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Geoffrey Chaucer and the Legend of Valentine’s Day

ByPatricia Kohring

Feb 8, 2022

With Valentine’s day incoming, I turn to Geoffrey Chaucer—a man whose work is loved and hated in equal measure—in search of some clarity on this franchised holiday. The works that spring to mind when contemplating the so-called “father of English literature” are The Canterbury Tales, which have arguably pained the high school reader for decades. These texts were, in fact, imposed upon every first-year literature student at this university—being all right, I suppose, despite the off-putting archaic language. Today, however, I am not interested in the entirety of the tales, but in a particular poem that is believed to be the first-ever connection made between Saint Valentine’s Day and love. Enter, ‘The Parliament of Fowls’.

Legend has it that Valentine helped marry young lovers in secrecy, but officially, the Saint has been recognised as a Christian martyr who tended to bees and epileptics, and was supposedly beheaded on 14th February in 270 AD, during the persecution of Christians by the Roman emperor Claudius II. Patron of romance or not, in the late fourteenth century, his commemoration day is featured in Chaucer’s 700-line love poem. ‘The Parliament of Fowls’ follows an assembly of birds that gather annually on Saint Valentine’s Day to choose their mates for the year, judged by the Goddess of nature. Ironically, the poem ends with the three mightiest of birds, the eagles, mate-less after their female object’s rejection—doomed to wait another year in solitude while the other birds happily chirp off with their newfound loves. A social commentary on Chaucer’s part? Or perhaps the emerging affiliation of doves, swallows, swans, as lovebirds—I mean, when was the last time you came across a romantic poem featuring eagles or falcons?

Nonetheless, the imagery involving the birds has left Chaucer with a strong legacy in romance literature. The feathery creatures have gained a symbolic status and play an archetypal element in the poetry of love. In his poem they sing for Saint Valentine and, with their new lovers, they commence the season of warmth and rebirth.

‘Saynt Valentun, that art ful hy on lofte;-

Thus singen smale foules for thy sake –

Now welcom somer, with thy sonne sonne,

That hast this wintres waders over-shake

(lines 683-6)

In the Romantic period, we can see the extent of Chaucer’s influence unfold. With their elegant physique, beautiful song, and pre-set associations with freedom, love and joy, the smaller, more elegant birds are often used in poems about love and equally often, in comparison to women. A prime example of this kind of imagery can be found in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘To a Skylark’, which describes the movements of a bird in the evening sky.

Like a high-born maiden

In a palace-tower,

Soothing her love-laden

Soul in secret hour

With music sweet as love, which overflows her bower:

(lines 41-5)

Of course, the influence of Chaucer’s dream-vision poem extends beyond the Romantic period, with Valentine’s day featuring in works by canonical writers such as Shakespeare and Austen. In Emma, for example, Austen includes a scene where Jane Fairfax is gifted with a luxurious pianoforte by her secret fiancé on Valentine’s day, giving the reader a first-class example of the embarrassing yet endearing ritual of gift-giving by awkward young lovers.

So how much is literature, or the highly lucrative celebration of Valentine’s day, indebted to old Geoffrey? What does poetry, which so often involves themes of romance, owe the medieval writer? At the very least, probably more appreciation than he has been given thus far.

Image Credit: UMD Special Collections via Flickr