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Valentine's Day history

Love in the time of birds and bards

By Helyn Trickey
CNN

(CNN) -- In the spring a livelier iris changes on the burnished dove;
In the spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.

When Alfred Lord Tennyson penned the verse above it was probably not a frigid February day with rain plinking at bleary-eyed windows.

The fresh smell of flowers and sweet song chords of birds were probably Tennyson's muses, and rightly so, says Henry Ansgar Kelly, director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles.

"February is the bleakest month of the year," says Kelly, author of "Chaucer and the Cult of St. Valentine."

So why is Valentine's Day, a holiday dedicated to the sweet bloom of love, celebrated in a cold month more suited to hats and gloves than to thoughts of love?

"It's very mysterious," Kelly allows. "Why hold a feast day of love on February 14th?"

Kelly theorizes lovers everywhere can thank two guys from the 14th century for this day of hearts and flowers: renowned bard Geoffrey Chaucer - famous for penning "The Canterbury Tales" - and a not-so-famous saint who went by the name of Valentine.

'Meeting of the birds'

In 1381, Chaucer was busy composing a poem in honor of the arranged marriage between England's Richard II and Anne of Bohemia. This was a very big deal indeed, and Chaucer was looking for just the right saint to honor on May 3, the day Richard II signed the papers of engagement to his Bohemia beauty.

His search ended, Kelly surmises, when Chaucer learned that a Saint Valentine of Genoa had an honorary feast day on May 3. Perfect! So he wrote the poem "The Parliament of Fowls" in the couple's honor.

Chaucer
Chaucer may have chose to incorporate a feast in honor of St. Valentine into the wedding celebration of England's Richard II and Anne of Bohemia.  

"The Parliament of Fowls" literally means "the meeting of birds," says Kelly. "Chaucer dreamed up the idea that all birds chose their mates on May 3rd," he says.

"They probably didn't understand bird migration, and they probably thought all the birds hibernated," says Kelly. So when the spring brought its sunny smile back to the earth, awakening the annual twitters of robins, blue jays and cardinals, it was easy to imagine the winged animals fluttering about and flirting with their lovers, he says.

After Chaucer's death in 1400, Valentine's Day celebrations got pushed back to February. The date may have changed because the first song birds that traditionally warble after a blustery winter tend to debut in mid-February, Kelly says.

A card by any other name ...

But the holiday that honors lovebirds everywhere with rhymed verse and colored candy hearts has not always been so popular.

"The very celebration of Valentine's Day has gone in and out of vogue," says Kelly. "In the 16th century in Genoa you have it, but there is not much notice of it in other countries."

The sweet-toothed holiday experienced renewed vigor in England just prior to 1800, and publishing companies came to the aid of tongue-tied paramours by distributing booklets of passages lovers could use to stir hearts.

If they couldn't find the words in their hearts, companies figured, at least these fumbling Romeos could find some coins in their pocket to make their sweethearts swoon.

The celebration suffered a popularity plunge in the 19th century, says Kelly, but by the next century, Americans had rescued Valentine's Day from the trash heap, turning it into a commercial bonanza.

Shakespeare
Poet and playwright William Shakespeare has pleased lovers for centuries.  

For present-day bards, though, greeting card messages may not make hearts flutter like a verse from Tennyson or a line from Chaucer.

Still, "you can draw the lesson that it (Valentine's Day) is a time for love for life," Says Kelly.

No less than master bard William Shakespeare recognized how important this celebrated emotion can be when he noted in a sonnet: "Love comforteth like sunshine after rain."

Related sites

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University of California, Los Angeles: Henry Ansgar Kelly
History Channel: History of Valentine's Day
Love poems and quotes

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