Columns > Published on February 14th, 2012

What You Can Learn From Ronald Reagan: A Primer On Love Letters

Digging through some old papers recently, I found a pile of love letters I’d received over the years from old boyfriends, a few admirers, and one guy who could have been considered a stalker. As expected, most of them were pretty bad—riddled with spelling errors and mushy sentiments. I do remember actively mocking a few of the letters with my friends, which, in hindsight, was totally undeserved by the writer. Rereading a few of them, something else occurred to me—they were sincere and brave! Even the boyfriend who misspelled my name on the outside of the letter—a folded piece of college-rule ripped from his poetry class notebook—meant only to impress and endear himself to me. What’s the crime in that? In addition to my own vanity, I’ve held on to them all these years because they remind me that even in our over-analytical, desensitized world, sincere words of affection can mean a whole lot.

Love letters can take a variety of forms: poems, letters, and songs are all pretty standard ways to express your feelings to someone. These days, you could add email, text message, Twitter tweets, and social media posts to that list. With so many instantaneous options, sharing sentiments has never been easier. Whichever format you choose, there are some guidelines you might consider following should you attempt to pen such a communiqué. Unsurprisingly, the basics of good writing are the basics of good love letter writing. Here are a few that I thought were effective.

Be Specific

Whether you compare the object of your love to a summer’s day or to a person eyeballing a catfish at the bottom of a pond (see below), be specific about what exactly you love about this person or the kind of relationship you hope to have with him or her. Specific doesn’t necessarily mean realistic, but it can. No matter what your feelings, you want them to be sincere and to come off that way to the person reading it. Actual observations about the person or a unique fantasy (G or X-rated) that only that person could be a part of or appreciate will likely be better received than generic statements of beauty or general desirability.

Take the lines from the song “Such Great Heights” by The Postal Service:

I am thinking it's a sign
That the freckles in our eyes are mirror images
And when we kiss they're perfectly aligned
I have to speculate
That God himself did make
Us into corresponding shapes
Like puzzle pieces from the clay

It’s clear the writer is well acquainted with the minute anatomy of his Love and is able to conjecture that the symmetry that exists between himself and the beloved is fated. These kinds of details add depth and the sense of true and deep feeling.

Consider another example, the poem "Your Catfish Friend" by Richard Brautigan.

If I were to live my life
in catfish forms
in scaffolds of skin and whiskers
at the bottom of a pond
and you were to come by
one evening
when the moon was shining
down into my dark home
and stand there at the edge
of my affection
and think, "It's beautiful
here by this pond. I wish
somebody loved me,"
I'd love you and be your catfish
friend and drive such lonely
thoughts from your mind
and suddenly you would be
at peace,
and ask yourself, "I wonder
if there are any catfish
in this pond? It seems like
a perfect place for them."

While this poem says little about the actual features or qualities of the beloved, it posits an explicit situation (imaginary though it may be) in which the Lover and the Loved interact with one another in a specific way. The writer creates a moment in which he can comfort and assist the object of his love by removing anxiety and loneliness, fulfilling her (or his) wish to be loved.

In both examples, the sentiments are expressed in such exacting terms as to prove legitimate. The reader of these, whether the subject of the poem or not, can sense the deep, true feeling of the writer and get the sense that the writer knows his or her subject well.

Avoid Cliches

As a caveat to the above: unless your love actually glows, refrain from comparing him or her to a summer’s day. No thanks to Shakespeare, that metaphor will probably live out its life as a cliche.  As with generic sentiments, clichés can signal to your Love that you don’t really know them at all. While the feeling may be sincere, expressing it with a a series of clichés won’t sound sincere. Even if you are not a wordsmith like John Donne or Ben Gibbard, you can still avoid sounding like you're reading from a greeting card by using your own words instead of the same trite old expressions.  This goes hand in hand with being specific; using real details will help you pen sometime authentic and moving, something sure to impress your Love.

Avoid these tried and tired old Hallmark-ian sentiments:

  • Eyes that twinkle, shine, or are like stars
  • Lips like roses or sugar kisses
  • Hearts (or loins) that ache, yearn, or are on fire
  • Red rose anything

Even if you don’t consider yourself a strong writer or think you lack the creativity to be unique, remember that you don’t have to drift into complicated metaphors to sound impressive. Take a cue from former president and incurable romantic, Ronald Reagan. No matter how you feel about his politics, old Ronnie had a true passion for his wife Nancy and often wrote her love letters. They were sometimes silly, a few verged on cheesy, but overall they were clear, earnest statements of devotion. There are a few published here, including the one below:

Dear Wife,

A few days ago you told me I was angry with you. I tried to explain I was frustrated with myself. But later on I realized that my frustration might have been a touch of self-pity because I’d been going around feeling that you are frequently angry with me.

