A Valentine’s Assortment

The modern concept of Valentine’s Day entered the historical record with Chaucer’s “Parliament of Fowls,” written to honor the marriage of King Richard II and Anne of Bohemia. Although the union of the two fifteen-year-olds was mostly a political-religious strategem, Chaucer makes the pair lovebirds, literally. His 700-line poem describes a congress of fowls, their gathering framed by the Christian calendar, the ideals of courtly love, and the realities of springtime fertility: “For this was Saint Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.”  

The parliamentary aspect of the poem lies in the elaborate, ritualized eloquence of the participants. As their mate selection must go according to Mother Nature’s pecking order, Chaucer gives the female eagle first pick; when she can’t make up her mind, the lower, backbench birds — less picky and raring to get at it — start squawking: “Make haste! Alas, you will ruin us! When shall your cursed pleading come to an end?”

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest opened in London on this day in 1895. Wilde’s Lady Bracknell also argues against over-elaborate love pleading: “To speak frankly, I am not in favour of long engagements. They give people the opportunity of finding out each other’s character before marriage, which I think is never advisable.” And Grease,which opened on Broadway on this day in 1972, celebrates being “Hopelessly Devoted” to love and to its tokens:

…Don’t keep your letters from me, I thrill to every line.
Your spelling’s kinda crummy, but honey, so is mine.
I treasure every gifty, the ring is really nifty.
You say it cost you fifty, so you’re thrifty,
I don’t mind.

Bill Shapiro’s Other People’s Love Letters is subtitled “150 Letters You Were Never Meant to See.” Included in the collection is a genuine love-is-blind Valentine Day’s card, one that lives up the book’s subtitle — it is written in Braille to a sweetheart who had lost her sight in her twenties. But note that Shapiro’s more recent collection is Other People’s Rejection Letters: Relationship Enders, Career Killers, and 150 Other Letters You’ll Be Glad You Didn’t Receive. The ultimate relationship ender might be Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, published on this day in 1930. The story ends with Sam Spade weighing, at gunpoint, his attraction to the femme fatale against his distaste for her murdering ways:

“It’s easy enough to be nuts about you.” He looked hungrily from her hair to her feet and up to her eyes again. “But I don’t know what that amounts to. Does anybody ever?”

Unwilling to take the fall for her or love, Spade calls the cops.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.