Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Choice of Valentines

I wonder when that familiar little bi-lobed icon first appeared? This is a detail from a tapestry of around 1410, which I have cropped ('Save changes to Heart?', asked my computer. Oh, yes, save changes to heart).

‘It was the merry month of February’, as Thomas Nashe ineffably began his famous naughty poem … but the thin corpus of Elizabethan-era pornography is so picked-over these days, I will go no further than the title and that funny first line. I’d not thought about ‘choosing’ Valentines before, so I checked out the accessible Valentine’s day poems, and the OED.

The OED has a fine set of citations, which I have abbreviated:

2. A person of the opposite sex chosen, drawn by lot, or otherwise determined, on St. Valentine's day, as a sweetheart, lover, or special friend for the ensuing year.

a1450 MS. Harl. 1735 fol. 48 (Halliw.), Godys blescyng have he and myn, My none gentyl Volontyn, Good Tomas the frere. 1477 Paston Lett. III. 170 Unto my ryght welebelovyd Voluntyn, John Paston, Squyer, be this bill delyvered. 1596 RALEIGH Disc. Guiana 23 After the Queens haue chosen, the rest cast lottes for their Valentines. 1623 in Crt. & Times Jas. I (1848) II. 395 To the great grief of his sweetheart, Mrs. Bray, my ancient valentine. 1667 PEPYS Diary 14 Feb., This morning came up to my wife's bedside..little Will Mercer to be her Valentine... But I am also this year my wife's Valentine. 1712 W. ROGERS Voy. r. World 359 That same Day, in Commemoration of the antient Custom in England of chusing Valentines, I drew up a List of the fair Ladies in Bristol..and sent for my Officers into the Cabbin, where every one drew.

3. A folded paper inscribed with the name of a person to be drawn as a valentine. to draw valentines, to draw lots for this or other reasons.

c1553 Cecil Papers (Hist. MSS. Comm.) I. 134 There is three papers like unto walentynes put in a cap and so they draw. 1725 BOURNE in Brand Pop. Antiq. (1777) 225 It is a Ceremony, never omitted among the Vulgar, to draw Lots, which they Term Valentines, on the Eve before Valentine day.

~ ~ So, on the evening before Valentine’s day, what must have generally been an early modern rigged ballot was run, when (as if by chance) pairings felt to be appropriate or likely to be well received would emerge from the sortilege.

I assume that some of the various 17th century Valentine poems that have survived would have been found on the paper once unfolded. As you’d expect, Herrick is keen. William Strode’s poem is a kind of follow-up to accompany a gift: his name emerged as her Valentine, he hopes she will accept the gift as a further sign that the outcome of the lottery was in fact satisfactory to her wishes:

Faire Valentine, since once your welcome hand
Did cull mee out wrapt in a paper band,
Vouchsafe the same hand still, to shew thereby
That Fortune did your will no injury:
What though a knife I give, your beauty’s charme
Will keepe the edge from doing any harme:
Wool deads the sternest blade; and will not such
A weake edge turne, meeting a softer touch?

In Thomas Stanley’s ‘Drawn for a Valentine by the L. D.S.’, the poet is less lucky in love than in the ballot. This is a Marvellian poem, apparently celebrating a girl whose youthful beauty already promises large later conquests. She has given him no hope, and forbidden his suit, but the ballot obliges her to accept him as her Valentine, and the poet praises the Goddess Fortuna for not being blind, and says he will prize this piece of fortune just the same as if he had really won the young lady by her consent:

Though 'gainst me Love and Destiny conspire,
Though I must waste in an unpitied fire,
By the same Deity, severe, as fair,
Commanded adoration and despair:
Though I am mark'd for Sacrifice to tell
The growing age what dangerous Glories dwell
In this bright dawn, who when she spreads her raies
Will challenge every heart, and every praise;
Yet she who to all hope forbids my claim
By Fortune's taught indulgence to my Flame.

