Valentine's Day is a lover's festival, which traces it history back to the 3rd century Roman priest and physician Saint Valentine who suffered martyrdom during the persecution of Christians by the emperor Claudius II Gothicus (214-270), and was buried on the Via Flaminia. Legend has it that the priest wrote a letter signing himself "Valentine" to his jailer's daughter who he had fallen in love with. In the course of time, the hapless priest has been recognized as a courtship martyr, and the day of his execution, (14 February) is being observed as a lover's day across the globe.
Saint Valentine once stood for the medieval courtly lover who existed to serve his lady. However, this connotation has now been reduced to free love or a romantic relationship between lovers who express their affection with greetings and gifts on this day. Whatever it is, the underlying thing here is human love, which finds expression in different ways at different times. The first recorded association of Valentine's Day with romantic love was found in Geoffrey Chaucer's (1342-1400) Parlement of Foules (1382) where he wrote: "For this was Saint Valentine's Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate." The poem was written to honour the first anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England (1367-1400) to Anne of Bohemia. They were married eight months later in 1382 when they were each only 15 years old. Later on, Valentine's Day was mentioned ruefully by Ophelia in Hamlet (1600-1601): "To-morrow is Saint Valentine's day, /All in the morning betime, /And I a maid at your window, To be your Valentine?"/[William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5]
John Donne (1572-1631) also used the legend of the marriage of the birds as the starting point for his Epithalamion (wedding lyric) celebrating the marriage of Elizabeth, daughter of James I, and Frederick V, Elector Palatine on Valentine's Day: "Hayle Bishop Valentine whose day this is/All the Ayre is thy Diocese/And all the chirping Queristers/And other birds art thy parishioners". The modern Valentine's Day poem can be found in the collection of English nursery rhymes Gammer Gurton's Garland (1784): "The rose is red, the violet's blue/The honey's sweet, and so are you/Thou are my love and I am thine/I drew thee to my Valentine?."
Saint Valentine was a martyr to the cause of love. But he was not the lone lover who suffered martyrdom for love. In fact, human history is full of lovers who took tragic consequences of their love. The Roman poet Ovid (43 BC - AD 17/18 ) in his Ars amatoria had pictured a lover as the slave of passion-sighing, trembling, growing pale and sleepless, and even dying for love. The great Persian mystic poet Hafez (1326-1390) wished to sell Samarkand and Bokhara for the black mole of his beloved (a boy or a girl in Shiraz).As he put it: "If that Shirazi Turk would take my heart in hand/ I would remit Samarkand and Bokhara for his/her Hindu mole." It is said that the couplet infuriated Tamerlane (1336-1405). The irate Emperor asked for the poet who, however, could pacify him by his ready wit and humility. Hafez was ravished by the beauty of Shakh-e Nabat. But when his love was not requited, he went on a mystic vigil in pursuit of spiritual union with the divine. His romantic love turned into sexless spiritual devotion.
What kind of passion is love which human lives are governed by? It is not easy to define. It is related to the affairs of the heart. It refers to a wide variety of feelings ranging from personal pleasure to interpersonal attachment and even to spiritual affinity. It may be classified into various categories like the passionate desire for romantic love, or the barbaric appeal to sexual desire, or the emotional attachment to one's nearest and dearest, or the platonic friendship, or even the devotional awakening. Virgil (70 BC 19 BC) found love as 'an all-conquering force', Aristotle (384 BC-322 BC) regarded it as 'a will to do good to other', and the British rock-group the Beatles saw it as 'an absolute need for humans' while Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) termed it as a condition of "absolute value." Philosopher Leibniz (1646-1716) took it as something, which persuades people into being 'delighted by the happiness of other'.
However, Valentine love, in the truer sense of the term, should be defined as one's selfless concern for the good of the opposite sex. It is a feeling of affection for and personal attachment to one you are in love with.This sort of love is a very strong human passion. Longing for it was one of the three 'simple but overwhelmingly strong passions', which admittedly governed the life of a great philosopher like Russell. The archetypal love stories of Romeo-Juliet, Radha-Krishna, Layla-Majnun, Shirin-Farhad, Yusuf-Zulaikha, Chandidas- Rajakini are but the creation of man's eternal longing for love of Valentine type.
