The spirit of Valentine’s Day: Quest for love

Dr. Rashid Askari
Thursday, February 16th, 2012


This is the drowning Ophelia from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. Picking flowers she slips and falls into a stream. Mad with grief after her father’s murder by Hamlet, her lover, she allows herself to die. Photo - Internet

Valentine’s Day is a lover’s festival which traces it history back to the 3rd century  when Roman priest and physician Saint Valentinem who suffered martyrdom during the persecution of Christians by the emperor Claudius II Gothicus (214-270), and was buried on the Via Flaminia. According to legend, the priest wrote a letter signing himself “Valentine” to his jailer’s daughter with whom he had fallen in love. The hapless priest Valentine has been recognised as the courtship martyr, and the day of his execution (14 February) is being observed as the lover’s day across the globe.

 

Saint Valentine once stood for the medieval courtly lover who existed to serve his lady. But this connotation has now been reduced to free love or a romantic relationship between lovers who express their affection with greetings and gifts on this day. The first recorded association of Valentine’s Day with romantic love was found in Geoffrey Chaucer’s (1342-1400) Parlement of Foules (1382) where he wrote:

 

“For this was Saint Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.” The poem was written to honour the first anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England (1367-1400) to Anne of Bohemia. They were married eight months later in 1382 when they were each only 15 years old.

 

Later on, Valentine’s Day was mentioned ruefully by Ophelia in Hamlet (1600–1601):

 

“To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,

All in the morning betime,

And I a maid at your window,

To be your Valentine…”

 

[William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5]

 

John Donne (1572-1631) used the legend of the marriage of the birds as the starting point for his Epithalamion (wedding lyric) celebrating the marriage of Elizabeth, daughter of James I, and Frederick V, Elector Palatine on Valentine’s Day:

 

“Hayle Bishop Valentine whose day this is

All the Ayre is thy Diocese

And all the chirping Queristers

And other birds ar thy parishioners”.

 

The modern Valentine’s Day poem can be found in the collection of English nursery rhymes Gammer Gurton’s Garland (1784):

 

“The rose is red, the violet’s blue

The honey’s sweet, and so are you

Thou are my love and I am thine

I drew thee to my Valentine….”

 

Saint Valentine was a martyr to the cause of love. But he was not the lone lover who suffered martyrdom for love. In fact, human history is full of lovers who took tragic consequences of their love. The Roman poet Ovid (43 BC – AD 17/18 ) in his Ars amatoria had pictured a lover as the slave of passion—sighing, trembling, growing pale and sleepless, and even dying for love.

 

The great Persian mystic poet Hafez (1326—1390) wished to sell Samarkand and Bokhara for the black mole of his beloved (a boy or a girl in Shiraz). As he put it:

 

“If that Shirazi Turk would take my heart in hand

I would remit Samarkand and Bokhara for his/her Hindu mole.”

 

It is said that the couplet infuriated Tamerlane (1336-1405). The irate Emperor asked for the poet who, however, could pacify him by his ready wit and humility. Hafez was ravished by the beauty of Shakh-e Nabat. But when his love was not requited, he went on a mystic vigil in pursuit of spiritual union with the divine. His romantic love turned into sexless spiritual devotion.

 

What kind of passion is love which human lives are governed by? It is not easy to define. It is related to the affairs of the heart. It refers to a wide variety of feelings ranging from personal pleasure to interpersonal attachment and even to spiritual affinity. It may be classified into various categories like the passionate desire for romantic love, or the barbaric appeal to sexual desire, or the emotional attachment to one’s nearest and dearest, or the platonic friendship, or even the devotional awakening. Virgil (70 BC 19 BC) found love as ‘an all-conquering force’, Aristotle (384 BC-322 BC) regarded it as ‘a will to do good to other’, and the British rock-group the Beatles saw it as ‘an absolute need for humans’ while Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) termed it as a condition of “absolute value.” Philosopher Leibniz (1646-1716) took it as something which persuades people into being ‘delighted by the happiness of other’.

