Known for his whimsical poetry and prose, Carroll’s ‘A Valentine’ is more serious than other, better-known poems. Throughout the poem, Carroll uses perfect rhymes, interesting language, and even writes words in all caps to help convey his speaker’s emotion in regard to friendship. The speaker’s opinion is not a positive one, something that’s likely going to come as a surprise for most readers. Instead, he expresses a greater interest, and perhaps an idealized on, in a romantic relationship.
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Summary of A Valentine
The speaker spends the first five stanzas talking about, and talking around, what friendship is. He alludes to its complexities and then zeros in on how difficult friendships are. He presents an unusual and probably surprising opinion about their value. As it becomes clear in the middle of the poem, the speaker is thinking about one person in particular, but at first, it seems like he’s talking about all friendly relationships. He depicts them as suffocating, emotionally abusive, and controlling.
He wonders if it’s possible to have one where someone isn’t expected to cry and worry about their friend whenever they aren’t together. Through these questions, readers can come to understand the nature of the friendship this speaker has experienced.
In the mid-point of the poem, he transitions to compare friendships to love affairs. The latter, he states, is far more pleasant in that the lover doesn’t weep and constantly grieve in the absence of their friend. Instead, they compose poetry. These lines are sent, via the mail, to their beloved for Valentine’s day. To conclude the poem, Carroll’s speaker expresses his hope that this friend, “YOU,” sees him on the street later in life and weeps as he used to weep.
Throughout A Valentine,’ Carroll engages with themes of relationships. He speaks about the friendly, platonic kind as well as the romantic and loving kind. The former is something that he pushes back against vehemently. His speaker spends the poem railing on his friends, someone who has made him feel terribly throughout their friendship. He finally gets to the point where he decides that he’s going to say goodbye for the rest of their lives. That is until they meet again sometime in the future when he hopes his “friend” will be suffering as he used to suffer.
On the other hand, there are romantic relationships. He idealizes what it’s like to be in one, simplifying it in regard to what a friendship is like. The speaker imagines writing love letters, filled with poetry, to his partner, and how wonderful that would be.
Structure and Form
‘A Valentine’ by Lewis Carroll is a seven-stanza poem that is separated into sets of six lines, known as sestets. These sestets follow a simple but unusual rhyme scheme of AAABAB. The meter also remains fairly consistent throughout, with the “A” lines containing eight syllables and the “B” lines only five, making the change in end sound even more pronounced. Readers might also take note of the numerous examples of half-rhyme in this poem. For example, “dumb” and “DOLORUM” in stanza three.
Carroll makes use of several literary devices in ‘A Valentine.’ These include but are not limited to alliteration, caesura, and anaphora. The latter is a type of repetition that’s concerned with using and reusing the same word or words at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “And” in stanza one, two, and three in which it appears at the beginning of a total of nine lines.
Alliteration is another type of repetition. It’s focused on the repetition of consonant sounds. For example, “friends,” “firm,” and “fast” in line five of the first stanza, as well as “flow free and fast” at the beginning of stanza six. Caesurae are pauses in the middle of lines that occur either due to a poet’s use of punctuation or meter. For example, “Be actual unless, when past” and “At other times be sour and glum.”
Analysis of A Valentine
And cannot pleasures, while they last,
Be actual unless, when past,
They leave us shuddering and aghast,
With anguish smarting?
And cannot friends be firm and fast,
And yet bear parting?
In the first lines of the stanza, one of ‘A Valentine,’ the speaker begins with two questions. He asks if it’s possible for pleasures to exist and feel real without them leading to “shuddering and aghast,” or pain in the end. He also wonders if friends can be “firm and fast” while also being able to “bear parting.” It’s clear in these lines that the speaker feels dissatisfied with the relationships he’s had in his life so far. They haven’t lived up to what he hoped they would. Readers should note the use of alliteration in these lines that help to increase the feeling of rhythm in Carroll’s lines.
And must I then, at Friendship’s call,
Calmly resign the little all
(Trifling, I grant, it is and small)
I have of gladness,
And lend my being to the thrall
Of gloom and sadness?