Great Queen of chance! unjustly we exclude
Thy Power an int'rest in Beatitude:
Who, with mysterious judgement dost dispence
The Bounties of unerring Providence;
Whilst we, to whom the causes are unknown,
Would stile that blindness thine, which is our own,
As kinde in Justice to thy self as me,
Thou hast redeem'd thy Name and Votarie:
Nor will I prize this lesse for being thine,
Nor longer at my Destinie repine,
Counsell and choice are things below thy State,
Fortune relieves the cruelties of Fate.

James Howell’s ‘Upon a Beautiful Valentine’ is just a conventional try at a love poem, setting off to praise her beauties, but he all too soon gets into deep water with his enthusiastic tour of the 17th century Miss Europes he has ‘seen’, and so roving on to the appalling pox and the yet more appalling use of cosmetics, finally landing back at compliment after his ill-judged cadenza:

Could I charm the Queen of Loves
To lend a Quill of her white Doves,
Or one of Cupids pointed wings,
Dipped in the fair Castalian springs:
Then would I write the All-divine
Perfections of my Valentine.

As mongst all flowers the Rose excels,
As Amber mongst the fragrant'st smells,
As mongst all Minerals the Gold,
As Marble mongst the finest Mold,
As Diamonds mongst Jewels bright,
As Cynthia mongst the lesser lights;
So mong the Northern Beauties shine,
So far excels my Valentine.

In Rome and Naples I did view
Faces of Coelestial hue;
Venetian Dames I have seen many,
(I only saw them, touch'd not any)
Of Spanish Beauties, Dutch and French
I have beheld the Quintessence;
Yet saw I none that could out-shine,
Or Parallel my Valentine.

Th' Italians they are coy and quaint,
But they grossly daub and paint;
The Spanish kind are apt to please,
But sav'ring of the same disease;
Of Dutch and French some few are comely,
The French are light, the Dutch are homely:
Let Tagus, Po, the Loire and Rhine
Then vail unto my Valentine.

Here may be seen pure white and red,
Not by feign'd Art, but Nature wed;
No simpering smiles, no mimic face,
Affected gesture, or forc'd face:
A fair-smooth front, free from least wrinkle,
Her eyes (Oy me) like Stars do twinkle.
Thus all perfections do combine
To beautify my Valentine.

Robert Hayman’s ‘To my perpetuall Valentine, worthy Mistris Mary Tayler, wife to Master John Tayler Merchant of Bristoll’ does seem to indicate that, as in the Pepys quotation from the OED, these ‘Valentines’ could be entirely honorific. You’d think that a poet commending another man’s wife as ‘discreet’, and mentioning her childlessness, her husband as better than any number of babies, and talking of ‘babes begot by good’ he and she could have together was up to something, but I’ve read the whole lot of his ‘Quodlibets’, and Hayman is just being clumsy (you can rely on him for that), rather than archly insinuating:

My sweet discreet perpetuall Valentine,
In your faire brest vertue hath built a Shrine,
Bedecking it with flowres, amongst the rest,
Mild bearing your not-bearing is not least.
You know the worthy husband that you haue,
Is worth more children then some fondlings craue;
Besides the blessed babes begot by good,
More comforts bring then some of flesh and blood.
Kind Valentine, still let our comfort be,
Children there are ynow for you and me.

Phineas Fletcher, by dint of referring to his wife as ‘Maystress’ (sic) concocts a gallant anagram in his ‘To my onely chosen Valentine and wife’:

Maystress Elisabeth Vincent

Is my brests chaste Valentine (anagram)

Think not (fair love) that Chance my hand directed
To make my choice my chance; blinde Chance & hands
Could never see what most my minde affected;
But heav'n (that ever with chaste true love stands)
Lent eyes to see what most my heart respected:
Then do not thou resist what heav'n commands;
But yeeld thee his, who must be ever thine:
My heart thy altar is, my breast thy shrine;
Thy name for ever is, My brests chaste Valentine.

But enough early modern soppy poems: there's Valentine’s day reduced to an owlish footnote for you. 'Save changes to heart'.

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