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Happy Valentine’s Day! The three traditional symbols of this holiday are (1) a voluptuous heart-shape, (2) Cupid, and (3) a pair of doves. The first of these—the shapely heart–is a medieval symbol, but the other two holiday symbols are much older and trace their way back to the ancient Greco-Roman world. The mischievous archer Cupid was the god of infatuation and besottment—with his phallic arrow, he is so ouvert that he is barely a symbol. In the world of Christian iconography, doves represent peace, divine revelation, and the holy spirit, however in the classical world they were the bird of Aprodite/Venus. Valentine’s Day is really Lupercalia—the fertility festival to Lupercus (Pan). In the modern world it (barely) masquerades as an acceptable holiday, but its wild roots are never far away. I get the sense these doves are really the amorous doves of Venus and not representations of peace.
To celebrate, here are some Valentine’s doves from Valentines throughout the ages.
Doves pulled the chariot of Venus and they nearly always attended to her. Their tenderness with each other and their ability to rapidly proliferate made them abiding symbols of love. Additionally, doves are uniquely beautiful and otherworldly and yet also commonplace. They can fly to the heights of heaven and yet consist on meager scraps in wastelands. Maybe doves really are a good symbol of love!
Ferrebeekeeper has long served Athena, the virgin goddess of truth and wisdom (although she is never the most popular goddess, she is certainly the BEST and is always is victorious in the end), and, in my time, I have also served Dionysus. All American are compelled to serve Hera for 8 hours every workday (except the super-rich, who serve her constantly). Yet Aphrodite has almost always eluded me. Springs come and go and the long decades pass, but love is elusive. Maybe some sacred doves will please coy Aphrodite.
In the meantime, Happy Valentine’s Day to everyone. I hope you find the love you are looking for in your life. Or at least I hope you enjoy these doves and maybe some chocolate!
Wherever I go these days, strangers come up to me begging to know spoilers for The Shepheardes Calender, Edmund Spenser’s great 12 part poetic masterpiece from 1579 (which Ferrebeekeeper is publishing in its entirety, month by month, to universal acclaim). Will spring return to the picturesque English countryside? Will the shepherds ply their Arcadian trade while exchanging classical allusions? Will romantic contrivances lead to deeper questions concerning the human condition? Will love triumph anon?
I can’t answer these burning questions. You will just have to wait for each additional installment and keep reading…but, by coincidence, here is the March eclogue. The grim months, January and February, are giving way to spring, when all of nature awakes. Two callow shepherd youth, Willye and Thomalin, discourse upon the beauties of the waxing season. Willye lightly teases his friend Thomalin concerning the season’s longstanding connection with amorous pursuits (as adolescent boys everywhere are wont to goad their fellows), whereupon Thomalin tells a hunting anecdote of firing his crossbow at a beautiful winged child. This supernatural entity easily avoids the inexperienced shafts of the shepherd and gravely wounds the farm lad with a return arrow. Oh! The wanton follies of love!
Spenser follows up this little scene with an author’s gloss (which makes use of playfully ironic language to hint at deeper and unspoken undercurrents buried in the allusions). But enough of my prating, you came here to read Spenser and contemplate the paradoxical nature of love as explained by a 16th century aesthete. So, without further preamble, here is…
The Shepheardes Calender: March
A R G V M E N T.
IN this Æglogue two shepheards boyes taking occasion of the season, beginne to make purpose of loue and other pleasaunce, which to springtime is most agreeable. The speciall meaning hereof is, to giue certaine markes and tokens, to know Cupide the Poets God of Loue. But more particularlye I thinke, in the person of Thomalin is meant some secrete freend, who scorned Loue and his knights so long, till at length him selfe was entangled, and unwares wounded with the dart of some beautifull regard, which is Cupides arrowe.
Thomalin, why sitten we so,
As weren overwent with Woe.
Upon so fair a Morrow?
The joyous time now nigheth fast,
That shall alegg this bitter Blast,
And slake the Winter Sorrow.
