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Good Bishop Valentine Post by :nethania Category :Essays Author :Richard Le Gallienne Date :August 2011 Read :1408

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Good Bishop Valentine

The reader will remember how Lamb imagines him as a rubicund priest of Hymen, and pictures him 'attended with thousands and ten thousands of little loves, and the air is


"Brush'd with the hiss of rustling wings."


Singing Cupids are thy choristers and thy precentors; and instead of the crozier, the mystical arrow is borne before thee.' Alas! who indeed would have expected the bitter historical truth, and have dreamed that poor Valentine, instead of being that rosy vision, was one of the Church's most unhappy martyrs? Tradition has but two pieces of information about him: that during the reign of Claudius II., probably in the year 270, he was 'first beaten with heavy clubs, and then beheaded'; and likewise that he was a man of exceptional chastity of character--a fact that may be considered no less paradoxical in regard to his genial reputation. He was certainly the last man to have been the patron saint of young blood, and if he has any cognisance of the frivolities done in his name, the knowledge must be more painful to him than all the clubs of Claudius. Unhappy saint! To have his good name murdered also! To be, through all time, the high-priest of that very 'paganism' which he died to repudiate: the one most potent survival throughout Christian times of the joyous old order he would fain supplant! Could anything be more characteristic of the whimsical humour of Time, which loves nothing better than to make a laughing-stock of human symbolism? The savage putting a stray dress-coat to solemn sacerdotal usage, or taking some blackguard of a Mulvaney for a very god, is not more absurd than mankind thus ignorantly bringing to this poor martyr throughout the years the very last offering he can have desired. Surely it must have filled his shade with a strange bewilderment to have watched us year by year bringing him garlands and the sweet incense of young love, to have seen this gay company approach his shrine with laughter and roses, a very bacchanal, where he had looked for sympathetic sackcloth and ashes--surely it must have all seemed a silly sacrilegious jest. However, he is long since slandered beyond all hope of restitution. So long as the spring moves in the blood, lovers will doubtless continue to take his name in vain, and feign his saintly sanction for their charming indiscretions. Indeed, he is fabled by the poets to be responsible for the billing and cooing of the whole creation. Everybody knows that the birds, too, pair on St. Valentine's Day. We have many a poet's word for it. Donne's charming lines, for instance--


'All the air is thy diocese,
And all the chirping choristers
And other birds are thy parishioners:
Thou marriest every year
The lyrique lark, and the grave whispering dove,
The sparrow, that neglects his life for love,
The household bird with the red stomacher;
Thou mak'st the blackbird speed as soon
As doth the goldfinch or the halcyon.'


In fact, it would appear that St. Valentine was, literally, a hedge-priest.

But do lovers, one wonders, still observe his ancient, though mistaken, rites? Do they still have a care whose pretty face they should first set eyes upon on Valentine's morning, like Mistress Pepys, who kept her eyes closed the whole forenoon lest they should portend a _mesalliance_ with one of those tiresome 'paynters' at work on the gilding of the pictures and the chimney-piece? Or do they with throbbing hearts 'draw' for the fateful name, or, weighting little inscribed slips of paper with lead or breadcrumbs, and dropping them into a basin of water, breathlessly await the name that shall first float up to the surface? Do they still perform that terrible feat of digestion, which consisted of eating a hard-boiled egg, shell and all, to inspire the presaging dream, and pin five bay-leaves upon their pillows to make it the surer?

We are told they do, these happy superstitious lovers, though probably the practices obtain now mostly among a class of fair maids who have none of Mrs. Pepys' fears of 'paynters,' and who are not averse even from a bright young plumber. Indeed, it is to be feared that the one sturdy survival of St. Valentine is to be sought in the 'ugly valentine.' This is another of Time's jests: to degrade the beautiful and distinguished, and mock at old-time sanctities with coarse burlesque. We see it constantly in the fortunes of old streets and squares, once graced with the beau and the sedan-chair, the very cynosure of the polite and elegant world, but now vocal with the clamorous wrongs of the charwoman and the melancholy appeal of the coster. We see it, too, in the ups and downs of words once aristocratic or tender, words once the very signet of polite conversation, now tossed about amid the very offal of language. We see it when some noble house, an illustrious symbol of heroic honour, the ark of high traditions, finds its _reductio ad absurdum_ in some hare-brained turf-lord, who defiles its memories as he sells its pictures. But no lapse could be more pitiful than the end of St. Valentine. Once the day on which great gentlemen and great ladies exchanged stately and, as Pepys frequently complained, costly compliments; when the ingenuity of love tortured itself for the sweetest conceit wherein to express the very sweetest thing; the May-day of the heart, when the very birds were Cupid's messengers, and all the world wore ribbons and made pretty speeches. What is it now? The festival of the servants' hall. It is the sacred day set apart for the cook to tell the housemaid, in vividly illustrated verse, that she need have no fear of the policeman thinking twice of _her_; for the housemaid to make ungenerous reflections on 'cookey's' complexion and weight, and to assure that 'queen of the larder' that it is not her, but her puddings, that attract the constabulary heart. It is the day when inoffensive little tailors receive anonymous letters beginning 'You silly snip,' when the baker is unpleasantly reminded of his immemorial _sobriquet_ of 'Daddy Dough,' and coarse insult breaks the bricklayer's manly heart. Perhaps of all its symbols the most typical and popular are: a nursemaid, a perambulator enclosing twins, and a gigantic dragoon. In fact, we are faced by this curious development--that the day once sacred to universal compliment is now mainly dedicated to low and foolish insult Oh, that whirligig!

Do true lovers still remember the day to keep it holy, one wonders? Does Ophelia still sing beneath the window, and do the love-birds still carry on their celestial postage? One fears that all have gone with the sedan-chair, the stage-coach, and last year's snow. Will the true lovers go next? But, indeed, a florist told us that he had sold many flowers for 'valentines' this year, and that the prettier practice of sending flowers was, he thought, supplanting the tawdry and stereotyped offering of cards. Which reminds one of an old verse:


'The violet made haste to appear,
To be her bosom guest,
With first primrose that grew this year
I purchas'd from her breast;
To me,
Gave she,
Her golden lock for mine;
My ring of jet
For her bracelet,
I gave my _Valentine_.


(The end)
Richard Le Gallienne's essay: Good Bishop Valentine

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