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Who Said ‘The Pen Is Mightier Than the Sword’?

‘The pen is mightier than the sword’. The phrase has the ring of proverb about it, and most proverbs don’t have an author: they’re anonymous nuggets of wisdom handed down from generation to generation, part of an oral rather than written tradition. But we can actually trace ‘The pen is mightier than the sword’ to a clear source – at least, in a sense.

The phrase came about in 1839 when it was invented by a nineteenth-century writer named Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873), in a play about Cardinal Richelieu. Bulwer-Lytton was himself a fascinating figure who would also gain notoriety for inventing the most laughably clichéd opening line in all of literature, as we revealed in a post on five fascinating facts about him. He would also inspire the name of the drink known as Bovril, as well as being offered the throne of Greece – quite an eventful life, although Lytton’s star has faded somewhat since he died (and, indeed, it had begun to do so even while he lived). He also made a lasting contribution to men’s fashion that is still with us, though many people don’t realise we have him to thank for this (we also have more on that in the post we link to above).

In Richelieu (1839), Bulwer-Lytton (or Lytton – whichever you prefer) has the eponymous cardinal declare:

IL - pen sword twainBeneath 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!


But although Lytton’s wording appears to have been original, the sentiment was not: the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Proverbs lists several precursors to this famous statement, which, although worded differently, convey the same idea. Cicero, in his De Officiis (44 BC), declares ‘cedant arma togae‘, which roughly translates as ‘arms give way to persuasion’. George Whetstone, in part iii of his Heptameron of Civil Discourses, writes, ‘The dashe of a Pen, is more greeuous then the counter use of a Launce’. This is from 1582 – three years before Richelieu, the subject of Lytton’s play, was even born, and over two centuries before Lytton’s own birth. In his 1712 poem ‘The Eagle and the Robin‘, William King wrote that ‘now and then, / A sword less hurt does than a pen.’

Other precursors to Lytton’s phrase are provided by Statemaster, who mention the Epistle to the Hebrews, 4:12, written c. AD 63-4: ‘For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.’ ‘And on 19 June 1792, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Thomas Paine – whose IL - pen 2extraordinary life we have written about here – that Paine should ‘Go on then in doing with your pen what in other times was done with the sword.’ The Wikipedia page for the phrase lists some other examples, including some from Hamlet and Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy.

So, although the phrase ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ appears to have been original to Lytton, one of the reasons it has the ring of timeless proverb about it is that it has been around, albeit expressed in slightly different ways, for a couple of thousand years.

In the illustration above (and enlarged left), Bulwer-Lytton’s phrase adorns the walls of the school where Tom Sawyer studies, in one of the original illustrations to Mark Twain’s 1876 novel. As has been suggested, the words ‘pen’ and ‘is’ are placed quite close together – suggestively so, we might say.

Images: From The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), drawn by True Williams.


10 of the Best Lord Byron Poems Everyone Should Read

The best poems by Byron

George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824) wrote a great deal of poetry before his death, in his mid-thirties, while fighting in Greece. But what are Byron’s best poems? Here we’ve selected some of his best-known and best-loved poems, spanning narrative verse, love poetry, simple lyrics, and longer comic works.

Don Juan. Despite the Spanish name of Byron’s hero (or antihero?), many readers and critics Anglicise the title of this, perhaps Byron’s most representative work and his greatest achievement, as ‘Don Joo-an’. A vast comic poem that is almost novelistic in its length and range, it follows the protagonist, a lothario, as he has affairs and adventures – Don Juan is partly a portrait of Byron himself (with his eventful private life), but is also a modern take on the figure who appears elsewhere in literature and culture, perhaps most famously in Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. Byron wrote of the poem in 1819, ‘it may be profligate – but is it not life, and is it not the thing? Could any man have written it – who has not lived in the world?’ Read the rest of this entry

A Short Analysis of W. B. Yeats’s ‘Lapis Lazuli’

‘Lapis Lazuli’ belongs to W. B. Yeats’s late phase, in the 1930s. Like a number of Yeats’s other late poems, it is concerned with the place and treatment of art in the modern world, a situation which Yeats considers by taking in all of history. The poem’s ‘argument’ takes a bit of unpicking; before we get to our analysis, here’s a reminder of this mysterious poem.

Lapiz Lazuli
(for Harry Clifton)

I have heard that hysterical women say
They are sick of the palette and fiddle-bow,
Of poets that are always gay,
For everybody knows or else should know
That if nothing drastic is done
Aeroplane and Zeppelin will come out,
Pitch like King Billy bomb-balls in
Until the town lie beaten flat.

All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That’s Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop, Read the rest of this entry