Today, Valentine’s Day is celebrated with candy hearts, flowers, Hallmark cards, boxes of chocolate and, often, a nice dinner.
Clearly, not much has changed since the 18th century when it comes to Feb. 14, as one of the earliest Valentine’s Day poems may have been produced here on Long Island at Raynham Hall in Oyster Bay.
Raynham Hall, which now serves as a museum, was the home of the Townsend family. Among the most notable residents of the home was Robert Townsend, 1753-1838, an American Revolution spy.
Sarah “Sally” Townsend, 1760-1842, the sister of Robert Townsend, is believed to have had a flirtatious relationship with British Commander John Graves Simcoe when she was 18, as the Townsend’s home served as headquarters for a regiment of over 300 British troops from 1778 to 1779. Simcoe, after the war, founded the city of Toronto where he served as Governor of Upper Canada.
On Feb. 14, 1779, Simcoe presented Sarah “Sally” Townsend with a 26-line poem.
Justinne Lake-Jedzinak, Raynham Hall’s director of education, said it’s uncertain if this was truly the first American Valentine.
“But this is the one we know as the earliest,” Lake-Jedzinak said.
The poem, which was discovered in the 1930s, addresses the difficulty of loving someone who is also considered an enemy, Lake-Jedzinak said, as the Townsends were known to have Patriot sympathies.
Unfortunately, Simcoe and Sarah “Sally” Townsend did not have a happily, ever after, as Simcoe did write poems to other women.
“He did try addressing Valentine’s
Day poems to other women after this,” Lake-Jedzinak said. “They never become actual Valentines. They never
get married. In fact, Sally Townsend doesn’t marry anyone. She remains single and remains in the Townsend home.”
Lake-Jedzinak said that Raynham Hall Museum continues to have fun with this history every year, especially around Valentine’s Day. In fact, the annual benefit used to be held around Valentine’s Day with the theme of love; however, the date was changed to May because of the cold weather.
Raynham Hall Museum hosts an annual Valentine’s Day poetry contest for elementary school students in grades four through six. The poem can be about anything that has to do with love, and it has to be 26 lines or less. The contest concludes with an award ceremony.
This year, the museum introduced a Hot Cocoa Tasting with a Valentine’s Day theme on Feb. 11. There will be two sessions. The 4 p.m. event is for families and the 6 p.m. event is for adults. For more details,
Fairest Maid, where all is fair, Beauty’s pride and Nature’s care;
To you my heart I must resign, O choose me for your Valentine!
Love, Mighty God! Thou know’st full well, where all thy Mother’s graces dwell,
Where they inhabit and combine to fix thy power with spells divine;
Thou know’st what powerful magick lies within the round of Sarah’s eyes,
Or darted thence like lightning fires, and Heaven’s own joys around inspires;
Thou know’st my heart will always prove the shrine of pure unchanging love!
Say; awful God! Since to thy throne two ways that lead are only known—
Here gay Variety presides, and many a youthful circle guides
Through paths where lilies, roses sweet, bloom and decay beneath their feet;
Here constancy with sober mien regardless of the flowery Scene
With Myrtle crowned that never fades, in silence seeks the Cypress Shades,
Or fixed near Contemplation’s cell, chief with the Muses loves to dwell,
Leads those who inward feel and burn and often clasp the abandon’d urn,–
Say, awful God! Did’st thou not prove my heart was formed for Constant love?
Thou saw’st me once on every plain to Delia pour the artless strain—
Thou wept’sd her death and bad’st me change my happier days no more to range
O’er hill, o’er dale, in sweet Employ, of singing Delia, Nature’s joy;
Thou bad’st me change the pastoral scene forget my Crook; with haughty mien
To raise the iron Spear of War, victim of Grief and deep Despair:
Say, must I all my joys forego and still maintain this outward show?
Say, shall this breast that’s pained to feel be ever clad in horrid steel?
Nor swell with other joys than those of conquest o’er unworthy foes?
Shall no fair maid with equal fire awake the flames of soft desire:
My bosom born, for transport, burn and raise my thoughts from Delia’s urn?
“Fond Youth,” the God of Love replies, “Your answer take from Sarah’s eyes.”
—Lt. Col. John Graves Simcoe