But what is our present-day love like? We celebrate the Valentine Day with colourful gifts and greetings only to wear our hearts on our sleeves. As a matter of fact, the love like that of Saint Valentine for his beloved is hard to find. Even the love-legends of history who are honoured for ages as the champions of love are being unmasked. We know that the Great Mughal emperor of India Shahjahan (1592-1666), being charged with tremendous spousal love made the mausoleum Taj Mahal in commemoration of his deceased wife Mumtaz. But we do not know that Shahjahan's love for Mumtaz was more a passing infatuation than love. Mumtaz was the lascivious Emperor's fourth wife out of seven, and he married her sister after her death. The Emperor's reckless copulation bore so heavily on Mumtaz that she was taken ill owing to frequent pregnancy and parturition, and finally died in her 14th delivery.
Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) was seen loving the memories of his dead wife, Josephine so dearly that he retrieved violets from her garden, and wore them in a locket until his death. But his love was also proved deceptive. The great military genius was so infatuated with the charming and beautiful Paris socialite, Josephine that the ruthless soldier in him was captivated the moment he stumbled upon her. He doggedly pursued the widowed woman of 32, mother of two children, and got hitched. But before long his love completely evaporated, and he divorced her simply on pretext of infertility and in less than a year married 18-year-old Marie Louise of Austria. Broken-hearted and sick, Josephine succumbed to her husband's desertion.
It is said that Edward VIII (1894-1972) abdicated the throne of England on the altar of his love for an American socialite Wallis Simpson, who had divorced two husbands. But it was more his compulsive womanizing and reckless behaviour than his true love that prompted him to marry her. However, he was never faithful to his wife. Disgusted by his many affairs with married women, his father George V (1865-1936), was reluctant to see him inherit the Crown. Edward's private secretary, Alan Lascelles held some hereditary or physiological reasons responsible for the loose morals he developed after he reached puberty.
The bulk of the present generation is more or less left with the legacy of these historical love-mongers. What's happening these days around the world in the name of love is nothing but a travesty of love. True love is unfortunately the exception rather than the rule. It is being sickeningly cheapened by the lavish practice of 'boy-friendship' / 'girl-friendship among the young generation. In their fast and furious life, love has been like the fast food. It is won quickly and lost quickly. Love to them is a passing fancy, a nine day's wonder, a brightly coloured balloon that pops in the twinkling of an eye at the slightest mishap. In the schools, colleges, and varsities, our boys and girls are mixing freely like the lovebirds, but they seldom know the real meaning of love, which should be built on mutual understanding, respect, and support. But our youths mostly mistake love for a fleeting moment of passion. This is being revolutionized by the cellular phone, facebook and other electronic devices that tend to glamorise this sort of pleasure pursuit in the name of love. And the frivolous, vain and flighty youths in their wild flights of fancy feel an irresistible attraction for it. But like the night-time fancies, their fantasy world disappears in the morning when faced with the harsh realities of life. The lovers who somehow or other cross the wedding line could not finally score good grades in the conjugal tests. At the end of the day, many of them split up. But then again, I reiterate, there are exceptions, but those exceptions, however, are, it's reasonable to assume, just to prove the rule.
This anti-love or pseudo love rule should not prevail in the civilized society. On the contrary, we cannot stop plucking the rose of love for fear of thorns. Love is the lifeblood of human society. A loveless life is not worth living. A loveless society is simply unthinkable. Behind all human achievements, love has a hand and behind all wrongdoings works lovelessness as a factor though. The French novelist and memoirist, George Sand (1804-1876) quite rightly remarked: "There is only one happiness in life, to love and be loved".
Dr Rashid Askari writes fiction and columns, and teaches English literature at Kushtia Islamic University, Bangladesh. Email: [email protected]