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Renaissance Love Songs

Whereas the music of the Middle Ages is predominantly sacred, there is a great flourishing of songs dedicated to secular topics, predominately love, in the 15th through the early 17th centuries. With the invention of music printing, the spread of literacy and improved travel musical and poetic ideas traveled rapidly around Europe, creating a distinctive set of ideas which elaborated themes inherited from the troubadours and their descendants. The notion of courtly love was now hardly taken seriously, but its imagery was still powerful.

Gilles Binchois: Dueil angoisseux (text by Christine de Pisan),

from The Castle of Fair Welcome, Hyperion CDA66194, track 6.

Christine de Pisan (or Pizan) was a 14th-century French writer who was wed at 15 and widowed at 25, and dedicated her output of love-lyrics to the memory of her late husband to whom she was utterly devoted. Despite the wish for death expressed in the envoi to this poem, she lived on to compose many other works, often defending women’s rights and praising their accomplishments. Not only is this an unusual work in expressing wifely devotion, but it is also highly original in the way it piles sorrow on sorrow in a torrent of anguished verse. Although Christine is counted as a “Medieval” poet her poem was set by Gilles Binchois, a “Renaissance” composer, reminding us that no sharp boundary separated these periods and that he could respond directly and immediately to her emotion with powerfully moving music.

Grief desespoir, plein de forsennement, grievous despair, full of madness,
Langour sansz fin et vie maleürée endless languor and cursed life,
Pleine de plour, d’angoisse et de tourment, filled with tears, anguish and torment,
Cuer doloreux qui vit obscurement, doleful heart which lives in darkness,
Tenebreux corps sur le point de partir ghostly body at the brink of death,
Ay, sanz cesser, continuellement; I have ceaselessly,continually;
Et si ne puis ne garir ne morir. and so I can neither be healed nor die.
Fierté, durté de joye separée, Disdain, harshness without joy,
Triste penser, parfont gemissement, sad thoughts, deep sighs,
Angoisse grant en las cuer enserrée, Great anguish locked in the weary heart.
Courroux amer porté couvertement Fierce bitterness borne secretly,
Morne maintien sanz resjoïssement, mournful expression or without joy,
Espoir dolent qui tous biens fait tarir, dread which silences all hope,
Si sont en moy , sanz partir nullement; are in me and never leave me;
Et si ne puis ne garir ne morir. and so I can neither be healed nor die.
Soussi, anuy qui tous jours a durée, Cares and concerns which have continued forever,
Aspre veillier, tressaillir en dorment, bitter waking, shuddering sleep,
Labour en vain, à chiere alangourée pointless labor , with languid expression,
En grief travail infortunéement, doomed to the torment of grief,
Et tout le mal, qu’on puet entierement and all the evils which one could ever
Dire et penser sanz espoir de garir, tell or think about, without hope of cure,
Me tourmentent desmesuréement; torment me immeasurably;
Et si ne puis ne garir ne morir. and so I can neither be healed nor die.
L’envoi: Envoi:
Princes, priez à Dieu qui bien briefment Princes, pray to God that very soon
Me doint la mort, s’autrement secourir he will give me death, if he does not wish
Ne veult le mal ou languis durement; by any other means to cure the suffering in which I so bitterly anguish
Et si ne puis ne garir ne morir. and so I can neither be healed nor die.
Translated by Paul Brians

Anonymous (English, 16th Century): Greensleeves,

from Faire, Sweet & Cruell (Bis CD 257): track 9

Of all English Renaissance tunes, this is the most familiar, partly because of its modern use for the Christmas carol “What Child Is This?” However, it was a wildly popular tune in its own day, and was arranged in endless different ways. Here we hear it sung much as it must have sounded in the 16th century. Although the text speaks in the voice of a man spurned by his lady love, it is here sung by a woman, which would not have bothered a Renaissance audience one bit. They had little concern for the gender of the singer of a song so long as the voice was a pleasant one. The message was conveyed by the words and melody, and not by the person of the singer.

Alas my love, ye do me wrong
to cast me off discurteously:
And I have loved you so long,
Delighting in your companie.

Greensleeves was all my joy
Greensleeves was my delight:
Greensleeves was my heart of gold,
And who but my Ladie Greensleeves.

I have been readie at your hand,
to grant what ever you would crave
I have both waged life and land,
your love and good will for to have.

Greensleeves was all my joy, etc.

Thou couldst desire no earthly thing,
But still thou hadst it readily,
Thy musicke still to play and sing,
And yet thou wuldst not love me.


Greensleeves was all my joy, etc.

Greensleeves now farewell adieu
God I pray to prosper thee,
For I am still thy lover true
Come once again and love me.


Greensleeves was all my joy, etc.

Marchetto Cara (Italian, 1465-1525): Hor Vendut’ho la Speranza (Barzelletta):

from Renaissance Music from the Courts of Mantua and Ferrara (Chandos CHAN 8333), track 18.

This song reflects the keen Renaissance interesting in banking and trade by treating hope (hope of being loved) as a commodity which has just suffered a fall in the market, for the poet’s lady has proven false to him. He concludes that hoping for her love is foolish; he would prefer to invest in a more constant lover.

Giulio Caccini: Amarilli mia bella (text by Giovanni Battista Guarini)

from Giulio Caccini: le Nuove Musiche, Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 77164-2-RG, track 10.

This popular madrigal from Italy has a simple text which uses a traditional Arcadian name: Amayrillis. To take the arrow out of the lover’s heart is to heal him of love’s wound, and that can only be done by lovemaking.

Rossino Mantovano: Lirum Bililirum

from The King’s Singers Madrigal History Tour, EMI Angel CDM 7 69837 2, track 2

Madrigal composers delighted in sound effects, especially those related to music. Here the composer imitates the sound of a muted lute in the refrain. The text is a routine lover’s complain based on long, unrequited “service.”

Lirum bililirum, li-lirum, lirum, lirum. Lirum bililirum, li-lirum, lirum, lirum.
Deh si soni la sordina. Ah, sound the muted instrument.
Tu m’intendi ben, Pedrina, You hear me well, Pedrina
Ma non già per il dovirum. –and not just out of duty.
Lirum bililirum, li-lirum, lirum li Lirum bililirum, li-lirum, lirum li
Deh, si soni la sordina, Ah, sound the muted instrument.
Deh, si soni la sordina, Ah, sound the muted instrument.
Le ses an che t’vo mi ben I have loved you for six years
E che t’son bon servidor, and been a good servant to you,
Ma t’aspet che l’so ben but I’ve been waiting for you so long
Ch’al fin sclopi per amor. that I shall end by bursting with love.
Deh, non da plu tat dolor, Ah, don’t give me more grief;
Tu sa ben che dig il virum. you know well that I speak the truth.
Trans. Paul Brians

Pierre Certon: La la, la, je ne l’ose dire

from The King’s Singers Madrigal History Tour, EMI Angel CDM 7 69837 2, track 16.

Renaissance writers delighted in joking about cuckolds. The supposition that most women were unfaithful to their husbands gave encouragement to lovers and of course was never applied by married men to their own cases. Here the composer cleverly imitates the sound of gossipy whispering in the refrain.

La, la, la, je ne l’ose, je ne l’ose dire La, la, la, I dare not say it, I dare not say it
(et) la, la, la, je le vous diray. (and) La, la, la I will tell it to you.
Il est ung homme en no ville There is a man in our town
Qui de sa femme est jaloux. who is jealous of his wife.
Il n’est pas jaloux sans cause He is not jealous without cause,
Mais il est cocu du tout but he is a cuckold by everybody.
(Et) la, la, la, etc. La, la , la, etc.
Il ne’est pas jaloux sans cause, He is not jealous without cause,
Mais il est cocu du tout. but is cuckolded by everybody.
Il apreste et si la maine He prepares to go out and if he takes her
Au marché s’en va atout. everything goes badly at the market.
Translated by Paul Brians

Thomas Morley: Now Is the Month of Maying

from Flora Gave Me Fairest Flowers (Collegium COLCD 105), IMS CDM 489, track 11.

The Renaissance delighted in images of outdoor lovemaking even more than the Middle Ages. The song is apparently about dancing, but dancing is often a metaphor for lovemaking, and “barley-break” is what we would call “a roll in the hay.” Such punning sexual allusions and even more frankly bawdy verse are extremely common in madrigals.

Now is the month of maying,
When merry lads are playing, fa la,
Each with his bonny lass
Upon the greeny grass. Fa la.

The Spring, clad all in gladness,
Doth laugh at Winter’s sadness, fa la,
And to the bagpipe’s sound
The nymphs tread out their ground. Fa la.
Fie then! why sit we musing,
Youth’s sweet delight refusing? Fa la.
Say, dainty nymphs, and speak,
Shall we play at barley-break? Fa la.

William Byrd: This Sweet and Merry Month of May

from Flora Gave Me Fairest Flowers (Collegium COLCD 105), track 13.

This is a madrigal in honor of Queen Elizabeth. She encouraged a cult which regarded her as the beloved of her people, though a perpetually virginal one. England is the “second Troy,” which may seem an odd epithet (since Troy was notoriously the loser of the famous Trojan War), but ancient legend said that just as Rome had been founded by Aeneas, a fugitive from Troy, so Britain had been founded by another such Trojan prince, named Brutain. Pure propaganda, of course, but highly effective in a time when every country wanted to emulate ancient Rome.

This sweet and merry month of May,
While Nature wantons in her prime,
And birds do sing, and beasts do play
For pleasure of the joyful time,
I choose the first for holiday,
And greet Eliza with a rhyme:
O beauteous Queen of second Troy,
Take well in worth a simple toy.

From Kate Farrell: Art & Love: An Illustrated Anthology of Love Poetry. New York: Bulfinch Press, 1990.

Petrarch : To Laura

Francesco Petrarca devoted dozens of sonnets to his love for Laura, who died in the black death of the 14th century without ever having returned his passion. These became some of the most influential and imitated love lyrics ever written, translated and set to music all over Europe. He did not invent the “Petrarchan sonnet” form, but he made it famous. This is one of several sonnets he wrote after her death. He imagines that her brief presence in the world was a miraculous angelic apparition. She becomes almost godlike in her powers, with the music of her speech transforming nature.

From Wendy Mulford, ed.: Love Poems by Women. New York: Fawcett, 1991.

Louise Labé: I Live, I Die, I Burn, I Drown

Louise Labé wrote some of the most passionate love sonnets in all of literature. Like Sappho, she was bitterly criticized for expressing her feelings too frankly for a woman. This is not one of her most famous poems, unfortunately; but it expresses vividly the intensity of the anguish she felt when her lover was unfaithful.

More study guides for Love in the Arts:

Created by Paul Brians

More about Renaissance music.

Lecture 39: The Italian Renaissance: Humanism

(Duiker 346-355; Brians: 261-265, 271-272)


Questions about Duiker: *What two regions contributed most to world trade and civilization in the period just before the Renaissance in the late 14th century? *Who were the Medici? What were the major concerns of Machiavelli in The Prince? *What are the main characteristics of Italian Renaissance Humanism? What were the main results of the spread of printing in Europe?

Question about Pico Della Mirandola: *According to Pico, what qualities make man great?

Question about Petrarch: *What qualities does Petrarch ascribe to Laura? Who is more vividly depicted in this poem, the lover or his beloved?

Question about Machiavelli: *What good qualities does Machiavelli say a prince should seem to have?

Lecture topics:
Pico Della Mirandola
Technological innovations

Supplementary materials:

Return to syllabus

T. S. Eliot: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1919)

Eliot was born in St. Louis and educated at Harvard University, but most of his adult life was passed in London. In the vanguard of the artistic movement known as Modernism, Eliot was a unique innovator in poetry and The Waste Land (1922) stands as one of the most original and influential poems of the twentieth century. As a young man he suffered a religious crisis and a nervous breakdown before regaining his emotional equilibrium and Christian faith. His early poetry, including “Prufrock,” deals with spiritually exhausted people who exist in the impersonal modern city. Prufrock is a representative character who cannot reconcile his thoughts and understanding with his feelings and will. The poem displays several levels of irony, the most important of which grows out of the vain, weak man’s insights into his sterile life and his lack of will to change that life. The poem is replete with images of enervation and paralysis, such as the evening described as “etherized,” immobile. Prufrock understands that he and his associates lack authenticity. One part of himself would like to startle them out of their meaningless lives, but to accomplish this he would have to risk disturbing his “universe,” being rejected. The latter part of the poem captures his sense defeat for failing to act courageously. Eliot helped to set the modernist fashion for blending references to the classics with the most sordid type of realism, then expressing the blend in majestic language which seems to mock the subject.

What makes this poem different from a normal love song?

S’io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo. (1)

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized (2) upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust (3) restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question . . .
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo. (4)

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair–
[They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”]
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin–
[They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”]
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all:–
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

And I have known the eyes already, known them all–
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?

And I have known the arms already, known them all–
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
[But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?
. . . . .
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? . . .

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

. . . . .

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep . . . tired . . . or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices, (5)
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head [grown slightly bald] brought in upon a platter, (6)
I am no prophet–and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, (7) come from the dead
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”–
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all.”

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the
And this, and so much more?–
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern (8) threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”

. . . . .

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, (9) nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous–
Almost, at times, the Fool.

I grow old . . .I grow old . . .
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

(1) A passage from Dante Alighieri’s Inferno (Canto 27, lines 61-66) spoken by Guido da Montefeltro in response to the questions of Dante, who Guido supposes is dead, since he is in Hell:. The flame in which Guido is encased vibrates as he speaks: “If I thought that that I was replying to someone who would ever return to the world, this flame would cease to flicker. But since no one ever returns from these depths alive, if what I’ve heard is true, I will answer you without fear of infamy.”
(2) Anesthetized with ether; but also suggesting “made etherial,” less real.
(3) Cheap bars and restaurants used to spread sawdust on the floor to soak up spilled beer, etc.
(4) The great Renaissance Italian artist.
(5) Cookies and ice cream.
(6) Like John the Baptist (see Matthew 14: 1-12)
(7) A man raised from death by Jesus (see John 11: 1-44). Eliot may also have had in mind the Lazarus in the parable told by Jesus in Luke 16:19-31, in which case the poetical Lazarus would have returned to deliver a message which the Biblical Lazarus could not.
(8) Early form of slide projector.
(9) Shakespeare’s sensitive hero known for procrastination.

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This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 2, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Gallwey, Douglas Hughes, Azfar Hussain, Richard Law, Michael Myers, Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by Harcourt Brace Custom Books.The reader was created for use in the World Civilization course at Washington State University, but material on this page may be used for educational purposes by permission of the editor-in-chief:

Paul Brians
Department of English
Washington State University
Pullman 99164-5020

This is just a sample of Reading About the World, Volume 2.

Reading About the World is now out of print. You can search for used copies using the following information:Paul Brians, et al. Reading About the World, Vol. 1, 3rd edition, Harcourt Brace College Publishing: ISBN 0-15-567425-0 or Paul Brians, et al. Reading About the World, Vol. 2, 3rd edition, Harcourt Brace College Publishing: ISBN 0-15-512826-4.

Try Chambal: (vol. 1) (vol. 2)

Ovid: The Art of Love

Notes for the translation by Rolfe Humphries of selections from the Amores and the Ars Amatoria.

Publius Ovidus Naso (Ovid):The Loves (25-16 BCE?)

Read the introduction to this translation. Some of the references to modern culture have dated since 1957, but it is still interesting and useful. What Humphries does not make clear is that these originally rather frivolous poems had a momentous influence on later European civilization. It was not only Chaucer who read Ovid’s love poetry; every educated person with the slightest interest in the subject did so. Unfortunately much of his humor was lost on Medieval interpreters, and they often discussed his ideas over-seriously in the context which came to be known as “courtly love”–a concept which would have been alien–and ridiculous–to Ovid. His beloved was typically a pretty but ordinary courtesan, not a noble lady in a tower. He makes it clear repeatedly that for him love (read “sex”) is a game much like poker, demanding great powers of strategy and deception, but not the very foundation of life itself. The continuing fame of these poems was owed partly to his authorship of a much greater work, the Metamorphoses, by far the most important source for Greco-Roman mythology for later Europeans. His Tristia recount his lonely banishment away from Rome at the end of his life. It is sometimes suggested that the puritanical Emperor Augustus exiled him because he was offended by Ovid’s love poetry, but this is uncertain.

If his voice seems amazingly contemporary it is because of his “modern” cynicism and frank pleasure in sex for its own sake. Some readers find him offensive, but in a familiar way: there are plenty of men around today who think just like him. What can take the edge of the offense is his self-deprecating humor. Note the many passages in which he is clearly making fun of himself. What is definitely not contemporary about Ovid is his love for mythological allusion. The modern reader may feel frustrated by these “interruptions” which were read fluently as decorative touches in his own time by an audience extremely familiar with the myths to which he alludes. Feel free to skim through these passages, but you may find that the following notes add a lot to your understanding of these writings by explaining the various allusions. He returns to some stories over and over again. Rather than constantly repeat the same explanations, I have created links so that you may look up figures discussed earlier. Remember that after following a link you need to click the “back” button to return to the spot where you were reading. In these notes the Roman names are generally used, i.e. “Ulysses” rather than “Odysseus,” “Jupiter” rather than “Zeus.”

Book I:

Elegy I

Ovid’s contemporary Virgil had begun his most famous poem, the Aeneid, with the line “Arms and the man I sing.” These elegies are written in lines shorter by one foot than the hexameters that are used for more solemn epic works like the Aeneid.

Minerva (Greek Athena) is the goddess of wisdom, not normally mixed up with the love-goddess Venus. Ceres is the grain-goddess, Diana the huntress of the forests. Apollo is the god of peaceful arts like poetry and music, Mars the god of war. Orpheus was also a demigod of music. In other words: “Don’t mix things up: stick to what you’re good at.”

