Thursday, 14 February 2013

On Valentine's Day Poems and Songs

Robert Burns to Bob Dylan
Sadly for tradition, it’s quite possible that we are celebrating Valentine's Day on the wrong date, however, due to precession of equinoxes and the use of  a Gregorian calendar since 1582. Alternatively, you might celebrate fertility, in the ancient Roman tradition of Lupercalia during 13-15th February. If you forget today, then go with the Eastern Orthodox Church, which offers both the 6th and 30th July.

What's most delightful about Valentine's Day is that it is an opportunity for lovers to reach for their pens. This may not be great news for classic literature, but I think that we should celebrate the creative and the linguistic turn that is inspired by love.

Romantic clichés are not in fact the invention of the modern commercial world:

    The rose is red, the violet's blue,
    The honey's sweet, and so are you.
    Thou art my love and I am thane;
    I drew thee to my Valentine:
    The lot was cast and then I drew,
    And Fortune said it shou'd be you.

This example comes from a collection of English nursery rhymes called Gammer Gurton's Garland published in 1784.

The ‘roses are red echoes’ theme is quite common and may be traced back to Edmund Spenser's epic poem The Faerie Queene (1590):

    She bath'd with roses red, and violets blew,
    And all the sweetest flowres, that in the forrest grew.

After Robert Burns’s 1794 Song ‘O my Luve's like a red, red rose’ such sentiments became the stock-in-trade of the greetings card industry.

The most famous tragic Valentine's Day reference is delivered in a speech by Ophelia in Shakespeeare’s Hamlet (1600–1):

    To-morrow is Saint Valentine's day,
    All in the morning betime,
    And I a maid at your window,
    To be your Valentine.
    Then up he rose, and donn'd his clothes,
    And dupp'd the chamber-door;
    Let in the maid, that out a maid
    Never departed more.
    Act IV, Scene 5

The earliest reference to Valentine's Day in English Literature comes from the medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer. In  The Parlement of Foules (1382) he wrote:

    For this was on seynt Volantynys day
    Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.

    For this was on Saint Valentine's Day,
    when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.

One of the earliest surviving valentines is appears in a fifteenth-century rondeau written by Charles, Duke of Orléans to his wife. At the time he was being held prisoner in the Tower of London, after the Battle of Agincourt:

    Je suis desja d'amour tanné
    Ma tres doulce Valentinée

The legend of the marriage of the birds is picked up by John Donne in a poem that celebrated the marriage of Lady Elizabeth and Frederick V, Elector Palatine, on Valentine's Day:

    Hayle Bishop Valentine whose day this is
    All the Ayre is thy Diocese
    And all the chirping Queristers
    And other birds ar thy parishioners
    Thou marryest every yeare
    The Lyrick Lark, and the graue whispering Doue,
    The Sparrow that neglects his life for loue,
    The houshold bird with the redd stomacher
    Thou makst the Blackbird speede as soone,
    As doth the Goldfinch, or the Halcyon
    The Husband Cock lookes out and soone is spedd
    And meets his wife, which brings her feather-bed.
    This day more cheerfully than ever shine
    This day which might inflame thy selfe old Valentine.
But I’m choosing Scottish poet Robert Burns and I am looking forward to warmer weather in June for my Valentine love inspiration:

O my Luve's like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve's like the melodie
That’s sweetly play'd in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I:
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry:

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun:
I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare thee well, my only Luve
And fare thee well, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ it were ten thousand mile.

(Apparently Bob Dylan said that this 1794 song had been his greatest inspiration.)

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(Quibble Academic, 2013)

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