Closer Readings Commentary

A Valentine from Emily

Valentine's Day in mid-19th-century America was a week-long celebration of friendship. In that era, the week leading up to February 14 was filled with exchanges of witty, whimsical, hand-written notes between friends who were not always romantically involved.

Emily Dickinson was no exception. During Valentine’s week, 1850, the 20-year old writer penned this couplet, which opens a longer poem that was delivered to Elbridge Bowdoin, a law partner of her father and a family-friend.

Awake ye muses nine, sing me a strain divine,
Unwind the solemn twine, and tie my Valentine!

Dickinson entered into the spirit of the genial comic tradition, which characterized many 19th-century valentines. A close reading of the poem shows the droll encouragement she offered to Elbridge, a confirmed bachelor, urging him to seek out his true love. Dickinson’s tips include tongue-in-cheek suggestions about how to find a mate. Her references to examples of natural and celestial pairings are meant to provide the single man with added incentive.

Bowdoin would have fully appreciated the spirit in which this valentine was written. Fortunately, he had the foresight to hold on to that letter for forty years, so that it could be saved for posterity. It allows modern readers a rare glimpse into the lighter side of the poet—not always evident in her later, penetrating verse that usually surfaces in English literature classrooms.

Dickinson’s 19th-century valentine serves as a reminder that even this sublime poet was not above engaging in a little mischief!

Valentine’s Day in the 1800s

The following resources will immerse your students in a study of how Valentine’s Day was celebrated in the 19th-century. You might have students examine how valentine cards were made and determine different reasons why valentines were sent in the last century. Then, have students make a comparison with our current Valentine’s Day customs, greetings and celebrations.

They may be inspired to try their hands at making their own 19th-century-style valentines in the style of Emily Dickinson. As a gardener/poet, Emily integrated the Victorian language of flowers into her correspondence and verse. See Emily Dickinson’s Language of Flowers blog post for background on this tradition.