The Friendship of Art

by Bliss Carman


Saint Valentine

 

    IT is cold in the North in February. On the other side of the forty-ninth parallel the snow comes from a gray and silent heaven about the latter part of November, and after that we do not see the earth again until April. There are days of brilliant sun, and nights of marvellous moonlight, of dazzling white and muffled evergreen, but, although the grip of frost may be relaxed for a few days, his hold upon the land is not altogether loosened until the migrating birds come back and the year is past the equinox. In all these five months of snow you will never once set foot on the bare ground.

    And yet these winter days are not all alike. The progress of the gray season has been [Page 275] gradual; the oncoming season of leaves is gradual, too. It is a period of ebb in the tide of time, but there is a certain point, a certain date, in that period, when the outgoing currents of warmth and light and summer cease to diminish, and begin slowly to return. All through December and January the sombre world seems to have forgotten the wonder of June and the bravery of October, and to have settled sullenly down to endurance. Then on a certain day the ebbing tide seems to halt and turn. The aspect of earth and sky is different, brighter, larger, bluer. And we say in our hearts, “There is hope once more, and by and by it will be spring!” This day, I have noticed, this birthday of the natural year, falls about the eighth or tenth of February.

    An old custom has pitched upon the feast of St. Valentine as the festival of first love, and made him, willing or unwilling, the patron saint of youthful ardours. Popular supposition, which knows little of the true origins [Page 276] of our immemorial habits and traditional observances, says that Valentine’s day was chosen because it happened to fall about the time of the mating of birds, and was therefore an appropriate date for celebrating the first choice of the human lover, — the awakening of innocence at the touch of desire. The truth is, we know very little of these racial usages which have been passed on to us from remote antiquity; we can only guess that they must have had their beginnings as sacred rites, commemorating this or that essential need or joy of the mysterious heart of man. In no other way could they have attained so unbreakable a hold upon us, surviving as living traditions even in our own incredulous age. They are often not sanctioned by the simpler and more austerely spiritual religion which Christianity inculcates, and have nothing to do with its gracious ministrations. They are merely survivals from old pagan forms of worship, beautiful and significant, but long since fallen into [Page 277] desuetude, and ineffectual for our modern wants. They have no actual sway over the mind, and yet we allow them to live on among our children with an easy tolerance, as if the race remembered its own childhood and smiled at the memory.

    Of the good Valentine, whose patronage we make so light of in our pleasantries, not much is known, and nothing at all that would justify his choice as the especial guardian of adolescence and successor of Cupid. The sainted man was a priest and bishop of Rome during the Claudian persecutions in the third century. In those strenuous times they made short work of any who demurred at authority or ventured down the alluring alleys of novelty in religion. Valentine, like so many others of a nameless and unnumbered multitude, was thrown into prison for the faith that possessed him; and like them he gave up the breath of life most cheerfully in exchange for his stubborn predilections, yielding his body to be martyred with clubs. The only other [Page 278] tradition of him declares that, while in jail, he cured his keeper’s daughter of blindness.

    In this scanty record of a devoted follower of the new faith there is no hint of worldliness or loverlike infatuation. Easily as one might build a romance about the incident of his jailor’s daughter, there would be no foundation for the story. To make of her another Heloise, and of him a second (or rather a first) Abelard, might be a pretty pastime for an idle fancy, but it would be a fabrication without the tissue of truth. We must look elsewhere for a reason for St. Valentine’s election to the patronage of love, and we shall find it in the most unexpected place. There is no glamour about it, so far as Valentine is concerned, poor fellow. I almost feel sorry that he must be robbed of any umbrage of romance, and I can imagine that he himself in the realms of innocence may have learned to look with tolerant regard on his own unearned repute, now so many centuries old, as the saint of lovers. [Page 279]

    To be the protector of sweethearts must surely add a sweetness to life even in the heavenly dominions of bliss, and when one has long since been divorced from all enchanting earthly inclinations. Whether there be any traces of our mortal desires, so pure in their origin, so blameless in their passionate aspiration, still lingering about our beings in that future state, I do not know. But unless all human companionships are done away, all resemblance to our human happiness superseded by some unguessed and unimaginable kind of beatitude, there must surely lurk in the heart of Valentine, bishop and martyr, sentiments of generosity, of pity, of kindliness, for all the hopes and agonies of mortal lovers. All the pretty observance done in his name must come to his blessed cognizance much as premonitions and feelings (as we call them) come to ourselves, here in the meshes of our gross incarnation, only more potently and vividly than here. If it moves our human hearts to think upon the joys and trials of [Page 280] lovers in their first infatuation, how much more must it move the sympathy of one who is now all sympathy, — the solicitude of one whose kindly impulses are no longer parcelled and distracted and obscured by the clamouring of a bodily existence! If prayers be efficacious and the departed are permitted to be at all aware of the progress of earthly affairs, then I doubt not the good Valentine has cheerfully accepted the duty laid upon him by our implicit trust. So unflinching a martyr to the ideal could never find it in his heart to regard our confidence in his power. He would feel, I am sure, almost as truly bound to respond to the caprice of fortune which has made him the vicar of love, as he did to assent to the destiny which made him vicar of Rome. I would as soon think of distrusting him as I would St. Anthony of Padua, who guards our journeys and recovers what is lost. But how came Valentine into his unsought spiritual dominion?

