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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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The Lais of Marie de France (12th Century)

Source: The Lays of Marie de France. London: Penguin.

The introduction to this volume discusses mostly scholarly matters which will be of little interest to first-time readers, but pp. 23-34 provide much useful information. Beginning on p. 126 there are very scanty notes to three stories, having to do with issues of translation. The most important point to note is that the medieval French lai bore roughly the same relationship to the longer, multi-episode romance as the modern short story does to the novel. They often incorporate magic and other marvels, and usually aim at entertaining rather than edifying their audience. Keep in mind that these lais were originally told in verse (see the sample original, p. 136), but that it is so much more difficult to write short rhyming lines in English than in the Breton dialect of Old French that prose is almost necessary.


The opening is a rather vague rebuttal to some critics of Marie about whom we know nothing. The word “Breton” could be equally applied to the inhabitants of Brittany in northwestern France or to Britons of England. Marie makes no clear distinction between the two, and authorities on both sides of the channel have claimed her. The lais are generally known as “Breton lais.” Her most likely source was Anglo-Saxon, still spoken by many commoners in the 12th Century, with many of the tales probably having even earlier sources in Old Welsh, the language in which the earliest Arthurian legends were told. Medieval lords often placed their sons in other lords’ homes to be educated. It was considered that natural parents were prone to be too indulgent of their children, and that a childhood spent in service at a noble home would induce the proper respect and manners expected of a nobleman. What different kinds of wounds are combined in the hind’s curse [89-122]? Solomon, as the richest king depicted in the Bible, was often used as an example in discussing riches [161-86]. What evidence is there that this a magic ship? In a society dominated by arranged marriages, especially in the upper classes, spouses were not necessarily expected to love each other. The combination of elderly husband and young wife was common enough, but much lamented and satirized in literature. How does Marie prepare you to be sympathetic with the wife’s adulterous desires [209-32]? What book is Venus casting into the fire in the painting [233-60]? Here’s an open question: why do you suppose this chamber has paintings of such an unlikely subject? How is the standard course of lovesickness played out in this part of the story [393-438]? Note how the lady’s virtue is illustrated by her faithful attendance at mass, even as her love for Guigemar develops. Toward the end of [464-95] Marie distinguishes between two kinds of attitudes toward love. What are the differences between them? What argument does Guigemar use against long courtship? The phrases “granted him her love” means that the couple made love, as the following sentences make clear. In Medieval imagery, Fortune was pictured as a woman who could abruptly and unexpectedly turn her wheel so that those on the bottom (with ill fortune) could suddenly find themselves spun to the top (with good fortune) and vice versa. Pledges made of pieces of clothing, etc. are commonplaces, but chastity belts are not. The youth Guigemar had raised is not his son: remember that nobles raised each others’ children. What evidence is there that magic is working on the side of the lovers in [655-90]? Fans of The Hobbit may recognize “Meriaduc” as the source of the name “Meriadoc,” or Merry. Tolkien was a distinguished Medievalist who worked many themes from literature into his fantasies. What do you think the symbolism of the two knots conveys about the nature of love [691-742]? How does Guigemar try to earn his lady? What important relationship remains unresolved at the end of this story? Note that it is expected that lays will be sung, rather than recited, in their original language.


Note that this lay is definitely set Brittany (now part of modern France), in the city of Nantes. What two seemingly conflicting attitudes toward love are expressed in the third and fourth sentences of the second paragraph of this story? Seneschals are routinely depicted as villains in romances and lays because they were the gatekeepers to the courts who decided which entertainers would be employed in the courts. They were the natural enemies of writers, singers, etc., who took their vengeance in story after story. The one is this story, however, is unusual in being a good seneschal who ends badly. Perhaps the reason is that Marie, as a noble herself, did not share the prejudices of wandering jongleurs and such. Note how closely beauty and nobility are linked in describing the woman. There is no need to take literally the statement that “she had no equal in the kingdom.” It is routine in the Middle Ages to describe any attractive woman as the most beautiful in the land, or even the most beautiful who ever lived. Love is here personified as the feudal mistress of the King: he is “admitted into her service.” What causes him to resist his desire for the lady? What reasoning does he follow to argue that it will be good for the woman take him as her lover? What does his reasoning tell you about courtly love ideals? The lady uses some standard courtly love arguments against his suit. On what principle are they based? What do they tell us about Medieval society? How does the king use her own arguments against her? How does he seek to equalize the relationship? What is remarkable about this story is that after all this “high love” courtly conversation the affair takes a distinctly “low” turn, reminiscent of the plot of a fabliau (a bawdy tale of trickery, deceit, and raw sex, usually with a humorous point). Bleeding was a routine medical treatment used for all manner of diseases. People had themselves bled regularly as a preventative measure, and it was even done as a social event, with music and refreshments being provided. Why is this affair disapproved of by the courtiers? How does this story illustrate the traditional folklore pattern of “the trickster tricked?” With whom do you think we are expected to sympathize in this story?

Le Fresne

Superstitions about twins have been common in many cultures, though the one expressed by the knight’s wife in this story is uncommon. Tales of twins separated at birth are a staple of all kinds of marvelous tales. In the absence of safe abortion techniques, unwanted children were frequently killed in the Middle Ages. Others were abandoned on the doorsteps of churches, where it was hoped that they would be rescued and adopted. The motif of the piece of clothing or jewelry which identifies an abandoned child goes back at least to the story of Moses in the Bible and was common in Greek mythology. Although Western Europeans knew little of Constantinople, it was famed as a wealthy and luxurious city. The porter was the gatekeeper, the one who guarded the door (French porte ). How does Gurun come to love Le Fresne? Rich people who gave or left large sums or property to the Church were usually motivated by the hope that by doing so they would receive “remission of sins” by paying in this life for wickednesses that would not have to be paid for again in Purgatory after death. The aim was to hasten their movement into Heaven. Why doesn’t Gurun marry Le Fresne? La Codre’s name means “hazelnut tree.” Note how the mother is unwittingly drawn to her own abandoned daughter. This sort of instinctive tie between blood relatives was firmly believed in during the Middle Ages. The reason that La Codre’s marriage can be invalidated is that the Church did not recognize the marriage ceremony in itself to be binding until the couple had had intercourse with each other. Presumably they abstain, so the marriage is null and void. Why is Gurun able to marry Le Fresne now when he couldn’t before? How is a happy ending provided for all?


Garwaf is obviously related etymologically to werewolf. Belief in such creatures was widespread in the Middle Ages. Note that they are prone to dwell in forests, routinely considered dangerous and frightening places. The insatiably curious wife who worms out her husband’s secret only to use it against him may be modeled on the Biblical example of Delilah and Samson. Why is tearing the wife’s nose off considered a particularly terrible punishment? Torture was used routinely in criminal investigations. In fact, the testimony of witnesses was often considered untrustworthy unless it was confirmed under torture; but its use against a nobleman’s wife would be most unusual unless there were grounds for suspecting her of a crime. Medieval Europeans, like many of the world’s people, believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Few women can be expected to marry werewolves, but what lessons might this story have been trying to convey to its female readers?


The story of the adulterous affair between Lancelot and Guinevere was known to almost every upper-class person in the Middle Ages. Eventually it brought about the ruin of Camelot, the court of King Arthur (Guinevere’s husband). After being retold for generations, Guinevere’s reputation became rather soiled, as this lay reflects. Arthur was originally Cornish, from the area immediately across the channel from Cornwall. He is portrayed as having conquered all of England, which bordered the still-barbaric lands of Scotland where dwelt the savage Scots and Picts. A very high percentage of Arthurian tales are set at Pentecost because it was associated with the miraculous. See Acts 2:1-13 for an account of the first Pentecost. See p. 2 of the Ovid guide for an explanation of the reference to Semiramis. Octavian was the original name of the first Roman Emperor, Augustus. Both are examples of extreme wealth. A “shift” is an undergarment somewhat like a slip. Note how Lanval pledges his exclusive love to the lady, quite spontaneously and voluntarily. “She granted him her body” means that they made love. A “boon” is a favor of some kind, in this case a magic one. Even in ordinary love affairs secrecy was crucial, but here it has a magical quality. “He was neither foolish nor ill-mannered”: this sort of understated complement by negation is common in Medieval narratives. What is the “one dish” that Lanval has in abundance [153-88]? Note that among other generous deeds, Lanval gave clothes to the jongleurs (reciters of poems and tales). As a writer herself Marie takes this as a sign of high virtue. [St. John’s Day] In early Arthurian stories, Gawain is the greatest of all knights, renowned for his courtesy and prowess. Later Lancelot tends to supplant him. When Lanval refuses Guenevere’s proposition, what reason does he give her? How does she react? Stories like this are common: a shameless woman propositions a man and is rebuffed and takes her revenge by accusing him of trying to seduce her. Such tales are obviously popular among men who want to blame women for all sexual aggression. The direct address to the reader/listener at the end of section [311-51] is another typical Medieval narrative device. The king’s use of the term “vassal” is meant to be insulting here. There is great irony, of course, in the king defending the queen’s honor when she in fact has attempted to betray him; but what does the king seem to be most worried about? The “pledges” are hostages to guarantee his return. A palfrey is a small horse, often used for carrying loaded packs, suitable for women to ride. Why is the beauty of the damsel so important in [509-46]? Why do you think it is important that the maiden be wearing clothing which partly reveals her body? Her description reveals her to be an absolutely stereotyped Medieval beauty. Avalon is the magical island where the fairies dwell. Medieval fairies were normal-sized and indistinguishable from human beings except by their extraordinary beauty and magical powers. They were often mischievous or even cruel; but this one seems to take compassion on Lanval. What do you think is the lesson taught in this story, and how effectively is it conveyed?