No more. We are so much “one” that you are as vital to me as my own heart—with one exception; you could never be replaced with a transplant.

Whatever I treasure and enjoy—this home, our ranch, the sight of the sea—all would be without meaning if I didn’t have you. I live in a permanent Christmas because God gave me you. As I write this, you are hurrying by—back and forth doing those things only you can do and I get a feeling of warm happiness just watching you. That’s why I can’t pass you or let you pass me without reaching to touch you. (Except now or you would see what I’m doing.)

I’ll write no more because I’m going to catch up with you wherever you are and hold you for a moment.

Merry Christmas Darling—I love you with all my heart.

Your Husband

What strikes me as most compelling about this letter is the reference to a conflict that Reagan hopes to resolve and the image of Nancy “hurrying by,” probably engaged in mundane activities that “only [she] can do”. The letter is not flowery, it’s straightforward and honest, a tiny snapshot of their life as a married couple which includes both highs and lows, both tiny details and grand statements. The bit about not betraying his letter writing at that moment by giving in to the urge to touch her as she passes is a nice detail. There are no big words or complicated metaphors, and the situation is believable without being over the top or tired.

Know Your Audience

Like any piece of writing, it’s important to consider who you are writing to and how best to engage that person. Love letters (most likely) are written for a single recipient. The better you know the object of your love, the more specific and interesting you will be able to make the letter. While you will certainly earn some points just for trying, the better you attempt to anticipate the reactions of the person to whom you write, the better it’s likely to be received. Certainly this applies especially to emotional topics such as sex, marriage (or a significant level of commitment), children, etc. Unless you really know the person well, it’s best to keep things relevant to the actual level of acquaintance you have with the person. The stranger on the bus you’ve been ogling for months may not appreciate a detailed description of what you’d like to do to him with the lights off (or on). He might, but it’s a risk. Better to start with expressions that flatter but don’t frighten. On the other hand, if you really know the person, it’s entirely appropriate to go all out—again with sincerity and honest feeling. Take this short poem from Octavio Paz.


My hands
open the curtains of your being
clothe you in a further nudity
uncover the bodies of your body
My hands
invent another body for your body

The poem is intimate, sweet but sexy at the same time. Its tone indicates that the writer speaks from an actual experience instead of a wish. This poem is not intended for a stranger; it’s direct, knowledgeable, confident.

Here’s another example; this is from Langston Hughes:

"Juke Box Love Song"

I could take the Harlem night
and wrap around you,
Take the neon lights and make a crown,
Take the Lenox Avenue busses,
Taxis, subways,
And for your love song tone their rumble down.
Take Harlem's heartbeat,
Make a drumbeat,
Put it on a record, let it whirl,
And while we listen to it play,
Dance with you till day--
Dance with you, my sweet brown Harlem girl.

Here the writer invokes a shared landscape. How well he knows his “sweet brown Harlem girl” is not known, but whether the two people are mere acquaintances or long-time lovers—it doesn’t much matter. The metaphor of the “Harlem night” as a cloak and crown, the “taxis, subways” as the background music, and the image of them dancing suggests he knows enough about his audience to create a sweet sentiment that she can relate to.

Take Risks

This last piece of advice may seem to contradict some of what I just said, but there is inherent risk in expressing yourself honestly to another person, no matter how well you know them. Love, like other extreme emotions, requires a bit of unreasonableness. It’s natural, but illogical, and anyone who has loved can attest, a little bit of insanity comes with the territory. We all know stories of love requited and love lost, and not all love letters signal a happy end. In some cases, expressions of love can be downright deadly. Take the example of King Henry’s 5th wife, Catherine. She married the aging king when she was very young. Not long into their marriage, Catherine fell in love with a young man at court named Thomas Culpepper. Theories abound as to why she took such an incredible risk (especially knowing the fate of the previous queens)—because she was young and energetic and the king old and sickly, or because she spent so much time away from the king and was lonely. Their relationship (that they both ultimately denied when tortured in the Tower of London) was their undoing and cost both of them their lives. The details are not entirely known; However, an artifact exists that at least proves her affection for him and her assumption that he shared her feeling.

