Chaucer and Valentine’s Day

The Invention of Love …

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Because of the rampant commercialism associated with the holiday, Valentine’s Day is considered a “Hallmark holiday,” a day selected by a blindfolded intern at Hallmark HQ and pegged as one we consumers are told to celebrate by spending. It isn’t.

In the grocery store last week, the center of which is holiday-red right now and overstuffed with heart-shaped balloons and streamers, as if the store manager himself demanded a ticket-tape parade for Cupid, I walked past a fellow shopper who, shaking her head, declared out loud, “Valentine’s Day! Already?” because that is what we say when we view holiday decorations in stores nowadays. (Each reminder of time’s passage is responded to as a newly experienced emotional trauma in our culture, each time we encounter it.) It was February 10, the decorations had been up in this particular store since January 2, and there was no hint of irony in the person’s exclamation.

Starting in the late 1700s, publishers started to print and sell Valentine’s Day-oriented books, usually guides for young men to use in composing their love notes. On this much, most cultural historians seem to agree. The disagreements begin with who Valentine might have been and why February 14 is his feast day and extend to the question about what any of this has to do with chalky heart-shaped candies and smooching.
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Heard, Not Seen

The poet and critic John Greening sums up the career of James Merrill, who conversed with the inhabitants of other planes of reality, in a 2010 essay, “Ouija”:

James Merrill made a point of breaking all the rules, of remaining recklessly formal when all about him were casting off their chains, of being incorrigibly discursive and elitist, shunning the rhythms of speech for something more refinedly musical, and unswerving in his determination to squeeze every last pun out of a line.—John Greening, “Ouija,” The Dark Horse, Summer 2010

Merrill was a rebel in his adherence to rules in a rule-breaking era. He wrote dazzling, perfect poems, and he employed almost every verse form available to him, as an actor might use accents. Greening quotes George Bradley: “Reading James Merrill is enough to make the rest of us suspect we’re not smart enough to write poetry.” Even at his smartest, he is engaging and not impenetrable. His pleasure in the sounds of words and the poetic effects he creates and his many puns are always evident. He compliments his readers in his implied assumption that we must know what he is writing about at least as well as he does.
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‘A Renewal’

To have love, one must give love; to give love, one must have it to give. That may be life’s deepest catch-22—any of those logical situations whose suppositions exist only to support the logic that requires them. Love is illogical, or at least it has its own logic.

The moment love is not pursued, there it is; advice to a young lover often follows that logic. “When you stop looking for it or needing it, you will find love.” (It only took about three decades of hearing that for it to sink in for me.)
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‘Well, So That Is That’

The concluding sections of W.H. Auden’s Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being, continue his blend of the contemporary and everyday with the mysterious and eternal. All of modern philosophy is briefly made to vanish in a blur of the mundane world:

But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid’s geometry
And Newton’s mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays.

The fact of faith—not what one has faith in, but that faith exists, is a reality itself—that is the miracle of the day, is what Christmas is about:

Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

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A Christmas Oratorio: ‘For the Time Being’

During World War II, the poet W.H. Auden wrote a book-length poem entitled For the Time Being. It is subtitled, “A Christmas Oratorio,” and it is a retelling of the Christmas story, but with a 20th century sensibility. His Herod, for instance, is a technology-loving king who loves that he lives in an Age of Reason and is ever-perplexed by faith and irked that he must hunt down and exterminate the baby Jesus.

An oratorio is a type of composition that was popular in the Baroque period and in churches and has not had many comebacks as a poetic or theatrical form because it never had a period of dominance. It never went away but it was never the first choice of writing mode for many writers. (Paul McCartney produced a quite famous one, A Liverpool Oratorio, two decades ago.) Auden was a poet of structures and forms, though, and he produced an attempt at almost every style and poetic structure in his body of work (about 400 poems and several full-length verse plays).
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C.S.I.: North Pole

Who wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas”? Who invented Santa Claus?

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Sometimes all a story needs for it to be spread widely is an authoritative manner behind its delivery. Like all characters in great folklore, the character of Santa Claus “feels” like something ancient, a figure who has always been around, and not something that a human being could have conceived of merely to sell, well, anything.

What we know about the jolly old elf, including that very phrase, mostly comes from Old New York of the beginning of the 19th Century. New York City in the early 1800s was already the melting pot it remains to this day, but mostly it was two cultures that were mixing together then: English and Dutch. During the period of Dutch dominance, in commerce and population, the city was called New Amsterdam, and many place names still in use in the city and parts north to Albany are Dutch in origin (Spuyten Duyvil or Catskill Mountains, for example).
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Mystical Things

A few years ago I wrote about two artists who played with the question of whether what they are depicting is anything more or less than words on a page or paint on a surface. Both the poet George Herbert and the painter Arcimboldo make art of the question, What is art? Is it what it depicts, an idea about what it depicts, both at the same time (which makes it a third option), or something less than? Is art, by definition, always a misfire, in that a depiction of a thing is not the thing and never can be?

Arcimboldo painted portraits of character types rather than individuals; for instance, a librarian composed entirely of books or a gardener made of vegetables in a bowl. That latter painting depends on the viewer to decide to see the bowl filled with veggies or a human “face.”
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‘Aubade’ by Philip Larkin

Philip Larkin was honored today with a memorial stone in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. He died thirty-one years ago today. Larkin’s memorial sits between those of Anthony Trollope and Ted Hughes. Chaucer’s tomb sits nearby. Edward Lear’s memorial stone is immediately above Larkin’s.

I wrote the following essay in June:

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“I don’t know that I ever expected much of life,” Philip Larkin wrote to his lifelong friend Kingsley Amis in October 1979, “but it terrifies me to think it’s nearly over.” He had another six years of life left, but the emptiness of the end—”the total emptiness for ever,/The sure extinction that we travel to”—was much on his mind.

The poem from which those lines originate, “Aubade,” was published in 1977 in the Times Literary Supplement (TLS). Larkin had started it in 1974, worked at it that year, and then left it until 1977, when he finished it. “Death is the most important thing about life,” he wrote his companion, Monica Jones, when they were both still young.
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