Les Deux Amanz

Jealous fathers who wish to prevent their daughter’s marriage are commonplace in fairy tales, of course; but only rarely is it suggested that the father’s motivation may be incestuous desire, though that probably lurks in the background of many of these stories. Women were often reputed to be skilled in the brewing of magic potions. This earned some of them a comfortable living, but also got some of them burned as witches. The young woman wearing nothing but her shift would give the young man a definite advantage, since the clothes of the wealthy were often extremely heavy. What would you say is the moral of this story? What is your reaction to it?


Another variation on the old man/young wife theme. It is routinely assumed in fiction that any elderly man foolish enough to wed a beautiful young woman deserves whatever he gets. If he is foolish enough to be jealous, he is then asking for trouble. Do you see any inconsistency in this reasoning? The lady’s curses show that she knows her Ovid and is aware that Achilles gained virtual immortality by being dipped into the River Styx in Hades (though his mother absent-mindedly failed to note that his heel, by which she was holding him, remained dry). Note how the lady’s wishes have been influenced by stories she has read–like Marie’s. Why do you think the lady makes the hawk-knight say that he believes in God? Corpus domini means “body of the lord,” in this case the sanctified bread, the host of the eucharist. “Sported” means “made love.” What does this story seem to be saying about how beauty is maintained in women? Note the authorial interjection at the end of [257-96]. According to the lover, what has betrayed their secret? The marvelous castle where the lady finds her dying lover is described in a stereotypical way that makes it obviously magical. [St. Aaron] How does religion seem to function in this story? How does it relate to love?


St. Malo is a remarkably well-preserved (actually largely reconstructed) Medieval seaport in Brittany which is a major tourist destination today. What are the two motives which lead the lady to love the knight? Note that prudent (secretive) love is good love. What stereotyped image of Spring familiar from earlier works is repeated here? How does Marie attempt to make the reader sympathize with the lovers instead of the husband?


This story takes place on both sides of the English Channel. Note once more that a person can fall in love with the mere reputation of another, without ever physically meeting him or her. This story is unusual in that it tells of a illicit premarital affair. It is wise not to overgeneralize about the patterns of Medieval courtly love. Given what happens in the rest of the story, why do you think it begins with this unusual illicit relationship? Medieval women might get by with concealing a pregnancy because their clothes were voluminous and swollen bellies were considered attractive. Many “maidens” in Medieval illuminations look distinctly pregnant to us. Mont St. Michel is a famous seaside fortress/monastery, formerly an island, on the coast of Brittany. The theme of the unknown adversary is a common one. Often there is a special relationship between the combatants. A frequent case is that two lovers find themselves fighting each other. Why do you suppose the son does not kill his stepfather as in Yonec?


What is said in the second paragraph about the comparative attitudes of women and men? The melee, or wild, unstructured group combat which kills the four men was so dangerous that it was eventually banned, to be replaced with the more structured tournament events such as jousting. The ending is somewhat ambiguous. Normally any woman who took more than one lover was severely condemned. What do you think the ending means?


The love of Tristan (Tristrem, Tristran, Tristram) and Iseult (Yseult, Ysolt, Isolde) was told all over Europe, from Iceland to Italy. Tristan and Iseult had fallen in love when he was bringing her back from Ireland to be the bride of his king and uncle, Mark. They mistakenly drank a magic potion which plunged them into an irresistible passion for each other which they nevertheless managed to keep hidden, though it was often suspected, and ultimately revealed, resulting in Tristan’s banishment. This is a small episode from that extremely well-known tale. Explain the symbolism of the hazel and the honeysuckle.


This story begins most unusually, with a married couple actually in love, but it soon takes a typically Medieval turn. Note the recurrence of the possessive father motif. Remember that a palfrey is not a war-horse. A “girdle” is a ribbon worn around the waist as an ornament, not a piece of constricting underwear. According to the chamberlain, what are Eliduc’s good qualities as a potential lover? In what ways does Marie try to solicit our sympathy for Eliduc? Note that he is fully aware that Christianity forbids bigamy. In the Middle Ages divorce was also illegal. The incident of the storm is probably inspired by that in Jonah 1. Similar stories occur elsewhere in Medieval narratives. What is the function of the weasels in this story? Women could indeed take up a life of celibacy, with the permission of their husbands; but the notion that the husband would then be free to remarry is pure fantasy. How does Marie try to cast a positive light on this story? Judging by this and the other stories, what seem to be her highest values?

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Last revised May 17, 2001.

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.

More study guides for Love in the Arts:

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’?

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Last revised January 20, 2000.

The Song of Songs

All references to the Song of Songs are to Michael V. Fox’s translation as published in The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), pp. 82 94.

The Song of Songs, also known as the Song of Solomon and the Canticle of Canticles, has long puzzled readers because its themes seem to have nothing to do with the religious concerns of the rest of the Bible. How it came to be classed among the sacred works called “The Writings” in the Hebrew Bible is unknown. The earliest rabbis whose opinions we have are certain that it cannot possibly mean what is says literally. If it is among the sacred books, it must have a sacred meaning. Some rabbis even argued that as the most mysterious of books, it must have the most profoundly spiritual of meanings. The consensus of first-century Jewish scholars was that the poem was an allegory of God’s love for his people, Israel. Modern literary scholars generally agree that the brief references to Solomon were added after the fact to rationalize its place in the scriptural canon. Solomon was said to have three hundred wives and seven hundred concubines, and was therefore stereotyped as a great lover who might have written such a work. However, the language and style of the work indicate that it was written at least 500 years after his time. Most likely the poems were composed by different hands and different times and assembled into this “anthology” at a later date. Michael Fox has taken the liberty in this translation of trying to reconstruct what he thinks may have been the original shape of the book, which means occasionally moving verses around to make more convincing sense. Generally, however, his translation follows the Hebrew text’s order.

Early Christian scholars followed the rabbinical lead by agreeing that these verses could not possibly depict worldly love. Since they routinely interpreted almost all of the Hebrew Bible (which they called “The Old Testament”) in allegorical terms, this was only natural. Some thought that the Song of Songs voiced Christ’s love for his Church; but the eventual Christian consensus was that they concerned God’s love for the Virgin Mary. She figures in Christian thought as the spouse of God. Medieval exegetes went to extraordinary lengths to explain away the obvious sensuality of these verses. Bernard of Clairvaux, for instance, argued that “kiss me with the kisses of his mouth” must not mean ordinary physical kisses because it was too indirect an expression. A man might kiss a woman with his mouth, but he would not kiss her with kisses. Something more spiritual is meant. He also recommended that monks and priests not be allowed to study the book while they were still young and prone to inflamed passions. Almost all Christian musical settings of the Songs are hymns to the Virgin. Since the text was sung in Latin, the listeners probably thought very little about the literal meaning of the words.

Allegorical interpretation has fallen out of fashion, and in modern times numerous attempts have been made to explain (or explain away) this book. One group made a valiant effort to compare the poems to Arabic wedding songs, arguing that they might have been recited at ancient Jewish weddings. However, the parallels are quite weak and there is no evidence for such use. Besides, the very subject matter seems to have remarkably little to do with marriage. The same objection undermines the theory that the poems are meant to depict God’s ideal for marital relations. Besides, the latter theory is anachronistic, hardly any but the most radical fringe groups in Christianity considered sensuality and desire even within marriage to be a good thing. For centuries Christians and most Jews (Moses Maimonides’ influence is important here) had a strongly ascetic bias. The concept of sensuous Christian marriage is only decades old, not traditional at all, as is the modern Jewish attitude toward sexuality. Of course, it is conceivable that at the time of their writing, these verses reflected attitudes more like modern ones that like those prevailing in the intervening centuries: Jacob was certainly passionate about Rachel. But it is still hard to see in them an endorsement of marriage.

The artistic importance of these verses (probably a collection of short, related poems, rather than a single work) lies in their intrinsic beauty and in the enormous influence they have had on later writers, painters, and musicians. They also reveal to us many interesting aspects of ancient Jewish attitudes toward sexuality.

