Feb. 14, 2006


by C. K. Stead

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Poem: "You" by C.K. Stead from The Red Tram. © Auckland University Press, New Zealand. Reprinted with permission.


Our friends' wedding:
I'd lied, called it a funeral
to get army leave
so I could be with you.
It was surprise, a present
and your blush of pleasure
cheered me like a crowd.

So here we are on the step
above 'the happy couple'
who will one day divorce-
looking into the future
which is now.

Ten friends together
in that photograph.
Fifty years on
and four are dead.
Who will be next?
Who will be last
and put out the light?

It's time to tell you again
how much I loved the girl
who blushed her welcome.
Forgive my trespasses.
Stay close. Hold my hand.

Literary and Historical Notes:

Today is Valentine's Day, the day on which we celebrate romantic love. Every February florists in the United States import several million pounds of roses from South America. About thirty-six million boxes of chocolates will be given as gifts today.

The holiday comes, in part, from the ancient Romans' holiday honoring Juno, the goddess of women and marriage, on the night before the Feast of Lupercalia. Roman girls would put slips of paper with their names on them into a clay jar, and the boys would choose their partner for the festival by taking a slip from the jar. This was one of the few times girls and boys were allowed to socialize, and the dancing and games often evolved into courtship and marriage.

Tradition has it that Valentine's Day as we know it began sometime in the middle of the third century. Claudius II of Rome was waging several wars and needed to recruit more soldiers for his armies. He thought that many men were reluctant to join because they didn't want to leave their wives and families, and so he temporarily banned engagements and marriages. Saint Valentine was working as a priest at the time and he and his partner Saint Marius broke the law and secretly married couples in small, candlelit rooms, whispering the ceremonial rites. Eventually Saint Valentine was caught and sentenced to death. While awaiting his punishment he would talk with the young daughter of the prison guard whose father allowed her to visit occasionally. Saint Valentine was killed on February 14, 269 A.D., but he had left a note for the guard's daughter, signed, "Love from your Valentine."

One of the first people in the history of western literature to publish love poems that he'd written to a specific person was the Roman poet Catullus, who was writing around 50 B.C. He fell in love with an older married woman from a powerful family and wrote a series of poems to her calling her by the name "Lesbia."

The man who invented the love sonnet was the Italian poet Petrarch, who fell in love with a woman he called Laura the first time he saw her at church in 1327. They never had a relationship, but he wrote more than 300 love sonnets to her.

Fiction writers have been inspired by love as well. While he was working on his novel Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert wrote dozens of letters to his lover Louise Colet, describing the writing process. But he also wrote some letters just to tell her how much he missed her. In one letter he wrote, "Twelve hours ago we were still together, and at this very moment yesterday I was holding you in my arms. ... Now the night is soft and warm; I can hear the great tulip tree under my window rustling in the wind, and when I lift my head I see the moon reflected in the river. Your little slippers are in front of me as I write; I keep looking at them."

The novelist Vita Sackville-West was inspired by her love affair with Virginia Woolf to write her novel Seducers in Exile (1924). In the middle of that affair, Sackville-West wrote to Woolf, "I just miss you, in a quite simple desperate human way. You, with all your undumb letters, would never write so elementary a phrase. ... But oh my dear, I can't be clever and stand-offish with you: I love you too much for that."

Zelda Fitzgerald, the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, didn't write much literature in her lifetime, just a novel and a few short stories, but some of her letters to her husband read like love poems.

She once wrote: "I look down the tracks and see you coming—and out of every haze and mist your darling rumpled trousers are hurrying to me. Without you, dearest dearest, I couldn't see or hear or feel or think—or live—I love you so, and I'm never in all our lives going to let us be apart another night."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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