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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.


Ten Things You Might Not Know About Famous Poets

In this special guest post, Ana Sampson offers some fascinating facts about classic poets

Matthew Arnold struggled a bit with the ageing process

At Oxford University, Matthew Arnold made a name for himself as something of a dandy. It was only when he fell in love, and needed to prove that he had prospects, that he finally settled into the position of Schools Inspector, rattling around provincial Victorian Britain on the newborn railway network. Most of his poetry was written during his younger years – he once said that after his thirtieth birthday he felt ‘three parts iced over’. His most famous poem, ‘Dover Beach’, was begun during his honeymoon in 1851, but was not published until sixteen years later.

There was a sad story behind Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s beard

Longfellow, best remembered now for The Song of Hiawatha, numbered among New England’s ‘Fireside Poets’, so called because their verses were easy to learn and recite due to their musical rhythms, and were written to be shared with families. Longfellow’s first wife, Mary, died young and his second, Frances, burnt to death while using sealing wax on a letter. He grew his iconic bushy beard to hide the burn scars he sustained while trying to save her. Read the rest of this entry

Karel Capek’s Apocryphal Stories

In this week’s Dispatches from the Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reads the charming short stories of Karel Čapek

The modern meaning of the word ‘robot’ has its origins in a 1920 play by Czech writer Karel Čapek. The play, titled R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), begins in a factory which manufactures artificial people, the ‘universal robots’ of the play’s title. The robots are designed to serve humans and work for them, but the robots eventually turn on their masters, wiping out the human race (shades, or rather a foreshadowing, of The Terminator here). This sense of ‘robot’ is taken from the earlier one defined above – namely, the Czech for ‘slave worker’ or ‘drudge’.

Karel Čapek himself didn’t coin the word. The word ‘robot’ was in existence before he wrote his play. But nor did Čapek come up with the idea of taking the word ‘robot’ and using it to describe the man-made droids that feature in his play. He originally called them labori, from the Latin for ‘work’, but it was his brother, Josef Čapek, who suggested roboti. Josef, himself a gifted artist, would later write a volume of poems from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in which he was interned. In April 1945, just weeks before the end of the war, he became one of the 6 million Jews who were murdered in Hitler’s Final Solution.

Most readers who know the name Karel Čapek associate it with robots and little else. Yet Čapek was also the author of some charming short stories and skits, which were collected together as Apocryphal Stories (Modern Classics). Read the rest of this entry