The labels in parentheses have been assigned by the translator in an effort to sort out who is speaking when. It is clear that some lines are uttered by a woman, some by a man, and some by groups of people. The labels vary. Some translations rather misleadingly label the speakers as “bride” and “bridegroom,” but in the original there is no indication of who speaks each poem or even where one poem leaves off and another begins.

p. 26:

Scented oils were frequently used in antiquity as a combination skin lotion and perfume. The king mentioned here was traditionally taken to be Solomon until Christians began to conceive of him as God himself. What evidence is there that the blackness referred to in the second poem has nothing to do with race? In many cultures light skin has been prized as a sign of nobility in women; what in this poem suggests the reason for this association? Some modern translations try to evade the suggestion that darkness might have been considered unattractive by altering the introduction to “I am black and I am beautiful;” but that goes against the poet’s clear intent. It is not clear whether the complaint of the woman is an assertion of desire for equal property rights for women or a metaphorical statement about her control over her own body. Note the recurring instances of tension between young women and their brothers in these poems. Note the strong assertiveness of women’s desires in these verses, which goes even further than the Egyptian poetry. Note the many instances of references to smells and tastes, also like the Egyptian poetry. Michael Fox suggests that the beloved’s eyes are compared with doves because her fluttering eyelashes are reminiscent of a dove’s fluttering wings. Fox’s translation of the “lily of the valley” passage is most unusual, but interesting. Whereas most translations make the woman’s statement out to be a boast, what does his version convey? The “girls of Jerusalem” (usually called “daughters of Jerusalem”) The statement “do not bestir love,/before it wishes” has been variously interpreted. The obvious meaning is, don’t try to seduce someone who is too young, but that doesn’t seem to fit with the surrounding messages. Some have argued that it means that lovemaking should be gradual and gentle. Others take it as a warning that aroused love can be dangerous if not handled carefully.

p. 27

The speech by the “boy” beginning “Arise, my beloved,” is perhaps the most famous in the book, frequently set to music in its Latin translation combined with the introduction as “Quam pulchra es.” The old King James translation of the bird as a “turtle” has amused and puzzled many modern readers, but in the Renaissance the word meant “turtledove.” “The Voice of the Turtle” is the name of a musical group that performs and records Jewish music from the Middle Ages and Renaissance. What season is especially associated with love in this poem? How is the setting different from that envisioned in the earlier poems? Note how the girl repeatedly compares her beloved to a gazelle or deer. The poem that begins “On my bed night after night” is one of two about women searching for their beloveds in the city streets. Can you characterize these women? The following section is one of only two portions of the Song of Songs explicitly about Solomon and one of the few to make any reference to marriage. Some scholars have argued this may have been used as a marriage hymn, but we have no evidence for such usage. The cedars of Lebanon were associated with Solomon because he had imported them for use in building the famous First Temple. The final poem on this page uses image that many modern readers have found difficult and strange. We have already explained Fox’s theory about the dove metaphor. He also argues that seen from a distance, a dense flock of black goats streaming down a mountainside might well suggest the waving tresses of a dark-haired girl. In an age of minimal oral hygiene a woman who had white teeth and wasn’t missing a single one might well exceptional. What lines suggest that the woman has all her teeth? Round red cheeks were much praised in Medieval and Renaissance Europe as well, though the usual comparison there was to apples rather than pomegranates. Lengthy necks have been admired in many ages as well. What might the poet be referring to when he uses the metaphor of the shields which are hung from David’s tower?

p. 28

The breast/fawn metaphor seems strange at first, but it is their delicacy and gentle movements and the fact that they are a perfectly matched pair that the poet has in mind. “The mountain of myrrh” and “hill of frankincense” may describe an imaginary land of love, or they may be simple metaphors for the “mound of Venus.” What snares does the boy say have “captured his heart”? Lebanon was more fertile and wooded than much of Israel, and often figures here as a garden spot. The “locked garden” (surrounded by a wall with a locked gate) has often been read as a metaphor for the woman’s body. If this is the case, then the following speeches take on a strongly sexual meaning. What evidence is there that the subject is lovemaking rather than picnicking? Many ancient Egyptian and Middle Eastern love poems use “sister” as a term of affection for a beloved woman. Although the Egyptians did not entirely share the powerful incest taboos of the Jews (the Pharaohs routinely married their sisters), even they do not seem to have intended the term literally. The section “I slumbered, but my heart was alert,” begins a sort of little poetic dramatic dialogue. Note the image of the waiting lover drenched with dew, which we encountered earlier in Japanese poetry. This section is often cited in the arguments of those who argue against the idea that the Song of Songs consist entirely of marriage hymns. What about it might be used to support such arguments? Note the “lover outside the door” theme which parallels Egyptian and Roman poems on the same theme. This is the second of the two poems in which the woman goes looking for her beloved, but this time she is assaulted and robbed by the guards. The meaning is obscure, but these lines certainly underline the power of her passion. This poem can also be seen as a variation on the regretful woman theme: “I turned him down, and now I’m sorry.” Such poems are often written by men fantasizing about women, but there are also documented examples by real women.

p. 29

Note how many of the same images applied earlier to the girl are now applied by her to the boy. Beauty was not a characteristic solely of women in the ancient world. Some of the images do seem to suggest specifically male muscularity, such as thighs like marble pillars. The “ivory bar” suggests white skin adorned with dark hair (“lapis lazuli”). “Belly” is sometimes a euphemism in Hebrew poetry for “sexual organ,” and that may well be the case here. The repetition of several lines from earlier suggests folksong traditions in which same formulas are used over and over in various contexts. The reference to threescore (60) queens and fourscore (80) concubines suggests a king like Solomon, though it does not equal the numbers he accumulated at the height of his power. How can we tell that the girl is not to be numbered among the queens and concubines? The “morning star” is the planet Venus, often visible just before dawn, and considered particularly beautiful in both Hebrew and ancient Greek traditions. Note the praise of curves: the admiration of hard-bodied females with flat stomachs à la Janet Jackson is a very recent development.


The poet continues to use place-names which the audience would be familiar with as metaphors for the beloved’s beauty. “Thrums” are fringes. “A king is captured by the locks [of hair]” is traditionally taken to concern Solomon, though it can as easily simply mean that the girl is beautiful enough for a king to love. The idea that a man can be metaphorically ensnared by a woman’s beautiful hair is one of the oldest and most enduring images of love. The metaphor of the woman’s body as a garden is made even clearer when the woman is compared to a palm. Fox assumes this is a date palm, common in ancient Israel. Note the repetition here of the theme “let us go out into the fields to make love.” The speech by the girl wishing her lover were like a brother has no perverse intent. What does she say would be the advantages of having his status be the same as that of one of her brothers? Love’s power is frequently understood in the ancient world to be both highly desirable and very dangerous: “as strong as death.” In Hebrew poetry parallelism is the most common of poetic devices. To say that “love is as strong as death” is parallel to saying that jealousy is “as hard as Sheol.” In this period, classical Jewish concepts of the afterlife had probably not yet evolved, and “Sheol” is routinely used as a synonym for “death.” It was understood as the land where all dead spirits went, good and bad alike, much like the Greek Hades. Only later did it become a label for Hell, an interpretation that did not prevail among Jews until after the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in 70 CE. This description of the overwhelming power of love is strikingly like Sappho’s and Medieval Christian and Arabic views on the subject, and very unlike the playful Hellenistic and Roman attitudes. What is the poet saying about jealousy? The dialogue between the brothers and the girl is one of Fox’s most daring pieces of reconstruction, trying to make sense of some of the more obscure passages in the book. His translation suggests a brotherly refusal to recognize that their little sister has grown up and is ready for love. The second of the passages referring explicitly to Solomon uses him as the basis for a comparison: the boy would rather have his beloved than all the riches of Solomon.

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Created by Paul Brians

Love Poems from the New Kingdom of Ancient Egypt

These poems are taken from John L. Foster: Love Songs of the New Kingdom (New York: Scribner, 1974).

However, other editions are available. Barbara Hughes Fowler: Love Lyrics of Ancient Egypt (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994).
Ezra Pound and Noel Stock: Love Poems of Ancient Egypt (Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions,1962).

The New Kingdom of ancient Egypt is still quite ancient; it began after the fall of the invading Hyksos around 1575 BCE and lasted until 1087 BCE. The numerous love poems from this period illuminate many of the attitudes of the Egyptians and seem to have been powerfully influential on other peoples, notably the Hebrews, whose own love poetry bears some striking resemblances to them. As is the case with most ancient verse, none of the authors’ names are known. They lack titles, and are referred to here by their first lines.

Sometimes we think of the Egyptians as a gloomy, death-obsessed people; but that is only because we interpret them through the distorted lens of their tombs. The nobles among them at least yearned for an afterlife because they enjoyed this life too much to want to leave it. Their painting and poetry celebrates the pleasures of food, music, dance, and love.

“Once more you pass her house, deep in thought”
This poem strongly resembles a number of Roman poems in which the lover, prevented from being with his beloved for some reason, speaks to the door, blaming it for his plight. Each part of the door, threshold, frame, latch, etc. was thought to have its own divine spirit which one could pray to. In this poem it is not clear who has locked the door, but it may well be the woman’s parents. As in the Roman poetry, none of this is taken very seriously; these are humorous complaints. Note the passage in the Song of Songs in which the frustrated lover similarly has to deal with a locked door. The poem is addressed by the poet to the lover, who then speaks. The longhorn is a cow which the lover is offering as a sacrifice to the door latch, if it will only give way. The other sacrifices include suet (grease) for the hinge sockets. Why is this a useful substance to give a socket? What kind of door does he suggest should replace the sturdy wooden one barring his way? What evidence is there that the lover thinks it is not his beloved who has locked him out? The last stanza returns to the narrative voice that began the poem and then quotes the beloved, confirming the lover’s belief.

“Your love, dear man, is as lovely to me”
What senses are involved in the similes used to express what the man’s love (lovemaking) is like? Can you categorize them into a couple of groups? Can you find any similar metaphors in the Song of Songs? Note that white bread was a luxury in antiquity, too expensive for the poor. The speaker here (and perhaps the poet) is a woman. What evidence is there that this is a poem to either her husband or would-be husband? “Lord” here has the non-religious sense of “master” or “husband.” Based on what you know of ancient civilizations, is this woman more submissive or more assertive than women in other cultures?

