March 07, 2014

The awful origin of “The pen is mightier than the sword.”


On March 7, 1839 the play Richelieu: or, the Conspiracy, by the British politician and author, Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, premiered at the Covent Garden Theatre in London.

Few people today have heard of this play. But everyone knows one of the lines in it: “The pen is mightier than the sword.”

The basic meaning of this famous quote — that the written word can be mightier than physical force or military power — was not originated by Bulwer-Lytton. There are similar lines in earlier works by various authors.

But Bulwer-Lytton’s play Richelieu is the origin of the version that became a familiar saying.

Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, a.k.a. the 1st Baron of Lytton, is renowned as a writer, but not for being a good writer. He’s renowned for being one of the worst writers in history.

His novels and plays — including Richelieu — are infamously pompous, long-winded and full of badly-constructed language.

The most notorious example is the oft-quoted opening line of his historical novel Paul Clifford (1830), which begins: “It was a dark and stormy night...”

The complete opening line of Paul Clifford is:

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents-except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

That line and the novel are so memorably bad that “It was a dark and stormy night...” became a cliché and joke, even though most people don’t know what it came from.

It has even inspired an annual contest, The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, in which entrants compete to submit the most convoluted and inane opening sentence for a fictional work of fiction.

Bulwer-Lytton’s “dark and stormy night” is his most famous bad sentence. But he wrote plenty of others that are equally odd, contorted and hard to fathom.

For example, here’s the full quotation in Act II, Scene II of Richelieu that includes the “pen is mightier” line:

“Beneath the rule of men entirely great,
The pen is mightier than the sword. Behold
The arch-enchanter’s wand — itself a nothing,
But taking sorcery from the master-hand
To paralyze the Caesars, and to strike
The loud earth breathless! Take away the sword,
States can be saved without it!”

If that strikes you as amazingly confusing and pretentious, then you’re not alone.

However, we have to give Bulwer-Lytton his due. He did create several famous quotes, including “the pen is mightier than the sword” — words that are still used and repurposed today.

Of course, as you probably know, his pen and sword aphorism is also the basis for a popular nudge-nudge, wink-wink pun.

If you don’t know the pun I’m talking about, never mind. It’s not actually that funny, even though a lot of us sniggered at it when we were kids.

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