 

But Valentine love, in the truer sense of the term, should be defined as one’s selfless concern for the good of the opposite sex. It is a feeling of affection for and personal attachment to one you are in love with. This sort of love is a very strong human passion. Longing for it was one of the three ‘simple but overwhelmingly strong passions’ which governed the life of a great philosopher like Russell. The archetypal love stories of Romeo-Juliet, Radha-Krishna, Layla-Majnun, Shirin-Farhad, Yusuf-Zulaikha, Chandidas- Rajakini are but the creation of man’s eternal longing for love of Valentine type. A sort of genuine love!

 

But what is our present-day love like? We celebrate Valentine Day with colourful gifts and greetings only to wear our hearts on our sleeves. As a matter of fact, true love like that of Saint Valentine for his beloved is hard to find. Even the love-legends of history who are honoured as the champions of love are being unmasked. We know that the Great Mughal emperor of India Shahjahan (1592-1666), being charged with tremendous spousal love made the mausoleum Taj Mahal in commemoration of his deceased wife Mumtaz Mahal. But we do not know that Mumtaz was his fourth wife out of seven, and he married her sister after her death.  The emperor’s reckless copulation bore so heavily on Mumtaz that she was taken ill owing to frequent pregnancy and parturition, and finally died in her 14th delivery.

 

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) was seen loving the memories of his dead wife, Josephine so dearly that he retrieved violets from her garden, and wore them in a locket until his death. But his love was also proved deceptive. The great military genius was so infatuated with the charming and beautiful Paris socialite, Josephine that the ruthless soldier in him was captivated the moment he stumbled upon her. He doggedly pursued the widowed woman of 32, mother of two children, and got hitched. But before long his love completely evaporated, and he divorced her simply on pretest of infertility and in less than a year married 18-year-old Marie Louise of Austria. Broken-hearted and sick, Josephine succumbed to a premature death.

 

It is said that Edward VIII (1894-1972) abdicated the throne of England on the altar of his love for an American socialite Wallis Simpson, who had divorced two husbands. But it was more his compulsive womanizing and reckless behaviour than his true love that prompted him to marry her. But he was never faithful to his wife. Disgusted by his many affairs with married women, his father George V (1865-1936), was reluctant to see him inherit the Crown. Edward’s private secretary, Alan Lascelles  held some hereditary or physiological reasons responsible for the loose morals he developed after he reached puberty.

 

The bulk of the present generation is more or less left with the legacy of these historical love-mongers. What’s happening these days around the world in the name of love is nothing but a travesty of love. True love is unfortunately the exception rather than the rule. It is being sickeningly cheapened by the current practice of “puppy-love”, if you will, among the young generation. In their fast and furious life, love has been like fast food. It is attained quickly and consumed even quicker. Their love is a brightly colored balloon, popped in the twinkling of an eye at the slightest mishap. In schools, colleges, and varsities, our boys and girls are mixing freely like little love-birds, but they seldom know the real meaning of love. They mostly mistake love for a fleeting moment of passion. This notion is further revolutionized by the cellular phone and other electronic devices which tend to aid in this version of often selfish love, helping people “stay connected”; and the impressionable youth in their wild flights of fancy feel an irresistible attraction for it all.

 

But like night-time fancies, this disappears in the morning when faced with the harsh realities of life. The lovers who somehow or other cross the wedding line could not finally score good grades in the conjugal tests. At the end of the day, many of them split up. But then again, I reiterate, there are exceptions, but those exceptions, however, prove the rule.

 

This anti-love rule should not prevail in the society. We cannot stop plucking the rose of love for fear of thorns. Love is the lifeblood of human society. A loveless life is not worth living. A loveless society is simply unthinkable. Behind all human achievements, love has a hand and behind all wrongdoings loveless-ness works as a factor too.

 

The French novelist and memoirist, George Sand (1804-1876) rightly said: “There is only one happiness in life, to love and be loved”.

 

Dr. Rashid Askari writes fiction and columns and teaches English literature at Kushtia Islamic University, Bangladesh. rashidaskari65@yahoo.com




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