A literary Valentine’s Day

My favourite Valentine’s Day story is that once I was sent a Valentine from someone who then went on to murder someone.

Yes, it’s true.

But I always feel a bit uncomfortable after telling the full story, as though I’m exploiting someone who was clearly a very troubled soul. So, I’m afraid you’ll have to put up with second-best.

In my second year at university we were introduced to Middle English literature. It wasn’t a case of their waiting until we were already firmly in the grasp of the institution before springing this strange not-quite-English language on us. It was because the first year had been taken up with Anglo Saxon. After all the heavily Germanic Old English, Middle English was a walk in the park.

Most of our Middle English course revolved around an enormous blue book of Chaucer. Yes there were The Canterbury Tales – I remember a particularly awkward tutorial when our rather eccentric tutor turned scarlet and giggled about his use of the word ‘queynte’. (No it doesn’t translate as ‘quaint’.)

But as well as The Canterbury Tales, we looked at Chaucer’s dream poems. This was a surprise and a delight. For not only are the poems quite short, they’re also nuts and really quite brilliant.

Now the funny thing about reading Middle English is that I find the voice in my head is forced to sound particularly peculiar, taking on a strange West Country-cum-Irish lilt. After a few hours of sitting at a desk reading all these odd poems to myself I got quite a shock at the following moment in The Parliament of Fowls:

For this was on Seynt Valentynes day

Unlike ‘queynte’, ‘seynt’ does rhyme with quaint. Woah, it was an odd moment. Here I was in this strange dream-world, led by Scipio Africanus, having passed through the temple of Venus and come out into a parliament of birds. And then a mention of Saint Valentine’s Day! Three words which even in my West-Country-cum-Irish voice sounded very anachronistic.

‘Valentine’s Day’ sounds so modern to me. It is tied to pink cards, heart-shaped boxes, red roses with their prices madly inflated. Since working in the bookshop, Valentine’s Day seems particularly commercial. I’m sure I sold more cards yesterday than any other day of the year. (And most of them were pink. Or red.) In the past week or so we’ve shifted several books of love poems, or love stories, or love letters. It feels like a funny sales-filter which privileges books with red or pink covers.

But, funnily enough, I haven’t sold any Chaucer. (Now there is a marketing dream for a publisher. Just give The Parliament of Fowls – plus perhaps another few dream poems – a pretty pink cover, write a blurb saying that it’s the first ever Valentine’s Poem and watch its February sales soar.)

It’s hard to convey quite how odd I felt when coming up against Seynt Valentynes day in The Parliament of Fowls. The world of Chaucer with all its courtly love, and where Southwark is a stopping off place en route to Canterbury rather than the closest tube to the Tate Modern, was a very long time ago. How could this commercial card-fest possibly be rooted in this bizarre occasion where birds come together to choose their mate?

But really it was just the first of many odd clashes of symmetry that assailed me as I continued to study English. Such as thinking about Shakespeare’s Fool and then watching Fellini’s La Strada, or – and some might see this as a sign of pre-Finals madness – watching an episode of Friends and thinking that really it’s very similar to Virginia Woolf’s The Waves.

It started off my very studenty feeling that ‘Everything’s connected man. It’s all so Roland Barthes. It’s all so intertextual.’

I think I’ve nearly grown out of it. I’ve definitely grown out of calling everything ‘liminal’. Thanks for those who put up with me during that particularly trying time. But, for those of you who, like me, still get a geeky thrill from moments of intertextuality, Valentine’s Day and Valentines (as in love letters) are also mentioned by:

Shakespeare in Hamlet (Ophelia says it)

John Donne in his Epithalamion

Elizabeth Gaskell in Mr Harrison’s Confessions

Edgar Allan Poe in A Valentine (title gives it away rather)

I’m sure there are more.

So have a very happy Valentine’s Day. And if you’re at a loss for something to do. Well, one can always do worse than read a bit of Chaucer.

(Sorry, I warned you this was only second-best.)

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