A Letter Is In Fact the Only Device for Combining Solitude and Good Company

Lord Byron? Jacques Barzun? Robert Halsband? Apocryphal?

byron08Dear Quote Investigator: On a Pinterest pin-board I saw a picture of the famous British poet Lord Byron accompanying the following quotation:

Letter writing is the only device for combining solitude with good company.

I would like to use this expression in an article, but I have not been able to find a good citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Lord Byron (George Gordon Byron) crafted the statement above. The ascription was probably based on a mistake that will be explicated further below.

The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in 1953 in the introduction to “The Selected Letters of Lord Byron” which was edited and introduced by the prominent historian Jacques Barzun. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

It is obvious that letter writing often gave Byron the opportunity to be outrageous and gay in a degree that no civilized society allows. A letter is in fact the only device for combining solitude and good company. And for some obscure reason, letters are also the proper medium for extravaganza.

The original wording of the expression differed slightly from the popular modern versions. Barzun was presenting his viewpoint in this passage, and he was not using the words of Byron.

In October 1953 “The Saturday Review” published an examination of “The Selected Letters of Lord Byron” by the scholar Robert Halsband. He praised the introduction by Barzun and reprinted the statement under investigation. Unfortunately, the context was ambiguous, and QI believes that some readers incorrectly attributed the remark by Barzun to Byron: 2

The introduction, even if read after the letters (which is a test), stands out for its clarity and wit. Especially judicious is his distinction between the man Byron and the time-spirit Byronism; as a biographer and as a cultural historian he does justice to both. His epigrammatic style is no disadvantage: “A letter is in fact the only device for combining solitude and good company.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1968 the indefatigable collector Evan Esar included a modern instance in his compilation “20,000 Quips and Quotes”. Esar attributed the words to Lord Byron: 3

Letter-writing is the only device for combining solitude and good company.
–Lord Byron

In 1992 a columnist in the “St. Louis Post-Dispatch” employed another close variant of the saying and credited Byron: 4

The last word on letters from Lord Byron: “Letter writing is the only device that combines solitude with good company.”

In 2004 an instructional book titled “The Right Letter: How to Communicate Effectively in a Busy World” used an instance as a chapter epigraph: 5

Letter writing is the only device for combining solitude with good company.
—Lord Byron

In conclusion, Jacques Barzun should be credited with the words he wrote in the 1953 citation. Variant statements have incorrectly been attributed to Lord Byron.

Image Notes: Picture of a letter with cursive writing from Andrys at Pixabay. A colored engraving depicting Lord Byron accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to Laura Ball whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1953, The Selected Letters of Lord Byron by George Gordon Byron (Lord Byron), Edited by Jacques Barzun, Series: Great Letters Series, Introduction: Byron and the Byronic in History by Jacques Barzun, Start Page vii, Quote Page xxxvii and xxxviii, Farrar, Straus and Young, New York (Verified on paper)
  2. 1953 October 3, The Saturday Review, Writers Notes: A Poet’s Letters by Robert Halsband, (Review of The Selected Letters of Lord Byron edited by Jacques Barzun), Start Page 36, Quote Page 52, Saturday Review Associates, New York. (Unz)
  3. 1968, 20,000 Quips and Quotes by Evan Esar, Subject: Letter, Quote Page 470, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1992 June 18, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Viets Guide: Write A Letter: Just Talk On Paper by Elaine Viets, Quote Page 3E, Column 4, St. Louis, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 2004 Copyright, The Right Letter: How to Communicate Effectively in a Busy World by Jan Venolia, Chapter 5: Examples of Personal Letters, (Epigraph to Chapter 5), Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, California. (Google Books Preview)