you might regret what you had said."
It wasn't long ago at all that men and women, deprived of easy access to car phones, faxes and personal ads, wrote love letters in abundance, Mr. Guy says. For example, European philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) wrote 1,700 love letters to Lady Ottoline Morrell alone, he says. And she was but one of his 10 or so mistresses and four wives.
Perhaps the first step, after gathering pen and paper, is to forget all you've heard about love letters, says Ms. Leopold. "Forget the mystique: Few of us are going to live up to the Brownings and their love letters."
The next step may be to relax and to envision what in particular it is you love about the other person, says Mr. Bergman, who teaches poetry. "My students write lots of love poems and usually what happens is that the poems could be to anyone. My advice is to stick closely to the details of their lives. It's the homely detail that often is the most romantic."
And perhaps most importantly, the idea is to express honest emotion rather than to impress with absurd flattery and exaggeration: "In the great love letters, there's an honesty to their sentiments that crosses the centuries," Ms. Leopold says.
If you find yourself mooning about with pen in hand and little on paper, take heart, says Ms. Leopold. Despite all that practice, even Victorian letter-writers occasionally faced writers' block. "Were they really that eloquent?" she asks. Perhaps not. "A lot of the popular etiquette books of the time had careful instructions on how to write letters. And there were little books called 'The Valentine Writers,' that cost a few pennies and you could copy a verse."
But for those who absolutely cannot find words to describe their love, a 6-month-old Columbia business, the Modern Scribe, is willing to act as Muse -- for a price. The idea is to provide "a service that's more personalized than a greeting card," says Bruce Keifer, an owner. A love letter is "an elegant kind of product."
After interviewing the would-be letter writer to "establish rapport," says Mr. Keifer, the Modern Scribe will write a personalized love letter for $35 or under (calligraphy costs more). The sender may also write the letter in his or her own hand.
Commissioning a love letter shows the loved one he is not taken for granted, suggests Mr. Keifer. "We always think, 'Quick, get the card and just give it to him and then you don't have to worry about it.' This shows you have taken the time."
Frankly, however, elegant stationery, flowery sentiments, perfect prose, timeless verse isn't really what's meaningful and marvelous about a love letter, says romance novelist Nora Roberts.
For years she has kept, crumpled in her wallet, a love letter of sorts.
"I have this grocery list my husband wrote years ago," she says. On the list, "in with the potatoes and the cans of soup, there's a little heart and it says 'I love you.' "
She has kept it, she says, because "the written word is more powerful than anything else."
Besides, she adds, the bottom line is: "He said he loves me and I've got it in writing."