    In early times, before the coming of the [Page 281] Christians, the Romans were accustomed to hold their midwinter Lupercalia, or celebration, in honour of Pan. Among other ceremonies observed at this festival was a certain rite wherein the names of young women were drawn by lot by the young men. To the overseers of the early Christian Church fell the task of attempting to eradicate the tenacious doctrines and customs of heathendom. Often they were wise enough to resort to gradual methods of reform, and in the case of the Lupercalia they managed to substitute the names of saints for those of women. Each participant in the lottery would thus find himself under the protection of a certain saint, as his lot happened to be drawn. The older usage, however, was the more interesting, and we cannot believe that the saints held precedence over the ladies for very long. Old customs are not easily discredited, and human nature is not to be etherealized offhand by any theology. Many centuries later the old superstition was still alive, surviving from [Page 282] the ceremonies of the Lupercalia, and St. Francis de Sales tried to inhibit the use of valentines.

    Still the benighted custom would not be downed, and English literature for centuries is full of rhymes and verses for St. Valentine’s Day. Drayton, the Elizabethan, for example, writes:

                               “Muse, bid the morn awake,
                                Sad winter now declines,
                                Each bird doth choose a mate,
                                The day’s Saint Valentine’s.

                               “For that good bishop’s sake
                                Get up, and let us see
                                What beauty it shall be
                                That fortune us assigns.”

    As if chance had not already too large a share in our precarious destiny, we must invoke its gratuitous interference! Would you not suppose that men would be too discouraged at the grand lottery of life to invent any game still more haphazardous or entrust their [Page 283] destinies to the turn of a ballot? Surely it is perilous enough to make choice in love when caution and judgement are enlisted in the cause! Must we imperil our happiness and stake our future on a chance meeting of a certain frosty morning in February? “Nay,” says the wisdom of the ages, “ye are already in the hands of fate. Your most carefully considered choice is already enmeshed by unseen conditions, and your freedom only runs the length of the leash of your destiny.” So it is. We grow infatuated with danger and court peril with a cheerful daring, as venturesome boys grow familiar with firecrackers on the Fourth of July, or skim over the thin ice with a breathless speed, flouting courage in the face of catastrophe.

    What the exact rites of the Lupercalia were is a matter of guesswork for the most part, and Pan, they say, is dead. The power of Valentine, too is passing away with other old customs and credences. The new faith obliterated the old feasts from the calendar by [Page 284] overwriting them with novel names. Our enlightenment and rationalism are like to erase them altogether. Neither Pan nor Valentine can survive the spread of the scientific spirit; but, having returned all things to reason, may we not find the world a very gray, monotonous place of few joys and fewer hopes: Life is not wholly reasonable, after all, and it must surely be the greatest folly to fancy we can make it so. It is to be enjoyed as well as to be studied and understood, — to be taken with a thankful heart and not always probed for a meaning. Therefore, if there is an unregenerate strain in you that insists on still believing in old Lupercus of the wild woods, may you have the reward of you belief! And if you are pleased to render observance to times and seasons, and count St. Valentine a personage, who shall prove you mistaken?

    We ourselves are less ceremonious, less given to manners and trivial elegances, even less polite than our sires. The forfeits and [Page 285] gifts which Valentine’s day used to impose are no longer in vogue; yet we cannot quite escape the sentiment of the feast. As in so many instances, we may impart new interpretations to old forms. Is not life itself as we have to live it merely the art of expressing ourselves in fresh ways in the old customs already at hand? All our daily avocations may be as true as the alphabet itself; it is always possible to rearrange them in new and alluring and articulate combinations.

    The day of St. Valentine may well stand, even for us common, sensible folk, for the festival of friends and lovers. On this morning when first the reviving sun comes back to gray streets and snowly fields, we may well encourage tender thoughts, — resolve and hope and aspire. The touch of the warm sunlight on our shoulder may well seem like a hint to bestir ourselves about the greatest business of the universe, the old, engrossing, imperishable, never-ended affair of love. It will remind us of the perennial goodness of [Page 286] living, the unaging wholesomeness of earth, the fond yet delightful infatuations of the world, and all the entrancing possibilities which lie hidden in the path of adventure. Tainted with the madness of the lover, we may even embrace that supremest of human follies, the delusion that heights of excellence, of unselfishness, of kindness, and devotion have never yet been exemplified as we shall practise them. Is not that a generous aspiration worth experiencing, even though we should not realize a tenth of it? Will you not join the light but not frivolous band of St. Valentine’s followers, bethink you of your youth to-day with all its radiant expectations, and resolve to make some one more happy by your love? It may be a sweetheart or a child or an old lady; love is good for everybody; and it is good for us to love, for in loving we are only giving free play to the soul in its natural occupation. Make your vows on St. Valentines’s morn, gentlemen and friends! I promise you great joy from [Page 287] their fulfillment. You may not be able to keep them with all the nobility of intention in which they are made, but in the effort there will be exaltation and sober gain. For once day more the youthful poet within you may walk the earth in gay supremacy, to better this life for the beloved with a gift of verses or violets and renewals of gentle friendship. See to it that some fresh joy takes up its lodging in the heart of the little friend, and sorrow and weariness and disappointment be turned from the door. Take care that laughter comes back to her lips and the flush of delight to her cheeks, for perhaps you have been a neglectful Valentine, and your vows sadly need to be renewed. Be not ashamed, therefore, of the fanatical enthusiasms of love, and make your penance for sins of negligence, of thoughtlessness, of unkindness, preparatory to the golden hours of spring.

    For on St. Valentine’s morning, if you will take my word for it, our venerable Mother Nature goes to her closet and takes [Page 288] down her green cloak, which before many weeks she will resume for the festivals of April. Had we not better look over our own wardrobe of the heart, also? The dust of familiarity and the moth of doubt play sad havoc with the soul’s garment of love. And when the appointed day arrives, and the feast of Spring-time is instituted once more, — when the sap comes back to the hills, and the madness of love to the heart of man, — we must not be found unprepared. Every heart must have in readiness its scarlet tunic and its golden coat, for how more appropriate can it be clothed than with love and joy? [Page 289]