Siker Willy, thou warnest well;
For Winter’s Wrath begins to quell,
And pleasant Spring appeareth:
The Grass now ‘gins to be refresht
The Swallow peeps out of her Nest,
And cloudy Welkin cleareth.
Seest not thilk same Hawthorn Stud,
How bragly it begins to bud,
And utter his tender Head?
Flora now calleth forth each Flower,
And bids make ready Maia’s Bower,
That new is uprist from Bed.
Tho shall we sporten in delight,
And learn with Lettice to wex light,
That scornfully looks askaunce:
Tho will we little Love awake,
That now sleepeth in Lethe Lake,
And pray him leaden our daunce.
Willy, I ween thou be a Sot;
For lusty Love still sleepeth not,
But is abroad at his Game.
How kenst thou that he is awoke?
Or hast thy self his Slumber broke?
Or made privy to the same?
No, but happily I him spide,
Where in a Bush he did him hide,
With Wings of purple and blue:
And were not, that my Sheep would stray,
The privy Marks I would bewray,
Whereby by chaunce I him knew.
Thomalin, have no care for-thy,
My self will have a double Eye,
Ylike to my Flock and thine;
For alas at home I have a Sire,
A Stepdame eke as hot as Fire,
That duly adays counts mine.
Nay, but thy seeing will not serve,
My Sheep for that may chaunce to swerve,
And fall into some Mischief.
For sithens is but the third morrow,
That I chauncst to fall asleep with Sorrow,
And waked again with Grief:
The while thilk same unhappy Ewe,
Whose clouted Leg her hurt doth shew,
Fell headlong into a Dell,
And there unjointed both her Bones:
Mought her Neck been jointed attones,
She should have need no more Spell.
Th’ Elf was so wanton and so wood,
(But now I trow can better good)
She mought ne gang on the Green.
Let be, as may be, that is past;
That is to come, let be forecast:
Now tell us what thou hast seen.
It was upon a Holy-day
When Shepherds Grooms han leave to play,
I cast to go a shooting:
Long wandring up and down the Land,
With Bow and Bolts in either Hand,
For Birds in Bushes tooting:
At length within the Ivy tod,
(There shrouded was the little God)
I heard a busie bustling.
I bent my Bolt against the Bush,
Listning if any thing did rush,
But then heard no more rustling.
Tho peeping close into the thick,
Might see the moving of some quick,
Whose Shape appeared not;
But were it Fairy, Fiend, or Snake,
My Courage earn’d it to awake,
And manfully thereat shot.
With that sprang forth a naked Swain,
With spotted Wings like Peacocks Train,
And laughing lope to a Tree;
His gilden Quiver at his Back,
And silver Bow which was but slack,
Which lightly he bent at me.
That seeing, I level’d again,
And shot at him with Might and Main,
As thick, as it had hailed.
So long I shot, that all was spent.
Tho pumy Stones I hastily hent,
And threw; but nought availed
He was so wimble and so wight,
From Bough to Bough he leaped light,
And oft the Pumies latched.
Therewith afraid, I ran away;
But he, that earst seem’d but to play,
A Shaft in earnest snatched,
And hit me running, in the Heel;
For then I little smart did feel,
But soon it sore increased.
And now it rankleth more and more,
And inwardly it festereth sore,
Ne wote I how to cease it.
Thomalin, I pity thy Plight,
Perdy with Love thou diddest fight:
I know him by a Token.
For once I heard my Father say,
How he him caught upon a day,
(Whereof he will be wroken)
Entangled in a Fowling-Net,
Which he for Carrion-Crows had set,
That in our Pear-tree haunted:
Tho said, he was a winged Lad,
But Bow and Shafts as then none had;
Else had he sore be daunted.
But see, the Welkin thicks apace,
And stooping Phoebus steeps his race:
It’s time to haste us homeward.
To be Wise and eke to Love,
Is granted scarce to Gods above.
