Valentine’s Day is rotten for pedants in two distinct ways. One: it is difficult to maintain a romantic relationship with someone if you keep correcting them all the time, and two: that Godforsaken poem. You know the one: it starts out with a strong declarative statement in “Roses are red,” and then quickly derails into total lies.
Look at these violets. Do these look blue to you? No, they are violet. They are literally called violets. They are arguably more violet than roses are red — after all, roses come in such a widespread number of colors that elaborate coding systems have been constructed around which kind you’re supposed to give people as gifts, whereas violets only really appear in different shades of… violet. Honestly, how am I supposed to believe your claim that sugar is sweet and so am I if you’re gaslighting me into interpreting colors differently than they actually appear?
Thanks to the tireless efforts of Sesame Street and They Might Be Giants, arguably everyone in the world has heard of the color violet at this point. And yet once a year we still sacrifice our powers of critical reasoning and observation to the vast spiritus mundi that tells us violets are not what they are. Why? Who has warped our minds so thoroughly across the years?
Time would appear to lay fault at the feet of the English poet Edmund Spenser; it was his allegorical magnum opus The Faerie Queene where the link between red roses and blue violets first occurred, in a passage depicting a faerie woman bathing:
It was upon a Sommers shynie day,
When Titan faire his beames did display,
In a fresh fountaine, farre from all mens vew,
She bath’d her brest, the boyling heat t’allay;
She bath’d with roses red, and violets blew,
And all the sweetest flowres, that in the forrest grew.
However, I would argue that while Spenser first breathed life into this phrase, it’s not because of him that things have gone so off-the-rails since. Technically the first English-language written use of the term “violet” as a color didn’t appear until the late 14th century; it would be another 100 years years before the printing press made it to England, and another century after that when The Faerie Queene was first published in 1590. Spenser, meanwhile, didn’t even know how to spell the word “blue,” so we can forgive him for looking at his rigorous rhyming scheme, shrugging his shoulders, and hoping that the rubes who picked up his book hadn’t heard of a color yet.
No, the real blame lies with Gammer Gurton’s Garland, a nursery rhyme collection first published in 1784 by English antiquarian Joseph Ritson. (Side note: Gammer Gurton is also the name of the central protagonist in the earliest English language comedy ever published, circa 1575) It is this poem that has become the basis for our Valentine’s’ Day-specific psychosis:
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:
The lot was cast and then I drew,
And Fortune said it shou’d be you
Clearly the poet is engaged in a deliberate attempt to break down their subject’s grasp on reality. I mean, you don’t try to score a valentine with a “Fate told me we have to be in love now” argument if you aren’t prepared to do some serious and damaging mental grooming beforehand.
Another fun aside: Ritson is best known for his work researching and compiling Robin Hood legends, through which he propagated another more prominent lie — that Robin Hood was not your regular thief, but a noble revolutionary who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. In addition to being a vegetarian and an atheist, Ritson was also a fierce republican (the traditional kind that wanted to end monarchy in France and give political power to the people, not the current kind that seems to want the exact opposite in the U.S.), and may have let some of his personal biases color his interpretation of the outlaw. One imagines he would have been quite at home at a Bernie Sanders rally, or at least on Twitter.
So what have we learned here today? Mostly, that even in the 18th century people were making shit up for personal gain and ascribing noble political causes to self-serving antiheroes. Let’s break it down via a poem of my own creation, which I have titled The Pedant’s Valentine:
Roses are sometimes red
Violets are commonly violet
Robin Hood didn’t actually care about poor people if he even existed at all
Wait a minute where are you going
Happy Valentimes, everybody!