“If I could just be the washerman”
It’s difficult to tell whether this slightly kinky poem is serious, or slightly self-mocking, like a lot of Egyptian love poems. Note that he is not entirely fixated on his beloved’s underwear.

“I just chanced to be happening by”
Another poem by a woman. How can we tell that she does not have an illicit affair in mind? What is preventing the two of them from getting together? Again, assess her assertiveness vs. her submissiveness. The “Golden Lady” is probably the cow-goddess Hathor mentioned below; she played a role in Egyptian mythology very similar to that of Aphrodite or Venus. Why does she feel that the night is shuddering? Can you find a passage in the Song of Songs where a woman boldly searches through the streets after her beloved?

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Kalidasa: The Recognition of Sakuntala

Source: Kalidasa: The Loom of Time. Penguin Books.

Your assignment is to read Abhinjnanasakuntalam (The Recognition of Sakuntala) plus its related notes. Begin by reading the biographical note in the front of the book, the Introduction, Sections I, III, VI, VII, X, and XIII and Appendix III on pp. 320 & 321. There are two kinds of notes in this book. Terms which are used in more than one of the works are explained in alphabetical order in the glossary on pp. 283-305, and other notes on the play appear on pp. 334-339 as well as in footnote. Be sure to use these notes to explain obscure references, etc.

The claim that the ancient Athenians invented drama may hold true for the West, but Indian writers argue that theater was highly developed even earlier in Sanskrit. No plays survive from those early times, however, and the dates of Kalidasa, the greatest of the Sanskrit playwright, while much disputed, are clearly centuries later–perhaps a millennium later–than Aeschylus and his fellow tragic writers. Abhijnanasakuntalam and Kalidasa’s other plays were written for a refined court audience. The dialogue of the upper-class characters was delivered in Sanskrit, the classical language, and that of women and commoners in prakrit, the common speech. Despite these lofty origins, Kalidasa’s plays have remained popular.

There is no tradition of tragedy in India, and Kalidasa’s plays always have happy endings. In Hinduism, everyone has an infinite number of chances to achieve enlightenment and liberation from the wheel of rebirth. A life that ends badly is only a prologue to another opportunity. Hence the basic premises on which tragedy is based are lacking.

Sakuntala is by far the best-known of Kalidasa’s plays. In Delhi there is a modern auditorium called the “Sakuntalam Theater.” The play was translated into German and English in the 18th Century, and greatly impressed the great poet and playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was influenced by it to create an “introduction in the theater” to his Faust and helped to spread knowledge of Kalidasa in the West. The initial consonant is pronounced “sh,” and you will often see the title rendered as “Shakuntala.”


Just as ancient Greek drama was part of a religious ritual (honoring Dionysus), so there is a religious aspect to classical Hindu drama. The play begins with a hymn of blessing which would have been sung rather than recited. The play would have been enhanced throughout by dances and songs. The “Benediction” is addressed to Lord Siva in his eight Rudras, or forms, mentioned each in turn and listed in the footnote on p. 169. The Creator is Brahma, who otherwise plays little role in Hindu devotions. Note the insistence on the multifaceted nature of the divine, so different from the Islamic insistence on its unity. For the devout Hindu, this play is more than a captivating love story: it is a religious drama on at least two levels. On the simplest level it teaches the doctrine of karma, that our experiences are influenced by our acts earlier in this life and in past lives. It is also an allegory of the relationship between the worshiper and the sacred. Each play is also expected to convey a certain set of emotions and attitudes called a rasa. Here the rasa is composed of various forms of eroticism and love. It also has a political aspect in that the playwright is flattering the royal line of the ruler for whom he is writing.


Goethe was so impressed by this traditional Indian dramatic device of introducing the play through dialogue between the actors and the director that he added such a prologue to his Faust.Sanskrit poetry, like Japanese poetry, is generally classified according to season. Note the image of the bees in the Actress’ song. What associations do bees seem to have in this play?

Act One

The earliest version of this story is told in the Mahabharata, and would have been known to everyone in the audience. It is characteristic of Hinduism, however, that there is no insistence on following an “orthodox” version, and that there are always alternative traditions, such as the one that Kalidasa follows. Be sure to read the short excerpt from Mahabharata on pp. 320-321 and compare what the audience might have expected to see with the actual action of the play. Note especially how the actions and character of Duhsanta have changed. Whereas Westerners are used to religion demanding a single standard of morality for everyone (or at most having slightly different emphases for men and women), in Hinduism that which is good for a person of a certain age, social standing, or caste, may be bad for another. Each person must follow his or her dharma (duty). Most kings loved to hunt, but it was disapproved of by Brahmins, and hunting is forbidden in the sacred grove where the ascetics live. Suta compares the king to Siva (also spelled “Shiva”), alluding to a myth in which Siva, angered because he had not been invited to a great sacrifice, pursued and killed the “lord of the sacrifice” who had transformed himself into a deer. Indra is a storm god who is depicted in the Vedas as driving a chariot drawn by a pair of horses. Clearly the stage cannot have been vast enough to depict the pursuit of the deer realistically. What means does the poet use to convey the chase vividly? According to the Introduction to this volume, what is significant about the deer the king is chasing? Note how the poet keenly observes the visual effects of traveling at great speed in language that resembles modern filmed space travel effects.

In Hinduism, the ideal final stage of life is asceticism: the practitioner goes to live in the forest without worldly possessions, engaging in prodigious feats of meditation and self-denial, hoping to achieve liberation from the cycle of rebirth. Skilled ascetics could accumulate so much spiritual power that they sometimes posed a threat even to the gods, as we shall see later. Few people actually achieve the extremes of the ascetic ideal, but such people are highly respected and honored. There is no pressure, however, for each individual to emulate the ideal, since if one is not ready for such austerity in this life there will always be opportunities to carry it out in lives to come, when one has accumulated the necessary karma. The King’s arrows are cruel in the context of the Hermitage; the audience would respect this view without necessarily agreeing that they themselves should stop hunting or eating meat. What simile does the ascetic use to describe the effect of arrows on deer? Note that heaps of flowers are common sacrificial offerings to the gods. How do the ascetics link the king’s role as a benevolent ruler with their objections to hunting. The blessing of the ascetic foreshadows the ultimate theme of this play: the birth of a son who will one day be the greatest of kings. In Western drama foreshadowing is used to heighten suspense or to create a sense of doom threatening human happiness. In Sanskrit drama foreshadowing instead creates a sense of purpose, of inevitability, linked to the concept of karma. The wheel, symbol of the reign of the benevolent emperor Asoka, is pictured on the flag of modern India as a symbol of Hinduism. Fire is central to Hindu ritual. Originally animals were sacrificed and burned as in Judaism or ancient Greek practice, but fruits, flowers, incense, etc. are more commonly sacrificed today. The Himalayas have long been famed as the site of particularly devout mystics, giving rise to the Western stereotype of the guru on the mountain top. How do the ascetics convey that they appreciate the king’s skill with the bow despite their objections to his hunting? In what way does the king’s description of the grove make clear that it is a place of penitential prayer and meditation, different from other areas of the forest? Note the significance of specifying that the deer feed on dharba shoots.

What do you think is symbolized by the king setting aside his jewels and bow when he visits the Hermitage? In the Western tradition, the suggestion of a love encounter in a hermitage would be considered blasphemous: but the king is not expected at his stage of life to be an ascetic: he is in the “householder” stage, appropriate for love and marriage. Note the preference for the natural over the cultivated, a common theme in much Western poetry as well. Keep track of the ways in which Sakuntala is compared to various plants. What characteristics link her to the trees? To other plants? Why is watering trees which are no longer blooming particularly virtuous? The ascetics wear clothing made of rough, simple materials such as bark. The fact that Anasuya says the vine has chosen the mango hints at the fact that although Sakuntala may be free to choose her own husband, like a princess, despite the many statements to the contrary. Note the strong emphasis on proper hospitality, very important in traditional Hinduism. Sakuntala is almost inhospitable to the king because of her embarrassment, and later her passion for him will cause her to be disastrously inhospitable to Durvasa. The traditional Indian ideal of feminine beauty involves a narrow waist, large, round breasts, and swelling buttocks. Explain the meaning of the quatrain at (19) beginning “Though inlaid in duckweed the lotus glows.” The mango is often associated with love and is a “male” plant. Kama, the god of love, targets with mango-shoot arrows those he wishes to inspire with love. The image of two plants intertwined symbolizing a human embrace is also common in European poetry, where plants are often said to spring up from the graves of unfortunate lovers to intertwine in death. Here the symbolism is happier: men and women are meant for each other.

Sakuntala’s behavior from here on must be interpreted as reflecting a highly desirable quality in a young woman: modesty. Do not jump to the conclusion that Sakuntala is not just as interested in love and marriage as her friends: she is simply more demure and hides it better. In all this talk about loving vines, remember that human souls could be reincarnated not only as animals but as plants. All living things are related in Hinduism. How does Sakuntala learn that she may be married soon? It is a cliché of courtly literature from all over the world that the exceptional youth–male or female–discovered in obscure surroundings must have a mysterious noble background. As we will see, Sakuntala’s ancestry can be considered superior even to the king’s. At (22) we encounter the image of the bee, referred to in the opening. What draws the bee to Sakuntala? Why is it appropriate for the bee to call to mind King Duhsanta? His speech at (24) begins by referring to his own greatness as “chastiser of the weakness” without revealing his true identity, but they see immediately that he is a noble. Note how Sakuntala reveals her true feelings in her aside to herself, though she coyly continues to brush aside her friends’ teasing suggestions. There can be no doubt that she has fallen instantly in love with the handsome young king. The Vedas are the oldest Hindu scriptures, and are still recited regularly.