Of Honey and of Gall, in love there is store:
The Honey is much, but the Gall is more.
THIS Æglogue seemeth somewhat to resemble that same of Theocritus, wherein the boy likewise telling the old man, that he had shot at a winged boy in a tree, was by hym warned, to beware of mischiefe to come.
Flora) the Goddesse of flowres, but indede (as saith Tacitus) a famous harlot, which with the abuse of her body hauing gotten great riches, made the people of Rome her heyre: who in remembraunce of so great beneficence, appointed a yearely feste for the memoriall of her, calling her, not as she was, nor as some doe think, Andronica, but Flora: making her the Goddesse of all floures, and doing yerely to her solemne sacrifice.
Lethe) is a lake in hell, which the Poetes call the lake of forgetfulnes. For Lethe signifieth forgetfulnes. Wherein the soules being dipped, did forget the cares of their former lyfe. So that by loue sleeping in Lethe lake, he meaneth he was almost forgotten and out of knowledge, by reason of winters hardnesse, when al pleasures, as it were, sleepe and weare out of mynde.
Est mihi namque domi pater, est iniusta nouerca &c.
Spell) is a kind of verse or charme, that in elder tymes they vsed often to say ouer euery thing, that they would haue preserued, as the Nightspel for theeues, and the woodspell. And herehence I thinke is named the gospell, as it were Gods spell or worde. And so sayth Chaucer, Listeneth Lordings to my spell.
Swaine) a boye: for so he is described of the Poetes, to be a boye .s. alwayes freshe and lustie: blindfolded, because he maketh no difference of Personages: wyth diuers coloured winges, .s. ful of flying fancies: with bowe and arrow, that is with glaunce of beautye, which prycketh as a forked arrowe. He is sayd also to haue shafts, some leaden, some golden: that is, both pleasure for the gracious and loued, and sorow for the louer that is disdayned or forsaken. But who liste more at large to behold Cupids colours and furniture, let him reade ether Propertius, or Moschus his Idyllion of wandring loue, being now most excellently translated into Latine by the singuler learned man Angelus Politianus: Whych worke I haue seene amongst other of thys Poets doings, very wel translated also into Englishe Rymes.
In the heele) is very Poetically spoken, and not without speciall iudgement. For I remember, that in Homer it is sayd of Thetis, that shee tooke her young babe Achilles being newely borne, and holding him by the heele, dipped him in the River of Styx. The vertue whereof is, to defend and keepe the bodyes washed therein from any mortall wound. So Achilles being washed al ouer, saue anely his hele, by which his mother held, was in the rest [invulnerable]: therfore by Paris was feyned to bee shotte with a poysoned arrowe in the heele, whiles he was busie about the marying of Polyena in the temple of Apollo. Which mysticall fable Eustathius vnfolding, sayth: that by wounding in the hele, is meant lustfull loue. For from the heele (as say the best Phisitions) to the preuie partes there passe certaine veines and slender synnewes, as also the like come from the head, and are carryed lyke little pypes behynd the eares: so that (as sayth Hippocrates) yf those veynes there be cut a sonder, the partie straighte becometh cold and vnfruiteful. which reason our Poete wel weighing, maketh this shepheards boye of purpose to be wounded by Loue in the heele.
Hereby is meant, that all the delights of Loue, wherein wanton youth walloweth, be but follye mixt with bitternesse, and sorow sawced with repentaunce. For besides that the very affection of Loue it selfe tormenteth the mynde, and vexeth the body many wayes, with vnrestfulnesse all night, and wearines all day, seeking for that we can not haue: euen the selfe things which best before vs liked, in course of time and chaung of ryper yeares, whiche also therewithall chaungeth our wonted lyking and former fantasies, will then seeme lothsome and breede vs annoyaunce, when yougthes flowre is withered, and we fynde our bodyes and wits aunswere not to suche vayne iollitie and lustfull pleasaunce.
