Feb. 14, 2004
Literary and Historical Notes:
Today is Valentine's Day, the day on which we celebrate love. The holiday was named in part for an early Christian priest, St. Valentine, who was martyred for his beliefs on this day in about 270 AD. According to legend, the priest fell in love with his jailer's daughter, and just before his execution, he wrote her a love letter signed, "from your Valentine."
Europeans began giving each other written declarations of love for Valentine's Day in the 1500s. Several English poets noticed that birds often choose mates in the middle of February, and so birds became symbols for Valentine's day.
The poet Robert Herrick wrote to his Valentine, on Valentine's Day, 1648:
"Oft have I heard both Youths and Virgins say,
Birds chuse their mates, and couple too, this day:
But by their flight I never can divine,
When I shall couple with my Valentine."
Other traditional Valentine gifts include chocolates and roses. Every February, florists in the United States import several million pounds of roses from South America. And, of course, one of the best ways for people to express their love on Valentine's Day is by writing love poems.
Some of the most famous love poems ever written in the English language are Shakespeare's love sonnets, many of which are addressed to a "dark lady" whom he found beautiful even though by the standards of her time she was apparently not considered beautiful because of her dark skin and hair. Scholars have been trying to figure out for centuries who this dark lady might have been. They have speculated about Shakespeare's London landlady, Marie Mountjoy, and a well-known black prostitute named Lucy Morgan. George Bernard Shaw thought she was one of Queen Elizabeth's ladies-in-waiting, Mary Fitton, and he wrote a play about her. The most recent theory was put forth by a historian named Alfred Leslie Rowse, who claimed that the Dark Lady was Emilia Bassano, the daughter of an Italian musician who performed for the Queen.
Many other poets have written famous poems to their loves. The American poet Anne Bradstreet immigrated with her husband to America in 1630. Her husband was a magistrate for the Massachusetts colony, and spent long periods away from home. Anne missed him terribly, and wrote many love poems to him while he was away, including "To My Dear and Loving Husband" (1678). She wrote:
"If ever two were one then surely we.
If ever man were loved by wife, then thee.
If ever wife were happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold
Or all the riches that the East doth hold
My love is such that rivers cannot quench
Nor ought but love from thee, give recompense"
In 1818, the poet John Keats moved into a new house, and his next-door neighbor was a girl named Fanny Brawne. They fell in love and got engaged in less than a month. Keats didn't want to marry her until he proved himself as a poet, but within a year of their engagement, he had contracted tuberculosis. He spent the final months of his life miserable that he couldn't marry Fanny, and he composed some of his greatest poems. He died in 1821, not yet 25 years old.
Keats wrote to Fanny Brawne:
"Would that I were . . .
pillow'd upon my fair Love's ripening breast
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest;
Still, still to hear her tender taken breath,
And so live ever,--or else swoon to death.”
Elizabeth Barrett was a famous poet when she got a letter from another poet named Robert Browning that said, "I love your verses with all my heart, dear Miss Barrett." She learned that he was a poet himself, and they struck up a correspondence and fell in love. But Barrett's father refused to let her marry. They met secretly many times, and then with help from her maid, Barrett snuck out of the house in the winter of 1846 and eloped with Browning to Italy, where they lived until Elizabeth's death in 1861.
Robert Browning wrote of their secret relationship in his poem "Meeting at Night" (1845):
"Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach;
Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, through its joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each."
Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote of Robert in one of her sonnets,
"First time he kissed me, he but only kiss'd
The fingers of this hand wherewith I write;
…A ring of amethyst
I could not wear here, plainer to my sight,
Than that first kiss."
And she wrote to him the famous line, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways."
In 1918, e. e. cummings fell in love with his friend's wife, Elaine Thayer. They had an affair and later got married. The marriage only lasted a few years, but cummings wrote some of his most passionate poems to her, including:
"i like my body when it is with your
body. It is so quite new a thing.
Muscles better and nerves more.
i like your body. i like what it does,
i like its hows. i like to feel the spine
of your body and its bones, and the trembling
-firm-smooth ness and which i will
again and again and again
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®