Helicon was the home of the Muses, inspirers of the arts; so Cupid is rebuking Ovid for thinking that he is the center of the creative universe when he’s only a participant on the fringes. Note how even Ovid, always heterosexual, casually offers homosexuality as an alternative.

How does Cupid answer his claim that he cannot write love poetry because he is not in love with anyone?

Myrtle is associated with Venus.

Elegy II

The stereotype of the sleepless lovesick youth was long established by the time Ovid expressed it, but he conveys a particularly vivid impression of it. Remember that such love-longing was diagnosed as a clinical illness in ancient times, usually treatable only by lovemaking.

Note his ingenious examples of self-defeating struggle. He gladly surrenders to Cupid, telling him that he can celebrate a triumphal procession of the kind allotted to military leaders who succeeded in adding territory to the Roman Empire, but decorated with objects associated with Venus, such as a myrtle wreath substituted for the usual laurel. Captured prisoners were a feature of such processions.

“Hosannahs” is of course biblical Hebrew, and only a loose translation for a word meaning “cheers.”

What sort of companions does he say Love has?

Bacchus was thought of as an “eastern” god, and said to have invaded and conquered India.

The final lines are an obsequious compliment to the mercy of Augustus, the same ruler who–nevertheless–was to banish the poet from Rome.

Elegy IV

Most of these poems are addressed to single young women, mostly courtesans. This particularly outrageous example of Ovid’s humor may well be a cynical fiction. Obviously if he was trying to keep an affair such as this secret, he would not have published the poem. (Publishing consisted in the hand-copying of works for sale, and Ovid was a best-selling author.) The humor of the poem lies in the poet’s frantic jealousy of his mistresses’ husband. His elaborate system of symbolic gestures is meant more to be amusing than serious, as the conclusion reveals. To understand this poem one needs to understand that dining was normally done reclining on couches, leaning on one elbow, two to a couch.

The Lapith king Peirithoüs tried to make peace with the savage Centaurs, half-man, half horse, by inviting them to his wedding. However, the drunken Centaurs tried to carry off the Lapith women and restarted the war they had been fighting earlier. The scene was often depicted in sculpture, notably on the pediment of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia.

The ancient Greeks and Romans mixed their water with wine to prevent its being too intoxicating, unless they were single-mindedly bent on getting drunk.

Why is the poet especially anxious about the acts that may be hidden under the couples’ robes?

Note the traditional reference to the “cruel door.”

Note the assumption that men’s pleasure in lovemaking is strongly dependent on that of women.

What effect do the last two lines have on your impression of his relationship to this woman?

Elegy V

This one is pure sex. If you are liable to be offended by the subject matter, you may skip it. The time is the mid-day break, when almost all Italians still take an after-lunch nap. Here we meet Corinna, the main subject of these poems.

Semiramis was a mighty Assyrian Queen whose original name was Sammuramat (r. 810-805 BCE), and who was responsible for huge construction projects during her reign. However, legends developed around her, first transforming her into a goddess and later into a highly romantic figure. One of these legends is retold in Rossini’s opera Semiramide.

Lais was a Corinthian courtesan legendary for her extraordinary beauty.

Pro forma means something like “for appearances’ sake.”

Ovid belongs to the old school of thought which does not take women’s reluctance to engage in sex seriously. Although this pattern of thought has caused a lot of damage over the centuries, and continues to do so, it is important to remember that in the past both men and women accepted the notion that courtship usually involved the overcoming of resistance, the latter necessary to prove that the woman was not utterly debauched. This poem would not have conveyed any notion of rape to ancient readers. This is the most explicit poem about lovemaking in all of Classical Latin literature.

Elegy VI

The door poem (Greek paraklausithyron) was a highly stereotyped form. It is enough for the poet to mention a door, and the entire situation is brought to mind: the lover shut out, complaining, from the woman locked within. This one, however, is original in that it is addressed to the doorkeeper, chained to his post. The refrain printed in italics suggests a ritual hymn, for it is not the sort of thing normally used in secular poems like this.

This poem introduces another traditional symptom of lovesickness: loss of appetite. Under what condition would the poet be willing to be a slave like the doorkeeper?

Boreas, the north wind, fell in love with Oreithiya, daughter of Erectheus, king of Athens. Since the north wind blew to Greece from the direction of Thrace, Boreas was thought of as a Thracian, a people hated by the Athenians. Rejected by her father, he swooped down on Oreithiya and carried her off to Thrace.

A “chaplet” is a decorative garland worn to parties. It was traditional for lovers to hang their garlands on the beloveds’ doors as an offering, but he flings his on the doorstep as a symbol of his wasted night. Note although the poem recounts his utter failure, by retelling the story in a poem he clearly hopes to influence the woman who has instructed her slave to keep the door locked.

Elegy VII

For most of its length, this poem seems a sincere attempt at repenting his violence against Corinna. He realizes he has brutalized her and is trying to make up with her by accusing himself. However, the final impish line is ambiguous. It could mean that he isn’t truly repentant: he is more embarrassed than contrite. Or it could be a satire on his own superficiality.

At first, trying to justify his use of violence, he cites other wild madmen from the past, including Ajax, the great Trojan War hero, who in a crazed fit of spite at having not been awarded the dead Achilles’ arms, ran amuck among the herds under the delusion that the cows were his Greek enemies.

Orestes was famous for avenging the murder of his father Agamemnon by killing his faithless mother Clytemnestra. He was punished for this deed by madness.

Note how he quickly rejects his own argument.

The beautiful princess Atalanta was abandoned as a baby, but suckled by a bear and raised by hunters. She swore to remain unmarried so she could continue to pursue her favorite but unfeminine pastime of hunting. Her father Iasus was king of Maenalus

Ariadne was the daughter of King Minos of Crete who helped Theseus slay the Minotaur and for her pains was abandoned by him on the island of Naxos.

Cassandra was a Trojan princess who resisted Apollo’s attempts to seduce her. According to one story, he granted her the gift of true prophecy, but when she continued to resist, he cursed her: no one would ever believe her prophecies. At the fall of Troy, Ajax raped her at the foot of the altar of Athena. In the original all three of these are loosely linked by references to their hair.

The Greek Diomedes was said to have wounded Venus (who sided with the Trojans) in battle.

Ovid goes on sarcastically to urge himself to celebrate his “triumph” over Corinna with a procession like that described above in the notes to Elegy II.

Jove is another name for Jupiter, the mighty sky god of thunder and lightning.

What are the two alternatives he says he wished had happened instead of his brutal assault on her?

Paros was renowned for its white marble.

Whatever you think of his behavior, the final lines reveal considerable insight into the nature of guilt. What two alternatives does he offer to make himself feel better?

Elegy XIII

“The bright one” is Aurora, the dawn, who leaves the bed of her aged lover Tithonus each morning, her rosy fingers turning the sky pink. Because she gets no pleasure from him any longer, she is jealous of other lovers. Memnon was her son, an Ethiopian king, the smoke from whose funeral pyre was transformed into starlings which returned annually to his grave to sprinkle it with water.

This is one of many poems calling upon the dawn to hold back its coming so that the delights of nighttime may be prolonged. The line “Run slowly, slowly, horses of the night” is frequently quoted. What other kinds of people besides lovers does he say would like the nights to be longer?

Spinning and weaving were enormously time-consuming tasks that almost all women engaged in whenever they were not doing other work.

The sun was imagined to ride across the sky in a chariot, so Ovid wishes its axle would break.

Aurora asked the gods to give her Tithonus immortal life, but she forgot to ask them to keep him young. Tragically, he aged indefinitely and grew ugly and repulsive to her.

When the virginal moon goddess Luna fell in love with the beautiful youth Endymion he was punished by Jupiter by being put permanently, eternally to sleep.

Jupiter, desiring Amphitryon’s wife Alcmene, disguised himself as her husband and miraculously prolonged the night in order to prolong his pleasure with her. As a result, she bore the hero Hercules.

Note the humor in the final lines. Ovid often portrays himself as a loser.

Book II

Elegy II

This is one of Ovid’s cynical celebrations of adultery as a harmless game. In the Middle Ages adultery was to become transformed into a quasi-religious ritual, very different from this, but often involving the same complications.

Bagoas is the slave employed by Ovid’s mistress’ husband to guard over her. Ovid threatens and cajoles him in an attempt to have some “harmless” fun with the wife. This list of instructions may be compared with those to the wife in Book I, Elegy 4. The Palatine Hill overlooking the Forum was the site of the homes of rulers of Rome.

The rites of Isis were supposed to be attended only by women, so the guard would have to stay outside.

“Gaol” is the English spelling for “jail.”

Tantalus was punished in Hades by being confined in a pool with a fruit tree bending over it. When he stooped to drink the water, it flowed away; when he reached for the fruit, it sprang out of his reach, tantalizing him.

“Argo” seems here to be simply a synonym for Argus , the hundred-eyed guard set to guard Io.

Flagrante dilecto is a legal term meaning “in the act” (literally “flagrantly committing the crime”).

Elegy VI

Ovid’s elegy to a pet bird is much longer and more complex than Catullus’, a fact which does not necessarily make it better. The main difference is that Ovid plunges into the realm of myth, as he so often does, to develop his thought. One can see why this poet went on to write the Metamorphoses.

Note that Corinna’s parrot came from India, a distant land on the borders of the empire which was reputed to harbor all manner of wonders.

All birds are summoned to perform the funeral rites: scratching one’s cheeks and breast was a standard form of ritual grieving.

Philomela is the nightingale. Itys was killed, cut up, and cooked by his mother Procne and fed to her husband Tereus in vengeance for his rape of her sister Philomela.

Damon and Pythias were friends in Syracuse whose loyalty to each other became legendary.

It seems odd that quails were reputed to be especially long-lived, since it is in fact parrots which have been known to live quite long lives.

“Water, perfectly pure” implies that no wine was mixed with it: pure water was the preferred drink of advocates of the simple life as a means to health.

Pursued by Triton, a Phocian princess prayed to Minerva to be rescued, and was turned into a raven which became the goddess’ companion. However, later Minerva rejected the bird for tale-telling in favor of the owl.

Protesilaus was an eager hero, the first to land (and die) at the Trojan War whereas Thersites was an ugly, deformed coward who jeered at his own leaders. Similarly, Homer depicts Hector (who killed Protesilaus) as the courageous leader of the Trojan forces, disdainful of his younger brother Paris, who had caused the war by carrying off Agamemnon’s wife Helen.

Hector’s father Priam opposed the war from the beginning, had to plead with the Greeks for his son’s body, and was ignominiously slain at the end of the war.

The thread of life was spun out, measured, and cut by the three women known as Fates.

Elysium (or “the Elysian Fields”) was a paradise mortals who had been made immortal lived. Some writers like Ovid portray it as a reward for virtue: in others it is simply the abode of those who have pleased the gods, not always by good behavior.

There was only one phoenix which periodically set itself on fire and was reborn. It is not usually associated with Elysium, but Ovid is reaching for relevant mythological birds.

Juno, the wife of Jupiter, had as her companion a peacock.

Which of the parrot’s qualities attracts most of Ovid’s attention (unsurprisingly, given his vocation as a writer)?

Elegies VII & VIII

This pair of elegies inspires indignation in some readers: What an outrageous liar and cheat! The mean-spirited attempt at blackmail at the conclusion of Elegy VIII is especially revolting. Other readers find the poet’s impish antics highly amusing. But it is important to remember that it is Ovid the poet who has created these two works and set them side by side to create the portrait of an unscrupulous philanderer that results. This is no pair of private letters, but a satirical set piece, carefully conceived to portray a probably fictional lover who thinks he can get away with anything, but who is in fact in deep trouble–rejected both by Corinna and Cypassis. The narrator in these, as in all the poems, is a persona created by the author but not necessarily to be identified with him on every point.

Both Agamemnon and Achilles were great warriors infatuated by slaves.

Elegy XIII

Abortion, though disapproved of in Rome, was not uncommon; but the means used were highly dangerous to the woman. On what grounds does the poet object to Corinna’s abortion attempt?

Posse =”could be;” esse= “is.” The poet prays to the Egyptian goddess Isis, the special guardian of women. Osiris is her brother/husband.

The passage about the Gallic horsemen evidently refers to sculptures near the temple of Isis. Note how Ovid observes his own tactlessness in the final lines.

Elegy IX

Corinna’s husband (unmentioned previously) seems to be making her affair with the poet insufficiently difficult. The poet argues that obstacles created by his rival stimulate his passion. This sort of sophisticated perversity is far removed from the direct passion of a Sappho. Clearly the poem is not to be read literally. He would not have sent this poem to the betrayed husband; he is merely satirizing what he sees as his foolish tolerance. Cuckolds (men whose wives commit adultery) are the object of much satirical humor from ancient times through the 18th century. He also tries to arouse jealous fears in the husband, taunting him.

Danae’s father Acrisius, learning from an oracle that his grandson would kill him, imprisoned her in a bronze cell but Jupiter (Jove) impregnated her in the form of a shower of gold. Juno’s jealous attempt to prevent Jove from making love with Io by turning her into a cow failed when he continued to pursue her.

The tablets brought by the maid would have been letters which were inscribed on wax-covered tablets.

Book III

Elegy II

This is a wonderfully lively portrait of a day at the races by a man who would rather look at women than horses. This translation is particularly colloquial, with many modern touches not strictly faithful to the original; but the spirit is captured vividly.

Pelops won the hand of the Princess Hippodameia by cheating in a chariot race, sabotaging his rival’s vehicle. He thinks his girlfriend may have prettier legs than even the beautiful Atalanta who raced against and won many suitors for her hand, only to be overtaken by Milanion when he distracted her with three golden apples given him by Venus.

Diana the huntress was also reputedly a swift runner. Thus does the poet combine his themes: beautiful women and racing.

The victory the poet prays for is of course over the woman’s resistance.

Neptune was god of the sea, which Ovid hated.

A common sort of miracle in ancient Rome was the reported nodding of the head of a god’s statue, signifying approval of a prayer.

The poet says he will worship the woman more than Venus herself.

Ovid reworked this poem in a passage of Book I of The Art of Love (below).

Elegy IV

This is a variation of the address to the cuckolded husband, but this time the argument is that possessiveness only makes a wife restive and more likely to betray her spouse. Sentiments like these were repeated in countless tales and poems in the late Middle Ages. Jealousy, it was insisted, destroys love. This is of course a convenient philosophy for a would-be seducer of wives.

Her “person” is her body.

Argus is usually said to have been killed by Hermes, but Ovid says he was blinded by love.

See the notes to Book II, Elegy XIX for Danae.

Penelope was Ulysses’ (Odysseus’) wife, who waited faithfully for his return from the Trojan War for twenty years, despite being besieged by numerous suitors.

The poet even goes so far as to argue impudently that adultery (strictly outlawed in Augustine’s Rome, though the law was frequently broken) is not only a trivial matter, but can be highly respectable, citing instances from mythology, which indeed abounds with illicit unions–one of the reasons that the Greeks and Romans did not base their ethics on their religion.

The notion that all women beautiful enough to attract lovers will have them is repeatedly endlessly in late Medieval and Renaissance satires. An entire book of Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel is based on this theme. Obviously those who thought of themselves as potential lovers hoped this was so. From ancient times to the 19th century, the stereotype of the uncontrollable sexuality of women dominated much thinking about them. The rise of Victorianism, which viewed men as more sexual than women, marked a revolutionary change in European thinking, and one which did not go unchallenged.

According to Ovid, what are the advantages of being a cuckold?

Elegy XIA & B

Ovid tries to bid farewell to the fickle Corinna, but finds he cannot.

There is a saying that “Jove laughs as the oaths of lovers.” Ovid accuses the gods of corruption in supporting such laxity. Even if she rejects him, he will continue to love her.

The Art of Love (2-1 BCE)

The Art of Love uses the same impudent, witty tone that pervades much of the Loves, but without their anguish. It had enormous influence in the Middle Ages, when it was studied seriously as a source on the true nature of love, but was also often considered scandalous.

Book I

“Car” in this translation means “chariot.” The word “car” existed in English for horse-drawn vehicles long before the invention of automobiles.

Automedon was Achilles’ charioteer in the Trojan War.

Tiphys steered the Argo through many hazards under the leadership of Jason.

Achilles was educated as a boy by the aged centaur Chiron.

Achilles kills Hector in one of the climactic scenes of the Iliad. Apollo inspired lofty lyric verse, Clio was sometimes considered the muse of epic poetry. Why does Ovid say he doesn’t need divine inspiration to write this work?

Perseus’ wife Andromeda came from Ethiopia, not India; but ancient writers often confused the two countries as equally distant and exotic.

The Grecian girl Paris took was of course Helen, wife of Agamemnon.

The sheltered spots convenient for meeting women include Pompey’s portico built to shelter people at the theater in case of rain, the Portico of Octavia, the sister of Augustus (born Octavian), and the Portico of Livia. The Temple of Palatine Apollo was built during Augustus’ reign and was surrounded by porch decorated with statues of the fifty daughters of Danaus who murdered their husbands. All were popular shady gathering spots near places of entertainment. The other spots mentioned are places of worship in Rome where Ovid says willing women can be encountered.

Many Jews lived in Rome, and a considerable number of Romans converted to the religion.

The section on the law courts involves an elaborate series of puns in Latin comparing legal battles to courtship.

In the section on the theater he depicts the abduction of the Sabine women , which took place at an outdoor festival they had been invited to (see the note for the “Vigil of Venus.”) Then follows the racetrack passage which reworks Book III, Elegy II. Most scholars prefer the first version; can you see why?

No aspect of Roman life, despite the violence of our popular entertainments, is more alien to us than the pleasure the Romans took in watching human beings be killed in gladiatorial shows. How does Ovid say the spectator can become the victim at one of these shows?

Our translation here skips ahead to a passage about looking for women at a military triumph. He uses it as an excuse to flatter shamelessly the political accomplishments of Augustus Caesar and his grandson Gaius Caesar who failed to succeed him as emperor, despite Ovid’s prophecies of a brilliant career. He imagines that their campaign against the Parthians will result in a brilliant triumphal march, thus justifying this lengthy digression.