April is poetry month! For years I have shared my home and/or my heart with various poets—so I was going to feature some colorful and enigmatic contemporary poetry. Unfortunately none of my (living) poet friends has yet come to my aid with any relevant works. It therefore looks like I am going to have to rely on one of the great canonical poets of classical English literature to celebrate the beautiful discipline of poetry.
I wanted to feature a poem which combined three aspects: 1) the poem should have classical Greco-Roman flair; 2) it should be about bees or crowns (or maybe both); and 3) it should be really suggestive (because, let’s face it, we are talking about poetry—if you are reading this, you are old enough for adult things). The poem I found is actually a series of connected short poems by the great Edmund Spenser who was born around 1552 and died in 1599. Spenser is best known for The Faerie Queen, one of the most important and beautiful epic poems in English, but the work I selected by him has no formal title. I found a scholarly note which reads “These four short poems immediately follow Spenser’s “Amoretti” and precede his “Epithalamion”. Nothing seems known of their history. Editors have usually styled them “Poem I. Poem II.” &c. but they have no titles in any of the old impressions. We so continue them.”
The lack of title or history is appropriate. The work seems self-explanatory—an allegory concerning the pain of love written in the vein of both Catullus and Chaucer. However just as Roman and Medieval poetry had unsettling edges and disconcerting depths, so to does Spenser’s poem about Cupid and the bee.
IN youth before I waxed old.
The blynd boy Venus baby,
For want of cunning made me bold,
In bitter byue to grope for honny.
But when he saw me stung and cry,
He tooke his wings and away did fly.
As Diane hunted on a day,
She chaunst to come where Cupid lay,
his quiuer by his head:
One of his shafts she stole away,
And one of hers did close conuay,
into the others stead:
With that loue wounded my loues hart,
but Diane beasts with Cupids dart.
I Saw in secret to my Dame,
How little Cupid humbly came:
and sayd to her All hayle my mother.
But when he saw me laugh, for shame:
His face with bashfull blood did flame,
not knowing Venus from the other,
Then neuer blush Cupid (quoth I)
for many haue err’d in this beauty.
VPon a day as loue lay sweetly slumbring,
all in his mothers lap:
A gentle Bee with his loud trumpet murm’ring,
about him flew by hap.
Whereof when he was wakened with the noyse,
and saw the beast so small:
Whats this (quoth he) that giues so great a voyce,
that wakens men withall.
In angry wize he flyes about,
and threatens all with corage stout.
TO whom his mother closely smiling sayd,
twixt earnest and twixt game:
See thou thy selfe likewise art lyttle made,
if thou regard the same.
And yet thou suffrest neyther gods in sky,
nor men in earth to rest:
But when thou art disposed cruelly,
theyr sleepe thou doost molest.
Then eyther change thy cruelty,
or giue lyke leaue vnto the fly.
NAthlesse the cruell boy not so content,
would needs the fly pursue:
And in his hand with heedlesse hardiment,
him caught for to subdue.
But when on it he hasty hand did lay,
the Bee him stung therefore:
Now out alasse (he cryde) and welaway,
I wounded am full sore:
The fly that I so much did scorne,
hath hurt me with his little horne.
VNto his mother straight he weeping came,
and of his griefe complayned:
Who could not chose but laugh at his fond game,
though sad to see him pained.
Think now (quod she) my sonne how great the smart
of those whom thou dost wound:
Full many thou hast pricked to the hart,
that pitty neuer found:
Therefore henceforth some pitty take,
when thou doest spoyle of louers make.
SHe tooke him streight full pitiously lamenting,
and wrapt him in her smock:
She wrapt him softly, all the while repenting,
that he the fly did mock.
She drest his wound and it embaulmed wel
with salue of soueraigne might:
And then she bath’d him in a dainty well
the well of deare delight.
Who would not oft be stung as this,
to be so bath’d in Venus blis.
THe wanton boy was shortly wel recured,
of that his malady:
But he soone after fresh againe enured,
his former cruelty.
And since that time he wounded hath my selfe
with his sharpe dart of loue:
And now forgets the cruell carelesse elfe,
his mothers heast to proue.