We now learn that Kanva is only Sakuntala’s foster father. An Apsara is a beautiful divine woman such as those depicted on temple carvings. They often figure in myths as tempering the excessive power achieved by extreme ascetics, as here. Such power is not necessarily bad just because the gods are fearful of it. In Hinduism, the gods are not supreme. There is a larger spiritual order to which gods and humans alike are subject. In what way is Sakuntala like a flash of lightning? The King’s description of Sakuntala at (29) contains all the stereotypes of intense erotic passion, though he pretends to think that they are the result of her labors (which, after all, have hardly been extreme). The ring which will play so large a part in the following plot is now offered. The play is often referred to as The Ring of Recollection. How can the king tell she is interested in him though she does not look at him? Why do you think that at this precise moment the off-stage warning against the king’s coming is uttered? What is the symbolism? The “tusker” is of course an elephant. The King’s hunting party has started a stampede. Why do you think Sakuntala is suddenly afflicted with a number of problems which prevent her leaving immediately?

Act Two

Comic figures such as Madhavya are standard in Hindu drama. He speaks Prakrit, the language of ordinary people, rather than Sanskrit. His complaints about the hunt could be interestingly compared to the complaints of the herald about warfare in one of the early scenes of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. Heavy hips are considered highly desirable in a woman, partly because they are associated with the bearing of healthy children. “May you live long” is a standard address to a king upon greeting or leaving him. Note how the General acknowledges that hunting is disapproved of in certain quarters. See endnote 12. Why do you suppose the General hopes Madhavya will continue to oppose hunting? The desire to hunt is here called a “strong passion,” and such passions are major obstacles to enlightenment; but in fact the king’s passion for hunting has been overwhelmed by another, even stronger passion. Endnote 7 explains why Sakuntala may be beyond the reach of Madhavya even though he is King. What do the metaphors listed at (11) have in common, beginning with “A flower whose fragrance none has dared to smell”? The latter part of this speech suggests that such divine beauty could only be produced by the accumulation of great amounts of good karma in previous existences. The tribute the hermits pay is their devotion which brings the blessings of the gods on the kingdom.

Note how the first hermit, despite his own asceticism, approves of the king’s dedication to the worldly life: each must play his appropriate role. Gods (Rama in particular) and great Kings are often portrayed as destroyers of demons. Again, the dialogue foreshadows the next important plot development, which simultaneously (and not coincidentally) provides the king with the excuse he has been longing for to stay with the hermits. How is the rushed courtship of the king justified in a way that was not the case in the Mahabharata?

Act Three

This act begins and ends with the king alone, framing his intensely romantic encounter with Sakuntala and setting it off in contrast. Cooling salves were used in high summer, and can also signify that the user is burning with passion. The churning of cream into butter is one of the most common activities of Indian life and a frequent symbol for creation. Kama’s flowered arrows are again referred to. When Kama disturbed Siva’s meditations, he wrathfully destroyed the love-god with fire emanating from his third eye. Note how Duhsanta tracks Sakuntala almost like a detective. How does each of the “clues” remind him of some attractive aspect of his beloved? The heat of her passion has literally cooked her lotus-blossom bracelets. Which of the symptoms of love which the king lists are familiar from the love-sickness symptoms used by Western poets such as Ovid? What does the metaphor about the river flowing to the ocean imply about the status of Sakuntala herself? Like many lovers in Western fiction, she is so far gone in love that she will soon die if she does not find relief. Therefore the king cannot properly be blamed for courting her so hastily. Why is it important that the king learn of her love by overhearing her rather than more directly? Why do you think that Sakuntala refers specifically to the Inner Apartments as the place the King must be longing to return to? With typical Hindu emphasis on variety, there are no fewer than eight kinds of marriage described in traditional law, of which Gandharva is the voluntary union of a couple in love without any ceremony or consent of their parents. Although it is rarely invoked, theoretically it is as binding as any other kind of marriage. However, it depends entirely on the trustworthiness of the man. The story of Siva’s destruction of Kama is again alluded to at (34). The offstage voice calling for Sakuntala to leave refers to the traditional belief that sheldrakes, though devoted couples in the daytime, always slept apart at night. Just as the king began his pursuit of Shakuntala by tracing the “clues” left behind by her passage, so at the end of the act he contemplates the traces left behind of her time with him (39). At the end of the scene we hear of the demons which threaten to disturb the ascetics’ rituals. Is the king himself in any way similar to these demons and to the wild elephant which disturbed them earlier?

Act Four

The physical union of the lovers is delicately left off stage. It becomes apparent that the Gandharva marriage has been consummated and the king has been gone for some time. Note the ominous foreshadowing in Anasuya’s second speech. Duhsanta is fated to forget his bride even before the fatal curse is uttered. The incident by which Durvasa’s rage is aroused may seem slight, but the duty to travelers is a sacred one. Because the girl forgot to honor Durvasa, Duhsanta will forget to honor her. How does this shift the responsibility for the lapse of memory, compared to theMahabharata? When Anasyua somewhat mollifies Durvasa, he cannot take back his curse, but he modifies it. Similarly, when in Greek mythology Hera blinded Teiresias, Zeus could not undo the divine curse, but compensated for it by giving him internal sight: the gift of prophecy. A more familiar example is the partial undoing of the curse in “Sleeping Beauty.” Even the noble moon, which through its association with healing herbs gives life, must set. The metaphor refers to the departure of the king. Kanva is informed of Sakuntala’s pregnancy in a way that makes clear that the gods are involved. Note the emphasis on the child she carries. Unlike most Western love stories, this is a great love because it will produce a great offspring. Hindus ritually wash at sunrise, before eating. What hopes do the women have for her child? Note how Sakuntala is adorned by a miracle (caused by her stepfather’s powers), another sign that this union is blessed, despite its inauspicious beginning. An Indian bride’s feet are decorated with red lac. Brides are expected to weep upon leaving the family home for their husband’s; they are going off to a largely unknown life, leaving the familiar comfort of home behind. Sarmisttta, the daughter of the king of demons, married Yayati according to the Gandharva rite and gave birth to Puru, founder of the line from which Duhsanta is descended. Thus the parallel to Sakuntala involves both her extraordinary origins and the noble destiny of her son. The song by the invisible spirits further endorses this union, which is clearly blessed by many forces even while it lies under the curse of Durvasa. Why is such a situation more plausible in this setting than in, say, a Christian setting? Even the vines with which Sakuntala was earlier identified “weep” at her departure by shedding their leaves. Kanva clearly understands the necessity of this marriage in a way that is truly exceptional for a Hindu father. His acceptance of it would be more striking for an Indian audience than a modern American one. The parallel between Sakuntala and the vine having been reaffirmed, how is her identification with the doe also reasserted?

The lessons that Kanva gives Sakuntala in being a good wife are highly conventional. What qualities do they seem to value? Sakuntala is alarmed at her friends’ suggestion that she use the ring to remind Duhsanta of her identity because it implies that he may indeed forget her. Since they have never told her of the curse, she does not understand the true urgency of their warning. A Western equivalent to the saying “A daughter is wealth belonging to another” is “A daughter’s a daughter until she’s a wife, but a son is a son for the rest of your life.” But why, according to Kanva is he satisfied to “lose” Sakuntala?

Act Five

The greatest differences between the Mahabharata version and Kalidasa’s come in this act. Look for the way in which the king’s motives are emphasized. Note how the forgetfulness of the Chamberlain foreshadows the forgetfulness of the king. The sun, the Cosmic Serpent, and the king must all labor unceasingly. “The sixth” referred to is the king’s legal tax noted earlier. Note how Duhsanta is praised as a hard-working, dutiful lord although we have earlier seen him at leisure. It is important that his good character be established firmly. The umbrellas refer to provide shade (Latin umbra ) from the heat of the tropical sun rather than shelter from rain. The King illustrates “kinship’s perfect pattern” because he treats his subjects as if they were all his relatives. The vina is a traditional bowed string instrument. How is Lady Hamsavati’s song another instance of foreshadowing? What is the king’s reaction to the coming of the hermits? What does it reveal about his character? Note how alert the king is to any fault he may have committed. When the ascetics enter, they foreshadow the disaster to come through their feelings of unease. What is the meaning of the poem at (13)? How does the king’s reaction to Vetravati’s praise of Sakuntala’s beauty illustrate his character? What metaphor springs up in the king’s struggles to remember that reminds us of his earlier enthusiasm for Sakuntala? Why does Vetravati praise him as virtuous for hesitating? The king is at first cynically skeptical of Sakuntala, but her outburst which begins “Ignoble man” is convincing in its natural spontaneity. What hint is there in his comments to himself that the King is being attracted to her all over again? Sakuntala’s final words indicate she wants to die; but instead of being swallowed by the earth, she snatched up into the sky by the Apsara Misrakesi. Even this miracle cannot convince the king of the truth. What does convince him that Sakuntala’s words may well have been true?

