Welcome, dear readers, as always.
Although the title of this posting refers to Valentine’s Day messages (this is a belated Valentine for you, readers),
the words remind me of something which, if you grew up watching US children’s television from 1966 to 2001 (and from 1964, if you lived in Canada), you would have heard sung every week:
It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor,
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?
This was the theme song for “Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood”, starring—surprise!—Mr Rogers.
If you don’t know it, here’s a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-jqzgaL3n_c If you do know it, take a moment to admire his neat use of enjambment (a poetic term meaning running the meaning of one line into the next) in his first rhyme:
It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor
Would you be mine?
Notice, also, that, instead of using the simple indicative—“will you”, he’s employed the past tense of “will”–“would”–which, in English, has a potential conditional feeling, as if he wants you to, but he’s leaving it up to you (and that “could” in the next line makes it even tentative—“is it physically possible?” which, as Mr Rogers was behind a television screen, wasn’t possible, except metaphorically—or, as Mr R might have put it, spiritually)
Although not a major poet, Mr Rogers has become a sort of secular saint, which is not surprising, given his gentle, but persistent message encouraging children to be kind to and tolerant of all those around them.
And this brings up back to St Valentine. And his day. Or not.
As I began this posting, I thought that I had remembered that the Vatican had had a kind of purge of the liturgical calendar in 1969, and popular saints, like St Christopher
and St Valentine
were removed because there simply was so little evidence about them. In fact, they weren’t actually removed, permanently, but, rather, they were gently nudged to one side and their feast days could still be celebrated, St Valentine’s being 14 February. So far, so good, but then, when one plunges into the backstory, well, the Vatican was right: not only so little evidence, but much of it based upon conjecture and myth-making.
What little that can be said of him is that:
a. there may be two of him
1. Valentinus of Rome
2. Valentinus of Terni (Roman Interamna)
(there is a ghostly third Valentinus, but he doesn’t appear to be in the running)
b. someone named Valentinus was supposedly martyred in Rome in the 3rd century AD during the administration of an emperor named “Claudius”—there being a problem with this in that the only 3rd-century emperor of that name
was a soldier who spent almost the entirety of his short reign (268-270AD) defending the borders of the empire, far from Rome
c. he was buried by the Flaminian gate, on the north side of Rome
and a church, holding his relics, including his skull
was built upon the spot—which seems to have disappeared, and that skull is actually in an 8th-12th-century Byzantine church, Santa Maria in Cosmedin, in another part of Rome. (How it got there and why it’s identified with Valentine is its own mystery. There are relics of this blurry saint in other locations, in fact, even in Dublin.)
d. he may have cured someone of blindness and someone else of an odd crippling condition, although these stories are fairly common, it seems, in the history of saints in general (called hagiography)
e. he doesn’t appear in the earliest list of Christian martyrs, the Chronography of 354, but makes an appearance in the Martyrologium Hieronymianum, put together between 460 and 544AD, reportedly drawn from earlier sources
All pretty shaky, I’m afraid. But what about his association with lovers, which is the basis of a whole candy, flowers, card industry? Again—it appears to be myth-making, some of it possibly the work of one G Chaucer (c1340s-1400),
a bit more of a poet than Mr F Rogers. In his 699-line “dream vision”, The Parlement of Foules” (c.1380?), the poet moves from reading Cicero’s “Dream of Scipio” (Somnium Scipionis, a philosophic dialogue by the Roman orator, Cicero, 106-43BC) to a dream world which includes this:
“And in a launde, upon an hille of floures,
Was set this noble goddesse Nature;
Of braunches were hir halles and hir boures,
Y-wrought after hir craft and hir mesure;
Ne ther nas foul that cometh of engendrure,
That they ne were prest in hir presence,
To take hir doom and yeve hir audience.
For this was on seynt Valentynes day,
Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make,
Of every kinde, that men thenke may;”
(The Parlement of Foules, 302-311)
“And in a land was set upon a hill of flowers
The noble goddess, Nature. Her halls and bowers
Were made of branches, fashioned after their craft
There was no bird which exists
That wasn’t pressed to attend her,
To take her judgment and listen to her.
For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day,
When every bird of every kind that men think there is
Comes there to choose his mate.”
(My translation—and forgive me, Chaucer scholars for giving it a little modern color here and there. For a very useful Middle English text with glossing, see: http://www.librarius.com/parliamentfs.htm )
Chaucer’s lines have been used to explain the saint’s connection with lovers, associating bird mating with (potential) human mating and reminding me of these lines from Cole Porter’s song, from his 1928 musical, Paris, “Let’s Do It”:
“And that’s why birds do it, bees do it,
Even educated fleas do it
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love.”
(Here’s Cole Porter himself singing it, to his own accompaniment: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZMk4a3uUVv0 )
So, with almost no actual saint, what are we to make of this day? We began with a song, so perhaps it’s best to end as Chaucer does, with another song, to St Valentine, as sung by the birds:
“Saynt Valentyn, that art ful hy on-lofte
Thus singen smale foules for thy sake—
Now welcome somer, with thy sonne sonne,
That hast this wintres weders over-shake.”
(The Parlement of Foules, 683-686)
Thanks, as always for reading,
Stay warm while we wait for Chaucer’s somer,
And know that, as ever, there will be
I imagine that the birds’ song is clear, but, if not:
“Saint Valentine, you who are high above,
Little birds sing like this for your sake—
Now welcome, summer, with your sunny sun,
Which has overthrown this winter’s weather.”