In the section on parties, he warns against falling at love while under the influence of wine. Paris was asked by Venus, Juno, and Minerva to judge which of them was the most beautiful (the scene, called “The Judgment of Paris,” has been often depicted in paintings).

What does he say is the other disadvantage to falling for a woman at a party?

Baiae was a resort near Naples. Women frequently attended processions in honor of Diana Nemorensis at Aricia, about ten miles south of Rome. Propertius writes about Cynthia’s participation.

Having established where women are to be found, Ovid now begins to describe how to seduce them. Summarize his views on feminine psychology in the section beginning “First: be a confident soul.”

There follows a list of monstrous feminine passions from mythology whose point is that if women have been known to go to such lengths for passion’s sake, surely they will be willing to engage in a more normal love affair.

For Byblis, see the Metamorphoses, ix:, ll. 447-665. Myrrha, like Byblis, repented of her incestuous passion and hanged herself.

Queen Pasiphae’s affair with the great bull of Crete resulted in the birth of the minotaur. As he often does, Ovid proceeds to group together myths with a similar theme, in this case humans and cattle. Europa was carried off by Jupiter in the form of a bull, a scene often depicted in art. After mentioning Io and Europa, Ovid returns to Pasiphae and the wooden cow she had built to enable her to mate with the bull.

Aerope, wife of Atreus, had an affair with her brother-in-law Thyestes which led to a deadly feud, leading ultimately the infamous banquet at which Thyestes was deceived into eating the dead bodies of his own children. In horror, day turned to night, described here as Phoebus Apollo, charioteer of the sun, turning his vehicle around to abort its rising.

Scylla’s magic lock of hair protected him until his daughter betrayed him out of love for Minos. This Scylla is here identified with the sea-monster described in the Odyssey.

Agamemnon, commander of the Greek forces at Troy, returned home to be slain by his faithless wife Clytemnestra.

Creusa was the princess that Jason married after he rejected Medea. Medea took vengeance by killing her with a poisoned robe and then murdering her own children (see Euripides’ Medea).

The next three examples of monstrous female passion involve women who, frustrated in their attempts to seduce men, falsely accuse them of rape. The most famous is Phaedra, who tried to seduce her stepson Hippolytus (and is the subject of another tragedy by Euripides, the Hippolytus). Why do you suppose that such stories are so popular in many cultures?

The passage recommending securing the cooperation of the maid recalls Book II, Elegies VII & VIII, although he here warns against actually seducing her–at least until her mistress has been safely bedded.

After ten years of fruitless siege at Troy, the Greeks pretended to depart, leaving behind an enormous wooden horse, secretly filled with soldiers. After the celebrating Trojans had hauled the horse inside the city, the soldiers sneaked out under cover of darkness and threw open the gates of Troy to the waiting Greek troops.

How does Ovid recommend lovers take advantage of a woman’s anger with another man?

Why does he say it is an advantage to have succeeded in seducing the maid?

The Battle of the River Allia in 390 BCE was remembered bitterly as a disastrous defeat for the Roman (Latian) forces at the hands of the Gauls.

Jews in Rome popularized the idea of a Sabbath day of rest and the seven-day week.

Why does he recommend against courting on a woman’s birthday?

The scene with the peddler is a delightful little vignette which one could easily imagine being acted on the stage. The language is here somewhat modernized: the “check” is actually a promise to pay; but birthday cakes were genuinely Roman.

After Achilles killed Prince Hector at Troy and treated the body savagely, he was nevertheless persuaded to return it to King Priam for burial.

Cydippe was tricked into marrying her lover Acontius when he rolled in front of her an apple on which he had inscribed “I swear by Artemis to marry Acontius.” She picked it up, read it aloud, and realized she was now bound by the oath.

The next section recommends the study of rhetoric as it was studied by lawyers. Clever oratory was much admired in Rome. “Periods” are phrases.

Penelope’s suitors tried to get her to marry for many years, but she resisted them until her husband Ulysses returned home, twenty years after he had left. It took ten years to conquer Troy. What do you think of his advice on persistence?

The lover has to turn around to see the woman he loves in the theater audience because females were confined by law to the last few rows.

Rome did have actresses, but males also commonly played female parts.

Some men did curl their hair, but were not considered very manly for doing so.

The priests of the cult of Cybele shaved their legs as well as castrating themselves.

Adonis was a handsome youth with whom Venus fell in love.

Bacchus is the god of wine: he is suggesting that wine may help seduce a woman. This is the excuse for the story which follows. When Ariadne had been abandoned on Naxos by Theseus, she uttered long, bitter laments which became a stereotype in poetry; but Ovid rejects the version of the story which has her committing suicide and has her rescued promptly by Bacchus.

Hymenaeus is the god of marriage. Note the assumption that the woman may well be married, though this is not suggested elsewhere. Severe penalties against adultery were enacted about the time this was written, and it has sometimes been supposed that Ovid’s repeated celebration of the seducing of other men’s wives may have been one of the causes of his exile.

This section is developed out of materials originally used in The Loves Book I, Elegy IV. Eurytion was one of the centaurs killed in the battle between the Lapiths and Centaurs when the latter got drunk at the marriage feast of Pirithous.

What does Ovid say are the advantages of pretending to be drunk? His toast “to the fellow she sleeps with” is ambiguous, of course: the listeners think he is speaking of her husband, she knows he is speaking of the lover.

Juno and Pallas lost the beauty contest to Venus when judged by Paris. It was claimed that when Jupiter was carrying on his affair with Io, he swore falsely to Juno that he was not. From that time on he ordained that lovers should not be punished for their false oaths.

Styx, the river of death, was the only entity by which the gods swore.

What is his excuse for saying it is all right to cheat women?

The myth of King Busiris of Egypt may reflect a distant memory of human sacrifices carried out in Egypt.

Since it never rains in Egypt, the rains referred to may be those far upstream which cause the Nile to swell.

Phalaris was a historical figure, the cruel tyrant of Acragas in Sicily c. 570-554 BCE. He had a hollow bronze bull designed in which to roast human sacrifices; but the first victim was its designer.

Note the repeated insistence that women’s resistance is not to be taken seriously. The Romans tended sometimes to romanticize rape, as in the rape of the Sabine women, although it could also be considered a terrible crime, as in the rape of Lucretia, who was praised for committing suicide when raped by Sextus Tarquinius after making her husband swear to kill the rapist.

Phoebe and Hilaira were sisters abducted by the Dioscuri, considered sons of Jupiter: Castor and Pollux.

Achilles’ mother Thetis tried to thwart the prophecy that he would die at Troy by isolating him on the island of Scyros and having him raised as a girl. However, he fell in love with the princess Deidamia, revealing his gender when he raped her.

The triumph of Venus on Mount Ida was her winning of the beauty contest judged by Paris. She won by bribing Paris with Helen, an act which triggered the Trojan War.

Pallas Athena, though female, was also awar goddess, and is usually portrayed with helmet, spear, and shield.

Achilles killed Hector with a spear, of course, and not a skein of wool

What evidence is there toward the end of this section that although Ovid has few scruples about using force, he isn’t really enthusiastic about it?

Here is introduced another element in the description of love-longing which was to become standardized for centuries: pallor.

The legends of Orion and Daphnis (“the shepherd-boy”) referred to here are lost, but the point is clear.

Thinness is another classic symptom of love-longing.

Patroclus and Achilles were such close friends that the latter was persuaded to rejoin the battle against Troy after quitting because he felt cheated of his proper battle spoils only when Patroclus was killed by Hector, and Achilles felt bound to avenge his friend. This is the central action of Homer’s Iliad. Part of those spoils was the maiden Briseis, whose relationship to Achilles Patroclus respected.

Achates is the loyal companion of Aeneas in Virgil’s Aeneid, and his name became synonymous with friendship.

Proteus was famous for his ability to transform himself into myriad shapes.

Book II

The first two parts of the book have explained how to find and capture a woman. This part tells how to keep her.

Homer and Hesiod were the early writers who recorded the classic myths, serving almost as a Bible to the Greeks.

Pelops won Hippodamia in a chariot race. The story of Daedalus has been often retold, including by Ovid himself, in the Metamorphoses. One can see him edging toward that work in such passages as these where he allows himself to get carried away with recounting a myth.

To say one is willing to swim the Styx is to say that one is willing to face death itself, since Styx is the river separating Hades from the land of the living.

The heat of the sun melted the wax holding Icarus’ feathers together. His story was often told to illustrate the consequences of reckless and immoderate behavior. The conclusion is simply that love cannot be controlled.

It was believed that foals were born with a growth on their foreheads which was immediately bitten off by its mother. However, if one could be secured intact it would be a wonderful love potion.

Medea was a powerful sorceress but she could not keep Jason from leaving her for Creüsa, whom she killed with a poisoned cloak. Ulysses’ men were transformed into animals by the sorceress Circe, but he managed to save himself and his men despite her magical powers.

What does he recommend instead of magic potions?

What are the most important qualities in a man, according to Ovid?

Ulysses lived with Circe on the island of Aeaea for a whole year and with the nymph Calypso on Ogygia even longer. In both cases he had difficulty convincing the women to let him go.

Rhesus was an ally of the Trojans, betrayed by a Trojan prisoner (Dolon) to the Greeks. How does Calypso use the telling of this story to argue against his departure?

Ovid makes it clear that his ideas of courtship do not aim at marriage. As in most ancient cultures, Roman marriages were arranged.

He alludes back to the incident depicted in the Loves, Book I, Elegy VII. He takes for granted that his earlier poems are well known to his readers. How is his advice in this section different from that at the end of Book I?

Atalanta was the athletic virgin who outran all her suitors although they ran naked, she in armor. Melanion finally caught her, however, with the trick described in the notes to the Loves, Book III, Elegy II.

Women used to be routinely advised to lose at games in order to please men; what is Ovid’s advice to men?

“Mules” are slippers.

According to some Roman writers, after the mighty Hercules defiled the temple of the oracle at Delphi, he was condemned to slavery and sold to Queen Omphale of Lydia, who, among other more heroic tasks, required him to dress as a woman, sing, and spin. The image of the hyper-masculine Hercules forced to behave in such an effeminate manner has amused many writers and artists. After many sufferings, Hercules was finally allowed to become an immortal and live among the gods.

Ovid compares love to war, but he does not emphasize aggression. What aspects of war does he use as metaphors for love?

When Apollo dared to restore a dead man to life, Jupiter punished him severely, and his continued defiance led to a sentence of working as a slave for a mortal for a year. It was at Admetus’ court that he labored.

The Greek Leander swam across the Hellespont to be with his beloved Hero. Noblesse oblige is a French phrase for the sort of politeness that social superiors owe to their inferiors.

On July 7th of each year the Romans celebrated the feast of Juno Caprotina (“under the fig tree”) in memory of an incident in which the Gauls had demanded the Romans hand over to them certain matrons and virgins. Their maidservants were substituted, and when they were to be collected, signalled to the Roman troops to fall on the Gauls and destroy them.

Amaryllis is a typical Arcadian figure whose fondness for chestnuts was mentioned in Virgil’s Eclogue 2, line 52.

What does Ovid have to say about the value of poetry?

Medusa was a ferocious monster with snakes for hair whose fierce looks literally froze those who looked upon her.

What limit does Ovid place on the would-be lover’s attentions to his beloved when she is ill?

When Demophoon deserted his bride Phyllis, she committed suicide, and his own death ultimately resulted.

Laodamia grieved so for the husband she had lost at Troy that Hermes brought him back from the dead for three hours, but when he returned to Hades at the end of that time, she killed herself. These stories are all extreme examples of the saying “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”

The counter-example, of course, is Menelaus. Most ancient authors were prone to blame Helen for her desertion of Menelaus, but Ovid, ever sympathetic to adulterous wives, is an exception.

Female worshipers of Bacchus, when filled with Dionysian frenzy, were supposed to be capable of ripping apart animals and even men with their bare hands.

Notice that the warning against jealousy is directed especially at husbands.

Clytemnestra hated her husband for many reasons, notably having sacrificed their daughter Iphigeneia to secure fair winds for Troy. His claiming of Briseis was a minor issue. He brought Cassandra, daughter of Priam, back from Troy as his prize. Clytemnestra’s lover Aegisthus, according to some versions, helped her murder Agamemnon upon his return home. The adulterous pair were subsequently murdered by her son Orestes. Ovid claims she was mainly motivated by jealousy in order to make her example suit his purpose.

Note how subtle is Ovid’s advice about effective lying.

Ovid’s list of aphrodisiacs is translated somewhat loosely here.

Ovid’s flip defense of his own inconsistency sows how unserious much of this advice is.

Fortuna was a very important goddess; those she smiled on were said to be fortunate.

Roucoulade is a French word referring to the cooing of doves.

According to some ancient thinkers, the universe was created out of a chaotic void. The world was not so much created as organized. Ovid’s creation story concentrates on how creatures learned to mate. The lesson is: doing it is nature’s way.

Machaon, son of Asclepius, was a physician from the Greek side at Troy.

On the temple of Apollo at Delphi was inscribed the famous motto, “Know thyself.”

In what way is Ovid’s advice of showing yourself off to best advantage self-deprecating?

The honey of Mount Hybla (and consequently its bees) was especially prized.

Ovid recommends the conventional gesture of hanging a garland on the woman’s door, referred to earlier.

The Oracle of Dodona was where Aeneas went for advice. Note how Ovid admits that he doesn’t always take his own advice.

When Venus was committing adultery with Mars, her husband Vulcan trapped them in a net and called the other gods to witness the crime; but they were amused instead and the result was shame for Vulcan rather than Venus. The lame Vulcan was the armorer of the gods, and worked at his forge inside the volcanic Mt. Aetna.

The sun-god is Apollo.

Paphos was an island sacred to Venus.

The famous Eleusinian mysteries of Ceres swore their participants to the utmost secrecy.

One version of the story of Tantalus says that he stole the sacred nectar and ambrosia of the gods and shared their secret with humanity. His punishment is discussed above, in the notes to the Loves, Book II, Elegy II. Venus was almost always portrayed nude, but often attempting to conceal her breasts and groin (see the Cnidian Aphrodite of Praxiteles or the Venus de Medici).

Easily-shocked readers are warned that the following section gets graphic. Again, “person” is archaic English for “body.”

Andromeda was an Ethiopian, but was generally considered beautiful. The prejudice against dark skin was mild, but pervasive. Perseus rescued her from a sea monster.

Andromache was wife of Hector, prince of Troy.

What a Young Girl Ought to Know was first published in 1895 by Mary Wood-Allen, National Superintendent of the Purity Department of Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and remained the standard (very restrained) book on sex for young women for decades. This is one of our translator’s little jokes.

Affairs with adolescent males were commonplace (though often disapproved of) in classical Rome, but the boys were not supposed to receive much pleasure from the sex involved. His objection to such affairs is not moral: he simply thinks the best sex delights both lovers. Much of Ovid’s graphic advice on lovemaking seems very contemporary.

Helen’s daughter Hermione was about nineteen when she was promised to both Orestes and Neoptolemus as a bride.

Hector was mostly famous as a warrior, but he did manage to wed Andromache.

Briseis was the captive Achilles won in the Trojan War.

Although experts on sex now advise against striving with undo anxiety for simultaneous orgasm, Ovid’s endorsement of it is generous, not self-centered.

The palm branch is a symbolic award for victory in a contest.

Nestor was the wise older advisor of the Greeks at Troy. The rest were as described.

Automedon was Achilles ‘ charioteer.

The Amazons were female allies of the Trojans defeated by Achilles and the Greeks.

Spoils from a victory were dedicated to the gods.

Book III

Ovid now turns to advice for women.

Amphiaraus was one of the heroes of the disastrous battle of the Seven against Thebes, and was saved from the shame of being speared in the back only by being sent by Jupiter directly to Hades, where the chief river was the Styx (” Stygian ” is the adjectival form). Eriphyle was bribed to betray her husband into death, which helped trigger the battle that ended the life of Amphiaraus, so like Menelaus and Agamemnon, he was a good man wronged by a wicked woman, though less directly.

When Admetus was told he could only be spared if someone else gave his or her life in his place, his wife Alcestis volunteered. Euripides’ Alcestis is a moving depiction of this story. Evadne committed suicide on the pyre of her husband Capaneus after his death in the battle of the Seven against Thebes. Note how readily Ovid condemns men as compared to women.

When Demophoon abandoned Phyllis , she ran nine times to the sea in search of him. The woods were said to have shed their leaves out of pity for her.

Aeneas, after having seduced Queen Dido of Carthage, abandoned her to continue to Italy, and she committed suicide.

Stesichorus wrote a poem expressing the conventional view that Helen was to blame for the Trojan War, but Venus angrily blinded him and he wrote a second poem claiming that she never deserted her husband, that the entire episode with Paris was a divinely-caused illusion. This story is the basis for the remarkably comic “tragedy” Helen by Euripides.

Myrtle was associated with Venus.

Note how his first advice is no warning against love, but a conventional carpe diem warning, taken to grotesque lengths. He is not really giving women defenses against men, but urging them to give in. Diana was normally chaste, but she fell in love with Endymion, who came from the region of Kariae, near Mount Latmos. Aurora (the dawn) was so infatuated with Cephalus that she carried him off, but the pink sky each morning reflects her shameful blushes.

Handsome Adonis was killed by a boar before Venus could make love with him.

The son Venus had by Anchises was the famous hero Aeneas.

She bore several children to her lover Mars, including Harmonia (an allegory for love overcoming war, creating harmony).

The next section concentrates on how women should make themselves seductive, but Ovid takes time to develop another passage flattering Augustus for his construction projects, though he says the most important improvements have been in manners rather than architecture. His time is still considered the “golden age” of imperial Rome.

Gold threads were sometimes woven into extravagant clothing.

These “makeover” tips will sound familiar to readers of modern women’s magazines.