So now I languish till he please,
my pining anguish to appease.
The story of Cupid and Psyche is a breathless tale of hidden identity, subservience, misplaced trust, and true love. It is a favorite theme for western artists, particularly since it features Cupid (the capricious god of love who wreaks so much chaos in mortal life) emotionally caught in a seemingly impossible situation. Each of these three paintings by Edward Burne-Jones depicts the moment, late in the story when Cupid finally forgives Psyche (who has suffered endless woe, pain, and setbacks). Psyche has visited the underworld and returned with a box containing divine beauty. Warned not to open the box, she has decided to steal a pinch so that Cupid will love her despite her mortality. Unsurprisingly the otherworldly box contains poison of infernal sleep. Cupid then intervenes directly and utilizes his divinity to rescue her from the curse.
As a young man Edward Burne-Jones studied theology at Oxford and was anticipating a career as a minister–until his spirit was seduced by ancient poetry (really!). He left the university without a degree and joined a brotherhood of artists and poets. He painted three nearly identical versions of this dramatic scene over the course of several years. The first and finest from around 1867 is a gouache portrait of Maria Zambaco, a Greco-English beauty. In 1866, Maria’s mother had commissioned Burne-Jones to paint Maria (as Psyche no less) for an entirely different picture, and the (married) Burne-Jones fell in love with the (married) Zambaco. Their tempestuous affair destroyed both marriages and nearly led them to suicide before ending in 1869 (although it resulted in a number of gorgeous paintings—which were pilloried by the Victorian art world for portraying female sexual assertiveness in a positive light).
Although outwardly the same, these three paintings are also subtly different. In the last painting, from 1872, Cupid is not red and radiant but gray and diffuse (and he has lost his ever-changing wreath). Psyche’s hair has changed color and her features have been altered. Additionally, the sheer repetition of this same moment of divine intervention suggests that romance is a figure eight: our arguments and passions keep repeating themselves (which is in fact what happens in the tale of Cupid and Psyche). Lovers relive the same moments of longing, confusion, and passion again and again and again even as the world changes like water and our lives wear out.
This lovely work was painted in 1904 by John William Waterhouse, the last of the Pre-Raphaelite artists. It depicts a critical moment in the love story between Cupid, god of love, and Psyche, a beautiful mortal persecuted by Venus.
I won’t repeat the entire myth, which symbolizes both the nature of love and the nature of the human soul, but I will explain the context of the painting. Psyche was cursed by Venus never to marry. Venus’ beautiful and capricious son Cupid, however, had fallen in love with Psyche and, in protest, refused to shoot his arrows at any living thing–which meant the living world began to age and die, being unable to… renew itself without Eros. Psyche visited the oracle of Apollo who explained her destiny thus, “The virgin is destined for the bride of no mortal lover. Her future husband awaits her on the top of the mountain. He is a monster whom neither gods nor men can resist.”
We know that the monster is the beautiful god of love, but Psyche knows only the oracle’s dire words. She goes to the mountain and, swooning, is carried away by the wind to the palace of Cupid. Waterhouse has painted her as she awakens and enters the garden of the palace of love. Although afraid, she sees the ineffable beauty of the garden and realizes the owner is no mortal. As a gardener, I would like to dwell on the musk roses and cypresses, yet as a painter I am obliged to point you towards the troubled mien of Psyche as she attempts to puzzle out the nature of her monstrous divine consort.
A perennial favorite for artists, the entire myth is told best by its originator, the incomparable Lucius Apuleius who used the story of Cupid and Psyche as a chapter in The Golden Ass, the only complete Milesian tale to survive from ancient Rome. The Golden Ass is arguably the immediate ancestor of the novel and it is every bit as ribald as its name suggests. The chapter about Cupid and Psyche however is dead serious (as is the overall book, which subtly suggested that if Roman aristocrats continued to degrade and oppress everyone else in society, Roman civilization would founder).