Literary Valentines

It is Valentine’s Day, and our fancies will turn to love. After a few years of Epic poetry and reveling in the Gothic I am now immersed in the culture of love, Elizabethan Love poetry and the courtly love of the Later Middle Ages. As they say, ‘the world will always welcome lovers,’ and I dare say so will its libraries. Where would our libraries be without love? A bit emptier I should think judging by the wide choice of texts I have this term, and much less entertaining. It started me thinking about my favorite love poem, story or scene from literature. Darling Ovid is chock full, scene after memorable, vivid scene of lovers, Daphne, Leda, Danae; or is my favorite found in Homer with his fabulous images of Odysseus and Penelope, or Aphrodite and Ares in Hephaestus’ golden nets?

Talking of love’s golden nets did you know that Geoffrey Chaucer is responsible for linking Valentines’ Day to notions of romantic love? It is absolutely true. Chaucer wrote ‘Parliment of Foules’ to celebrate the first anniversary of the engagement of Richard II and Anne of Bohemia. ‘For this was on Saint Valentine’ Day when every bird cometh there to chose his mate,’ I suppose he gave us the first love birds, if you will pardon the pun. It should come as no surprise that love continued to be linked to battles of one sort or another. In fact the first valentine on record was sent by a royal captive following the battle of Agincourt when Charles, Duke of Orleans wrote from the Tower of London to his wife, ‘ma tres doulce Valentinee.’ Isn’t that lovely?

Writing about love might be as close to a universal as we can ever get. Reading about love across the ages is actually very touching. It is rather nice to be immersed in a culture of love – at Valentine’s Day and during this lovely year of study. I imagine I know what my topic will be at exam time. Catherine Belsey said after she started writing about desire she could not understand why she ever wrote about anything else. But love and desire are not exactly the same thing, and might be best described as ingredients of something larger. Ben Jonson managed to render that in English for us to contemplate, ‘ the thirst that from the soul doth rise Doth ask a drink divine.’

What is it the poets are penning about when they write of love? It is an enigmatic topic to have filled some many pages over so many centuries without ever quite satisfactorily answering the question, ‘O love is a crooked thing, there is nobody wise enough to find out all that is in it; For he would be thinking of love Till the stars had run away And the shadows eaten the moon.’ Yeats wrote some of my absolute favorite lines about love. Like many people I have often used ‘The Drinking Song’ as a toast. If you don’t know it, it does phrase the imponderable nature of love,’ Wine comes in at the mouth and love comes in at the eye…I lift the glass to my mouth, I look at you and I sigh.’

Sighing over love somehow seems right and proper; a sunset gondola ride under the bridge of sighs in Venice marked with a kiss to seal everlasting love….terribly romantic, according to Lord Byron who certainly ought to have  known.  Now I have in my minds eye the image of another bridge of sighs, this one at Cambridge University. The sighs along this bridge are said to be those of students going into exams, where I, no doubt, will be writing about love. ‘Til then, Happiest Valentine’s Day.

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