Note how Ovid enthusiastically celebrates variety.

Hercules won Iole in an archery contest with her father.

According to some versions, abandoned Ariadne did not kill herself but was rescued and wed by Bacchus.

Purple Tyrian dye was rare and precious.

Neireids were sea-nymphs. The Romans and Greek made most of their garments from wool, though it was often very finely woven so as to be quite light, even translucent.

Andromeda was so beautiful that the jealous gods punished her island home of Seriphos.

Both Greeks and Romans generally practiced the removal of all body hair, at least when young.

A “Mysian mere” would be a lake where barbarians live.

The Art of Beauty, a treatise on make-up, is printed in this volume, but seems never to have been finished. What is his general attitude toward beauty aids?

The girl with the upside-down hair had of course snatched up her wig too hastily.

Parthian warriors were known for their trick of riding their horses backward in battle in order to shoot at those pursuing them; Ovid is joking that topsy-turvy hair is suitable only for barbaric Parthian women.

The women he says he is not trying to teach were all naturally famous beauties.

The stripes he mentions are decorative borders to clothing, permitted only to nobles.

Although his advice on hiding unattractive features may be exasperating, we’ve all heard advice like it by modern writers.

The Golden Mean–“nothing in excess”–was a solemnly-held ideal of the Greeks, here given a frivolous twist.

Ulysses had himself tied to the mast so that he could safely hear the alluring but dangerous song of the sirens while his men rowed safely on with their ears plugged.

Women were often depicted as musicians in Roman art.

Orpheus persuaded the spirits of the dead to restore his wife Eurydice to him through his skill on the lyre.

The Phoenician psaltery is a ten- or twelve-stringed instrument.

His list of love poets includes some we have read, and his contemporary and model Tibullus.

“Arms and the man” is the opening of Virgil’s Aeneid.

Lethe is the stream of death that obliterates all memory; Ovid is claiming his works will live on after him, and doing a little advertising for his books at the same time.

“Rolling the bones” is casting the dice: he is speaking of gambling.

The Romans did not play chess, but our translator here cleverly updates Ovid’s references to another board game.

One wonders what would have happened if a man, having read Ovid’s advice in Book II to lose, were to play against a woman who had read his similar advice to women here. Such inconsistencies reveal his essential light and frivolous attitude.

His praise is once more directed to “our leader” Augustus, who in his youth had defeated the rebellious naval forces of Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium. Agrippa was Augustus’ son-in-law, who built a memorial to the battle.

The crimson on the sand and the games was blood from the gladiatorial combats.

In the section about over-elegant men Ovid finally offers some advice for women which can legitimately be called defensive.

[The meaning of the reference to Priam is disputed.]

Note the gifts-for-sex equation which is still popular among many men today.

Hemlock and aconite are powerful poisons.

It is audacious of Ovid to suggest that a woman’s refusal to have sex is equivalent to violating the sanctity of the Temple of the Vestal Virgins.

Etna is a volcano.

Medusa’s glance turned men to stone.

Minerva was said to have invented the aulos, or double flute; but when she saw how playing it distorted her features by looking at her reflection in the water, she abandoned it.

Tecmessa was Ajax ‘s captive wife, melancholy at having been enslaved.

Andromache’s role in myth as the wife, then widow of Hector, was a sad one. Ovid may be thinking of her image in Euripides’ drama named after and in his Trojan Women. A herald precedes a notable person, announcing his or her name.

Cynthia was Propertius’ beloved, Lesbia Catullus’. For the now more obscure Nemesis, Tibullus ‘ love, our translator has substituted Delia, one of Diana’s names, but often used as a name for women generally.

Note how after having criticized his own art as useless, he here praises it. Clearly he is aware that his advice will be read skeptically; he is simply trying to charm by being amusing.

Ovid pretty consistently recommends mature men as lovers. What are his objections to young men in this section?

The advice about stimulating love through jealousy recalls the Loves, Book II, Elegy XIX, but less amusingly.

Thais was a famous Athenian courtesan; as a professional she could choose her lovers as she pleased.

The passage about women “set free, and not too long ago” is addressed to recently-freed slave women, called “libertinae.”

For Danae, see the notes on the Loves, Book II, Elegy XIX.

Bona Dea (the ” Good Goddess “) was worshiped only by women.

Note how Ovid characteristically interrupts himself, amazed at giving his secrets away.

The story of Procris is another of the long interpolations which anticipate the Metamorphoses, and differs substantially from more familiar accounts of her story.

He repeats his comments on drinking at parties, this time directed at women, for whom they may have more dire consequences.

Having earlier recommended attractive postures for repose, he now goes so far as to suggest which lovemaking positions are the most attractive in a passage which readily calls to mind the term “sex object.”

Note that although he suggests faking an orgasm if necessary, he regrets having to do so. He is fairly consistently sympathetic with women’s needs for pleasure.

The final recommendation against asking for gifts seems rather self-interested.

Which of Ovid’s suggestions do you find most objectionable? Which do you most agree with?

The Remedies for Love (1 CE?)

Most of the mythological references have been explained above. Use your “find” menu if you cannot recall one.

Like the Loves, this book begins with a dialogue with Cupid in which Ovid defines the purpose of the book: not to take back what he has said in The Art of Love, but to help those who have experienced unhappiness in love.

Diomede wounded Venus at Troy, sending her fleeing the battlefield. Cupid’s stepfather is Mars, the god of war.

Telephus’ wound could only be healed by rust scraped from the spear which caused it.

Phyllis, Dido, and Medea are all familiar examples of abandoned women used in The Art of Love.

The stories of Medea, Tereus and Pasiphae all illustrate extreme actions undertaken for love.

Nisus was betrayed by his daughter

Scylla for the love of Minos.

Myrrha seduced her father and was turned into the tree which “weeps” myrrh.

Philoctetes’ wound smelled so horribly that his fellow-Greeks abandoned him on the Island of Lemnos until they realized that his magical bow, inherited from Hercules, was necessary to end the Trojan War. Ovid omits to mention that Philoctetes’ cure did not save his life: he was destined to die at Troy.

After beginning by recommending swift action, Ovid recommends a number of measures, most of which would not be out of place in modern articles on “women/men who love too much.”

The reference to the Parthian defeat (actually a minor triumph of negotiation rather than a true victory) is another piece of flattery aimed at Augustus.

Whereas the pastoral poets imagined the countryside as the land of love, the urbane Ovid images it as a refuge. Diana the huntress is especially associated with the forests, and as a virgin goddess is an enemy of Venus. He must have recalled this advice ruefully when he was banished to the countryside himself.

The Tiber is the river that flows through Rome.

Note Ovid’s characteristic self-mockery as he recounts his attempts to convince himself that Corinna wasn’t really beautiful.

The Harpies were loathsome bird-like women sent by Zeus to punish King Phineas of Thrace by snatching away his food and leaving their droppings all over his table.

The Trojan prince Aeneas led his band of refugees from Troy to Italy to found Rome.

Buskins were the footwear worn by tragic actors, comic actors wore “socks.”

Callimachus was a prolific Hellenistic poet, but no writer of epics.

See above, Book I, for Cydippe’s ruse (strictly speaking, Acontius’ ruse). Ovid is arguing that this story is so trivial that it hardly requires the talents of a great poet like Homer to tell it.

Andromache figured in tragedies, Thais in comedies.

Bucephalus was Alexander the Great’s marvelous horse.

Ovid recommendations about associating the beloved with unpleasant feelings sounds remarkably like some modern psychiatric advice.

The asp, though tiny, was a deadly serpent, used famously by Cleopatra to commit suicide.

Minos betrayed his wife Pasiphae with Procris.

Agamemnon fell in love with the captive Briseis and insisted on Achilles exchanging Chryseis for her, which led to Achilles withdrawing temporarily from the Trojan War.

Thersites was the stereotype of the unworthy soldier.

Pylades was such a loyal friend to Orestes that he accompanied him throughout many horrible adventures.

Penthesilea was the leader of the Amazons, speared to death by Achilles at Troy, a scene often depicted in art.

The references to Ulysses concern his role in tricking Philoctetes into giving up his magic bow. Ovid makes the bow Cupid’s instead. Althaea destroyed her son Meleager by burning a piece of wood which possessed the charm of keeping him alive.

The Clashing Rocks crushed every ship that passed through them except the Argo.

Scylla and Charybdis were two monsters (a monster on a rock and a whirlpool) between which ships had to sail.

Presumably if Phaedra had not been rich enough to marry Theseus, she would not have fallen under the curse of loving his son Hippolytus.

Many of Ulysses’ men were almost lost to the pleasures of the addictive lotus on the Lybian coast.

Anaphrodisiacs are anti-aphrodisiacs.

What is your opinion of Ovid’s advice?

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Version of July 21, 1997

Diane Ackerman: A Natural History of Love

Despite its title, Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of Love is not a systematic history of the subject, but a series of loosely-linked essays examining love from many different angles, many of them literary. It is the latter on which we will concentrate, but the rest of the book makes very good reading as well.

Ackerman is a poet and independent scholar rather than a specialist researcher; and her scholarship is not always impeccably up to date, but she is generally trustworthy and always stimulating.

Note: the pages below are treated in order of the assignments for this class rather than strictly chronologically. They cover somewhat less than half of the book.

pp. xxvi-xxiii

Identify a statement she makes about love that you find particularly insightful or which you agree with and explain why. Identify a statement about love which you find strange or surprising and explain why. What is it that she says remains the same about love throughout history? What changes? You may be surprised to find after her opening statements here how extremely variable she finds love to be in the following chapters. What do you think of her claim that “The way we love in the twentieth century is as much an accumulation of past sentiments as a response to modern life”?

pp. 1-17


What is the most interesting (to you) thing she says about Cleopatra? What was special about Egyptian attitudes toward women? Ackerman assumes here that King Solomon wrote the Song of Songs commonly attributed to him; but many modern scholars believe it was written much later than his time and associated with him because of its subject matter. Egyptian women are often depicted hunting birds and fishing with their husbands. What is the reason the woman in the second poem has returned home without any birds? Do you agree with her that we tend to idealize all the qualities of beautiful people? What does she argue is the reason that we tend to use nature images in love poetry? The word “mnemonic” means “having to do with memory;” it is not clear to me what she means by it in the phrase “Love is often depicted as a state of mnemonic possession” except that she is probably punning on “demonic possession.” Perhaps she means “possessed by a memory.” Have you ever encountered the concept of love as a disease before? Does it make sense to you? In what way does she say that being in love and being a child are similar? What genetic reason does she give for the incest taboo? When she says that “the Bible often refers to (and condones) incestuous marriages,” she is probably thinking of relationships like that of Abraham and Sarah (half-siblings, see Genesis 20); but the Hebrew scriptures are generally quite hostile to incest. From what bit of evidence does she deduce that homosexual love existed among the Egyptians?

pp. 17-39


In what way does she say Athens in the fifth century BCE was like America in the sixties? In what ways were women restricted in ancient Greece? Why did these restrictions lead to homosexual behavior among men? What qualities set courtesans apart from ordinary Athenian women? What moral qualities did some Greeks ascribe to homosexual love? What was the Greek attitude toward the relationship between virtue and beauty? In what way did Greek attitudes differ from the modern emphasis on the primacy of the nuclear family as the basis of society? What was the relationship between love and marriage? The story of Orpheus and Euridyce has been told in many works of art, literature, and music. It was a particularly popular subject for early operas because Orpheus was made into a sort of god of music. Which do you find the most interesting of her speculations as to why Orpheus turned back?


Describe Roman attitudes toward women. The story of Dido and Aeneas has been depicted in many works of art and in the famous opera by Hector Berlioz, Les Troyens. This story well reflects Roman values because it depicts the triumph of duty (and imperial conquest) over love; but Ackerman tells the story from Dido’s view, which somewhat obscures this point. Which wedding customs do we inherit from the ancient Romans? The mistaken notion that the Romans engaged in constant orgies is a result of the scandal-mongering of historians like Tacitus and Suetonius, who hated the imperial family and attributed to them all manner of outrageous behavior. The point to remember is that these scandalous stories were repeated because they were considered scandalous: regular Romans did not approve of such goings-on, and were in fact generally more “Victorian” in their morals than modern Americans.

pp. 39-43

Neither of the explanations Ackerman gives for the low birth rate among noble Romans is supported by current scientific research. In fact, it is a well-known fact that when people become well off financially they tend to have fewer children. What was Augustus’ attitude toward marriage? What do you think of Ackerman’s attitude toward Ovid? Do you agree with it or disagree? Explain.

pp. 95-99

What is the meaning of Aristophanes’ fable? How do religious supplicants use erotic imagery?

pp. 314-322

Choose one or two of the uses of erotic imagery by religious mystics discussed here and react to it. In what ways are nuns the “brides of Christ?” What does Ackerman mean by saying that she is agnostic but deeply religious? In what ways does she compare the love of God to human love?

pp. 43-60

In what ways have women been associated with cleanliness? What was the Church attitude toward tournaments? How did the Crusades affect French noblewomen? What was the Medieval Christian attitude toward sex in marriage? What ideas about love did Medieval readers take from Greek and Roman authors? In what ways is Ibn Hazm’s attitude toward love similar to that of Medieval Christian thinkers? Those who idealize the troubadours are often surprised at the behavior and writing of the first of them, Guillaume IX (here called “William”). In fact the troubadours were far more earthy and sexual than they are often depicted. What was the “avant-garde and dangerous idea” they advanced? What were the principal characteristics of love in their view? Strictly speaking, “troubadours” were always Provençal-speaking poets from southern France. Their northern equivalents, coming somewhat later, were called “trouvères.” Both words mean “finder” or “creator.” The notion that courtly love affairs were not consummated is widely held, but false. One has only to read the prose tales of such love affairs rather than the poetry–which is better known–to find abundant sex (see, for instances, the lays of Marie de France. Poets wrote about their frustration as a way of persuading women to make love with them, but when they succeeded they tried to be discreet. The result is that we have a lot of poetry about love-longing, but not much about fulfillment. Ackerman is following an old-fashioned, nineteenth-century view of courtly love of as perpetually suspended in the non-physical realm. Otherwise she does a good job of describing the stages through which a courtly love affair was expected to pass. How are they similar to or different from the stages we expect a love affair to pass through today? What does it mean to say that “Virtue became the European harem?” When Ackerman says that jealousy was considered noble among lovers she is exaggerating somewhat. Most Medieval guides warn against jealousy among both husbands and lovers, though lovers often express their jealousy in their poems. How does she say that the notion of intimacy between lovers arose? What do you think of her claim that love has been the main subject of writers since the eleventh century? What do you find appealing about Medieval attitudes toward love?

pp. 105-112

The story of Tristan and Isolde was even more popular in the Middle Ages than the very similar story of Lancelot and Guinevere, which is better known today. The finest Medieval version is the Tristan of Gottfried von Strassburg. In what ways does this story seem different from the patterns described earlier as characterizing “courtly love?” The word “passion” is actually derived from a Latin root meaning “suffering” (as in “the passion of Christ”). What do you think of the statement that “three years is about as long as ardent but unthwarted love can last?” In what ways does she argue passion is a kind of longing for death? Do you agree? Why do you think people enjoy reading about unhappy lovers?

pp. 66-75

What were the conflicting attitudes toward women during the Renaissance? In what way did earlier centuries depict women in the way that we have tended to depict men in modern times? Love matches became popular in fiction and drama in Shakespeare’s time, but more as an escapist fantasy than as an attainable ideal. Romeo and Juliet is in part a lesson on the dangers of impulsive young love–undoubtedly exciting but potentially deadly. Even in the next couple of centuries, when true love triumphed over parental inflexibility, it usually did so through compromise, with the beloved turning out to be just the sort of person the parent wanted for an in-law all along. It is worth noting that although fourteen- and fifteen-year-old girls did marry in Elizabethan England, the actual average age of marriage was much older. What makes Shakespeare’s lovers different from Medieval ones? What are some of the different sorts of love depicted in Romeo and Juliet?What characteristics were admired in courtly women during the Renaissance?

pp. 75-82

We know about Casanova’s adventures because he wrote about them in great detail in his memoirs, The History of My Life. Ackerman neglects to mention that whereas Casanova was a very real person, Don Juan is fictional. Does the account of Benjamin Franklin make you feel differently about him? How?

pp. 177-196

What qualities make human lovemaking different from animal mating? Do you recognize her description of flirting? Is it familiar behavior? Ackerman’s examples of evolution among various races to match their climates have been challenged in recent years by some biologists; she notes herself a number of exceptions to the seemingly obvious linkage which people have traditionally made. What survival advantages does “cuteness” confer? What reasons does she give for women cutting their hair short? What do you think of her arguments?

pp. 255-256

What sorts of things does she find erotic? Can you think of other examples in art you have seen?

pp. 82-91

What change in the late eighteenth century caused the shift toward placing a value on the individual? What quality in the Enlightenment was the Romantic movement reacting against? Beethoven did not write all of his quartets while deaf–only the final ones. There is a recent–very bad–movie about Beethoven’s love life entitled Immortal Beloved. It departs radically from what we know about his real life. In what ways did the nineteenth-century Romantics revert to Medieval patterns? What was distinctive about the new attitudes toward love? What were the effects of Victorian ideals on sexual behavior? What events and movements have caused our time to be so radically different from the Victorian Age?

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Created by Paul Brians August 29, 1997.

Love Poems by Modern Women

Source: Wendy Mulford, ed.: Love Poems by Women. New York: Fawcett, 1991.

There are many passages in these poems that I don’t claim to understand completely; but try to discern the feelings and patterns they contain even if you can’t explain every line. The best way to appreciate most poetry is to read it aloud. Try it. Be sure to read the biographical notes on the poets that begin on p. 245.

Sonja Akesson: From “What Does Your Color Red Look Like?” p. 9, notes on p. 245.

