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H. D. (Hilda Doolittle): Sea Poppies (1916)

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Japanese arts made a considerable impact on the West. The traditional Japanese esthetic of understatement, subtlety and refinement had great appeal for a generation that was rebelling against romantic excess. Japanese prints influenced impressionist painters, Japanese music influenced impressionist composers, and the compact art of the Japanese haiku transformed the thinking of many western poets. Particularly strongly influenced were the Imagists, a group of English and American poets who strove for a highly compressed yet natural kind of poetry. One of the more prominent Imagists was the American Hilda Doolittle, who in her collection Sea Garden published a series of poems about flowers beside the ocean. The result is both longer and more elaborate than a waka or haiku, but strives for the same concentrated attention to simple but beautiful elements of nature.


Amber husk
fluted with gold,
fruit on the sand
marked with a rich grain,

treasure
spilled near the shrub-pines
to bleach on the boulders:

your stalk has caught root
among wet pebbles
and drift flung by the sea
and grated shells
and split conch-shells.

Beautiful, wide-spread,
fire upon leaf,
what meadow yields
so fragrant a leaf
as your bright leaf?


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

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

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


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

Try Chambal:
http://www.chambal.com/csin/9780155674257/ (vol. 1)
http://www.chambal.com/csin/9780155128262/ (vol. 2)

Miguel de Cervantes: Don Quixote (1605)

Of the good fortune which the valiant Don Quixote had in the Terrible and Undreamed-of Adventure of the Windmills, with Other Occurrences Worthy to be Fitly Recorded


Don Quixote is typical of the Renaissance in the way that it satirizes the chivalric traditions of the Middle Ages as absurdly old-fashioned. The crazed and impoverished Spanish noble who sets out to revive the glory of knighthood has been romanticized in the popular modern musical, The Man of La Mancha; but Cervantes has little compassion for the “impossible dreams” of his protagonist, who refuses to face facts even when he is hit over the head with them. Even though his relatives have taken away the chivalric romances which they think have driven him mad and tried to confine him, he has escaped with his squire Sancho Panza who is much less learned but a good deal saner than his master.

How does Don Quixote seem to think a knight should behave?


At this point they came in sight of thirty or forty windmills that are on that plain.

“Fortune,” said Don Quixote to his squire, as soon as he had seen them, “is arranging matters for us better than we could have hoped. Look there, friend Sancho Panza, where thirty or more monstrous giants rise up, all of whom I mean to engage in battle and slay, and with whose spoils we shall begin to make our fortunes. For this is righteous warfare, and it is God’s good service to sweep so evil a breed from off the face of the earth.”

“What giants?” said Sancho Panza.

“Those you see there,” answered his master, “with the long arms, and some have them nearly two leagues (1) long.”

“Look, your worship,” said Sancho. “What we see there are not giants but windmills, and what seem to be their arms are the vanes that turned by the wind make the millstone go.”

“It is easy to see,” replied Don Quixote, “that you are not used to this business of adventures. Those are giants, and if you are afraid, away with you out of here and betake yourself to prayer, while I engage them in fierce and unequal combat.”

So saying, he gave the spur to his steed Rocinante, heedless of the cries his squire Sancho sent after him, warning him that most certainly they were windmills and not giants he was going to attack. He, however, was so positive they were giants that he neither heard the cries of Sancho, nor perceived, near as he was, what they were.

“Fly not, cowards and vile beings,” he shouted, “for a single knight attacks you.”

A slight breeze at this moment sprang up, and the great vanes began to move.

“Though ye flourish more arms than the giant Briareus, (2) ye have to reckon with me!” exclaimed Don Quixote, when he saw this.

So saying, he commended himself with all his heart to his lady Dulcinea, imploring her to support him in such a peril. With lance braced and covered by his shield, he charged at Rocinante’s fullest gallop and attacked the first mill that stood in front of him. But as he drove his lance-point into the sail, the wind whirled it around with such force that it shivered the lance to pieces. It swept away with it horse and rider, and they were sent rolling over the plain, in sad condition indeed.

Sancho hastened to his assistance as fast as the ass could go. When he came up and found Don Quixote unable to move, with such an impact had Rocinante fallen with him.

“God Bless me!,” said Sancho, “did I not tell your worship to watch what you were doing, because they were only windmills? No one could have made any mistake about it unless he had something of the same kind in his head.”

“Silence, friend Sancho,” replied Don Quixote. “The fortunes of war more than any other are liable to frequent fluctuations. Moreover I think, and it is the truth, that the same sage Frestón who carried off my study and books, has turned these giants into mills in order to rob me of the glory of vanquishing them, such is the enmity he bears me. But in the end his wicked arts will avail but little against my good sword.”

“God’s will be done,” said Sancho Panza, and helping him to rise got him again on Rocinante, whose shoulder was half dislocated. Then, discussing the adventure, they followed the road to Puerto Lápice, for there, said Don Quixote, they could not fail to find adventures in abundance and variety, as it was a well-traveled thoroughfare. For all that, he was much grieved at the loss of his lance, and said so to his squire.

“I remember having read,” he added, “how a Spanish knight, Diego Pérez de Vargas by name, having broken his sword in battle, tore from an oak a ponderous bough or branch. With it he did such things that day, and pounded so many Moors, that he got the surname of Machuca (3) and his descendants from that day forth are called Vargas y Machuca. I mention this because from the first oak I see I mean to tear a branch, large and stout. I am determined and resolved to do such deeds with it that you may deem yourself very fortunate in being found worthy to see them and be an eyewitness of things that will scarcely be believed.”

“Be that as God wills,” said Sancho, “I believe it all as your worship says it. But straighten yourself a little, for you seem to be leaning to one side, maybe from the shaking you got when you fell.”

“That is the truth, said Don Quixote, “and if I make no complaint of the pain it is because knights-errant are not permitted to complain of any wound, even though their bowels be coming out through it.”

“If so,” said Sancho, “I have nothing to say. But God knows I would rather your worship complained when anything ailed you. For my part, I confess I must complain however small the ache may be, unless this rule about not complaining applies to the squires of knights-errant also.”

Don Quixote could not help laughing at his squire’s simplicity, and assured him he might complain whenever and however he chose, just as he liked. So far he had never read of anything to the contrary in the order of knighthood.

Sancho reminded him it was dinner time, to which his master answered that he wanted nothing himself just then, but that Sancho might eat when he had a mind. With this permission Sancho settled himself as comfortably as he could on his beast, and taking out of the saddlebags what he had stowed away in them, he jogged along behind his master munching slowly. From time to time he took a pull at the wineskin with all the enjoyment that the thirstiest tavern-keeper in Málaga might have envied. And while he went on in this way, between gulps, he never gave a thought to any of the promises his master had made him, nor did he rate it as hardship but rather as recreation going in quest of adventures, however dangerous they might be.