Act Six

Fishermen were low-caste because they were involved in killing animal life; but this one sarcastically replies that the brahmins who consider themselves the very highest caste kill animals when they sacrifice them in rituals. Fish swallowing marvelous rings turn up in many folk tales, both Eastern and Western. Note how frequently the important actions, such as the king’s recovery of his memory, take place offstage. Because the audience knows the story already, it is not crucial to evoke suspense and provide climactic moments as in Western drama; what is important is to evoke the relevant moods. The spring festival in honor of Kama is a wild celebration called “Holi,” now dedicated to Krishna. Note that in the conversation between the two court ladies the image of the bee and the mango blossom is repeated. Typical of the Indian preference for variety, Kama–unlike Cupid–has no fewer than five different kinds of arrows, each of which causes a different kind of love. The king is not behaving like a tyrant in forbidding the celebration of the spring festival; his grief has actually prevented the coming of spring. Note that the king is a painter. Several prominent monarchs of both India and China were distinguished painters. What pious lesson does the king draw from his failure to remember Sakuntala? How does the state of the painting reflect the king’s devotion to Sakuntala? The pairs of geese and deer which the king wants to paint symbolize love and marriage. The king is crazed by contemplating the picture and becomes jealous of the painted bee which hovers where he wants to be. Why does the king hide the painting when Queen Vasumati approaches, according to Misrakesi? Duhsanta’s extraordinary honesty and decency is reconfirmed by his scrupulous reaction to the announcement of the merchant’s death. At this time, widows were not allowed to inherit, but their unborn children might. Even though it means the loss of a fortune, he scrupulously inquires whether any of the widows is pregnant. The phrase “I had implanted myself in her” alludes to the belief that a man reproduces himself in his son. Duhsanta is in despair because it seems he will never have a son to be his heir. Note the female bodyguard; such guards were often used to guard the women’s quarters without endangering their chastity. The king imagines that the voices taunting him belong to demons. The king is roused from his crazed stupor by this therapeutic challenge and reaffirms his skills as a demon-fighter, though mistakenly at first. The “twice-born” are upper-caste people like the king. The royal swan was supposed to have the ability to separate milk from water. How is the inevitability of karma stressed even as the king is called upon to kill the demon offspring of Kalanemi (35)?

Act Seven

The play takes place in three basic settings: the idyllic but lowly world of the hermitage, the dazzling but worldly palace, and the transcendent celestial regions. Duhsanta has had to pass through all these to perform his dharma. Again we have skipped a climactic scene: the king’s victory over the demons. Sharing the throne of Indra was a proverbial extreme honor. “Golden sandal” refers to sandalwood paste, smeared on the chest as a refreshing, sweet-smelling salve. What is the king’s virtuous reaction to Matali’s lavish praise? The Ganga is the heavenly aspect of the Ganges River, the most sacred stream in India. Just as Duhsanta met Sakuntala initially because of his reverence for the ascetics on Earth, so he is reunited with her through his reverence for the divine ascetic Marica, son of Brahma and father of Indra, who is king of the gods. Thus he resembles Duhsanta, father of the king of men. He plays a major role in the creation myths. His penance is described in extreme form at (11). Marica is so absorbed in his meditations that he has lost all track of his body, so that a snake has shed its skin on his torso to create a second sacred thread (usually a piece of twine worn by all Brahmin males); but this is more than a symbol of mere negligence since a snake-skin thread is also characteristic of Siva.. Again the throbbing arm of the king foreshadows his reunion with his bride. A boy who rough-houses with lion cubs is obviously something out of the ordinary. Naughtiness is boys is often more than half-admired as a sign of manly spirit, as the king’s speech at (15) makes clear. Note that the true consummation of this romance is not the reunion of the loving couple, but the encounter of the king with his son, destined to be the greatest of kings. Note the outline at (20) of the conventional view of the ideal life for a Kshatriya: wealth and power in youth, self-denial and spirituality in old age. One last time the king exhibits a sense of morality by not asking about Sakuntala. In many countries, particularly Muslim ones, it is considered highly offensive to inquire after a man’s wife or in any way imply that he may have one. What attitudes toward women do you think are reflected in such customs?

Sakuntala’s single braid is a sign of mourning. To what does she attribute her sufferings when the king falls prostate before her? According to ancient Hindu thought the earth is composed of seven island continents. How does the final speech of the king reflect the ideas of the Brahmin-priests who dominated Hinduism? The last line reflects the highest wish of a pious Hindu: to be liberated from the cycle of rebirth ( samsara ). What can you say about the relationship of erotic love to religion in this play?

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Last revised January 3, 2002

Nizami: Layla and Majnun (1188)

Source: The Story of Layla and Majnun, by Nizami. Trans. R. Gelpke. Omega Publications, 256 Darrow Road, New Lebanon, NY 12125. Phone: 800-443-7107 or 518 794-8181. ISBN #0-930872-52-5.

Begin by reading the first two pages of the “Postscript” which begins on p. 200, where it is made clear that there are many retellings of this tragic love story. Nizami’s is perhaps the most famous (even immortalized in two songs by Eric Clapton: “Layla” and “I Am Yours”). One theory of how it evolved is that there were a number of poems in Arabic in which a poet named “Qays” complained of frustrated love for his Layla. By gleaning various details from these poems, a legend was gradually built up which imagined their story. Nizami, writing in Persian rather than Arabic, long after the legend had reached its definitive form, rendered it into an ornate romance (a long narrative of love or adventure). The original is in verse, though our translator has rendered into prose. If the writing seems rather more dense and elaborate that a modern novel, remember that this is not a novel, but a long poem.

The setting, even then, was exotic. Nizami was writing for a sophisticated urban audience in one of the richest and most sophisticated empires in the world, about a long-ago imaginary past of nomadic Arab life. But both Nizami’s and Qays’ cultures had in common that men and women were rigidly separated, marriages were arranged, and love played a much larger role in fantasy than in real life. One of your tasks is to analyze how a love story functions in a culture which discourages real-life love affairs.


A Bedouin is a nomad. A zephyr is a wind. What is the one thing lacking to make the Sayyid happy? Remember how important this is when you read the rest of the story. “Corn” here, as in all British translations, is not maize, which was unknown in Europe until after Columbus, but wheat or other cereal grains. Note how Nizami’s technique employs piling metaphor on metaphor. This sort of writing is often compared to Islamic art, elaborate patterns entirely covering the surface of the decorated object. Great delight is taken in the ingenuity with which these metaphors are crafted, and there is no imperative to “get on with” the story. “Qays” means “moon.” It used to be believed that gemstones actually emitted light rather than merely reflecting it. “Decennium”=tenth year.


What metaphors suggest that a woman’s beauty can be dangerous? What is the meaning of Layla’s name, and how does it relate to Qays’? The Qur’an strictly forbids the drinking of wine, but metaphors of intoxication are commonplace in Arabic and Persian verse, particularly in Sufi poetry. What attitudes toward “first love” seem to be conveyed here? Note how their love becomes a kind of “homework” in the final poem.


For the story of Joseph and the pit, see Genesis 37. Whereas a love like this would be considered a cute “crush” in our culture, in their culture Qays and Layla are falling into a scandalous madness. What metaphor is used for Qays’ being bound to Layla? Why does Layla’s family sequester her? What is Layla’s reaction?


Note that even as a young boy Qays/Majnun sings to console himself. How does his behavior compare with Layla’s? Does this mean that he loves her more than she loves him? Keep asking yourself these questions throughout the story. What are the main symptoms of Majnun’s lovesickness? In Medieval Persian and European thought alike, lovesickness was a disease, clinically described in medical textbooks. The tradition that links madness and poetic inspiration goes back at least to the ancient Greeks. The “Evil Eye” is a curse. Much Muslim literature reflects deep beliefs in fate.


Note how the chapter opens with the day “getting dressed.” What do the two lovers see in each others’ faces? Note the musical metaphors. Why are candles and torches appropriate metaphors here? The “whirling dervishes” are Sufi mystics whose whirling dance propels them into a state of religious ecstasy. What does the last line of the chapter mean: “He escaped from Layla in order to find her.”


A “ghazel” is a traditional song form, either secular or sacred. It spread with Persian culture to North India and is still widely popular. What effects of Qays’ madness does the narrator seem especially concerned about? What is the objection of Layla’s father to Majnun? What does it suggest about the relationship between love and marriage in this culture? How is his objection ironic?


Majnun’s dramatic rending of his garments and the repeated references to him as naked are meant to be extreme: Islamic culture strongly disapproves of nakedness, and it is never depicted in art, unlike the Greek/Roman/European tradition. How does Majnun proclaim his rejection of all human authority? What are the two opposing kinds of reactions that other people have to him? The Book of Life records all living souls: so what does it mean that Majnun’s name has been as if torn out of the Book? The bulk of this chapter is Majnun’s statement of ultimate separation from the rest of humanity. According to Nizami, what is the difference between true and false love? In what sense is Majnun’s love still alive?


The Kaaba in Mecca (spelled “Caaba” here) is the most sacred site in Islam. This ancient shrine was reputedly constructed by Abraham, cleansed of its idols by Muhammad, and is the goal of pilgrimage ( hajj ) of every pious Muslim. What does Majnun pray for when he is at the Kaaba? His reaction would have been seen as not merely rebellious but wildly blasphemous.


Why do the members of Layla’s tribe want Majnun punished?


Name one of the significant ways in which Majnun’s father urges him to heal himself. Parsley was supposed to have medicinal effects.