The poet begins by proclaiming that there many meanings to the word “love;” but instead of enumerating them, she asks whether what she feels now is love at all. Why do you think she does this? What similarities are there among the images used in the lines from “There is a flush . . .” to “in the dry heat”? What seems to be the main theme of this poem? “Black crepe” is a kind of cloth which was traditionally used to symbolize mourning. The description at the end of the poem sounds rather repulsive. Can you see any ambiguity in the attitude of the poet toward “you”?

Nuala Ni Dhomnaill: “Labysheedy,” p. 19, notes on p. 250.

The title is a place name in Ireland. The Shannon in an Irish river. The repetition of the first verse as a “refrain” at the end of the poem suggests a song. What time of day is being described? Why are the trees described as they are? How is the image repeated later? What image is taken directly from the Song of Songs? Of which sex is the “you” in this poem? How can you tell? The beloved must have very long hair if it flows over the “ravine” between her breasts and then over the lower “ravine” between her legs. Fuchsias are very common in Ireland, growing as hedges along many highways.

Marina Tsvetaeva: “You Loved Me,” p. 31, notes on p. 267.

How does the title become more clearly defined as you read the poem? Why is the end of this love particularly shocking to the poet?

Rita Dove: “Adolescence 1,” p. 32, notes on p. 251.

African-American writer Rita Dove was Poet-Laureate of the United States 1993-1995. What sort of weather could be described as “water-heavy”? What is the situation being described? What does it mean to say that “Linda’s face grew wise?” What color are pecans? Is she referring to the nut, or to its shell? What images of light, feathery touching can you find in the poem? What images of light are in the poem, and how do they relate to each other?

Jelena Lengold: “Passion,” p. 53, notes on p. 257.

A “lift” is an elevator. What is the speaker learning about her lover? What is the nature of her relationship to him? What causes the lover’s “shudder,” do you think? What does it tell us about him? Why does she identify with the cat at the end of the poem? What qualities might they have in common?

Joy Harjo: “Nine Below,” p. 67, notes on p. 254.

The Bering Sea separated the Cold War foes the U.S. and U.S.S.R., between Alaska and Siberia. Downed fliers are often searched for in the Arctic using both planes and trained sled dogs. Why does the poet use these metaphors in describing her love? What is she trying to say about her relationship? Can you translate these images into feelings? The “blue saxophone” is probably not literally blue, but a sax used in playing bluesy jazz. “The shimmering houses of the gods” are probably the northern lights.

Marina Tsvetaeva: From “Poem of the End,” p. 71, notes on p. 267.

In this poem a man tries to end a relationship with a minimum of communication which arouses powerful emotions in the poet. Which images reflect this theme? What does the first stanza mean? The eagle image occurs both at the beginning and end of the poem. What traditional associations are there with eagles? How does the poet stress the intimate, profound nature of love? To what sort of love does she contrast their love? Is this a dialogue? Who is doing most of the speaking? To what departure does the conclusion point?

Marilyn Hacker: “Languedocienne,” p. 129, notes on p. 263.

Languedoc is an old name for Provence, an area of southern France in which the violent winds are reputed to drive people mad. A “Languedocienne” could be a poem written in the style of Languedoc (the home of the troubadours) or a woman who lives in Languedoc, or both. What does the weather imagery suggest about the state of the poet’s mind as she anticipates meting her beloved? What do you think the images of longing for water suggest? She imagines going to collect her beloved at a nearby train station and making her way back on the bus past the houses closed up for the traditional afternoon siesta. How does this make their meeting more intimate?

Rita Dove: “This Life,” p. 131.

What does this poem have to say about the disillusionment with love that may come with maturity? “That one” upstairs may be a husband or partner who perhaps told her the same intimate words that the person addressed as “you” has just uttered. She longed for “you” without really knowing it, but the image she uses for this longing implies permanent separation, unfulfilled longing. How does the poet feel about her current relationship?

Solveig von Schoultz: “The Rain,” p. 144, notes on p. 267.

What images of the extinction of light are there in this poem? What have they to do with love? What similarities do “carelessly,” “blindly,” “oblivion,” and “darkness” have? What does it mean that darkness, rather than light, streams out of someone?

Adrienne Rich: ” From Twenty-One Love Poems, III;” pp. 155-156.

What makes this poem about love between older people different from a poem about young love? What do the first two lines mean? How does she contrast her feelings now with what she felt at twenty? Note that she is not saying that young love is better. What is better about love that happens late in life, according to the poet?

Ntozake Shange: “Get It & Feel Good,” pp. 166, notes on p. 264.

This poem is written in a style which was popular in the 80s, designed to capture the feeling of informal, colloquial speech. It has a light, dancing rhythm which works best when read aloud, and is intended for oral performance. It is crucial while reading this poem to keep in mind that the poet has probably had many unhappy encounters with men, so she is trying to cheer herself up by listing some of the benefits one can still salvage from this frustrating business of love, even in hard times. Instead of agonizing over the lack of a perfect love, she seems to be saying, try to celebrate the little pleasures that it can still offer. The tone is humorous, impudent, ironic. What aspects of this poem do you think are positive? Which negative?

Margaret Atwood: “Eventual Proteus,” p. 168, notes on p. 246

Proteus was a god who could transform himself into many different shapes. The only way to subdue him was to cling on tightly when he went through all his metamorphoses until he settled down into his true shape. How does this ancient myth reflect the theme of this poem? This is one of the bitterest poems in this collection. In what ways has this relationship changed? How has the image of the man changed in the poet’s eyes? How does she feel about herself? She no longer believes in the early illusions she associated with him, the way he presented himself, so the early language in which he presented himself is no longer credible. Why is their lovemaking now a failure?

Audre Lorde: “Sisters in Arms,” pp. 185-187, p. 258.

Audre Lorde is a highly political black lesbian poet who here expresses her solidarity with a South African lover in a poem which is more about the struggle against apartheid (correctly pronounced “apart-hate,” rather than the common but erroneous “apart-hide “: the word is Afrikaans, not German). What are the various sorts of things which the poet wishes she could do for her grieving lover? Her daughter was murdered by the police while the poet was away, and this sense of tragedy, rage, and frustration is mingled with her love. The limpet mine is a bomb used to cause a terrorist explosion, and the calabash is a gourd which in traditional African belief can be used to enclose the sole of a departed loved one. After the list of things she could not do, what does she say she was able to do? Note that after the blank line, the scene shifts to the U.S. at a later date. The incident that has caused the New York Times “finally” to mention South Africa is the brutal 1984 shooting down in Sebokeng of a group of people running from police and troops, including the six-year-old Thabo Sibeko. What sort of victims does this poem especially concentrate on? Sulfur is used in the manufacture of gunpowder. How does the stanza at the bottom of p. 186 express the absence of the beloved? In what way is the final stanza affirmative or hopeful?

Alice Walker: “Did This Happen to Your Mother? Did Your Sister Throw Up a Lot?” p. 192, notes p. 268.

How does Walker try to create a sense of commonality among women in her musings on love? What does she have to say about the relationship between needs and love? How is the lovesickness in this poem different from Medieval lovesickness? What is a “conservationist” in this context? Is the last line despairing or hopeful, do you think?

Solveig von Schoultz: “The Lover,” p. 216.

Describe the emotions that are expressed in this poem. What is going on?

Marina Tsvetaeva: “Where Does this TendernessCome from?” p. 223.

Here an experienced woman is astonished to find herself so moved by a new lover she barely knows. What causes her astonishment?

Nina Cassian: “Prayer,” p. 223, notes on p. 248

This poem evokes old myths of animal lovers or gods who mate with mortal women. The poet “prays” to perhaps nonexistent pagan gods–potential lovers, in hopes of being transformed by their love. What emotions does the poem express?

Jayne Cortez: “Rose Solitude,” p. 234, notes on p. 249.

This love poem–or eulogy–to the memory of the great composer and band leader Duke Ellington alludes to the titles of a number of his compositions, including “Solitude,” “Satin Doll,” “Caravan,” and “Cotton Tail.” Edward Kennedy Ellington was famously a lover of women, but it his music which is the object of adoration here. Musk is an important ingredient in many perfumes, taken from the mink. “Satchmo” was the nickname of the great jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong. Nat (King) Cole (father of Natalie) was a major jazz pianist before he became even more famous as a singer and had the first network television show hosted by a black performer. Shango is a West African god of storms and power often evoked in the Caribbean and Brazil by black cults. How is the permanence of art expressed in this poem?

More study guides for Love in the Arts:

Last revised November 14, 2005.

Medieval Love Songs

Although modern Western ideas about romantic love owe a certain amount to the classical Greek and Roman past, they were filtered through the very different culture of the European Middle Ages. One can trace the concepts which dominated Western thinking until recently to the mid-12th Century. Before that time, European literature rarely mentions love, and women seldom figure prominently. After that time, within a decade or two, all has changed. Passionate love stories replace epic combat tales and women are exalted to almost god-like status. Simultaneously, the Virgin Mary becomes much more prominent in Catholic devotions, and emotionalism is rampant in religion.

The pioneers of this shift in sensibility seem to have been the troubadours, the poets of Provence (now Southern France). Provençal is a language related to French, Italian and Spanish, and seems to have facilitated the flow of ideas across the often ill-defined borders of 12th-Century Europe. It has often been speculated that Arabic poetry may have influenced their work by way of Moorish Spain. Although this seems likely, it is difficult to confirm.

Once the basic themes are laid down by the troubadours, they are imitated by the French trouvères, the German Minnesingers (love poets) and others. Thus, even though the disastrous 13th-Century Albigensian crusade put an end of the golden age of the troubadours, many of their ideas and themes persisted in European literature for centuries afterward.

Guiraut de Bornelh: Leu chansoneta, from The Dante Troubadours, Nimbus NIM 5002, track 2

An unromantic but obvious fact is that much if not most troubadour poetry consists of artificial compositions, sometimes commissioned, sometimes written for competitions, rather than being private outpourings directed to the poet’s lady-love. This is particularly obvious in this poem where the poet mentions the lady almost offhandedly in the final stanza, although he does claim that he is dying for love of her. The competitive nature of this poem is made clear when the poet hopes it will travel to my Lord of Eblo, a rival troubadour who wrote in the obscure trobar clus style. The second stanza continues with Guiraut bragging that he knows how to tell a true noble from a base man by his wit. He should be able to speak eloquently when necessary and know when to stop. The third stanza says that only nobles willing to engage in duels should get involved in poetry contests with him. The reference to God turning water into wine is an allusion to Christ’s miracle at the wedding feast of Cana (John 2: 1-12). True wine (great poetry) is pleasing only to the great. After all this bragging, the final stanza devoted to his lady seems almost an afterthought. The conventional language of courtly love requires that the lover present himself as the feudal inferior of his Lady, whom he serves humbly. The ideal lover keeps his love affair a secret, so the poet cannot name her publicly. In fact, she may be wholly imaginary. Unconsummated love can theoretically lead to death; but the poet darkly hints at a more serious loss: of his ability to write.

Bertran de Born: Ges de disnar , from The Dante Troubadours, Nimbus NIM 5002, track 5.

Bertran was one of the most famous troubadours, especially renowned for his passionate devotion to combat. Yet even he wrote love poetry. Like much troubadour verse, this poem is a loose collection of images whose connections are somewhat obscure. The introduction, defining what good service is at a proper inn, tells us that he is a connoisseur who knows quality when he sees it; therefore his praise of Lady Lena can be trusted. The standard form which courtly love took involved the admiration of a single man for a married woman. Whether such affairs were really as common as the poets implied in questionable, but the idea becomes so standardized that Bertran can write this love poem to the Lord of Poitou’s wife without worrying that he will be upset, even mentioning her underclothes! In the second stanza he praises her in traditional terms as noble, but takes time to praise himself as well as the best of poets. Since he has deigned to praise her, she is all the more worthy. Her husband was heir to the throne of Provence, and he anticipates her elevation to the rank of queen. In the last stanza, he describes his love for her in intimate detail and says that he would rather have her than the city of Corrozana. All of this is the rankest flattery, and would not be taken seriously by any of the parties.

Raimbaut de Vaqueiras: Kalenda Maya, from The Dante Troubadours, Nimbus NIM 5002, track 11.

This poem is extremely popular because of the light, lilting tune it is set to. The troubadours were composers as well as poets, though they sometimes reused older melodies when they set their lyrics. At first we might look at this poem and feel that at last we have encountered a genuine love poem, filled with heart-felt emotion. But no, the final lines reveal that it is just as artificial as the others. In ancient times May Day was the festival day of Venus, and it continued to be associated with love in the Middle Ages. The usual signs of spring in poetry are leaves on the trees and birds singing. Both are mentioned here, but instead of bringing joy, they only reinforce the loneliness of his beloved. The lovers have been separated by “the jealous one,” a stock figure who is sometimes the lady’s husband, sometimes just an envious meddler who has discovered and publicized the secret affair. In the second stanza he begs with the lady not to allow the jealous one to succeed in the plot of separating the two of them. Grace is of course an important theological term in Christianity, but in courtly love language it is applied to the willingness of the lady to grant favors (usually in the form of love-making) to her suitor. Since the lover presents himself as suffering from love-longing, he asks for her “pity” (which has roughly the same meaning as “grace”). The message is the same as such old blues lines as “Ooh Baby, I need you so bad!” but expressed in more pretentious language. We now learn that despite their intense relationship, they have not yet actually made love (and neither, the poet reassures himself, has she taken any other lovers). Whoever does not love this lady leads a worthless life. Note the insistent repetition of terms relating to her nobility. In this class-bound society, beauty, virtue, and nobility were supposed to go hand-in-hand, though it was widely acknowledged that sometimes they did not. Then we are shocked to find the concluding lines addressed, not to the mysterious, marvelous lady, but to the poet’s patron, Lord Engles. Alas, the poem is yet another set piece written to please a patron and not the outpourings of a romantic soul in love.

Anonymous French: L’autrier m’iere levaz, from Medieval Songs and Dances, CRD 3421, track 3.

Up to this point all of our poets have been Provençal. This one is written in 12th-Century French, a quite distinct language, but differing substantially from modern French (in which the title would be something like L’autre jour je me levais). This is a pastourelle, a common poetic form which makes different use of the class structure of Medieval society than the poems we have read earlier. The theme of these poems is that knights can find attractive lovers among the common people, especially shepherdesses. The courtship is depicted as much more crude and rapid than the elegant and prolonged maneuverings required for a courtly affair. Today pastourelles would be considered little more than poems of sexual harassment, and this one ends in what is essentially a rape. Part of the appeal of such poems for noble (male) audiences was the thrill of the forbidden: crossing class boundaries, slumming. I don’t know how the melody of this song struck Medieval listeners, but it has always seemed oddly sinister to me. The translation here is in prose, but it effectively conveys the poem’s message.

Like most love poetry it is set in spring, beneath the flowering trees. Just as in ancient pastoral poetry there is a conventional set of names by which the rustic characters are identified, so Ermenjon is recognizably a peasant name. She is addressed not as Lady, for only noblewomen qualified as ladies. “Sister” is a much more casual, commonplace term. She has been raised well enough to know that she should have nothing to do with her social superiors and tries to escape his unwanted attentions to reminding him of his status and hers. But he claims to have broader views. His praise of her sense (intelligence) is insincere, since they have obviously never spoken before this moment. Like many pastourelle heroines, Ermenjon already has a shepherd-lover, this one named Perrin (another typical peasant name). When she tells him how afraid she is, the knight deliberately misinterprets her as saying that she is afraid of Perrin’s jealousy, when in fact she had been threatening the knight with the shepherd’s vengeance. She makes clear her rejection of him by saying her body cannot be bought even for all the rich goods displayed in the great market at the city of Limoges. The response of the knight is then to rape her. Fulfilling standard male fantasies of the time, she is much pleased and glad that he ignored her resistance. The message is clear: “No matter what women say, they all want it. Just be firm.” Modern attempts of women to tell men directly and repeatedly how stupid and revolting this point of view is have been only partially successful, so it is not surprising to find it widely accepted in the Middle Ages. What is surprising is that in about half the pastourelles the young woman succeeds in rebuffing her noble suitor and sending him on his way. In such poems she is clearly the smarter of the two, and the more virtuous. The existence of both traditions side by side should keep up us from over-generalizing about Medieval attitudes.

In order to balance things a bit, you will find in your class packet an example of such a pastourelle. Why is the knight’s attempt flatter the woman by claiming she must be of noble descent actually insulting? How does the shepherdess answer him? Note that although he begins by praising the young woman, he ends by cursing her. This hostility lurks not too far beneath the surface of many love poems in which the man professes himself to be the slavish servant of his beloved. Her final reply is rather obscure, but it seems to say he will get as much pleasure out of her as a hungry man gets out of painted food, and he can hope for as much cooperation from her as someone who expects to be miraculously fed by God, like the ancient Hebrews wandering in the wilderness of Sinai.

Anonymous Italian: Lamento di Tristano, from Medieval Songs and Dances, track 1.

After Lancelot and Guinevere, the most famous fictional lovers of the Middle Ages were Tristan and Iseult, another adulterous pair who were often separated. (One episode from their story is told by Marie de France in the lai of Chevrefoil). Tristan is portrayed as an outstanding musician, and is imagined here as having composed this lament during one of these separations. Although the story is set in Cornwall, its most famous retellings were Continental, and it is not at all surprising to find this title turning up in 14th-Century Italy.

Guillaume de Machaut:Foy porter

Besides being a famous poet, Machaut was one of the greatest composers of the 14th Century. Working in Paris, he was at the heart of the development of polyphony. This first song, however, is monophonic, a love song with typically intricate rhyming. My translation doesn’t aim at poetry, but does get the essential theme across: the irresistibility of love. It was believed that gemstones could be used to heal various sufferings. Only the lady can heal his suffering. How does the poet claim loving the lady has made him a better person? The idea that courtly love improved one’s character was a crucial part of the whole tradition.