Finally they settled down for the night among some trees. From one of them Don Quixote plucked a dry branch to serve as a lance, fixing on it the head he had removed from the broken one. All that night Don Quixote lay awake thinking of his lady Dulcinea, in conformity with what he had read in his books, how many a night in the forests and deserts knights used to lie sleepless, borne up by the memory of their mistresses.

Sancho Panza spent it thus: having his stomach full of something stronger than chicory water he slept straight through. If his master had not called him, neither the rays of the sun beating on his face nor all the cheery notes of the birds welcoming the approach of day would have had power to waken him.


Translated by John Ormsby (1895)

(1) Several miles.

(2) A hundred-armed giant from Greek mythology.

(3) Meaning “he who crushes.”


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 2, edited by Paul Brians, Michael Blair, Douglas Hughes, Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by Paul Brians
Department of English
Washington State University
Pullman 99164-5020This is just a sample of Reading About the World, Volume 2.


Reading About the World is now out of print. You can search for used copies using the following information:Paul Brians, et al. Reading About the World, Vol. 1, 3rd edition, Harcourt Brace College Publishing: ISBN 0-15-567425-0 or Paul Brians, et al. Reading About the World, Vol. 2, 3rd edition, Harcourt Brace College Publishing: ISBN 0-15-512826-4.Try Chambal:
http://www.chambal.com/csin/9780155674257/ (vol. 1)
http://www.chambal.com/csin/9780155128262/ (vol. 2)

 

Ovid: The Art of Love

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

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

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

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

Book I:

Elegy I

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

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

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

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

Myrtle is associated with Venus.

Elegy II

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

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

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

What sort of companions does he say Love has?

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

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

Elegy IV

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

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

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

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

Note the traditional reference to the “cruel door.”

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

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

Elegy V

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

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

Lais was a Corinthian courtesan legendary for her extraordinary beauty.

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

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

Elegy VI

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

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

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

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

Elegy VII

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

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

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

Note how he quickly rejects his own argument.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paros was renowned for its white marble.

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

Elegy XIII

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book II

Elegy II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elegy VI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elegies VII & VIII

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

Both Agamemnon and Achilles were great warriors infatuated by slaves.

Elegy XIII

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

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

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

Elegy IX

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

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

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

Book III

Elegy II

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

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

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

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

Neptune was god of the sea, which Ovid hated.

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

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

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

Elegy IV

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

Her “person” is her body.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elegy XIA & B

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

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

The Art of Love (2-1 BCE)

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

Book I

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

Automedon was Achilles’ charioteer in the Trojan War.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thinness is another classic symptom of love-longing.

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

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

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

Book II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does he recommend instead of magic potions?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mules” are slippers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sun-god is Apollo.

Paphos was an island sacred to Venus.

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

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

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

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

Andromache was wife of Hector, prince of Troy.

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

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

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

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

Briseis was the captive Achilles won in the Trojan War.

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

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

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

Automedon was Achilles ‘ charioteer.

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

Spoils from a victory were dedicated to the gods.

Book III

Ovid now turns to advice for women.

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

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

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

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

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

Myrtle was associated with Venus.

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

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

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

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

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

Gold threads were sometimes woven into extravagant clothing.

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

Note how Ovid enthusiastically celebrates variety.

Hercules won Iole in an archery contest with her father.

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

Purple Tyrian dye was rare and precious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women were often depicted as musicians in Roman art.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hemlock and aconite are powerful poisons.

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

Etna is a volcano.

Medusa’s glance turned men to stone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Remedies for Love (1 CE?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nisus was betrayed by his daughter

Scylla for the love of Minos.

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

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

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

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

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

The Tiber is the river that flows through Rome.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andromache figured in tragedies, Thais in comedies.

Bucephalus was Alexander the Great’s marvelous horse.

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

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

Minos betrayed his wife Pasiphae with Procris.

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

Thersites was the stereotype of the unworthy soldier.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anaphrodisiacs are anti-aphrodisiacs.

What is your opinion of Ovid’s advice?

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Version of July 21, 1997

Diane Ackerman: A Natural History of Love

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

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

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

pp. xxvi-xxiii

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

pp. 1-17

Egypt:

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

pp. 17-39

Greece:

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

Rome:

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

pp. 39-43

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

pp. 95-99

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

pp. 314-322

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

pp. 43-60

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

pp. 105-112

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

pp. 66-75

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

pp. 75-82

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

pp. 177-196

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

pp. 255-256

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

pp. 82-91

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

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Created by Paul Brians August 29, 1997.

Giuseppi Verdi (1813 1901): La Traviata

Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave

Directed by Franco Zeffirelli, 1982

Violetta Valéry (a courtesan, dying of tuberculosis): Teresa Stratas

Alfredo Germont (young poet in love with Violetta): Placido Domingo

Giorgio Germont (Alfredo’s father): Cornell MacNeill


When Agenor, son of the Duc de Guiche, fell in love with a notorious if charming and brilliant courtesan named Marie Duplessis, his father was not amused. He feared that his naive son would ruin his reputation and his fortune by becoming involved with such a woman, and he forced the young man to break off the relationship.

Alexandre Dumas fils, son of the author of The Count of Monte Cristo, also had an affair with Marie in which she behaved rather badly, but he seems to have retained great affection for her even after breaking up with her.

Not much later, she died (at the age of 23) of tuberculosis, then called “consumption,” the most commonly deadly disease in the 19th century. Dumas then avenged the younger generation by blending his own story with Agenor’s by creating a novel, then a play, in which an idealized courtesan named Marguerite Gautier who loves camelias proves to be more loving and generous than the hero’s father. Both works became hugely popular under the title La Dame aux camélias (or in English, Camille).

The story is a quintessential romantic attack on conventional bourgeois morality, arguing that a good heart is more important than propriety, that the social distinctions which split the beau monde(high society) from the demimonde (the world of illicit sex) are cruel and hypocritical, and that true love must triumph over all. That the story ends tragically is today often smugly said to indicate that the 19th-century readers could celebrate sexual freedom only when they doomed those who exercised it. But this is unfair. Dumas is expressing the romantic notion that the highest virtue in a human being is a good heart. If some people are too good for this world, that is the world’s loss.

To understand the story, it is important to keep certain facts in mind. In mid-19th-century France, almost as much as in England, sexual hypocrisy was widespread. Prostitution and gambling were extremely popular and widespread even as they were being publicly condemned on every hand. Men were expected to have mistresses whom they supported financially; but they were expected to conceal that fact, and they were expected not to fall in love with them. Such courtesans were not classed with common prostitutes, but there should be no illusion about their motivation for participating in these affairs: they were in it for the cash and gifts, and were faithful to their lovers only so long as it suited them. (It should be obvious, however, why an opera about a good-hearted courtesan would be appropriate in a film like Pretty Woman (1990), where Julia Roberts is enchanted by Violetta’s story).

