It’s rare that my classes fall on a holiday, so I was so excited last night when I realized that not only was my British Literature class meeting on Valentine’s Day, but I didn’t have to report for jury duty!!! This meant I was free to deviate from our study on the Romantics (which aren’t as romantic as the title would have you believe…but that’s a post for another time) and give the kids a whirlwind tour of how England’s famous writers created the Hallmark company. Erm, excuse me. I meant to say “Valentine’s Day.” Same diff?
So, we all have the basic idea that Valentine was some sort of martyr/saint/good guy, right? What you may not know is that there are actually *three* Valentines in the Roman Catholic Encyclopedia (yes, there is such a thing): one from Rome, one from Terni, and one from Africa. Their lives had nothing at all to do with love, romance, poetry, or hearts (except for the fact that theirs stopped beating because of their faith in God and their dedication to the gospel). In fact, there’s absolutely no reason why Chaucer, while writing a poem to commemorate the engagement of Richard II, would reference Valentine…but he did so.
It’s actually a lovely little poem called The Parliament of Fowls that I enjoy reading very much. It’s also 5 hundred million or so lines long, so I’ll just post some pertinent stanzas.
For this was on Saint Valentine’s day,
When every fowl comes there his mate to take,
Of every species that men know, I say,
And then so huge a crowd did they make,
That earth and sea, and tree, and every lake
Was so full, that there was scarcely space
For me to stand, so full was all the place.
Saint Valentine, who art full high aloft –
Thus sing the small fowls for your sake –
Now welcome summer, with your sun soft,
That this winter’s weather does off-shake.
Well have they cause to rejoice full oft,
Since each a marriage with its mate does make;
Full joyous may they sing when they wake;
Now welcome summer, with your sun soft,
That this wintry weather does off-shake,
And the long nights’ black away does take.’
And with the cries, when their song was done,
That the fowls made as they flew away,
I woke, and other books to read upon
I then took up, and still I read always;
I hope in truth to read something someday
Such that I dream what brings me better fare,
And thus my time from reading I’ll not spare.
The rest of the poem is a bunch of birds talking to each other about love and classic pairs of lovers. As one of my students said, it’s like Narnia. If you have the time, Norton has a lovely rendition online in the Middle English. Delightful!
The next major writer to start a Valentine’s tradition is Edmund Spenser, writer of The Faerie Queen. Do you know what he started? Here’s a quote to give you a hint:
She bath’d with roses red, and violets blew,
And all the sweetest flowres, that in the forrest grew.
Did you figure it out? Oh yes, the much maligned “roses are red, violets are blue” verse! I’m as big a fan of plays on this as the next person, so it made me laugh when the lovey Ponderiss shared “Roses are red, violets are blueish. If it weren’t for Christmas, we’d all be Jewish.” I laughed for a good 5 minutes over that one.
Shakespeare? He didn’t neglect the fad either. In his famous Ophelia scenes (where she runs in and out of court singing songs, throwing around flowers, and generally running mad), she sings a Valentine’s Day song!
To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
England continued on in this same vein for the next several hundred years, making them one of the most dedicated countries when it comes to this holiday. Did you know that in the 1700’s they even had Valentine factories??? Whole factories that churned out nothing but ornate, flowery Valentines. It’s a pretty cool idea.
So, there you have it! A whirlwind tour through the beginnings of Valentine’s Day! What did you do to celebrate this year?