The exaggerated terms in which Majnun addresses his father are not meant to be blasphemous. Such exaggeration was a traditional form of respect, and the strength of Majnun’s passion can be measured by the strength of his resistance to this man whom he respects so highly. How does he use the concept of fate to argue with his father? The fable that Majnun tells resembles the famous Aesop fable of the fox and the crow, but it is only loosely connected to the boy. How does he explain what the fable means to him?


What ambiguous reaction do people have to Majnun? What effect do his poems have on his audience?


Note the violent, predatory metaphors attached to Layla at the beginning of this chapter. What attitudes do they seem to reflect? How do you think a society holding such attitudes would be liable to treat young women? Is Layla blamed for the harm she does? How is her reaction to their love different from Majnun’s? In what way does she suffer more than he? How does Layla hear constantly of Majnun’s love for her? How does their unhappiness cause happiness?


How are the nature images in the second paragraph rather unusual? What quality do they have in common? In Islamic thought Paradise is literally a garden. Why is Layla so hurt by the poem she overhears? How is Layla’s relationship with her mother similar to that of Majnun to his father? How is it different?


What is Ibn Salam’s one fatal flaw? “Inshallah”=if God is willing. Pious Muslims make no statement about the future without adding this expression to remind themselves that all is in God’s hands.


Note that Majnun’s belief that he can convey his poems to his beloved is not entirely wrong, though he is mistaken about the means. Majnun thoughtlessly commits even the sin of drinking wine in his absorption with thoughts of Layla. How does Nawfal try to heal Majnun? What causes him to be so fanatically devoted to this cause?


Note how Majnun treats all those who care the most about him.


Why is it insulting to call someone a glass bottle? The metaphor of wine as blood is a common one, especially in the Hebrew Bible. Think of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Why doesn’t Majnun join the fighting?


Note that although Majnun will not draw his real sword, he is free with “the sword of his tongue.”


What finally tires the combatants? Why would her father rather let Layla be killed than married to Majnun? What is Nawfal’s response? It doesn’t really seem to match with his previous actions. How has he changed in his attitude toward Majnun?


Note that all of Majnun’s metaphors have to do with being offered hope of winning Layla and then failing to do so. It is not so much the failure he blames Nawfal for as the hope.


Earlier it was said that Majnun had become alienated from hunting. Now we see how this change has developed. What effect does this episode seem designed to have upon the reader’s attitude toward Majnun?


Why does Majnun identify with the stag? The poem in this chapter was set to music (from this translation) by Eric Clapton in the song “I Am Yours,” on the album, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. The theme is a familiar one: “Every little breeze/seems to whisper ‘Louise’.” Explain the two final similes in the last sentence.


Friday is the holiest day of the week in Islam, when preaching as well as praying is done at the mosque. Note the dramatic crescendo of images of blackness.


Insane people were often kept in chains and beaten in the Middle Ages, both East and West, under the impression that the demons possessing them might be forced to flee if they were treated badly enough. How does Majnun turn his chains into a metaphor when he is crying out to Layla?


Is Layla a coward for not speaking out to her father? Explain. Go-betweens are routinely used to negotiate marriages in cultures where arranged weddings are standard. Muslims believe that Jesus could raise the dead, though they reject the Christian belief that he is the son of God. He is merely one of the greatest of the prophets. Note the boundaries of “the world” from which riches can be fetched: Byzantium to the west, China to the east; Europe is over the horizon. What does the final paragraph tell us about the values of these people? Note that Layla literally has no say in her marriage.


That a man would marry a woman without her consent should not be surprising: many cultures expect couples to marry without even speaking to each other beforehand. How does Ibn Salam’s reaction to Layla reveal unusual sensitivity? Note that in this romance there are no villains: everyone is motivated by deeply-held beliefs and feelings. Why do you think Layla can defy Ibn Salam in private although she could not reject him in public?


The wicked stranger uses the standard clichéd image of womanly unfaithfulness shared by Medieval cultures both East and West. The idea that women are more driven by desire than men is a standard feature of this image. This was directly contradicted during the Victorian age when it came to be believed that men were much more sexual than women. How do you think the earlier idea arose, and what effects would it have had on the treatment of women? It is suggested in the opening of this chapter that this figure may be a demon rather than a human. What evidence is there to support this idea?


What does the last line of his poem mean: “Yours, if I die, will be the blood that flows”?


Note that although racial prejudice is somewhat milder in the Islamic world, where many of Believers are dark-skinned, nevertheless, black is still used as a symbol of evil, just as in the West. Note that Islamic propriety does not allow even the mad Majnun to go completely naked. Why does his father call Majnun “soul of your father”? What do you think of his advice to Majnun?


Does Majnun’s reaction to his father’s death soften our reaction to his treatment of him? Explain.


Why does Majnun throw away the part of the scrap of paper with Layla’s name written on it?


What amazing influence does Majnun exercise over the animals that surround him in the wilderness? How does it influence your feelings about Majnun?


This chapter represents a typical narrative technique from traditional Islamic World literature: the story within a story. What is the lesson that the king is taught in this story?


In both the Christian and Islamic worlds, knowledge of and belief in astrology was widespread, though both Christian and Islamic theologians were often hostile to it. Belief in fate is widespread in Islam, but the planets are not to be worshipped as gods, as Majnun is doing.


Majnun learns the lesson of a good Muslim that the stars can grant nothing. Note the strong emphasis on God’s omnipotence, insisted on even more strongly in Islam than in Christianity. Majnun’s dream expresses God’s blessing and the wisdom he has gained.


Layla’s speech as reported by the old man makes clear the distinction between her situation and Majnun’s. Explain.


The king of whom Layla speaks is, of course, God. A pious Muslim will always begin a letter with praise for God, and this is an particularly elaborate example. The cucumber referred to is globe-shaped. The tearing of clothes is an ancient and widespread act of ritual mourning. Note that it is taken for granted that one can be a great poet without writing. This is essentially an oral culture.


In what way do Majnun’s praises of Layla resemble her praises of him? A “bosquet” is a small wood. What is his reaction to her letter? Is he being fair to her?


Although Majnun is described in this chapter as being stark naked, all illustrations of the romance show him wearing a loincloth. “Naked” often has a loose meaning in Islamic texts; women lacking a veil and with arms bared are commonly referred to as “naked” even today. It is difficult to know exactly what Nizami imagined, but clearly Majnun has been reduced to an almost inhuman level. Salim’s name means “sound” in the sense of “healthy.” What is the lesson taught by the “Story of the Shah and the Dervish”?


Although not all slaves in the Islamic world were black, and most Muslim blacks were not slaves, the stereotype of black slavery existed and turns up repeatedly in passages such as this. When Layla and Majnun communicate with each other they emphasize the brevity to life to console themselves; but here Majnun’s mother uses the same point to different ends. What is she arguing? How does Majnun defend himself against his mother’s pleas? What effect does her death have on your feelings about Majnun?


Is Nizami’s little sermon on the brevity of life at the end of this chapter related to earlier passages on the same theme? How?


How does Layla react to Majnun’s apology? Note that she at last breaks with her long-standing passivity.


Note that the consummation of their love is achieved through song rather than any physical gesture. Muslims believe that delicious, non-intoxicating wine will be served the Faithful in paradise.


What draws Salam to Majnun?


Halwa (or “halva” is made of ground sesame seed and sugar). Why does Majnun reject the food that Salam offers him? To a certain degree Majnun is a model, the archetype of the lover; but he is also an object lesson, a warning. Be prepared to discuss the ambiguity of his role.


“Islam” means “submission,” i. e. submission to the will of God. The opening of this chapter contains very traditional Islamic wisdom. How does Layla react to Ibn Salam’s death?


Medieval people believed that frustrated love-longing could lead eventually to death. The image of a woman being married to her grave is a common one from ancient Greek times forward.


Why do people avoid Layla’s grave?


Note that Majnun’s penultimate words are addressed to God, but his ultimate words are addressed to Layla.


What is the “pearl” that has vanished from the “white shell”? In what way could this be said to be an at least partially happy ending?

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Last revised 11/2/02

Classic Chinese and Japanese Love Poetry

Classical Chinese and Japanese poetry relates human emotions and sensations to images of nature. These images are prescribed by tradition, and have stereotypical associations which the reader is expected to know. In addition, complex word and sound play is common, little of it translatable, and most poems allude to or quote outright from other classic poems which it is assumed every reader has memorized. The result is that an English rendering of such verse is always a very distant relative of the original. It is a tribute to the greatness of Chinese and Japanese verse that it has been so popular and influential in modern times. Note that this poetry, like most pre-modern poetry, does not have titles, and that the titles provided have been invented by the translators. The vast majority of early love poetry written by women laments absent lovers. What do you think this says about women’s status and role in society?

All Chinese poems are from Kenneth Rexroth, trans. One Hundred Poems from the Chinese. New Directions, n. d.

Mei Yao Ch’en: “My neighbors on the right”

How do the last four lines relate to the rest of the poem?

Mei Yao Ch’en: “In broad daylight I dream”

Despite the fact that Chinese traditional culture is not famous for promoting affection between spouses, there are many classical poems in which husbands grieve for their dead wives, a fact which reminds us of the importance of not overgeneralizing about cultures. In China it was thought that dead spirits continued to be profoundly involved in their family’s lives. People were expected to pray to, talk with, and offer food to departed spirits. How is this belief reflected in this poem? In what roles does the widower particularly remember his wife? In the second stanza, what image suggests togetherness? What image suggests loneliness? She is of course the one who was with him then.

