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The Scarlet & Black

Feven Getachew
Feven Getachew
May 6, 2024
Michael Lozada
Michael Lozada
May 6, 2024
Nathan Hoffman
Nathan Hoffman
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Harvey Wilhelm `24.
Harvey Wilhelm
May 6, 2024

Happy Valentine’s Day from Professor Arner

“The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne,
The assay so hard, so sharp the conquerynge,
The dredful joye alwey that slit so yerne
Al this mene I by Love…”
Chaucer, Parliament of Fowls, 1-4

In honor of the spring I’m returning to a previously abandoned column about Valentine’s Day. It’s being published now not only because I am lazy, but also because V-Day may have originally been celebrated closer to this time of year rather than on Feb. 14.

Everyone knows that Valentine’s Day is a day to celebrate love, but you probably didn’t know that the inventor of Valentine’s Day was my main man, Geoffrey Chaucer, who, by his own account, was one of the most unlovingest and unloved men of his age.

The tradition of honoring Saint Valentine dates back to the 5th century AD, and it originally recognized two Christian martyrs with that name who had supposedly been executed on that day. None of the legendary accounts found in classical or medieval hagiographies mentions anything about romantic love, candy hearts or the Hallmark greeting card company.

It seems to have been Chaucer and his literary buddies, namely John Gower and Sir John Clanvowe, who first wrote poetry associating St. Valentine with love during the late 14th century. These are unlikely founders of what has become a holiday for celebrating romantic attachment and dedication. Gower is most famous for a long Middle English poem called the “Confessio Amantis” (“The Lover’s Confession”) in which a young man spends so much time trying to learn about love that when he finally feels ready to enter into a relationship, he is so old that he can no longer perform sexually. This work was a big hit in its time—now it seems like it could be adapted as a Cialis commercial.

Chaucer’s association with Valentine’s Day is no less strange. In each of his major narrative poems, Chaucer presents himself as a man forced to spend time with books because he has been spurned by the God of Love and, by extension, all the single ladies. He doesn’t do a good job marketing himself as a potential lover, either, as he presents himself in “The House of Fame” and “The Canterbury Tales” as rather stout and somewhat surly. He’s less like Paul Bettany and more like Samwise Gamgee.

His Valentine’s Day poem is “The Parliament of Fowls,” in which Chaucer’s narrator dreams about how fine feathered friends from all over England gather on that day to choose their mates. The Parliament is a loud, chaotic gathering of young, lusty singles looking to pair up for a brief time. It’s kind of how I picture Harris parties but with less booze, better poetry and slightly more bird poop.

Problems arise when three males all vie for the talon of one especially sexy female eagle in a 14th century version of “The Dating Game.” In the end, the female asks for a year to decide which suitor she will choose, and the rest of the birds are forced to likewise delay their coupling until the situation is resolved, thus forcing the male birds to depart with a serious case of blue bills.

Despite the lack of resolution and the bird’s deferment of desire, the poem ends with a song in praise of Saint Valentine and a celebration of the season: “Now welcome, somer, with thy sonne softe,/ That hast thes winters wedres overshake/ And driven away the longe nyghtes blake!” Certainly it seems that Valentine’s Day belongs more to April than to February.

But what are we to make of a Valentine’s Day poem in which nobody gets what they want, in which love is denied rather than achieved? The answer, I think, is found in the poem’s opening line, which hinges on the word “craft.”
Chaucer’s poem reminds us that love and desire, knowledge and power, will and virtue are all achieved through a process that plays out over time. These things require learning, which is not the immediate acquisition of obvious truths but the difficult development of particular skills that allow one to evaluate facts, options and interpretations. And this is what makes this poem so fitting to the spring as a reminder of what it is we’re doing here.

The second half of the spring semester typically involves a mad dash toward the finish line. As I speak with students about final projects for my classes or about post-graduation plans, there is a palpable sense of urgency in reaching the end. During my time in the classroom, it often feels like students are less concerned with the immediate questions of what’s happening during that particular class meeting because they are thinking ahead to what is due for the next class, what will appear on the final exam, or what they hell they are going to do After Grinnell, all the while thinking “soon this will all be over.”

It is important to remember, however, that pleasure exists in the doing, not the having-done.

This is what the medieval founders of Valentine’s Day understood, and their poetic selves happily sacrifice the satisfaction of their own desires in order to guide us through the process of thinking about our own. While spring brings the promise of a semester’s end and, for the seniors, the hope and dread of imminent graduation, the focus on outcomes often blinds us to what we’re coming out for in the first place, which is to learn rather than to have learned.

Of course, both in learning and in love, we require some sort of recognition for our efforts, some sort of sign that our hard work has or will have paid off. The reward may take the form of a long-awaited first kiss or an A for a particular class, but the practice of one’s craft in achieving these goals will continue to pay off over time.
And so this column, having been long-delayed and craftily written, is my Happy Belated Valentine’s Day to you all. It’s been a long time coming, and I hope it was worth it.

Editor’s note: That’s what she said.

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