The upcoming card holiday known in the modern era as Valentine's Day is but a week away. Enough time, gentlemen, to pick up the requisite card, flowers, candy, etc., with which to woo your sweetie. We are given lots of ways to declare our earnest affection: personalized M&Ms, heart-emblazoned underthings; even a unique web-stream created exclusively for one's inamorata.
In the olden days, my youth, it was still Saint Valentine's Day, named for an early Christian martyr whose ultimate reward for performing illegal marriages in 269 A.D. was canonization. As the sender of the first love letter (to his jailer's daughter in a token of gratitude for kindness) he was ever after associated with the greeting card industry. The modern notion of billet doux between lovers on Feb. 14 was popularized by the Victorians; the saint of forbidden love evidently got mixed up by those repressed people with Cupid, the lower-case god of love.
Prior to the Victorians coming up with the idea of fancy cards professing romantic devotion, the Romantics invented, well, the Romantic period. This, to my dying disappointment in college, had little to do with love stories, and everything to do with recognizing the power and majesty of the 'real' world. It was a period when the most prosaic of creatures - lambs, tigers, nightingales, and the like - got poems written about them. The poets of this period, roughly 1800-1830, were, like rebellious young men of any era, bucking the previous generation's devotion to the classical with their interest in the "picturesque, wild, and distant," according to the general introduction of the textbook, English Romantic Writers (Edited by David Perkins, Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1967).
William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Dorothy and William Wordsworth were among the poets who were hooked on the idea of the natural world. They wrote sonnets to the seasons, penned verses in honor of Old Adam, the Carrion Crow (Thomas Lovell Beddoes, c. 1825), elegies and odes. There was nothing too ordinary for their tastes. Of course, this was also the period of George Gordon, Lord Byron, who penned the epic Don Juan, so there was a little sex thrown in. They also were into mind altering drugs: Thomas De Quincey wrote several times on the subject of opium.
They were perhaps analogous to the flowering of the hippy culture following the repressive1950s. Flower Power rebellion in 19th-century verse. Dense, verse. In the preface to his poem, "Milton," in which William Blake imagines the author of Paradise Lost fighting for his true self against the false god Urizen - that Milton himself had created - refers to this period as the New Age. Yup, the New Age. "The Stolen and Perverted Writings of Homer & Ovid, of Plato & Cicero, which all Men ought to contemn, are set up by artifice...but when the New Age is at leisure to Pronounce, all will be set right...."
So what has all this to do with the upcoming emotionally hazardous holiday? Nothing except the root word: romance. The American Heritage Dictionary defines romance initially as a long medieval narrative in prose or verse, telling the adventures of chivalric heroes. It isn't until definition number 7b that we come up to the definition most of us attribute to the 14th of February: Love; romantic involvement. The languages of French, Portuguese, and Italian are called Romance languages, not because they speak so eloquently of love, but because they evolved from the vulgar - meaning common, not rude - Latin of the people who actually spoke it, i.e. the Roman tongue.
Romance since the Victorian age has become a commercially successful ideal. We are raised to want it; we suffer from its absence; we relish it in its brevity when it does happen. Today men especially are challenged to come up with unique methods of 1) proposing and 2) keeping the romance alive. They are also persuaded that buying great/expensive gifts is proof of sustained romance. Just listen to the inordinate number of times two different jewelry stores run their saccharine ads on local radio. If a man buys flowers because society says he has to, does it mean as much as when he comes home with them on a random day?
Now romance, for writers, is a whole "nother" thing. Even the hardest boiled detective in a crime novel flirts a little with romance; or he's coming off a bad romance, or he's in mourning for a lost love of his life. Romance is a critical element in a story, even when it isn't the main topic. It proves that our hero, or anti-hero, or heroine is human. Love is what makes us open to all the other emotions, and that's what novelists and short story writers - and poets - use for material. A traditional 'romance' novel is built only on the premise of boy-meets/loses/recovers-girl (or vice versa). That is its subject, and that's what it does. But most, if not all, other novels give a nod to the notion that most human beings love someone. And it is the withholding of that love, or the loss of the loved one, or the desire for that mute and powerful emotion that fills out a protagonist's believability. It may not be made manifest in the love between future lovers, but between sisters, friends, parent and child; man and dog. Any combination of lover and beloved.
Our friends the Romantic poets celebrated the love of nature, of looking at the world and seeing the magnificence of the ordinary. These pioneers, and their brothers the artists and composers of their time, offered their generation a worldview outside of the narrow confines of classic literature. Right on.
Susan Wilson is a freelance writer and novelist who lives in Oak Bluffs. Visit her web site at susanwilsonwrites.com.