Any woman who slept with a man before marriage was thought to be “ruined” (i. e., rendered unfit to be wed), and should be shunned as a social leper. For many such women, some form of prostitution was the only means of survival. Respectable women feared and detested the courtesans, and would not permit them to mix in “polite society,” as it was then called. Further, they were presumed to be predatory temptresses, bent on extracting their wealth from guileless young men, then abandoning them. The very most respectable families would not even want to be associated with another family in which one of the members was entangled with such a creature. It is this stereotype that Dumas set himself to break. It is a commentary on the complexity of moral attitudes during the time that the result was wildly popular.

In 1853, one year after Dumas dramatized his work, the Italian Giuseppi Verdi turned the story into one of the most popular operas ever written: La Traviata (“The Wayward Woman”), retaining the Parisian setting but changing the heroine’s name to an Italian one: Violetta. The Italians were considerably more conservative in sexual matters than the French, and Verdi removed most of the seamier scenes from the original play and made his Violetta an almost angelic creature whose self-contempt and fear of risking love is almost incomprehensible unless one knows what everyone then knew: that she was a courtesan, loved only for her body and her high spirits, destined to die young and alone. This production hints at the shallowness of the affection her friends have for when, at the end of the first scene, one of her female guests placidly steals a valuable snuffbox off the mantle as she departs.

In Franco Zeffirelli’s striking production of the opera, we scan across Paris to the lavishly decorated apartment of Violetta, and, as the music from the prelude to Act V is “previewed” (there is no overture) we see her as she will appear in the last scene, abandoned, destitute, dying, her belongings being carted off to pay her bills. One of the young men who has come to help transport the goods is entranced by her portrait, and then catches of glimpse of her. Violetta then seems to see herself as she was in happier days; and as we travel swiftly back in time, the first scene begins. Although this unusual opening is not present in the original opera, it reflects the opening of Dumas’ novel, which depicts a dreary auction of the impoverished Marguerite’s belongings.

In the first act, Alfredo tries to persuade Violetta to abandon her current lover, an older baron. To love this young man who has no money of his own (though his father is rich) would not only impoverish her, but open her up to disappointment. So long as she is the mistress of men like the baron, her heart remains untouched; but if she allows herself to believe in true love, she fears disappointment.

In the second act, they have moved to the country; but Alfredo does not understand that this expensive way of life is being paid for by Violetta. His father comes to persuade her to give him up. Although he learns that, contrary to his expectations, she is not being supported by Alfredo, it is even more unacceptable to him (and polite society in general) to see a respectable young man being supported by the income of a “fallen woman.”

The third act features an elaborate ballet in which guests dressed as Spanish gypsies perform a dance combining the themes of passion, money, and death which run through Traviata. In order not to interfere with the viewing of the brilliant visual spectacle of this ballet, subtitles are omitted during this section, but you will want to know what is being sung, so a loose translation is offered here:

We are matadors from Madrid,
Heroes of the bull-ring.
We have come to enjoy the celebration
That Paris makes over the fattend ox.
There a story we can tell, if you’ll listen,
which will tell how we can love!

Listen!
There’s a handsome, bold
Matador from Biscay
Strong of arm, and proud;
He is the lord of the arena.
He fell madly in love
With a young woman from Andalucia;
But the disdainful beauty
Spoke to her admirer thus:

“I want to see you kill
Five bulls in a single day;
And, if you succeed, when you return
I will give you my hand and heart.”

“Yes,” he said to her; and the matador
Stepped into the ring,
And became the conqueror of five bulls
which he stretched out in the arena.

The other guests then sing:

Bravo, bravo, matador,
You have shows yourself to be heroic
And in this way have proved
your love to the young woman!

The bullfighters reply:

Then, he returned, through the applause,
To the beauty he loved
And embraced his much-desired prize
In his loving arms.

Other guests:

This is how matadors
Prove themselves conquerors of women.

Bullfighters:

But we have softer hearts,
It’s enough for us to have fun and games.

All:

Yes, happy friends, let us first
Try our luck at games of chance;
Let us open the contest
To the bold gambler.

(Translation by Paul Brians)

In this act, her sacrifice is completely misunderstood by Alfredo, which is partly as she wished it; but he behaves ignobly in deliberately treating her as a whore before a large assembly, provoking the Baron to challenge him to a duel. Note that Alfredo had come to the party bent on challenging the Baron, but in the end it is the Baron who defends Violetta by challenging the young man by ritually slapping him with his glove.

In the last scene, Alfredo has gone on a long voyage to forget her; but his father, realizing the true nobility of Violetta, has written to him to tell him the truth. She is hanging on, hour by hour, hoping to be reconciled with him before she dies.

By simplifying the emotions, purifying the heroine and pouring into this opera many of his most achingly beautiful melodies, Verdi created one of the masterpieces of romantic opera. Listen closely to the aria in the second act in which Alfredo sings of his love reaching across the universe. The melody recurs from time to time as Violetta is thinking of his love for her, including briefly just before the end. Contemporary critics usually scorn what they call sentimentality; but the romantics meant to soften the heart and render the audience more humane, tolerant, and loving by telling this kind of story. Thanks to Verdi’s genius, for audiences willing to set aside their sophisticated skepticism, it can still work.


A Note on Watching Opera

Opera is drama set to music, and both are important. The melodies of arias (solos), the complex interweaving of contrasting melodies in duets and trios, and the rousing harmonies of choruses are the very heart and soul of opera. Emotional raptures which might seem exaggerated in the theater are brought to life by music. It is crucial not to get so wrapped up in following the plot that you don’t pay attention to the music. This is, above all, one of the most glorious musical compositions produced in the Romantic era, filled with memorable melodies, duets, and choruses.

One of Verdi’s favorite devices is to have one or more singers perform a throbbing rhythmic pattern while another sings a long, soaring melodic line over the top. Listen for this effect in the duet between Violetta and Alfredo’s father at her place in the country, and again in the duet between Alfredo and Violetta when he returns at the end of the opera.

If you have never seen an opera before, it may take some time to get used to hearing characters sing their lines instead of speaking them. There can be a certain comic quality to some of the chorus’ unison exclamations, for instance; but such artificialities are required by the music; and experienced opera-goers take them for granted.

When you begin writing about the opera, please do not use the word “music” to mean the orchestral accompaniment as contrasted with the “singing.” Singing is music, the main form of music in an opera. If you feel that the “singing” gets in the way of the “music” then you aren’t really experiencing what opera is.

Operas are usually sung in the language in which they were originally written; hence you will hear these Parisians conversing in perfect Italian. The reason for not performing the opera in translation is that the musical values of certain syllables are not preserved when one changes languages. Instead, to assist those of you who are not fluent in Italian, the filmmaker has provided subtitles (supertitles are used in most modern American opera productions for the same reason). If you are not used to it, this may be a bit distracting at first, but without them you would get much less of the story. After a while reading the titles becomes automatic. Because they appear at the very bottom of the screen, it is important to sit close enough to read them clearly and to have a clear view of them, without some other student’s shoulder cutting them off. Choose your seat carefully. If you are watching the opera on DVD in private, be sure to use the menu to turn on the subtitles before you begin watching.