Foy porter, honneur garder I want to stay faithful, guard your honor,
Et pais querir, oubeir Seek peace, obey
Doubter, servir, et honnourer Fear, serve and honor you,
Vous vueil jusques au morir Until death,
Dame sans per. Peerless Lady.
Car tant vous aim, sans mentir For I love you so much, truly,
Qu’on poroit avant tarir that one could could sooner dry up
La haute mer the deep sea
Et ses ondes retenir and hold back its waves
Que me peusse alentir than I could constrain myself
de vous amer. from loving you,
Sans fausser; car mi penser, without falsehood; for my thoughts
Mi souvenir, mi plaisir my memories, my pleasures
Et mi desir sont sans finer and my desires are perpetually
En vous que ne puis guerpir n’entroublier of you, whom I cannot leave or even briefly forget.
Il ne’est joie ne joir There is no joy or pleasure
N’autre bien qu’on puist sentir or any other good that one could feel
N’imaginer or imagine which does not seem to me worthless
Qui ne me samble languir, whenever your sweetness wants to sweeten my bitterness.
Quant vo douceur adoucir vuet mon amer: Therefore I want to praise
Dont loer et aourer and adore and fear you,
Et vous cremier, tout souffrir, suffer everything,
Tout conjoir, Tout endurer experience everything, endure everything
Vueil plus que je ne desir Guerredonner. more than I desire any reward.
Foy porter . . . I want to stay faithful . . .
Vous estes le vray saphir You are the true sapphire
Qui puet tous mes maus garir et terminer. that can heal and end all my sufferings,
Esmeraude a resjoir, the emerald which brings rejoicing,
Rubis pour cuers esclarcir et conforter. the ruby to brighten and comfort the heart.
Vo parler, vo regarder, Your speech, your looks,
Vo maintenir, font fuir et enhair et despiter Your bearing, make one flee and hate and detest
Tout vice et tout bien cherir et desirer all vice and cherish and desire all that is good.
Foy porter . . . I want to stay faithful. . .

Translated by Paul Brians

Dame, je suis cilz/Fins cuers doulz/Fins cuers doulz, from The Mirror of Narcissus, Hyperion CDA66087, track 2.

The multitextual motets of the 14th Century seem very strange to modern ears, but in that time it made sense to create polyphony by layering one verse of a monophonic song on top of another to produce harmony. Here there are three voices. The Tenor is repeated over and over while the other verses are sung. The whole idea of courtly love was for the lover to present himself as a loyal servant to his lady. If he obeyed her every wish and loyally kept secret their connection, after a long period of trial she might legitimately take pity on him and console him with love-making. However, if she postponed this healing consolation too long, he might die; and poets often used the threat of such a death to exert pressure on the ladies to whom they were supposedly utterly submissive. It was a not uncommon form of emotional blackmail to tell a woman, “You can either commit adultery with me or effectively commit murder by refusing; which is it to be?” One wonders whether this worked in real life, but in poetry it is routine. Note how in the Motetus the poet says that all his good qualities come from loving her. How does the Triplum present the poet as a martyr?

Dame, je sui cilz qui vueil endurer Lady, I am one of those who willingly endures
Vostre voloir, tant com porray durer: your wishes, so long as I can endure;
Mais ne cuit pas que longuement l’endure but I do not think I can endure it for long
Sans mort avoir, quant vous m’estes si dure without dying, since you are so hard on me
Que vous volés qu’ensus de vous me traie, as if you wanted to drive me away from you,
Sans plus veioir la tres grant biauté veraie so I should never again see the great and true beauty
De vo gent corps, qui tant a de valour of your gentle body, which has such worth
Que vous estes des bonnes la millour. that you are of all good women the best.
Las! einssi ay de ma mort exemplaire, Alas! thus I imagine my death.
Mais la doleur qu’il me me convendra traire But the pain I shall have to bear
Douce seroit, se un tel espoir avoie would be sweet, if I could only hope,
Qu’avant ma mort par vo gré vous revoie. that before my death, you let me see you again.
Dame, et se ja mes cuers riens entreprent Lady, if ever my heart undertakes anything
Dont mes corps ait honneur n’avancement, which may honor or profit my heart,
De vous venra, com lonteins que vos soie, it will come from you, however far you may be,
Car ja sans vous que j’aim tres loyaument, for never without you, whom I love very loyally,
Ne sans Amours, emprendre nel saroie. nor without Love, could I undertake it or know it.
Fins cuers doulz, on me deffent Sweet noble heart, I am forbidden
De par vous que plus ne voie to ever see you again
Vostre doulz viaire gent your fair sweet face
Qui d’amer m’a mis en voie; which put me on the path of love;
Mais vraiement, je ne sçay but truly I do not know
Comment je m’en attendray how I can expect
Que briefment morir ne doie: not to have to die soon.
Et s’il m’en faut abstenir And if I must abstain
Pour faire vostre plaisir, to give you pleasure,
Ou envers vous faus seroie, or else be untrue to you,
S’aim trop mieus ma loyauté then I would rather keep my loyalty
Garder et par vostre gré and according to your will
Morir, se vos cuers l’ottroie, die, if your heart wishes it,
Qu’encontre vostre voloir, than against your will
Par vostre biauté veioir, to receive complete joy
Recüsse toute joie by viewing your beauty.
Fins cuers doulz, joliete, Sweet noble heart, pretty lady,
Amouretes m’ont navré; I am wounded by love
Por ce sui mas et pensis, so that I am sad and pensive,
Si n’a en moy jeu ne ris, and have no joy or mirth,
Car a vous, conpaignete, for to you, my sweet companion,
Ay mon cuer einsi doné. I have thus given my heart.
Repeat Trans. Paul Brians

Douce dame jolie

A virelai is a lively dance form. Although the text of this poem reads as dolefully as the other Machaut pieces, its delightfully lilting music belies its text. Note again the tight and intricate rhyming of the original. Again the opening image is the feudal domination the lady exerts over her beloved. By now you know what the lover is asking for when he begs her “pity.” What is the message of this last stanza?

From Kate Farrell: Art & Love: An Illustrated Anthology of Love Poetry. New York: Bulfinch Press, 1990.

Dante Alighieri: Sonnet

Lapo Gianni and Guido Cavalcante were friends of Dante’s. In this poem from La Vita Nuova, he fancifully imagines that they might escape in a magic ship on an endless voyage of love. Tragically, his Beatrice died young, as did Guido’s Giovanna (“Vanna” is a nickname). In the Divine Comedy Dante later imagined meeting her in an altogether more serious way when he described her guiding him through Heaven. The translation “whose name on the list is number thirty” is misleading: it should be something like “who is the best of the top thirty.” Dante was influenced by the courtly love style, and carried on his life-long love for the married Beatrice while being himself married to another woman. According to his own account, they never consummated the relationship. It consisted entirely of his adoring her from afar and–most important–writing poetry about her. What effect does knowing this background have on your interpretation of the poem?

From Wendy Mulford, ed.: Love Poems by Women. New York: Fawcett, 1991.

La Comtesse de Dia: I Must Sing of That

There were few women troubadours (some twenty are known), but the most famous of them was the Countess of Dia. We know little about her life, but this song is the only female troubadour song to survive with music intact. Like much male troubadour poetry, this is a lament of unrequited love. Deceived and betrayed suggests that he has been unfaithful to her. Seguin and Valensa were the lovers in a now-lost romance. Like many other troubadour songs, it ends with a threat, this one rather veiled. Other translations render the fourth line of the third stanza as “it is not right that another love. . . .” What are the main arguments she uses to get him to return her love?

Anonymous: Dawn Song

A “Dawn Song” is a standard Medieval form common in Provence, France, and Germany, in which a pair of lovers lament the coming of the dawn, which means that they must part. Often the woman is married, but that does not seem to be the case here. What evidence is there, at least, that this couple is not married to each other?

Christine de Pisan: A Sweet Thing Is Marriage

Christine de Pisan (or Pizan), born in Venice to the chief physician of Charles V of France, was married at fifteen and widowed at twenty-five. She wrote extensively defending women and arguing for their intelligence and abilities. Her poetry consists of posthumous tributes to her dead husband. What qualities did she especially admire in her husband? His speech to her implies that his love for her is making him better: a common courtly love idea.

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz: From A Satirical Romance

This Mexican nun actually belongs with the Renaissance writers, but her language is typically Medieval. What unusual image does she use to express the flowing of her love to her jealous lover?

From Kate Farrell: Art & Love: An Illustrated Anthology of Love Poetry. New York: Bulfinch Press, 1990.

I can’t hold you and I can’t leave you

How does the poet propose to deal with her ambiguous feelings about her lover? The last stanza implies that if he would be wholehearted in his love for her, she could be equally wholehearted in loving him.

More study guides for Love in the Arts:

Poetry of Mystical Love

The notion of fusing sexuality with religious devotion strikes many readers as surprising, but it is in fact an ancient theme, common in a wide variety of mystical traditions. In all of them the union of human and divine is expressed through metaphors of lovemaking.


Source: From For Love of the Dark One: Songs of Mirabai, tr. Andrew Schelling (Boston: Shambhala, 1993), pp. 51, 89, 39, 48.

The Hindu tradition contains many traditions of mystical eroticism. The world is created through a sexual act, Kali/Durga embodies the combined activities of death and procreation, Kama is a famous god (the Sanskrit sex manual Kama Sutra is named after him), but perhaps the most widely-known figure connected with such images is Krishna, renowned for his love of the gopis.

The 16th-century mystical poet Mirabai is famous for her life-long devotion to Krishna. She identified herself poetically with his consort, Radha, rejected the husbands who were forced on her, and wandered the land with a band of like-minded women, singing their songs of praise for their god/lover. One tradition says that she spent some time at the court of Akbar the Great, the Mogul ruler of North India who lavishly supported the arts. Although Muslim by background, he was interested in all religious traditions, and tried to create a synthesis from Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism. However her fame developed, it has lasted to this day. Her songs are performed devotionally, but also as entertainment, live and in popular films.

Dancing Before Him

This poem relates to the tradition of Bharata Natayam which was carried on by temple dancers throughout India at temples devoted to the worship of Krishna until they were banned by the British on the grounds that they commonly also served as prostitutes. In fact most did support themselves by sleeping with customers at the temples, but this was considered a traditional and legitimate part of their function, explicitly endorsed by the god. Their dancing, however, was performed for the god himself. The dancer would often sleep overnight beneath Krishna’s image, and elaborate dances were performed ritually in which the dancer communed directly with the god without any other audience being permitted. After a long hiatus, this form of dancing has been revived as an art form, with respectable young women reviving the tradition in concert halls and on television; but dancing in temples has not been resumed. Like the temple dancers, Mirabai here identifies with Radha and the Gopis who danced together with Krishna during his life on earth. The blue-skinned Krishna is often referred to as the “Dark One.” What is Mirabai’s attitude toward conventional social reputation? What religious significance would her attitude have? How does she express the intimacy of her identification with Krishna?

Let them gossip

How is the belief in reincarnation reflected in this poem? What do you thinking “awaking” consists in? The miracle in which Krishna protected his home village from an angry god by sheltering it beneath a mountain is referred to in the next to last line.

Come to my bedroom

This invitation to bed is reminiscent of some passages in the Song of Songs. fs20 In what way does Mirabai’s relationship with Krishna go beyond a human marriage?

Yogin, don’t go

“Yogin” is one of Krishna’s many titles. Here Mirabai offers to immolate herself on a funeral pyre, committing an act of sati to unite herself with Krishna as if she were his widow. Rubbing ashes over the body is a common symbolic gesture recognizing the unity of life and death. In what way do the final lines express Mirabai’s yearning for complete union with the god?

Persian Sufi Poetry

The majority tradition of Islam generally rejects mysticism. It is considered very presumptuous to aspire to unite with God. He is to be revered, praised and obeyed, not embraced. Islam’s rejection of any notion of divine incarnation underlines the distance between mortal believer and immortal object of worship. Yet within Islam mystical traditions proliferated, including many varieties of sufism. Some concentrate on meditative dancing designed to induce a trance (carried out by the “whirling dervishes”). Whereas many Muslims are deeply suspicious of music as a frivolous diversion (the call to prayer is never called a “song”), Sufis ecstatically sing ghazels for hours at a time in praise of God. Sufi poets are among the most famous and influential throughout the Islamic world, the most prominent writing in Persian.

Hafiz: If that Tartar, that fair-skinned Turk of Shiraz

From Peter Avery & John Heath-Stubbs, trans. Hafiz of Shiraz: Thirty Poems London: John Murray, 1952, pp. 22-23.

Hafiz’ poems strike Westerners as extremely secular in their enthusiastic praise of wine, music, and lovemaking; and yet they have been understood from the earliest times to be religious allegories of ecstatic union of God. Although wine is forbidden to Muslims by the Qur’an, intoxication is the favorite spiritual metaphor of the Sufi poets. Supremely delicious but nonintoxicating wines will flow freely in paradise, according to Islamic belief. Mysticism provides a foretaste of such wine. Here Hafiz daringly expresses his love for God through the vehicle of desire for a handsome young man. Homosexuality is generally rejected by Islam, but it is a commonplace subject for literature. Hafiz begins by expressing his willingness to trade two rich Islamic cities just for the mole on the cheek of his beloved. He then asks for the wine, and daringly implies that this earthly vintage surpasses that which awaits the faithful in Paradise. The Turks are evidently troops stationed in his city: their pillaging of the shops is compared to the stealing of hearts. What religious meaning might be extracted from the lines: “Such beauty has no need of our clumsy love:/No more than a lovely face needs pen cil or make-up”? How does the rejection of reason fit in with mystical religious views? Joseph [Arabic “Iusuf”] was a handsome young Hebrew who worked for the high Egyptian official Potiphar. Potiphar’s wife fell in love with him and tried to seduce him. When he rejected her, she accused him of rape and had him put in jail. The story is told in Genesis 39 of the Bible and in Sura 12 (“Joseph”) of the Qur’an, but later Muslim writers developed the story much further. The wife is named Zuleika, and her relationship to Joseph is developed into a complex romance with many episodes. The young man’s beauty is especially emphasized. The next stanza makes clear that the them here is rejection returned by love. The mystical lessons conveyed by God are to be prized more than the worshipper’s own soul. Finally, Hafiz asks for his poem, compared to a pearl necklace, to be accepted by God by asking for it to be showered with the stars of heaven.

Rumi: They say that Paradise will be perfect

From John Moyne & Coleman Barks, trans. Open Secret: Versions of Rumi. Putney, Vermont: Threshold Books, 1984, no. 802, p. 43.

Rumi is one of the best-loved of all Sufi poets. According to the Qur’an, Paradise will provide delicious wine and beautiful young women and men to delight the saved. Given that we know Rumi was devout, what is he implying about the relationship between pleasure in this world and pleasure in the next? Why do you suppose he neglects (like most writers) to mention the beautiful young men in Paradise?

Hildegard of Bingen: O Ecclesia

From A Feather on the Breath of God, Hyperion CDA66039, Track 8.

Hildegard of Bingen was an altogether remarkable woman in many ways. One of the few avenues to prominence for a woman in Medieval Europe was through church office. Hildegard reached the highest office open to a woman as Abbess of the Abbey of Bingen in Germany. She was made a saint because of her intense spiritual visions of union with God which she described in rapturous Latin poetry. She described these visions to the nuns in her care, who rendered them in striking paintings illuminating her works. Modern German nuns created faithful replicas of these paintings which were preserved when the originals were destroyed in the bombing of World War I. It is these replicas which are the source of all modern illustrations often misleadingly labelled as “the art of Hildegard.”

Though she may not have been a painter, she was accomplished in other fields. She wrote a treatise on medicinal herbs which displayed profound learning. But she is remembered today chiefly as a composer. Bingen was far from such centers of Church composition as Paris, and she developed a highly-original style of chant involving extraordinarily wide leaps and soaring lines which clearly echo her mystical leanings. Much of this music has been recorded and it is becoming more and more widely known each year. Recently a hit recording was created by blending authentic performances of her songs with world beat/new age backgrounds. Like other Christian mystics, she frequently uses erotic imagery, often from the Song of Songs, to convey her sense of spiritual exaltation.

In the introductory stanza, Ecclesia is the Church, personified as a beautiful woman. The opening stanza clearly echoes the language of the Song of Songs. Note the emphasis on sound, appropriate for a poet/composer. Despite being referred to, like most plainchant, by its first line, a more appropriate title for this work would be “Hymn to St. Ursula,” an early Christian martyr whose story is exceedingly obscure and confused. In all versions, however, it is clear that like , she clung to her virginity, wed only to Christ (that is, to God in the person of the Son). Nuns go through a marriage ceremony in which they don rings signifying their spiritual marriage to the Lord. Those pressuring her to marry (according to some stories, a pagan tribe trying to force her to wed one of their princes), mock her in a way which she interestingly reacts to as a kind of harsh music. Hildegard’s version of her story seems to imply that when force was attempted, she burst into a sweet-smelling flame and died, taken up by God to join him as his bride in Heaven. In the third stanza, she is addressing Christ. What is the phrase “the world” seem to be used in this poem? Can you compare the imagery of her union with Christ with any specific Mirabai poem? Ursula is traditionally said to have been accompanied in her martyrdom by many other virgins: as many as 10,000 of them.

St. John of the Cross: On a dark night

From Antonio T. de Nicol´s: St. John of the Cross (San Juan de la Cruz): Alchemist of the Soul. New York: Paragon House, 1989, pp. 103-105.

This 16th-Century Spanish monk was so enthusiastic a reformer that he was imprisoned for antagonizing the Church hierarchy. In jail, he began writing the poems recounting his mystical visions which are among the finest poems in Spanish literature. It was this poem which gave rise to the concept of the “dark night of the soul,” when spiritual despair gives way to enlightement and spiritual exaltation. Like other Christian mystics, he borrows images from the Song of Songs in describing his relationship with God. Can you identify any of these?

