By the Book: When heart’s not in it, read this

02/23/2014 5:30 AM |

St. Valentine’s Day has come and gone — a day of cards and candy, but mostly a day of hearts. The cards overflow with them, the candy boxes are shaped like them. I’m not clear what shape or color my own personal heart is, but why not Hallmark’s rosy-red version? 

Literature has assigned the heart so many traits and tasks that it’s often hard to recognize or locate it. In Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” Mark Antony says, “My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar and I must pause ’til it comes back to me.” In the coffin? And Sir Galahad boasts that his strength is as the strength of 10 because his heart is pure. Careful now, Guinevere.

Several authors incorporate the word “heart” in their titles but shy away from joy or romance, sticking with the gloom. “Heart of Darkness,” “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” “The Telltale Heart” or “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” surely don’t contain a preface by St. Valentine.

Songwriters are more romantic, stitching love and the heart together. Until the 1950s their love songs were generally sentimental, even corny — hearts often doing odd things in strange places, like “Be careful, it’s my heart. It’s not my watch you’re holding, it’s my heart” and “When your heart’s on fire, you must realize, smoke gets in your eyes.” One of my favorites, from Bing Crosby in 1937(!), states “My heart is taking lessons, learning how to sing … ” How nice is that?

Somewhere in the ’50s lyrics tilted towards the desperate and stark. It’s hard to forget Janis Joplin screaming, “Take another little piece of my heart now, baby” or Neil Young, still searching for a heart of gold, knowing that he’s growing old. And if you thought Joplin could scream, try Bonnie Tyler’s “Once upon a time I was falling in love, now I’m only falling apart; nothing I can do, a total eclipse of the heart.” The Fontane Sisters flat out warned — “Hearts of stone will cause us pain.” It took the Beatles to free us from such heartbreak.

For amazing imagery we switch to country music, where the heart is regularly mistreated. The Flatlanders guy is “ … standing at the station, I got no destination, I’m waving my heart goodbye.” And Tricia Yearwood suggests, “Every heart for itself, swim to the nearest distant shore.” Ray Charles begs for compassion: “Take these chains from my heart and set me free,” while Roy Acuff moans, “I only know I can’t forget you, with these pins and needles in my heart.” A grinning Johnny Cash sings, “Up the elevator of your heart, I’ve been shafted … I’ve been flushed from the bathroom of your heart.”

And there’s St. Valentine, perched on a cloud, singing “Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you, if you’re young at heart.” The Tin Man understood: “Just to register emotion — jealousy, devotion — and really feel the part; I could stay young and chipper and I’d lock it with a zipper, if I only had a heart.”

I wish you all a heart that beats for others, a happy heart, a heart in love.

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at Caseathome@aol.com.