When the chorus or other singers begin to repeat the same lyrics over and over, the subtitles cease in order to let you concentrate on the music. During the ballet, much of the time there are no subtitles, to let you concentrate on the spectacle without distraction (see lyrics above); but the rest of the time you can be assured that if there are no titles on the screen, the words being sung are repetitions of phrases which have already been translated for you.

Important note: If the subtitles do not appear when the singers first start singing, go back to the main menu and choose English subtitles.

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First mounted June 17, 1995.

Last revised March 5, 2007

Medieval Love Songs

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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


Guillaume de Machaut:Foy porter

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

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

Translated by Paul Brians


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

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

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

Douce dame jolie

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


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

Dante Alighieri: Sonnet

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


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

La Comtesse de Dia: I Must Sing of That

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


Anonymous: Dawn Song

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


Christine de Pisan: A Sweet Thing Is Marriage

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


Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz: From A Satirical Romance

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


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

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

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

More study guides for Love in the Arts:

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.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827): Symphony no. 9 in D minor, opus 125, Fourth movement 23:22

I wrote this analysis of the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to aid my students in following along as the music played. The timings are based on the classic 1952 recording conducted by Arturo Toscanini (RCA Victor Gold Seal), but the timings could be adjusted to fit any other recording. Please keep in mind that this was written by a non-musician for non-musicians in a general humanities class and does not pretend to be a technical analysis–just a way of helping beginning listeners to classical music appreciate what is going on.

Elapsed time

0:00 The movement opens agitatedly as the orchestra picks up fragments of one theme after another from the previous three movements, as if seeking a satisfactory vehicle for its expression; but each is discarded in turn.

1:15 The first seven notes of the main theme to come are tentatively uttered, but it too is abandoned as the search continues.

2:17 Once again the theme begins, this time in the woodwinds, but it soon breaks off.

2:46 Finally, the theme emerges decisively in the basses for a subdued first statement.

3:24 The second statement is calm, tranquil, confident, and the theme continues onward in the various voices of the orchestra, broad and flowing.

4:38 The winds make a strong statement of the theme.

5:49 The flow of the music abruptly halts–there are rapid shifts–great agitation, until

6:02 the orchestra introduces the baritone singing the first three lines of the poem, rejecting the feverish discords of the previous passage, calling for a different music, whose nature is suggested by the strings beneath his voice:

O Freunde, nicht diese Töne,
O friends, not these notes!
sondern lasst uns angenehmere
Rather let us take up something more
anstimmen, und freudenvollere.
pleasant, and more joyful.

6:43 The chorus echoes his “Freude!” and he is off through the first part of the ode on the main theme:

Freude, schöner Götterfunken
Joy, lovely divine light,
Tochter aus Elysium
Daughter of Elysium
Wir betreten feuertrunken,
We march, drunk with fire,
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum.
Holy One, to thy holy kingdom.
Deine Zauber binden wieder,
Thy magic binds together
Was die Mode streng geteilt;
What tradition has strongly parted,
Alle Menschen werden Brüder,
All men will be brothers
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.
Dwelling under the safety of your wings.

7:12 The chorus recapitulates the last four lines of this section.

7:30 The theme is now presented by a vocal quartet, which continues the ode:

Wem der grosse Wurf gelungen,
He who has had the great pleasure
Eines Freundes Freund zu sein
To be a true friend to a friend,
Wer ein holdes Weib errungen,
He who has a noble wife
Mische seinen Jubel ein!
Let him join our mighty song of rejoicing!
Ja–wer auch nur eine Seele
Yes–if there is a solitary soul
Sein nennt auf’ dem Erdenrund!
In the entire world which claims him–
Und wer’s nie gekonnt, der stehle
If he rejects it, then let him steal away
Weinend sich aus diesem Bund.
Weeping out of this comradeship.

alternating with the chorus, which repeats the last four lines, and the quartet then sings:

Freude trinken alle Wesen
All beings drink in joy
An den Brüsten der Natur;
From nature’s breasts.
Alle Guten, alle Bösen
All good and evil things
Folgen ihrer Rosenspur.
Follow her rose-strewn path.
Küsse gab sie uns und Reben
She gave us kisses and grapes,
Einen Freund, geprüft im Tod;
A friend, tested unto death,
Wollust ward dem Wurm gegeben,
Pleasure is given even to the worm
Und der Cherub steht vor Gott.
And the cherubim stand before God.

with the chorus repeating the last four lines of this section. Each time through the theme is treated to ever more elaborate variations.

9:10 There is a dramatic pause at the climax of the word “God”, and the theme emerges rhythmically transformed in the winds as a military march, matching the martial words of the tenor in these lines:

Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen
Happy, like thy Sun which flies
Durch des Himmels prächt’gen Plan,
Through the splendid Heavens,
Wandelt, Brüder, eure Bahn,
Wander, Brothers, on your road
Freudig, wie ein Held zum Siegen.
Joyful, like a hero going to victory.

10:53 An orchestral interlude.

12:30 The chorus re-enters, repeating these lines :

Freude, schöner Götterfunken
Joy, lovely divine light,
Tochter aus Elysium
Daughter of Elysium
Wir betreten feuertrunken,
We march, drunk with fire,
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum.
Holy One, to thy holy kingdom.
Deine Zauber binden wieder,
Thy magic binds together
Was die Mode streng geteilt;
What tradition has strongly parted,
Alle Menschen werden Brüder,
All men will be brothers
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.
Dwelling under the safety of your wings.

13:16 There is a dramatic shift, and the poem continues:

Seid umschlungen, Millionen!
Be embraced, you multitudes,
Diesen Kuss der ganzen Welt!
In this kiss of the entire world.
Brüder–überm Sternenzelt
Brothers–over the canopy of stars
Muss ein lieber Vater wohnen!
A loving Father must live.

and these lines are then repeated.

15:14 The religious section of the ode begins as the chorus intones in an awed manner: Ihr stürzt nieder, Millionen?
Millions, do you fall upon your knees?

15:30 The music rises hopefully toward God and the heavens as the final lines of verse are sung:

Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt?
Do you sense the Creator, world?
Such’ ihn überm Sternenzelt!
Seek Him above the canopy of stars!
Über Sternen muss er wohnen.
Surely He lives above the stars.

16:58 The last section, from “Seid umschlungen, Millionen!” is repeated triumphantly in counterpoint.

18:36 A dramatic hush, the music rises steadily.

19:23 The quartet then re-enters with the following lines from the beginning of the poem:
Tochter aus Elysium
Daughter of Elysium
Deine Zauber binden wieder,
Thy magic binds together
Was die Mode streng geteilt;
What tradition has strongly parted,

20:06 The chorus underlines “Alle Menschen werden Brüder,” “All mankind will be brothers.”

20:50 The same line is repeated ecstatically by the quartet, which soars upward to

21:30 its peak.