In the second stanza of ‘A Valentine,’ the speaker asks another longer question. This one stretches from the first to last line of the stanza with a parenthetical statement in the middle. He wonders if it’s possible to have a friendship in which one doesn’t have to resign themselves to sadness whenever “Friendship” calls. He personifies this emotional connection, suggesting that he’s at its beck and call in the relationships that he’s had so far. He is exhausted by his friendships as they always seem to bring him more sorrow than joy. Is it possible, he wonders, for a different type of relationship to exist?
And think you that I should be dumb,
And full DOLORUM OMNIUM,
Excepting when YOU choose to come
And share my dinner?
At other times be sour and glum
And daily thinner?
The third stanza is filled, yet again, with questions. Now, the poem is directed at one of these friends, someone who demands a lot of him. He tells this person that they always seem to expect him to be “sour and glum” whenever they’re not together and then happy and giving when they’re together. The speaker feels controlled and manipulated by “YOU.” The fact that words in this stanza are in all caps is a way of further emphasizing them. It’s easy to imagine the tone in which one would read these phrases out loud.
His friend expects him to be filled with “DOLORUM OMNIUM” when they aren’t there. This translates, from Latin, to “pain.”
Must he then only live to weep,
Who’d prove his friendship true and deep
By day a lonely shadow creep,
At night-time languish,
Oft raising in his broken sleep
The moan of anguish?
The fourth stanza is the last that’s taken up with a rhetorical question. In these lines, the speaker wonders if the only true friend is one who does everything he’s mentioned in the previous stanzas and lives a life of weeping and sorrow. Do these pains prove that his friendship is “true and deep?” This is something that clearly bothers the speaker. Should he roam around during the day like a shadow? And languish at night in sorrow? Should a good friend spend their time moaning in anguish when they aren’t with that other person? It’s clear that the speaker wants the answers to these questions to be “no.”
The lover, if for certain days
His fair one be denied his gaze,
Sinks not in grief and wild amaze,
But, wiser wooer,
He spends the time in writing lays,
And posts them to her.
In the fifth stanza, the speaker transitions into stanzas that aren’t filled with questions. Now, he’s making statements he’s sure of. He speaks about the “lover” who does not act like the “friend” does from the previous stanzas. He doesn’t sit around weeping and sinking into grief. He becomes a “wiser wooer” and spends his time writing poetry for his lover. Then, he “posts them to her.” This simplicity of these statements is quite pleasing and is only enhanced by the perfect rhymes.
And if the verse flow free and fast,
Till even the poet is aghast,
A touching Valentine at last
The post shall carry,
When thirteen days are gone and past
The sixth stanza finally introduces the valentine that the title promised. He describes the lover sending his beloved the lines of verse he wrote through the mail. It would arrive “thirteen days are gone and past” of February, on valentine’s day. The poet might even surprise himself, the speaker suggests, by how fast the verse flows. This is meant to juxtapose against the prior descriptions of friendship. Those relationships were far more uneven and sorrowful. They would never evoke this kind of emotional outpouring, at least not in a positive way.
Farewell, dear friend, and when we meet,
In desert waste or crowded street,
Perhaps before this week shall fleet,
I trust to find YOUR heart the seat
Of wasting sorrow.
In the final six lines, the speaker directs his words again to “YOU,” who he acknowledged in the third stanza. He bids this person “Farewell,” ironically calling them “dear friend.” He’s done with this friendship. He’s ready to set it to the side and go on with his life without the constant sorrow that it evoked. Maybe he’s ready for a romantic relationship with a partner instead.
There is a final example of capitalization in the second to the last line. It’s the word “YOUR,” driving home the speaker’s hope that his “friend” experiences something of the sorrow and depression he’s felt throughout their friendship. Perhaps this person will learn what it was like for him the whole time. This should certainly be the case if the two meet “In desert waste or a crowded street,” meaning, anywhere at any time.
Readers who enjoyed ‘A Valentine’ should also consider reading some of Lewis Carroll’s other best-known poems. For example:
- ‘Jabberwocky’ – is by far Carroll’s most famous poem. It is usually cited as the best example of nonsense verse in the English language.
- ‘The Crocodile’ – featured in Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865. It’s a short poem in which the speaker describes a sneaky crocodile.
- ‘My Fairy’- describes a fairy the speaker has by his side and what it does to annoy him throughout the day.
- ‘My Fancy’ – is an interesting poem in which Carroll creates confusing images of love and relationships in order to speak broadly about how confusing those things can be.