St. Teresa of Avila: I gave myself to Love Divine

From E. Allison Peers: The Complete Works of St. Teresa of Jesus, vol. III London: Sheed and Ward, 1972, p. 282

Teresa was a younger companion and friend of John of the Cross heavily influenced by his erotically-tinged style in her own mystical poetry. The pivotal experience of her life consisted of repeated encounters with a smiling angel which plunged a spear repeatedly through her heart, penetrating into her bowels and arousing a divine ecstasy. This is one of several poems in which she retells this encounter, which was memorably depicted by 17th-Century sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini in the little church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome.

Hroswitha: In Praise of Virginity

This extraordinary 10th-Century nun wrote comedies based on the ancient Latin plays of Terence as well as more serious works. This is a hymn to the Virgin Mary, figured as the bride of Christ, who is God. In the book of Revelation, Christ is presented as the Lamb of God, the sacrificial Passover lamb who died for humanity’s sins. The saints and martyrs are invited to gather around his throne. What does Hroswitha say Mary will do in Heaven?

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Classic English Love Poems

“Shakespeare: “Sonnet XXX”

What sorts of things does the poet say he thinks of during his “sessions of sweet silent thought?” Why do both pleasant and unpleasant memories make him unhappy? “Waste” is used here in meaning “passing away, using up.” If death is compared to night, it is permanent, and the passage of time means nothing, hence it is “dateless.” “Tell” is used in this poem in its old sense of “count.” Notice that there is a financial metaphor that runs through this sonnet. Explain what these financial references mean. How do the final two lines reveal the real point of the poem? What effect does it produce to have postponed this direct address so long while the poet detailed various sorts of suffering?

“Sonnet XVIII”

This is one of Shakespeare’s most famous poems, consisting of a critique of stereotypical metaphors for women’s beautiful features. What are the usual stereotypes, and how does he reverse or modify them? “Ow’st” means “ownest” or “own,” “possess.” “This” in the last line refers to this sonnet itself. What is the poet saying about his own power? Is this a flattering poem? Why or why not?

“Sonnet CXVI”

This poem tries to define “true” love. What qualities does such love have, according to the poet? A “bark” is a ship, so love is compared to a fixed star which may be steered by (a sailor would sight such a star’s altitude to aid in locating his ship’s position on the sea, specifically the north star, Polaris), but its true nature is far beyond ordinary human knowledge. The sickle or scythe of time is a traditional symbol of death, or its approach. What two unlikely/impossible things does the poet compare to the possibility of his being wrong about love?

Edmund Waller: “Song”

Here is yet another in the long series of European poems ranging back to antiquity which compare young women to flowers and urge them to make the best of their youthful beauty by making love before they wither and grow unattractive (carpe diem). By the Renaissance, the standard flower for this purpose had become the rose. Waller creates an interesting variation on the usual theme by addressing himself directly to the rose, telling it to bear his message to the woman he admires. “Resemble” in the fourth line means “compare.” To “waste” can mean to “waste away,” or diminish, as well as having the obvious sense. What quality in the young woman is the poet reproving? Why does he want the rose to die?

Anonymous: “To His Love”

This is the text of a famous madrigal by John Dowland. Although the song is set at dawn, it is not a “dawn song” of the traditional type, for it calls for lovemaking to begin, not cease, at daybreak. The first stanza celebrates the naturalness of love. What sort of repentance (“rueing”) is urged in the next to the last line of this stanza? In the second stanza the poet urges a romantic retreat to the shadows from the sun’s “fiery arrows.” Even though in this stanza the poet sees an element of nature (the sun) as the enemy of love, unlike in the first stanza, he still manages to associate nature with sexual urges in the last line. Explain. “Wastes” has the meaning of “is being wasted” or “is passing away.” “Hie” simply means “go.” “Dying” alludes to the threat of death by love-longing, but probably also bears the Renaissance meaning “to experience orgasm.” The final stanza is somewhat ambiguous. Like many other such verses, it could be only a piece of flattery telling a woman she has no need of make-up or fancy clothes to enhance her natural beauty; but it probably also means: “don’t put your clothes on!” Note the reference to Cypris=Venus. The statement that lilies “desire no beauties but their own” is a daring reference to Matthew 6:28: “And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” The poet’s impious/impudent argument continues that clothing promotes vanity (“pride”) and should therefore be shunned.

Andrew Marvell: “To His Coy Mistress”

This carpe diem poem is one of the greatest in English. Basically, the message is the same old “let’s do it now before it’s too late;” but the world-ranging sweep of the imagery and the marvelous language give it an intoxicating power which is fully apparent only when it is read aloud, especially the conclusion. Like Shakespeare’s Sonnet XVIII, this is at least partly an attempt to make an old point in a new way, by critiquing the limited, stereotypical imagery of the past. Many poems from Hellenistic times forward had used the threat of oncoming death to pressure a reluctant woman; but here the imagery of death is so powerful that the poem transcends the clichéd “lines” of more frivolous writers to become a stirring meditation on the importance of living fully during the brief span allotted us.

Stanza 1: “World enough and time” has become a catch phrase, drawn from this poem and used in a variety of contexts. The first two lines mean “If we had enough time, your reluctance wouldn’t be a crime.” The Humber is a British river, very far indeed from the Ganges; so the lovers would be extremely separated. The Biblical deluge, the Flood referred to here, was often used as a convenient demarcation setting off the most ancient times. “Antediluvian” (pre-Flood) still means “truly ancient.” So the poet is saying that from a period even older than that very distant date he could have loved her, all the way down to the present. Christians believed that the Jews would be converted at the Second Coming of Christ, at the end of the world. So these lines essentially say, “if I could live so long, I would love you from the beginning to the end of time.” Vegetables do not move as quickly as animals; their growth is gradual. What advantages does he say there would be to such a gradually developing love? An “age” would be a large historical period, like the Classical Age, or the Middle Ages. Why does he save her heart for last, do you think? “Nor would I” means “And I wouldn’t want to.”

Stanza 2: The sun, which marks the passage of each day, was said to travel in a chariot across the sky. What does it mean to “hear Time’s winged chariot hurrying near” at one’s back? Why is the future a desert? Whereas Shakespeare boasted that his poetry would preserve the memory of his beloved, Marvell does not use the ars longa, vita brevis argument. What does he say instead about his song? The imagery used in this stanza is both sarcastic and harsh, but undeniably realistic. A Fine and Private Place has been used as a book title by several authors, notably Peter S. Beagle.

Stanza 3: “Transpires” means “perspires:” the sweat of passion is as precious and fleeting as morning dew. To “sport” is to make love. The comparison of lovers to courting birds is familiar, but what does Marvell achieve by comparing his lovers to “birds of prey ?” “Slow-chapt” means “slow-jawed,” or “slowly chewing.” Rather than allowing themselves to be gradually devoured by time, the poet says the lovers should instead devour time. Whereas many poems implored the sun to slow down, permitting time for lovemaking, these lovers will outpace the sun itself in the ferocity of their passion, and make it run after them.

Christopher Marlowe: “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love”

Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare and an important playwright, here indulges in typical escapist Renaissance Arcadian imagery. “Prove” here has the sense of “try out,” “experience.” A “kirtle” is a sort of sleeveless over-dress. Myrtle was especially associated with Venus. Note how he combines precious materials unlikely to be within the grasp of a shepherd with simple rustic materials like wool and straw. A “swain” is often a rural lover, but here seems to have its more basic meaning of “servant.” What kind of appeal do you think such a poem would be intended to have for a cultured and elegant urban lady?

Sir Walter Ralegh: “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd”

Raleigh was a adventurer, explorer, and a close friend of Queen Elizabeth. He had a reputation for cynicism which is well reflected in this witty reply to Marlowe’s poem. List the objections that the nymph makes to the shepherd’s invitation in your own language. Philomel is the nightingale. The image in “wanton fields/To wayward winter reckoning yields” is a sexual one of summer’s beauty being ravished and wasted by the despoliation of winter. Gall is notoriously bitter-tasting. “Fancy” is “imagination.” What is the one thing the nymph says would make his invitation appealing?

Ben Jonson: “Song: To Celia”

What substitutes for toasts of wine does the poet suggest? Why does he say a mere material drink is inadequate for the purpose? “Jove” is Jupiter, lord of the classical gods, used frequently as a symbol of divinity in secular poetry. The gods were supposed to drink a heavenly nectar far finer than any earthly wine. “Late” means “recently.” How does Jonson make a surprising and interesting switch on the usual rose/beauty theme (as illustrated above in Waller’s “Song”)? Explain how he has turned the lady’s rejection of him into a complement.

John Donne: “Song”

This belongs to the very large category of European poems cynically depicting women as uniformly faithless. Its cynicism is, however, masked in beautiful language. It lists a number of marvelous or impossible things and then compares them to that rarest of beings: a faithful woman. How does the conclusion of the poem reject the possibility of such a creature even more strongly than the earlier lines? It was believed that mandrake roots could be transformed into human beings through magic, mostly because they sometimes looked vaguely like a human body. “Fair” means “beautiful,” so the poet is saying that no woman can be both beautiful and faithful. Why do you think men have been so anxious to portray women as faithless?

Anonymous: “Western Wind”

This is a hauntingly beautiful song whose melody became the basis for John Taverner’s Western Wind Mass. It appeals to modern readers because of its combination of passionate directness and mystery, partly caused by the antiquated language. The Western wind brings the spring rains, gentler than the torrents of winter. In structure it is remarkably like a haiku, two lines taken from nature and another two about personal feelings. Today we would insert “that” at the beginning of the second line. How does the order of the lines make the conclusion especially powerful? Explain why this might be read as a traveler’s or sailor’s song.

Emily Dickinson: (729) “Alter! When the Hills Do”

Although at first glance the exclamations in this poem might seem to be addressed to someone else as commands, they are in fact to be read as exclamations of astonishment (“Change! Me? No way!”). “Surfeit” means “become satiated.” What qualities does the poet’s love have which correspond to each of the three metaphors drawn from nature? Dickinson habitually used dashes for all manner of punctuation, a feature of her verse that is not preserved in all editions.

Emily Dickinson: (611) “I See Thee Better–In the Dark”

One of the wonders of American literature is the passionate intensity of the poetry written by this woman who led a very sheltered and outwardly uneventful life. Her inner life was obviously passionate, however restrained her actions may have been. This poem on the triumph of love over death is especially striking. The first stanza uses a scientific metaphor to express the idea that her love can penetrate even the darkness of death. A prism breaks up visible light into a spectrum, but she is aware of the invisible ultraviolet. Even the passage of time cannot dim her love. “Its little panels” are the little windows of a miner’s lamp. In the last stanza, in what way does she say darkness is better than sunlight?

Edna St. Vincent Millay: “Theme and Variation, 2”

Millay was a wildly popular poet in the 1920s, subsequently largely forgotten, now being rediscovered. She stressed the passionate longing for intense experience characteristic of many young people in that period. In this poem she addresses herself to her wildly pounding heart. The third stanza implies there is no good reason for these palpitations; what is in fact causing them? What does it mean that “he” has entered her eyes but not her heart? Why does she tell her mind to go to sleep? Is she rejecting love or welcoming it?

Christina Rossetti: “Echo”

Rossetti is well known as part of the Pre-Raphaelite movement of writers and artists who tried to revive Medieval themes in the Victorian age. How can we tell that the person she is addressing is dead? The dream of their love should have ended in both lovers “awakening” in Heaven together, but she has outlived her beloved. What is the “slow door?”

Emily Dickinson: “If You Were Coming in the Fall”

Why does the poet find it difficult to wait, though she expresses a willingness to wait for centuries or even spend her whole life waiting? “Van Diemen’s land” is an old name for Tasmania, an island off the coast of Australia.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning: “Sonnet XLIII, from the Portuguese”

Sonnets from the Portuguese are not translations, as the title implies, but a series of poems by the ailing Elizabeth Barrett Browning to her beloved Robert, one of the most distinguished 19th-century poets. Their love story is a famous one, often retold in fiction, and on the stage and screen. This is her most best-known. Like many Victorian writers she uses religious language freely, but for secular purposes. It may even be read as blasphemously idolatrous. The first four lines say that her love for him exceeds even the extent of the widest search she can grope toward in search of God. What effect does the sudden drop down to daily ordinariness have on the poem? Does it make us think less of her love? She was writing during a period which democratic revolutions were sweeping across Europe, and it is natural for her to emphasize how “freely” she gives her love in a political metaphor. Why is it pure to turn from praise? She measures the intensity of her love against her former sorrows, the simple surety of childhood, and her former religious beliefs. Like Medieval Italian poets, she looks forward to loving him after death as well.

Lord Byron: “She Walks in Beauty

Of all the English Romantic poets, Byron was by far the most influential internationally. His works were translated into all the major European languages and inspired countless paintings, plays, and operas. Together he and the novelist Sir Walter Scott imposed an English stamp on the art, literature and music of a whole era. Europeans had traditionally praised blonde, light-skinned women as the most beautiful. In this poem Byron celebrates dark beauty. England lacks a “cloudless clime;” what sort of land do you suppose would have the kind of star-filled night he imagines? Why does he call day “gaudy?” Her hair is raven-black. (Note the ironic juxtaposition of this poem in our book with a picture of a blonde.) How does he make precise his argument that her coloring is perfect? Although darkness and night were often associated with evil, he affirms that her dark beauty expresses pure goodness.

Robert Burns: “A Red, Red Rose”

Burns is Scotland’s national poet. He wrote much of his work in Scots dialect, and most of it is meant to be sung. “Sprung” means “opened” or “blossomed.” The poet says his love is proportionate to her beauty, which might risk accusations of superficiality if he did not go on to express the profundity of that love in extraordinary terms which necessarily imply that her beauty must be similarly extraordinary. The final stanza makes clear that this is a poem of parting. “Farewell” means just what these lines say “May you fare (do) well (while I am gone). What piece of 18th-century technology is he referring to in the metaphor of the last line of the third stanza?

e. e. cummings: “somewhere i have never travelled”

The poetry of cummings is characterized by various typographical devices, among them the habitual avoidance of capital letters, even in the spelling of his own name (somewhat obscured in our edition by the use of small caps instead of true lower-case letters). Although his satirical poems are perhaps his best known, he wrote many rhapsodic love poems as well. This is one of the best. Read it aloud to appreciate it fully, noting how you are required to read right past the end of lines at places to preserve the sense, as in the first line, where this technique reinforces the meaning. How does it do so? The theme is “intense fragility,” delicacy combined with great strength. This is an unusual love poem in two ways, in that it’s a man rather than a woman being compared to a rose, and that “openness” is being applied here to a man rather than to a woman, obviously more in an emotional than physical sense. What kind of intimacy does he express in the first stanza? Note the echo of “enclose” in the second stanza as “unclose.” What emotional experience is being expressed here? What effect does the parenthesis in the last line of the second stanza have? Compare it to the words “carefully everywhere” in the next stanza. What makes “nothing which we are to perceive” stronger than “nothing I have ever perceived?” “Forever” is eternity. What images of pulsating alternation, like breathing can you find in this poem? What does it mean to say that the “voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses”? It is conceivable that the surprising last line may have been inspired by “Blow, Western Wind.” The rain has small hands (raindrops) which are nevertheless ubiquitous and powerful in their effect.

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Last revised November 14, 2005.

Classical Love Poetry


Barnstone, Willis, trans. Greek Lyric Poetry. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1967.
Carrier, Constance, trans. The Poems of Propertius . Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963.
Kate Farrell: Art & Love: An Illustrated Anthology of Love Poetry. New York: Bulfinch Press, 1990.
Lind, L. R., ed. Latin Poetry in Verse Translation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957.
Wendy Mulford, ed.: Love Poems by Women. New York: Fawcett, 1991.
Rexroth, Kenneth, trans. Poems from the Greek Anthology. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1962.
Whigham, Peter, trans. The Poems of Catullus. Baltimore: Penguin, 1966.
Wilhelm, James J., ed. Medieval Song: An Anthology of Hymns and Lyrics. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1971.

Greek Love Poetry

Sappho (Lesbos, 7th Century BCE):

To Anaktoria
Barnstone, Willis, trans. Greek Lyric Poetry. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1967, pp. 66-67.

The term “lesbian” comes from Sappho, born on the Island of Lesbos, often considered the greatest lyric poet of antiquity; but whether she was a “lesbian” in the modern sense is still disputed. She was married and had a daughter, celebrated marriage, and wrote love poems to both men and women; but her most famous lines are generally addressed to other women. Today we would probably call her a bisexual. Plato called her “the Tenth Muse,” others criticized her shamelessness, but until the Christian era she was widely read and admired. The Church set itself against her, destroying her writings when they were found and–more importantly–not recopying them. They exist today primarily as “fragments”: brief quotations in discourses on literature, etc. Some substantial pieces were recovered in our own time from a papyrus manuscript which had been cut into strips to wrap an Egyptian mummy. Her modern fame thus rests on a mere handful of poems, of which “To Anaktoria” is one of the most famous. Helen of Troy left her husband King Menelaus to go with Paris, Prince of Troy, an act that triggered the Trojan War when Menelaus decided to try to get her back. The Kyprian is Aphrodite, the goddess of sexual passion, born near the island of Kypris (or Cypris). The “hoplites” were Greek foot soldiers. What is the main contrast Sappho is drawing in this poem? What is its main message?
Poems about Sappho
Materials for a course on homosexuality in the Ancient World

Ibykos (Samos,, 1st half , 6th C. BCE)
Love’s Season
From Barnstone, no. 297.

Here a lesser-known poet describes the effects of Kypris (Aphrodite) and her son Eros. Thrace lay to the north and east of Greece, and was considered a wild and savage land. What is the basic contrast the poet is drawing here?