21:41 The orchestra and chorus re-enter at a rapid tempo to bring the movement to its

23:22 conclusion.

More study guides for 18th and 19th Century European Classics

 


Original German text, public domain; Translation by Paul Brians

First mounted June 16, 1995.

Last revised, February 9, 2010.

Giuseppi Verdi (1813 1901): La Traviata

Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave

Directed by Franco Zeffirelli, 1982

Violetta Valéry (a courtesan, dying of tuberculosis): Teresa Stratas

Alfredo Germont (young poet in love with Violetta): Placido Domingo

Giorgio Germont (Alfredo’s father): Cornell MacNeill


When Agenor, son of the Duc de Guiche, fell in love with a notorious if charming and brilliant courtesan named Marie Duplessis, his father was not amused. He feared that his naive son would ruin his reputation and his fortune by becoming involved with such a woman, and he forced the young man to break off the relationship.

Alexandre Dumas fils, son of the author of The Count of Monte Cristo, also had an affair with Marie in which she behaved rather badly, but he seems to have retained great affection for her even after breaking up with her.

Not much later, she died (at the age of 23) of tuberculosis, then called “consumption,” the most commonly deadly disease in the 19th century. Dumas then avenged the younger generation by blending his own story with Agenor’s by creating a novel, then a play, in which an idealized courtesan named Marguerite Gautier who loves camelias proves to be more loving and generous than the hero’s father. Both works became hugely popular under the title La Dame aux camélias (or in English, Camille).

The story is a quintessential romantic attack on conventional bourgeois morality, arguing that a good heart is more important than propriety, that the social distinctions which split the beau monde(high society) from the demimonde (the world of illicit sex) are cruel and hypocritical, and that true love must triumph over all. That the story ends tragically is today often smugly said to indicate that the 19th-century readers could celebrate sexual freedom only when they doomed those who exercised it. But this is unfair. Dumas is expressing the romantic notion that the highest virtue in a human being is a good heart. If some people are too good for this world, that is the world’s loss.

To understand the story, it is important to keep certain facts in mind. In mid-19th-century France, almost as much as in England, sexual hypocrisy was widespread. Prostitution and gambling were extremely popular and widespread even as they were being publicly condemned on every hand. Men were expected to have mistresses whom they supported financially; but they were expected to conceal that fact, and they were expected not to fall in love with them. Such courtesans were not classed with common prostitutes, but there should be no illusion about their motivation for participating in these affairs: they were in it for the cash and gifts, and were faithful to their lovers only so long as it suited them. (It should be obvious, however, why an opera about a good-hearted courtesan would be appropriate in a film like Pretty Woman (1990), where Julia Roberts is enchanted by Violetta’s story).

Any woman who slept with a man before marriage was thought to be “ruined” (i. e., rendered unfit to be wed), and should be shunned as a social leper. For many such women, some form of prostitution was the only means of survival. Respectable women feared and detested the courtesans, and would not permit them to mix in “polite society,” as it was then called. Further, they were presumed to be predatory temptresses, bent on extracting their wealth from guileless young men, then abandoning them. The very most respectable families would not even want to be associated with another family in which one of the members was entangled with such a creature. It is this stereotype that Dumas set himself to break. It is a commentary on the complexity of moral attitudes during the time that the result was wildly popular.

In 1853, one year after Dumas dramatized his work, the Italian Giuseppi Verdi turned the story into one of the most popular operas ever written: La Traviata (“The Wayward Woman”), retaining the Parisian setting but changing the heroine’s name to an Italian one: Violetta. The Italians were considerably more conservative in sexual matters than the French, and Verdi removed most of the seamier scenes from the original play and made his Violetta an almost angelic creature whose self-contempt and fear of risking love is almost incomprehensible unless one knows what everyone then knew: that she was a courtesan, loved only for her body and her high spirits, destined to die young and alone. This production hints at the shallowness of the affection her friends have for when, at the end of the first scene, one of her female guests placidly steals a valuable snuffbox off the mantle as she departs.

In Franco Zeffirelli’s striking production of the opera, we scan across Paris to the lavishly decorated apartment of Violetta, and, as the music from the prelude to Act V is “previewed” (there is no overture) we see her as she will appear in the last scene, abandoned, destitute, dying, her belongings being carted off to pay her bills. One of the young men who has come to help transport the goods is entranced by her portrait, and then catches of glimpse of her. Violetta then seems to see herself as she was in happier days; and as we travel swiftly back in time, the first scene begins. Although this unusual opening is not present in the original opera, it reflects the opening of Dumas’ novel, which depicts a dreary auction of the impoverished Marguerite’s belongings.

In the first act, Alfredo tries to persuade Violetta to abandon her current lover, an older baron. To love this young man who has no money of his own (though his father is rich) would not only impoverish her, but open her up to disappointment. So long as she is the mistress of men like the baron, her heart remains untouched; but if she allows herself to believe in true love, she fears disappointment.

In the second act, they have moved to the country; but Alfredo does not understand that this expensive way of life is being paid for by Violetta. His father comes to persuade her to give him up. Although he learns that, contrary to his expectations, she is not being supported by Alfredo, it is even more unacceptable to him (and polite society in general) to see a respectable young man being supported by the income of a “fallen woman.”

The third act features an elaborate ballet in which guests dressed as Spanish gypsies perform a dance combining the themes of passion, money, and death which run through Traviata. In order not to interfere with the viewing of the brilliant visual spectacle of this ballet, subtitles are omitted during this section, but you will want to know what is being sung, so a loose translation is offered here:

We are matadors from Madrid,
Heroes of the bull-ring.
We have come to enjoy the celebration
That Paris makes over the fattend ox.
There a story we can tell, if you’ll listen,
which will tell how we can love!

Listen!
There’s a handsome, bold
Matador from Biscay
Strong of arm, and proud;
He is the lord of the arena.
He fell madly in love
With a young woman from Andalucia;
But the disdainful beauty
Spoke to her admirer thus:

“I want to see you kill
Five bulls in a single day;
And, if you succeed, when you return
I will give you my hand and heart.”

“Yes,” he said to her; and the matador
Stepped into the ring,
And became the conqueror of five bulls
which he stretched out in the arena.

The other guests then sing:

Bravo, bravo, matador,
You have shows yourself to be heroic
And in this way have proved
your love to the young woman!

The bullfighters reply:

Then, he returned, through the applause,
To the beauty he loved
And embraced his much-desired prize
In his loving arms.

Other guests:

This is how matadors
Prove themselves conquerors of women.

Bullfighters:

But we have softer hearts,
It’s enough for us to have fun and games.

All:

Yes, happy friends, let us first
Try our luck at games of chance;
Let us open the contest
To the bold gambler.

(Translation by Paul Brians)

In this act, her sacrifice is completely misunderstood by Alfredo, which is partly as she wished it; but he behaves ignobly in deliberately treating her as a whore before a large assembly, provoking the Baron to challenge him to a duel. Note that Alfredo had come to the party bent on challenging the Baron, but in the end it is the Baron who defends Violetta by challenging the young man by ritually slapping him with his glove.