Master Culpeper,

I heartily recommend me unto you, praying you to send me word how that you do. It was showed me that you was sick, the which thing troubled me very much till such time that I hear from you praying you to send me word how that you do, for I never longed so much for a thing as I do to see you and to speak with you, the which I trust shall be shortly now. That which doth comfortly me very much when I think of it, and when I think again that you shall depart from me again it makes my heart die to think what fortune I have that I cannot be always in your company. It my trust is always in you that you will be as you have promised me, and in that hope I trust upon still, praying you that you will come when my Lady Rochford is here for then I shall be best at leisure to be at your commandment, thanking you for that you have promised me to be so good unto that poor fellow my man which is one of the griefs that I do feel to depart from him for then I do know no one that I dare trust to send to you, and therefore I pray you take him to be with you that I may sometime hear from you one thing. I pray you to give me a horse for my man for I had much ado to get one and therefore I pray send me one by him and in so doing I am as I said afor, and thus I take my leave of you, trusting to see you shortly again and I would you was with me now that you might see what pain I take in writing to you.
Yours as long as life endures,


One thing I had forgotten and that is to instruct my man to tarry here with me still for he says whatsomever you bid him he will do it.

It’s easy to understand how this letter exposed the lovers and caused their untimely deaths, but it also shows the illogical risk they both took to spend time together, the lengths to which they went to pass each other messages and find trustworthy servants to assist them. Maybe they were foolish, but it’s hard to imagine they couldn’t have thought of the consequences should they be discovered. After all, King Henry divorced his first wife, beheaded his second, and annulled his marriage to his fourth wife, all for lesser crimes than the obvious adultery occurring between Catherine and Culpepper. Certainly they had to know this, but they did it anyway. There must have been real passion between them that drove them to take such a chance.

Your Mission

Isn’t it obvious? Write someone (real or imaginary) a love letter. Of course, if you don’t want to share it here, I’ll understand. Instead, share a favorite love poem, song, letter, etc and explain why it speaks to you and how it is a perfect example of a love letter.

To get the ball rolling, I’ll share my personal favorite love poem of all time: John Donne’s “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning.”

As virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say, The
breath goes now, and some say, No:

So let us melt, and make no noise,
No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
'Twere profanation of our joys
To tell the laity our love.

Moving of th' earth brings harms and fears,
Men reckon what it did, and meant;
But trepidation of the spheres,
Though greater far, is innocent.

Dull sublunary lovers' love
(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
Those things which elemented it.

But we, by a love so much refined That
ourselves know not what it is,
Inter-assurèd of the mind,
Care less eyes, lips and hands to miss.

Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.

If they be two, they are two so As stiff
twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fix'd foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if th' other do.

And though it in the center sit,
Yet, when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like th' other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.

Unlike some of Donne’s other works, which feature carnal attraction as the theme (for instance, comparing a flea biting two people as akin to sex), this poem likens the relationship between two people who love each other as being able to transcend the physical world. Written to his wife while on a long journey away from her, the poet claims that his absence from her shouldn’t engender outward anxiety (as it would for those only able to love the physical presence of another person). Instead he posits that their love transcends the need to be in each other's actual presence because they are a like a single entity, though stretched.

Donne, it could be inferred, held a pure love for the woman he married. Anne More was the 17 year old niece of his patron, and his secret marriage to her in 1601 cost him his job and landed him temporarily in jail. Despite some of his scandalizing writings, Donne appeared to be faithful to his wife. Together they had 12 children. The last one, however, was the end of Mrs. Donne, as she died five days after giving birth. He never remarried. Now isn’t that sweet?

About the author

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer for an engineering firm and volunteers on the planning committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education.

She holds a degree in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College in Clinton, NY. In the English graduate program at Penn State, she taught college composition courses and hosted a poetry club for a group of high school writers.

While living in Seattle, Taylor started and taught a free writing class called Writer’s Cramp (see the website). She has also taught middle school Language Arts & Spanish, tutored college students, and mentored at several Seattle writing establishments such as Richard Hugo House. She’s presented on panels at Associated Writing Programs Conference and the Pennsylvania College English Conference and led writing groups in New York, Pennsylvania, and Colorado for writers of all ages & abilities. She loves to read, write, teach & debate the Oxford Comma with anyone who will stand still long enough.

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