We all know that colonists in Williamsburg, Virginia were good at churning butter and modeling their tri-cornered hats. Turns out, they were also good at sending Valentines. In the late winter and spring of 1768, Virginians turned their attention away from heightening tensions with Britain and focused on the very public declarations of love published in the local paper, the Virginia Gazette.
But these were no ordinary love poems. These were acrostically written valentines, where the first letter of each verse spelled out the young lady’s name.
The first of these love poems was published anonymously and praised Miss Frances Lewis. Published three days before Valentine’s Day, the poem read:
Minerva’s choice;—Apollo’s fond delight,
In whom fine sense and music’s charms unite:
Sweet lovely maid; dear fav’rite of the nine.
Say, will you be my constant VALENTINE?
For you the Muse expands her lapsid wings,
Rears her fall’n pow’rs, and strikes the trembling strings.
At thy dear feet she pays the tribute due:
Nor thinks she bends too low to wait on you:
Charm’d with thy lovely form;—thy music fine:
Extatic raptures all my heart entwine.
So my once lov’d Celinda touch’d the keys:
Lovely like you—like you was form’d to please!
Early in life the fatal summons came,
Wither’d my joys and snatched the beauteous dame!
In you dear nymph, the reparation lies,
Say you’ll be kind, or youthful Strephon dies.
Here was the youth culture of the day, centuries before Facebook made it possible to change your relationship status, making public displays of love and adoration.
The second poem acrostical poem was published in the Gazette February 18, just one week later. David Mead wrote this loving tribute to his fiancé, Sally Waters:
Most praise the gaudy tulips streak’d with red.
I praise the virgin lilly’s bending head:
Some the jonquil in shining yellow drest;
Some love the fring’d carnation’s varied vest;
Whilst others, pleas’d that fabled youth to trace,
As o’er the stream he bends to view his face.
The exulting florist views their varied dyes;
E‘n thus fares beauty in each lover’s eyes.
Read o’er these lines, you’ll see the nymph with ease,
She like the rose was made, all eyes to please.
This poem seemed to tug at the heart strings of the readers of the Gazette so much that the newspaper made a point to announce the marriage of Mead and Waters three months later.
The Virginia colonists were hooked. Poems and other examples of romantic puzzles and word play dotted the columns of the Gazette for the next several months and became hugely popular.
Not everyone loved these lyrical expressions. Englishman Joseph Addison described acrostical poems where “a writer does not show himself a man of a beautiful genius, but of great industry.” Acrostics, he wrote, were written by “undisputed blockheads … to entertain ambitious thoughts, and to set up for polite authors.”
While the trend dissipated over the next few years, I love thinking of those love-sick tri-corner hat-wearing young men scratching out their poems with their quills, hands covered in ink, and the excitement of the young ladies who saw their names in print.
For more, read this in-depth article from the annals of the Colonial Williamsburg website.
Happy Valentine’s Day!