In the last scene, Alfredo has gone on a long voyage to forget her; but his father, realizing the true nobility of Violetta, has written to him to tell him the truth. She is hanging on, hour by hour, hoping to be reconciled with him before she dies.

By simplifying the emotions, purifying the heroine and pouring into this opera many of his most achingly beautiful melodies, Verdi created one of the masterpieces of romantic opera. Listen closely to the aria in the second act in which Alfredo sings of his love reaching across the universe. The melody recurs from time to time as Violetta is thinking of his love for her, including briefly just before the end. Contemporary critics usually scorn what they call sentimentality; but the romantics meant to soften the heart and render the audience more humane, tolerant, and loving by telling this kind of story. Thanks to Verdi’s genius, for audiences willing to set aside their sophisticated skepticism, it can still work.


A Note on Watching Opera

Opera is drama set to music, and both are important. The melodies of arias (solos), the complex interweaving of contrasting melodies in duets and trios, and the rousing harmonies of choruses are the very heart and soul of opera. Emotional raptures which might seem exaggerated in the theater are brought to life by music. It is crucial not to get so wrapped up in following the plot that you don’t pay attention to the music. This is, above all, one of the most glorious musical compositions produced in the Romantic era, filled with memorable melodies, duets, and choruses.

One of Verdi’s favorite devices is to have one or more singers perform a throbbing rhythmic pattern while another sings a long, soaring melodic line over the top. Listen for this effect in the duet between Violetta and Alfredo’s father at her place in the country, and again in the duet between Alfredo and Violetta when he returns at the end of the opera.

If you have never seen an opera before, it may take some time to get used to hearing characters sing their lines instead of speaking them. There can be a certain comic quality to some of the chorus’ unison exclamations, for instance; but such artificialities are required by the music; and experienced opera-goers take them for granted.

When you begin writing about the opera, please do not use the word “music” to mean the orchestral accompaniment as contrasted with the “singing.” Singing is music, the main form of music in an opera. If you feel that the “singing” gets in the way of the “music” then you aren’t really experiencing what opera is.

Operas are usually sung in the language in which they were originally written; hence you will hear these Parisians conversing in perfect Italian. The reason for not performing the opera in translation is that the musical values of certain syllables are not preserved when one changes languages. Instead, to assist those of you who are not fluent in Italian, the filmmaker has provided subtitles (supertitles are used in most modern American opera productions for the same reason). If you are not used to it, this may be a bit distracting at first, but without them you would get much less of the story. After a while reading the titles becomes automatic. Because they appear at the very bottom of the screen, it is important to sit close enough to read them clearly and to have a clear view of them, without some other student’s shoulder cutting them off. Choose your seat carefully. If you are watching the opera on DVD in private, be sure to use the menu to turn on the subtitles before you begin watching.

When the chorus or other singers begin to repeat the same lyrics over and over, the subtitles cease in order to let you concentrate on the music. During the ballet, much of the time there are no subtitles, to let you concentrate on the spectacle without distraction (see lyrics above); but the rest of the time you can be assured that if there are no titles on the screen, the words being sung are repetitions of phrases which have already been translated for you.

Important note: If the subtitles do not appear when the singers first start singing, go back to the main menu and choose English subtitles.

More study guides for 18th and 19th Century European Classics


First mounted June 17, 1995.

Last revised March 5, 2007

The Enlightenment

Although the intellectual movement called “The Enlightenment” is usually associated with the 18th century, its roots in fact go back much further. But before we explore those roots, we need to define the term. This is one of those rare historical movements which in fact named itself. Certain thinkers and writers, primarily in London and Paris, believed that they were more enlightened than their compatriots and set out to enlighten them.

They believed that human reason could be used to combat ignorance, superstition, and tyranny and to build a better world. Their principal targets were religion (embodied in France in the Catholic Church) and the domination of society by a hereditary aristocracy.

Background in Antiquity

To understand why this movement became so influential in the 18th century, it is important to go back in time. We could choose almost any starting point, but let us begin with the recovery of Aristotelian logic by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. In his hands the logical procedures so carefully laid out by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle were used to defend the dogmas of Christianity; and for the next couple of centuries, other thinkers pursued these goals to shore up every aspect of faith with logic. These thinkers were sometimes called “schoolmen” (more formally, “scholastics,”) and Voltaire frequently refers to them as “doctors,” by which he means “doctors of theology.”

Unfortunately for the Catholic Church, the tools of logic could not be confined to the uses it preferred. After all, they had been developed in Athens, in a pagan culture which had turned them on its own traditional beliefs. It was only a matter of time before later Europeans would do the same.

The Renaissance Humanists

In the 14th and 15th century there emerged in Italy and France a group of thinkers known as the “humanists.” The term did not then have the anti-religious associations it has in contemporary political debate. Almost all of them were practicing Catholics. They argued that the proper worship of God involved admiration of his creation, and in particular of that crown of creation: humanity. By celebrating the human race and its capacities they argued they were worshiping God more appropriately than gloomy priests and monks who harped on original sin and continuously called upon people to confess and humble themselves before the Almighty. Indeed, some of them claimed that humans were like God, created not only in his image, but with a share of his creative power. The painter, the architect, the musician, and the scholar, by exercising their intellectual powers, were fulfilling divine purposes.

This celebration of human capacity, though it was mixed in the Renaissance with elements of gloom and superstition (witchcraft trials flourished in this period as they never had during the Middle Ages), was to bestow a powerful legacy on Europeans. The goal of Renaissance humanists was to recapture some of the pride, breadth of spirit, and creativity of the ancient Greeks and Romans, to replicate their successes and go beyond them. Europeans developed the belief that tradition could and should be used to promote change. By cleaning and sharpening the tools of antiquity, they could reshape their own time.

Galileo Galilei, for instance, was to use the same sort of logic the schoolmen had used–reinforced with observation–to argue in 1632 for the Copernican notion that the earth rotates on its axis beneath the unmoving sun. The Church, and most particularly the Holy Inquisition, objected that the Bible clearly stated that the sun moved through the sky and denounced Galileo’s teachings, forcing him to recant (take back) what he had written and preventing him from teaching further. The Church’s triumph was a Pyrrhic victory, for though it could silence Galileo, it could not prevent the advance of science (though most of those advances would take place in Protestant northern Europe, out of the reach of the pope and his Inquisition).

But before Galileo’s time, in the 16th century, various humanists had begun to ask dangerous questions. François Rabelais, a French monk and physician influenced by Protestantism, but spurred on by his own rebelliousness, challenged the Church’s authority in his Gargantua and Pantagruel, ridiculing many religious doctrines as absurd.