Theognis (Megara, 544 -c.480 BCE)
The Athlete
From Barnstone, no. 403

In no other culture has homosexuality been so institutionalized and praised as in ancient Greece. Even Zeus, ruler of the Gods, was susceptible to homosexual passion. However, it was mainly the love of mature men for adolescent boys that was prized: adult male lovers were often scorned. The Greeks were very male-oriented, and some of them considered a male’s love for another male as being more “masculine,” more worthy, than love for a mere woman. This sort of relationship was often highly idealized, but sometimes, as here, it was taken lightly. Here the speaker imagines having two lovers, one at home (the boy) and the other elsewhere. The sex of the other lover is not clear, but it is probably another male. What about this poem suggests self-conscious “maleness?”

Anakreon (Samos c. 572-c. 490 BCE)

From Barnstone, no. 330

Chariot racing was wildly popular in antiquity, and star charioteers were treated like movie stars today. The poet clearly has a crush on one of these, who cannot be all that young if he is managing a racing chariot. The poem could be read either as a message to the indifferent youth or as the musings of the poet to himself. Anakreon was one of the most famous lyric poets of antiquity.

“Philainion is short”

Rexroth, Kenneth, trans. Poems from the Greek Anthology. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1962., p. 29.

People of African origin were unusual enough in Greek culture to stand out, but far from rare. Some of them were quite wealthy and powerful. The subject of this poem is a prostitute, but a gold-hearted one. Prostitutes had a considerably higher status in Greek society than in ours, some of them being widely admired for their intelligence and creativity. A cestus is a musical instrument. In what ways is the poet rebelling against standard notions of beauty?

Asklepiades (Alexandria, fl. c. 270 BCE):
” Negress”
From Barnstone, no. 195.

This poem from the Hellenistic period was written in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, a great center of both learning and luxury, where many blacks would have lived. By this date, the population was very mixed, with all pigmentations mingling freely. Like the preceding poem, it reflects the mild general prejudice against dark skin among the Greeks, but rejects it. How does the poet make blackness a positive quality?

“It is sweet in summer”;
From Rexroth, p. 29.

Only very wealthy people could have snow carried down from the mountains by special runners for a summer treat; so the poet is using it as an example of something rare but highly desirable. The “worship of Kypris” is, of course, lovemaking.

Anonymous (from a gravestone at Corinth)
From Rexroth, p. 13.

In antiquity people often inscribed messages on tombstones. Here a wife poignantly addresses her dead husband. When people died and went to Hades they were thought to drink from the waters of the River Lethe, which wiped their memories clean and left them little better then mindless ghosts. Can you deduce anything about the writer’s beliefs from this poem?

Roman Poetry

Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro, 70-19 BCE):
Eclogue II
Trans. Mary Grant From Lind, R. Editor. Latin Poetry in Verse Translation, New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1957, pp. 62-64.

By far the most famous and influential of all Roman poets was Virgil, author of the great Latin epic of the founding of Rome, the Aeneid. He also wrote many shorter poems, including the pastoral verses called “eclogues.” Based on pastoral verse forms invented by Greek poets during the Hellenistic age, they create an idealized countryside in which shepherds and goatherds have little to do but play panpipes, sing, and try to seduce each other. This dream-world, utterly removed from the real world of ordinary peasants, exercised an enormous fascination over Greeks, Romans, and later Europeans for many centuries, inspiring innumerable poems, novels, paintings, sculptures, ballets, operas, and other works. There is a set list of names associated with Arcadia (the rural area in Greece depicted in this poetry), and the mere mention of a name such as “Corydon” or “Alexis” (both names of men–calling women “Alexis” is a modern innovation) immediately identifies a poem as pastoral.

Some pastoral poetry is heterosexual, some homosexual. The latter is presented as a common and unremarkable alternative. (When the Arcadian ideal is resurrected in the Renaissance, however, it is overwhelmingly heterosexual in orientation.) How does Corydon release the anguish he feels at being rejected by Alexis? His songs are called “artless” to signify that this is natural, spontaneous, rustic poetry rather than polished urban verse. This notion is part of the essence of Arcadian poetry, which is in fact the product of highly urbanized poets who can sentimentalize about the simple life in the country from a safe distance. The passage beginning “Were it not best to bear” means that Corydon is asking himself whether he wouldn’t be better off loving Amaryllis (a woman’s name) or Menalcas (another man). What is he saying about Alexis’ light skin color in this stanza? Amphion was famous for his musical skills. Myth said that he contributed to the development of the lyre and was able to charm stones from the ground with his music to rebuild ruined walls. It was his brother Zethus who was more interested in tending herds; but Virgil imagines him as an especially musical cowherd. Attica is the Greek peninsula where Athens is located. Why was Corydon able to see what he looked like only when the wind died down?

Daphnis is a common Arcadian name. One of the idylls of Theocritus–the Hellenistic poet who founded the Arcadian tradition–tells the story of a youth named Daphnis who dies resisting love, and Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe is familiar to modern audiences by having been made into a ballet by Serge Diaghilev with music by Maurice Ravel. Another of Virgil’s Eclogues is also about Daphnis. Since the name was associated with extraordinarily attractive youths, what is Corydon claiming about his own looks? “Pierce the hind” means “hunt deer.” Pan is a god of the countryside, famous for his reed “panpipes.” Corydon offers Alexis his own panpipe, given him by Damoetas, though Amyntas coveted it for himself. By telling this story, Corydon is trying to establish the worth of his gift, well worth having. In addition he offers a pair of fawns. How is what he says about them similar to what he has said about the panpipes? Notice how flexible gender relations are in this poetry: Thestylis is a woman. Nymphs are fun-loving demigods especially associated with Arcadia, and Naiads are water spirits associated with rivers and streams. These spirits, always portrayed as beautiful, are said to be bringing flowers and herbs as an offering to Alexis, rather than he worshiping them. This is a typical form of flattery, not to be taken too seriously.

The narrator who spoke the first stanza returns, with the exclamation “Foolish!” Iollas is yet another beautiful youth. It becomes clear that the narrator feels that he is superior to Corydon as a suitor, and is trying to argue his rival into giving up. With the words “What have I done” this narrator begins to address Alexis, complaining that his own pursuit of the youth has laid waste to the countryside. Alexis should be happy to stay in the country instead of fleeing to the city. Paris, Prince of Troy, appears first in mythology tending his sheep on the hills outside the city. Pallas is Pallas Athena, the patron goddess of Athens, of wisdom, and therefore a symbol of civic virtue. The poet prefers the ways of nature. What is the pattern of natural behavior depicted in the next to last stanza? Does it seem designed to reassure Alexis? Frustrated, in the last stanza the narrator turns back to Corydon to argue that Corydon will never succeed in seducing Alexis and might as well get back to work. An “osier” is a willow stem. The final lines imply that if Corydon can’t get his mind off Alexis by working, he should content himself with another handsome young man instead.

Catullus (c. 84-54 BCE)

Catullus is one of the most famous and influential love poets of antiquity, renowned for the wit and passion which he poured into many short but intense poems devoted to Lesbia. Note that this name had no “lesbian” associations for the ancients. It is probably a fictional name for a real woman, though some have argued that she was wholly imaginary.
Notes on Catullus

“Who loves beauty”
Whigham, Peter, trans. FromThe Poems of Catullus.Baltimore: Penguin, 1966, p. 52

The first poem is a mock elegy for a dead sparrow. Although Lesbia is upset and Catullus is trying to be sympathetic, he is also being self-consciously “cute.” “Beauty” is here personified as if she were a goddess. The first line calls for the statue of beauty (associated with the beautiful Lesbia) to be veiled in a sign of sympathetic mourning. Orcus is a less common name for Pluto, the King of the Underworld, or Hades, where all dead souls go. What do you think might be his motivation for writing this poem?

“Lesbia/live with me”
From Whigham, p.55

This is one of Catullus’ most famous poems. The tumbling urgency of this translation is most apparent if it is read aloud rapidly. This is a classic example of the theme tempus fugit –“time flies.” What is the argument the poet is presenting as it relates to time?

Odi et Amo
From Whigham, p. 197

A frequently-quoted verse which expresses typical classical ambiguity about love. Readers of more of the poems to Lesbia will realize why Catullus is in such anguish over her: their relationship was a troubled one, to put it mildly. The women featured in almost all Roman love elegies were courtesans who felt little obligation to be strictly faithful to their admirers.

Propertius (c. 50 -c. 10 BCE):
Quam fueram magnis olim patefacta triumphis . . .
Carrier, Constance, trans. The Poems of Propertius. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963, pp. 48-49.

Like the Egyptian poem we read earlier, this is a poem about a door which separates lovers. It was customary for rejected lovers to sleep on their beloved’s doorsteps in a public demonstration of their devotion designed to shame the woman into opening up. Propertius displays his originality by having the door itself be the speaker. But this is actually a satire in which Propertius cynically comments on the promiscuity of Tarpeia. The door begins by remembering the “good old days” when she was visited by respectable people, but now her reputation is gone, drunken louts come at all hours, and she shuts out only her faithful lover (Propertius?). The door used to be able to fend off all comers, but now crowds of men fling the torches which have lit their way through the dark streets at the doorstep as they enter unhindered. The door’s hinges groan and creak from frequent use. Meanwhile, the faithful lover complains to the door in classic style. What does the word “cruel” seem to mean in this poem?

O me felicem! O nox mihi candida! Et tu . . .
From Carrier, pp. 80-81.

Propertius’ most famous love was named Cynthia. This poem is simply a rapturous celebration of lovemaking combined with a tempus fugit closing designed to persuade her to repeat the experience. Paris’ love for Helen, wife of Menelaus, was famous as the cause of the Trojan War. Diana, the virgin moon goddess, usually shunned men, but nevertheless fell in love with Endymion.

Qualis Thesea iacuit cedente carina . . .
From Carrier, pp. 28-29.

The Roman love poets seem strikingly contemporary partly because of their informality, but even more because of the way in which they reveal themselves so personally as individuals. Very few personalities from the ancient past come across so vividly as those of Ovid, Catullus, and Propertius, partly because they are not afraid to describe their own flaws, even exposing themselves to ridicule. The Roman poets were famous as satirists, but these three had the rare gift of satirizing themselves as well as others. In this poem Propertius portrays himself as having come home to Cynthia after a late-night party, drunk and sentimental. The contrast between his mood and hers when he awakens here is startling, and shows the poet trying to “think like a woman.”

What makes these poets distinctly un-modern is their fondness for alluding to classical myths which every contemporary reader knew intimately. Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos of Crete, helped the adventurer Theseus slay the fearsome Minotaur to whom he had been given as a sacrifice. Theseus repaid her love by abandoning her on the island of Naxos [click here to see a contemporary painting related to this scene: warning–contains frontal nudity] where, according to the most common version of her myth, she committed suicide by jumping off the rocky headland into the sea. Andromeda was chained to a rock to be sacrificed to a sea monster, but was rescued by the hero Perseus. Maenads were the female worshipers and companions of Dionysus (Bacchus) who danced themselves into an orgiastic frenzy in his worship and then collapsed. This trio of exhausted women has little in common besides their exhaustion, but for Roman readers a whole set of images of anguish and frenzy would be conjured up which are half-seriously applied to the upset Cynthia. The wealthy had their way lit for them through dark Roman streets by torch-bearing slaves. Argus had a hundred eyes all over his body. Juno jealously changed Io into a cow because her husband Jupiter had fallen in love with the mortal maiden. When Jupiter continued to pursue her, Juno set Argus to guard her, for even when he slept, some of his eyes were open. But Hermes, the divine thief, was sent by Jupiter to steal Io and succeeded in lulling all of Argus’ eyes closed with stories and songs, after which he cut off the guard’s head. Obviously to gaze at a woman like Argus is to gaze very intently. (For the same reason, “Argus” used to be a popular name for newspapers.) Romans wore wreaths–typically vine-leaves–in their hair during parties. Fruit was expensive, and the poet has tried to please Cynthia by bringing some home for her; but the original poem makes it clear that he dumps them clumsily in her bosom. “Trying the window” suggests a would-be intruder trying to break in. What gestures suggest that the poet has genuine affection for Cynthia? How do you react to Cynthia’s accusations? Is she more or less sympathetic than the poet?

Anonymous (2nd-4th C. BCE?):
The Vigil of Venus
Wilhelm, James J., ed. Medieval Song: An Anthology of Hymns and Lyrics. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1971, pp. 21-24.

This late Roman hymn differs from the previous poems by being a serious religious text devoted to the goddess Venus (or “Dione” as she is also known, not to be confused with “Diana,” the anti-sexual virgin goddess). The occasion is the night before her springtime holiday on April 1. Because so many of the Roman authors we still read were cynical about traditional religion, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that many people took the gods quite seriously. Most scholars agree that the poem is an artificial composition rather than an authentic hymn; but though it is elegantly written, it reflects the primeval belief underlying all fertility goddesses: that human sexuality is intimately connected with the fertility of nature. Because of this linkage, Venus’ holiday was celebrated when plants were sprouting in the early rains. The raindrops are imagined as fertilizing sperm, nature as fertile femininity. “Dione” is “terrible” in the sense of “awe-inspiring.” The law of love which she lays down must be obeyed, or defied at the risk of awful punishment (like that meted out to the sex-hating Hippolytus). When Uranus, the creator sky-god (“Father Heaven”), imprisoned his children, they rebelled, and his son Saturn castrated him, flinging his bloody genitals into the sea near the island of Cyprus. The combination of blood, semen, and sea water gave rise to Venus: full of erotic passion and the potential for violence. In this variant, the blood is said to be Saturn’s. What imagery in the second stanza links Venus to agriculture? The opening of rosebuds into full flowers is an ancient metaphor for the loss of virginity–or the gaining of sexual maturity. Venus is called “the Paphian” after Paphos, the city on Cyprus where her cult was celebrated. Cupid (Greek Eros) is her son. Whereas Venus inspires love, Cupid is love. He is depicted as naked, but armed with a bow and arrows which inevitably cause love in their victims. Note the edge of danger which the ancient world consistently associated with love; it was desirable, but hazardous. How is the virginal Diana treated on this holiday? Ceres is the goddess of grain, Bacchus of wine: so people are planning to eat and drink freely. Apollo is the god of poetry. Mount Hybla is associated with flowers and with Venus. Aeneas, son of Venus by the Trojan Anchises, is the “Trojan offspring” she led to Italy (“the land of Latium’), as told in Virgil’s Aeneid. According to the same source, Mars (Greek Hephaestus), the god of war, fathered Romulus and Remus (the founders of Rome) on Rea Silvia, the daughter of Numitor, King of Alba, though she had been dedicated as a Vestal Virgin. When the early Romans seized the Sabine women, they began a war resolved only when Romulus suggested that the two groups intermarry. The incident is known as “the rape [kidnapping] of the Sabine women,” and has often been depicted in art. The result of this union is all future Romans, including Julius Caesar and his nephew Augustus. Given these facts, can you explain why Venus was politically significant to the ancient Romans? “The wife of Tereus” is Procne, whose husband Tereus tried to kill her to keep her from telling the world that he had seduced her sister Philomela after having cut out Philomela’s tongue to keep her silent. Procne was rescued by a miracle which turned her into a nightingale, while her sister was turned into a swallow. So when the nightingale sings it sounds lovely, but is actually singing of a terrible crime. Note the consistent association of violence, rape, and betrayal that runs through these stories associated with Venus. The poet finally expresses her/his yearning to be able to sing of love from experience.

Sandro Botticelli: The Birth of Venus
William-Adolphe Bouguereau: The Birth of Venus

Florus :
Venerunt aliquando rosæ
From Wilhelm, pp. 24-25.

This late classical poem is an example of a theme closely related to tempus fugit: carpe diem (“seize the day”). Although theoretically it could be interpreted as an exhortation to enjoy any aspect of life in the brief time allotted to us on earth, in poetry it is in fact almost always an argument made by a man to persuade a young woman to make love with him. The standard metaphor is the rose. If not appreciated while it is young and fresh, it soon wilts and withers, and no one wants it. The warning to women is plain: do not resist so long that you lose your attractiveness. Put so crudely, the message is repulsive to modern tastes. Can you make a case for a more complex, perhaps less offensive reading of the message conveyed by such a poem?

More poems by women authors from Wendy Mulford, ed.: Love Poems by Women

“I Hear that Andromeda”;
From Mulford, p. 27.

It is impossible to tell whether the “you” of this poem is a woman or man. A “hayseed” is a countryfied, unsophisticated person. Why do you think the poet is being so critical of Andromeda?

“Honestly, I Wish I Were Dead”
From Mulford, pp. 39-40.

This poem has been badly mutilated in the only copy surviving, hence the many ellipses toward the end. As Sappho parts from her friend (lover?), she reminds her of the things they have enjoyed together. It provides some of the strongest evidence for those who argue that Sappho was indeed “lesbian” in the modern sense, though this is strenuously rejected by others.

“He is More Than a Hero”
From Mulford, pp. 231-232.

This poem is famous for the intensity with which Sappho expresses desire and jealousy. The opening situation is that the poet is in love with a woman who is talking to a man, rendered god-like in Sappho’s eyes only because he is allowed to be where she would like to be, next to the beloved woman, and the focus of her attention. What about these lines suggests that it is the woman that she admires more than the man? In what way does Sappho see herself as being at a disadvantage compared to the man, even when she meets her beloved alone on the street? The existence of only a brief rainy season in Greece means that grass is more often a creamy color than a bright green.

Nossis of Locri:
“Nothing is Sweeter than Eros”
From Mulford, p. 161.

Read the biographical note on p. 261. “Cypris” is Aphrodite, named after her home island of Cyprus.

“Finally a Love Has Come”
From Mulford, p. 195.

Read the biographical note on p. 266. Female Roman poets were even rarer than Greek ones. “Rumor” is here personified as a god. Cythera was another island associated with Venus. The Muses were gods who inspired various arts, in this case poetry. What is the mood and message of this poem?

“Light of My Life”
From Mulford, p. 211.

Of what is Sulpicia ashamed in this apologetic poem? We will read similar expressions of regret in later European women’s poetry. Can you compare the attitudes these women express toward love with the mens’?

More study guides for Love in the Arts:

Last revised January 20, 2000.