Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Valentine's Day: A Celebration of Cliches

This Valentine's Day, give her a compass.

It’s mid-February again, and we are all forced to deal with the oppression and anxiety of everyone’s favorite made-up holiday, Valentines Day. 

If there’s one thing a student of literature hates, it’s a cliché. And Valentine’s Day is a national holiday devoted to cliches. 

A dozen roses?  Chocolate-dipped strawberries?  Are you kidding me?  Who could be flattered to receive a gift that millions of imagination-plauged men have bought for their wives and girlfriends? 

You know what Valentine’s Day needs (other than total eradication)?  A little bit of imagination.  And, if you insist on acknowledging this dreadful concession to yet more consumerism, at least use your brain.  Buy her a compass.

John Donne
Why a compass?  Because people have found hearts and red bows to be moronic and tired symbols of love for centuries.  At least John Donne did.  That’s why he didn’t include any of those things in his poem, “A Valediction: ForbiddingMourning,” which is more romantic and sincere than anything you’ll find in the Hallmark aisle of Walgreens.

In 1611, John Donne was called to France on a diplomatic mission.  His wife, who was staying behind in England, had terrible feelings that something tragic was going to happen to one or both of them while he was gone, and pleaded with him not to go.  In the poem, he reassures her that nothing could possibly separate the two of them, since their souls were joined forever.  And here is where he used the conceit of the compass, saying:

“If [our souls] be two, they are two so
    As stiff twin compasses are two,
Thy soul the fixed foot, makes no show
    To move, but doth, if th’ other do.

And though it in the center sit,
    Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
    And grows erect, as that comes home.

Such wilt thou be to me, who must
    Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
    And makes me end, where I begun.”

He is telling his wife that she is like the leg of the compass that stays fixed, at the center of the circle.  As he travels away from her, she leans and “hearkens” after him; when he returns, she stands up straight again in anticipation.   

If she wavered, or drifted, the circle would be lopsided, and he would not be able to end “where I begun.”  But because she is steadfast, he returns at the starting point, and his circle—the symbol of perfection, with neither a beginning nor an end—is “just.”   

Sure, buying your wife a compass is a stupid idea, but so is shilling out $100 for some stupid flowers.  Any way you look at it, Valentine's Day sucks.

Roses being advertised along side "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning."


  1. I'm confused. You don't like Valentine's Day? You have a compass collection?

  2. i have a gps stuck to my windshield. that's kinda like a compass. maybe i could give my husband one. hmmm

    we are going out to eat steak. what's not to like?

    1. I am always in favor of going out for a steak. If that was part of our traditional Valentine's Day celebration, I would be much more of a V-Day fan.

  3. Watch out or we will bombard you with valentines. Seriously, our neighbor gave us a 3-foot box full of valentine cheer. Must have had the Brames in mind! - A

  4. There's also the feminist route.
    Should women be sitting around on this day waiting to receive something- whether it be a compass or a dozen roses? I think not.
    We have come so far, and yet, we have such a long ways to go. Or is Valentine's Day acceptable? Who am I to say?

    1. taking each other out to eat solves a lot of problems. makes it a collaborative celebration of the relationship. valentine's day is no excuse for abandoning feminist principles, imo. but, as you say: who am i to say?

    2. That is a good point, and though it should not take a specific holiday to make a couple get together and go out, it is good to have an extra excuse, in case people are too busy to make every day special etc,etc.
      What bothers me the most is that in our culture, it is such that the women or girls are so expecting something. Or even how the guys might feel an obligation to do something for the girls. But I'm probably just a little too feminist to function.

    3. i agree with you, and i don't think there's any such thing as "too feminist to function." on the other hand, i do believe there's such a thing as not feminist enough to function ;)