Michel de Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne, in a much more quiet and modest but ultimately more subversive way, asked a single question over and over again in his Essays: “What do I know?” By this he meant that we have no right to impose on others dogmas which rest on cultural habit rather than absolute truth. Powerfully influenced by the discovery of thriving non-Christian cultures in places as far off as Brazil, he argued that morals may be to some degree relative. Who are Europeans to insist that Brazilian cannibals who merely consume dead human flesh instead of wasting it are morally inferior to Europeans who persecute and oppress those of whom they disapprove?

This shift toward cultural relativism, though it was based on scant understanding of the newly discovered peoples, was to continue to have a profound effect on European thought to the present day. Indeed, it is one of the hallmarks of the Enlightenment. Just as their predecessors had used the tools of antiquity to gain unprecedented freedom of inquiry, the Enlightenment thinkers used the examples of other cultures to gain the freedom to reshape not only their philosophies, but their societies. It was becoming clear that there was nothing inevitable about the European patterns of thought and living: there were many possible ways of being human, and doubtless new ones could be invented.

The other contribution of Montaigne to the Enlightenment stemmed from another aspect of his famous question: “What do I know?” If we cannot be certain that our values are God-given, then we have no right to impose them by force on others. Inquisitors, popes, and kings alike had no business enforcing adherence to particular religious or philosophical beliefs.

It is one of the great paradoxes of history that radical doubt was necessary for the new sort of certainty called “scientific.” The good scientist is the one is willing to test all assumptions, to challenge all traditional opinion, to get closer to the truth. If ultimate truth, such as was claimed by religious thinkers, was unattainable by scientists, so much the better. In a sense, the strength of science at its best is that it is always aware of its limits, aware that knowledge is always growing, always subject to change, never absolute. Because knowledge depends on evidence and reason, arbitrary authority can only be its enemy.

The 17th Century

René Descartes, in the 17th century, attempted to use reason as the schoolmen had, to shore up his faith; but much more rigorously than had been attempted before. He tried to begin with a blank slate, with the bare minimum of knowledge: the knowledge of his own existence (“I think, therefore I am”). From there he attempted to reason his way to a complete defense of Christianity, but to do so he committed so many logical faults that his successors over the centuries were to slowly disintegrate his gains, even finally challenging the notion of selfhood with which he had begun. The history of philosophy from his time to the early 20th century is partly the story of more and more ingenious logic proving less and less, until Ludwig Wittgenstein succeeded in undermining the very bases of philosophy itself.

But that is a story for a different course. Here we are concerned with early stages in the process in which it seemed that logic could be a powerful avenue to truth. To be sure, logic alone could be used to defend all sorts of absurd notions; and Enlightenment thinkers insisted on combining it with something they called “reason” which consisted of common sense, observation, and their own unacknowledged prejudices in favor of skepticism and freedom.

We have been focusing closely on a thin trickle of thought which traveled through an era otherwise dominated by dogma and fanaticism. The 17th century was torn by witch-hunts and wars of religion and imperial conquest. Protestants and Catholics denounced each other as followers of Satan, and people could be imprisoned for attending the wrong church, or for not attending any. All publications, whether pamphlets or scholarly volumes, were subject to prior censorship by both church and state, often working hand in hand. Slavery was widely practiced, especially in the colonial plantations of the Western Hemisphere, and its cruelties frequently defended by leading religious figures. The despotism of monarchs exercising far greater powers than any medieval king was supported by the doctrine of the “divine right of kings,” and scripture quoted to show that revolution was detested by God. Speakers of sedition or blasphemy quickly found themselves imprisoned, or even executed. Organizations which tried to challenge the twin authorities of church and state were banned. There had been plenty of intolerance and dogma to go around in the Middle Ages, but the emergence of the modern state made its tyranny much more efficient and powerful.

It was inevitable that sooner or later many Europeans would begin to weary of the repression and warfare carried out in the name of absolute truth. In addition, though Protestants had begun by making powerful critiques of Catholicism, they quickly turned their guns on each other, producing a bewildering array of churches each claiming the exclusive path to salvation. It was natural for people tossed from one demanding faith to another to wonder whether any of the churches deserved the authority they claimed, and to begin to prize the skepticism of Montaigne over the certainty of Luther or Calvin.

Meanwhile, there were other powerful forces at work in Europe: economic ones which were to interact profoundly with these intellectual trends.

The Political and Economic Background

During the late Middle Ages, peasants had begun to move from rural estates to the towns in search of increased freedom and prosperity. As trade and communication improved during the Renaissance, the ordinary town-dweller began to realize that things need not always go on as they had for centuries. New charters could be written, new governments formed, new laws passed, new businesses begun. Although each changed institution quickly tried to stabilize its power by claiming the support of tradition, the pressure for change continued to mount. It was not only contact with alien cultural patterns which influenced Europeans, it was the wealth brought back from Asia and the Americas which catapulted a new class of merchants into prominence, partially displacing the old aristocracy whose power had been rooted in the ownership of land. These merchants had their own ideas about the sort of world they wanted to inhabit, and they became major agents of change, in the arts, in government, and in the economy.

They were naturally convinced that their earnings were the result of their individual merit and hard work, unlike the inherited wealth of traditional aristocrats. Whereas individualism had been chiefly emphasized in the Renaissance by artists, especially visual artists, it now became a core value. The ability of individual effort to transform the world became a European dogma, lasting to this day.

But the chief obstacles to the reshaping of Europe by the merchant class were the same as those faced by the rationalist philosophers: absolutist kings and dogmatic churches. The struggle was complex and many-sided, with each participant absorbing many of the others’ values; but the general trend is clear: individualism, freedom and change replaced community, authority, and tradition as core European values. Religion survived, but weakened and often transformed almost beyond recognition; the monarchy was to dwindle over the course of the hundred years beginning in the mid-18th century to a pale shadow of its former self.

This is the background of the 18th-century Enlightenment. Europeans were changing, but Europe’s institutions were not keeping pace with that change. The Church insisted that it was the only source of truth, that all who lived outside its bounds were damned, while it was apparent to any reasonably sophisticated person that most human beings on earth were not and had never been Christians–yet they had built great and inspiring civilizations. Writers and speakers grew restive at the omnipresent censorship and sought whatever means they could to evade or even denounce it.

Most important, the middle classes–the bourgeoisie–were painfully aware that they were paying taxes to support a fabulously expensive aristocracy which contributed nothing of value to society (beyond, perhaps, its patronage of the arts, which the burghers of Holland had shown could be equally well exercised by themselves), and that those useless aristocrats were unwilling to share power with those who actually managed and–to their way of thinking,–created the national wealth. They were to find ready allies in France among the impoverished masses who may have lived and thought much like their ancestors, but who were all too aware that with each passing year they were paying higher and higher taxes to support a few thousand at Versailles in idle dissipation.