Li Ch’ing Chao: “The warm rain and pure wind”

Fruit tree blossoms, particularly peach and cherry blossoms, are very important in Chinese and Japanese aesthetics. They symbolize the rebirth of life in the early spring, but they last for only a few days, so they also symbolize the fleeting nature of life, a typically Buddhist notion. Why is the oncoming of spring not successful in cheering the writer? What does it mean to write a poem in which “my tears will flow together with your tears”? Why does her makeup and hairdress feel like a burden? Oil lamps begin to smoke if the burnt portion of the wick is not trimmed from time to time. Can you guess whether the person to whom this poem is addressed has voluntarily abandoned her or has been forcibly separated from her? How can you tell?

Li Chi’ng Chao: “To the Tune, ‘Plum Blossoms Fall and Scatter'”

What senses are used in the imagery in this poem? What is the time of year? The time of day? Wild swans, like ducks, can symbolize faithful lovers. Women lived in separate quarters in noble houses. which of the images suggests separation? Which reunion? What do you think it means for a love to descend from the eyebrows into the heart?

Lu Yu: “Pink and white hands like roses and rice cake!”

This is another “heartbreak in the spring” poem? Why is loneliness so poignant at this time of year? What two images involve knots or being tied? Can you think of any English expressions involving the same imagery which convey similar ideas? People living in the same palace often corresponded with each other through poems, carefully written on special paper and wrapped in cloth. How do you interpret the final sentence?

Yamabe No Akahito: “The mists rise over”

Traditional waka like this are extremely compressed poems in which a single nature image, usually drawn from a traditional list evokes a specific mood. What has rising mist to do with memory? What is Akahito trying to convey to the person whose memory he is dwelling on?

Yamabe No Akahito: “I wish I were close”

A “salt girl” is a young woman who makes her living hauling seawater onto the beach to evaporate in salt pans. What kind of feeling is evoked by this poem?

Ono no Komachi: “I fell asleep thinking of him”

Ono no Komachi is one of the most famous women in Japanese history. She was a renowned beauty, had several sensational love affairs, and became the subject of more than one drama. However, she was also a fine poet, and the passion reflected in her writing may help to explain her reputation–or did the poetry create the reputation? The idea that dead spirits come to people in dreams is particularly strong in Japanese tradition. Why would she want not to have wakened?

Anonymous Court Lady: “On the Death of Emperor Tenji”

This was one of a set of poems written by courtiers mourning the death of a particularly popular emperor. The Japanese emperor was considered to be a god (though “Lord” has a political, not a religious meaning here). Note the intimacy of the imagery? What other poem above expressed the desire for intimacy in terms of something worn? How is this poem like the poem above by Ono no Komachi?

Prince Otsu and Lady Ishikawa: An exchange of poems

A staple of Heian court life was the exchange of waka. The recipient of a poem was expected to begin by taking some words from the poem received and fashion a reply incorporating that those words. Dew is traditionally symbolic of tears. Why might Prince Otsu have been crying? How does Lady Ishikawa seek to reassure him? Does her imagery remind you of any imagery from earlier poems in this group?

Lady Horikawa: “Will he always love me?

This is a classic “morning after” poem. Why might her hair be disordered (hair was normally grown floor length). What is Lady Horikawa feeling?

Kakinomoto Hitomaro: “This morning I will not”

Hitomaro is one of the most famous and prolific early Japanese poets. A different approach to hair. Why does he say he will not comb his hair?

Kakinomoto Hitomaro: “In the sea of ivy clothed Iwami”

This poem is part of a sequence which Hitomaro wrote when he was forced by the government to leave his new wife at their home by the seashore and return to the capitol. Seaweed is a staple of the Japanese diet, and is paid much attention. Here it is the way it moves in the surf that calls the poet’s attention and reminds him of~.~.~. what? The vine imagery is obviously related to the seaweed imagery. In the simile what does he compare the vines to? What do these images have in common? What time of year is it? Mount Watari now separates them, but the last thing he saw of her was her sleeves moving and she waved goodbye. Can you find any quality that links together the images involving the seaweed, the vines, the leaves, and the moon? Why is the time of day appropriate for this poem? The traditional way of referring to tears is to refer to one’s sleeves, moistened from wiping one’s eyes with them. Often only the damp sleeves are mentioned and the tears must be inferred.

Kakinomoto Hitomaro: “The Bay of Tsunu”

Another in the series of poems to his young wife. “Shingle” is a rocky beach. Again, what do the images of the seaweed, the waves, and the couple have in common? Hoarfrost is the white frost that coats the grass on chilly winter mornings but which seldom lasts long. In what sense is he like the hoarfrost? In the summer the grass turns yellow and wilts, from lack of moisture. The hope expressed in the last sentence is obviously a desperate one, unlikely to be fulfilled, but what does it express about his feelings for her and his belief in her?

Kakinomoto Hitomaro: “I loved her like the leaves”

The final poem in this sequence is another poem of mourning, but a highly dramatic one. What lines tell us how strong his love for her was? “Man cannot flout/The laws of this world” is an expression of Buddhist submission to the ways of nature: death cannot be prevented. Her soul is thought to have soared off into the air, probably to the heaven of Amida Buddha. The baby wants his mother’s milk, but this is not something the father can provide. Note the irony of using a message of feeding to symbolize an inability to feed. In the last section of the poem, he is told that his wife’s ghost has been seen in the nearby hills. What does his reaction tell us about his devotion to her?

Otomo Yakamochi: Parting Sorrows of a Frontier Guard

Many famous Japanese poems are about parting from friends or loved ones, often because of military duty. It is well to remember such poems when theories are propounded about the essentially warlike nature of Japanese traditional culture. Note the order in which sorrowing relatives are discussed. What does this tell us about Japanese values? Note how grass is used as a symbol of fragility, as in the first of these three poems. It is also a common symbol of fragility and mortality in ancient Hebrew poetry. What he pray for from the God of Suminoe? At the end of the poem he “sends” it by directing it to deliver itself to his home. The short poems called “Envoys” in this translation are traditional appendages to a “long” poem such as this. An “envoy” in European poetry is a couple of lines at the conclusion which directs the poem to its destination, and means “sending” in French. The Japanese equivalent is not quite the same. These are almost in the nature of “P.S.s” Their form is that which developed into the waka. What theme do all three of these examples have in common?

Lady Kasa: Six Tanka written for Otomo Yakamochi

Tanka is another name for a waka. Lady Kasa’s collection of tanka dedicated to Otomo Yakamochi are famous.

“Like the pearl of dew”

What quality of dew is being referred to here?

“Even the grains of sand”

Note that “countless as the grains of sand of the sea” is a very widespread metaphor, common in the West because of the influence of its use in the story of Abraham in the Hebrew Bible.

“The breakers of the Ise Sea:

The surf reminds her of her lover’s passion, but of what else?

“I dreamt of a great sword”

No Freudian implications here. The significant point is that only men wore swords.

“The bell has rung”

Many Japanese poems are about lying awake at night, missing someone.

“To love a man without return”

The original Japanese version of this poem has been much discussed and variously interpreted, but its main point is clear. The “devils” are fierce carved guardian spirits. It is not clear whether it is praying to such spirits that is pointless or merely praying to their backs. Judging from these poems, what can you say about the role of love in Lady Kasa’s life? How do they match your own preconceptions of Japanese womanhood, if any?

From Kate Farrell: Art & Love: An Illustrated Anthology of Love Poetry

Tu Fu: “Alone in Her Beauty”

Judging by the first lines of the poem, what kind of background is usually associated with beauty? How has the woman’s husband treated her? Ducks were traditionally believed to mate for life and are common symbols of mutual devotion. If we compare the distance the water travels in a brook to the flowing of time in a marriage, what is this poem saying by stating “its waters darken?” How is the woman trying to support herself? Why doesn’t she bother to decorate her hair anymore? Tu Fu is one of the two most famous Chinese poets.

Anonymous: “The Rejected Wife”

What does this poem tell us about polygamy in China? Official teachings admonished women to accept gracefully the addition of new wives to the family; but poetry such as this is fairly common. For a fine Chinese film on this subject, see Raise the Red Lantern.

From Wendy Mulford, ed.: Love Poems by Women

Ono no Komachi: “When My Desire”

At first glance this poem may seem to resemble the ideas of Medieval monks who tried to subdue their evil passions by wearing scratchy hair shirts. Given that we know that the poet was not an ascetic, is there any other possible interpretation? Why do you think she compares night itself to her bedclothes?

Lady Suo: “That Spring Night I Spent”

Here the translator has chosen to use the first poem as its “title.” This is a common practice in printing older poetry. To whom do you think this poem is addressed? Why?

Wu Tsao: “For the Courtesan Ch’ing Lin”

Lesbian Chinese poetry is somewhat unusual, but there are several examples, including this one from the 19th century. Note that like much traditional Chinese poetry, these are song lyrics, meant to be performed to a traditional tune. “Courtesan” is a loose term with many meanings in English, but clearly this woman is no low street prostitute. In what way does the poet’s opening comparisons resemble the Western tradition of comparing the beloved to an angel? what images suggest that the courtesan has been abandoned by her lover? “Wine games” are drinking games, often involving the recitation or writing of poetry. What mood is suggested by the title and description of the song sung by the courtesan? How is its theme related to an earlier passage in the poem? Jade is particularly prized in China for sculpted objects.


More information about Wu Tsao.


Last revised April 18, 2000.

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