The Role of the Aristocrats

Interestingly, it was among those very idle aristocrats that the French Enlightenment philosophers were to find some of their earliest and most enthusiastic followers. Despite the fact that the Church and State were more often than not allied with each other, they were keenly aware of their differences. Even kings could on occasion be attracted by arguments which seemed to undermine the authority of the Church. The fact that the aristocrats were utterly unaware of the precariousness of their position also made them overconfident, interested in dabbling in the new ideas partly simply because they were new and exciting.

Voltaire moved easily in these aristocratic circles, dining at their tables, taking a titled mistress, corresponding with monarchs. He opposed tyranny and dogma, but he had no notion of reinventing that discredited Athenian folly, democracy. He had far too little faith in the ordinary person for that. What he did think was that educated and sophisticated persons could be brought to see through the exercise of their reason that the world could and should be greatly improved.

Rousseau vs. Voltaire

Not all Enlightenment thinkers were like Voltaire in this. His chief adversary was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who distrusted the aristocrats not out of a thirst for change but because he believed they were betraying decent traditional values. He opposed the theater which was Voltaire’s lifeblood, shunned the aristocracy which Voltaire courted, and argued for something dangerously like democratic revolution. Whereas Voltaire argued that equality was impossible, Rousseau argued that inequality was not only unnatural, but that–when taken too far–it made decent government impossible. Whereas Voltaire charmed with his wit, Rousseau ponderously insisted on his correctness, even while contradicting himself. Whereas Voltaire insisted on the supremacy of the intellect, Rousseau emphasized the emotions, becoming a contributor to both the Enlightenment and its successor, romanticism. And whereas Voltaire endlessly repeated the same handful of core Enlightenment notions, Rousseau sparked off original thoughts in all directions: ideas about education, the family, government, the arts, and whatever else attracted his attention.

For all their personal differences, the two shared more values than they liked to acknowledge. They viewed absolute monarchy as dangerous and evil and rejected orthodox Christianity. Though Rousseau often struggled to seem more devout, he was almost as much a skeptic as Voltaire: the minimalist faith both shared was called “deism,” and it was eventually to transform European religion and have powerful influences on other aspects of society as well.

Across the border in Holland, the merchants, who exercised most political power, there made a successful industry out of publishing books that could not be printed in countries like France. Dissenting religious groups mounted radical attacks on Christian orthodoxy.

The Enlightenment in England

Meanwhile Great Britain had developed its own Enlightenment, fostered by thinkers like the English thinker John Locke, the Scot David Hume, and many others. England had anticipated the rest of Europe by deposing and decapitating its king back in the 17th century. Although the monarchy had eventually been restored, this experience created a certain openness toward change in many places that could not be entirely extinguished. English Protestantism struggled to express itself in ways that widened the limits of freedom of speech and press. Radical Quakers and Unitarians broke open old dogmas in ways that Voltaire was to find highly congenial when he found himself there in exile. The English and French Enlightenments exchanged influences through many channels, Voltaire not least among them.

Because England had gotten its revolution out of the way early, it was able to proceed more smoothly and gradually down the road to democracy; but English liberty was dynamite when transported to France, where resistance by church and state was fierce to the last possible moment. The result was ironically that while Britain remained saturated with class privilege and relatively pious, France was to become after its own revolution the most egalitarian and anticlerical state in Europe–at least in its ideals. The power of religion and the aristocracy diminished gradually in England; in France they were violently uprooted.

The Enlightenment in America

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, many of the intellectual leaders of the American colonies were drawn to the Enlightenment. The colonies may have been founded by leaders of various dogmatic religious persuasions, but when it became necessary to unite against England, it was apparent that no one of them could prevail over the others, and that the most desirable course was to agree to disagree. Nothing more powerfully impelled the movement toward the separation of church and state than the realization that no one church could dominate this new state.

Many of the most distinguished leaders of the American revolution–Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Paine–were powerfully influenced by English and–to a lesser extent–French Enlightenment thought. The God who underwrites the concept of equality in the Declaration of Independence is the same deist God Rousseau worshipped, not that venerated in the traditional churches which still supported and defended monarchies all over Europe. Jefferson and Franklin both spent time in France–a natural ally because it was a traditional enemy of England–absorbing the influence of the French Enlightenment. The language of natural law, of inherent freedoms, of self-determination which seeped so deeply into the American grain was the language of the Enlightenment, though often coated with a light glaze of traditional religion, what has been called our “civil religion.”

This is one reason that Americans should study the Enlightenment. It is in their bones. It has defined part of what they have dreamed of, what they aim to become. Separated geographically from most of the aristocrats against whom they were rebelling, their revolution was to be far less corrosive–and at first less influential–than that in France.

The Struggle in Europe

But we need to return to the beginning of the story, to Voltaire and his allies in France, struggling to assert the values of freedom and tolerance in a culture where the twin fortresses of monarchy and Church opposed almost everything they stood for. To oppose the monarchy openly would be fatal; the Church was an easier target. Protestantism had made religious controversy familiar. Voltaire could skillfully cite one Christian against another to make his arguments. One way to undermine the power of the Church was to undermine its credibility, and thus Voltaire devoted a great deal of his time to attacking the fundamentals of Christian belief: the inspiration of the Bible, the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, the damnation of unbelievers. No doubt he relished this battle partly for its own sake, but he never lost sight of his central goal: the toppling of Church power to increase the freedom available to Europeans.

Voltaire was joined by a band of rebellious thinkers known as the philosophes: Charles de Montesquieu, Pierre Bayle, Jean d’Alembert, and many lesser lights. Although “philosophe” literally means “philosopher” we use the French word in English to designate this particular group of French 18th-century thinkers. Because Denis Diderot commissioned many of them to write for his influential Encyclopedia, they are also known as “the Encyclopedists.”

The Heritage of the Enlightenment

Today the Enlightenment is often viewed as a historical anomaly, a brief moment when a number of thinkers infatuated with reason vainly supposed that the perfect society could be built on common sense and tolerance, a fantasy which collapsed amid the Terror of the French Revolution and the triumphal sweep of Romanticism. Religious thinkers repeatedly proclaim the Enlightenment dead, Marxists denounce it for promoting the ideals and power of the bourgeoisie at the expense of the working classes, postcolonial critics reject its idealization of specifically European notions as universal truths, and postructuralists reject its entire concept of rational thought.

Yet in many ways, the Enlightenment has never been more alive. The notions of human rights it developed are powerfully attractive to oppressed peoples everywhere, who appeal to the same notion of natural law that so inspired Voltaire and Jefferson. Wherever religious conflicts erupt, mutual religious tolerance is counseled as a solution. Rousseau’s notions of self-rule are ideals so universal that the worst tyrant has to disguise his tyrannies by claiming to be acting on their behalf. European these ideas may be, but they have also become global. Whatever their limits, they have formed the consensus of international ideals by which modern states are judged.

If our world seems little closer to perfection than that of 18th-century France, that is partly due to our failure to appreciate gains we take for granted. But it is also the case that many of the enemies of the Enlightenment are demolishing a straw man: it was never as simple-mindedly optimistic as it has often been portrayed. Certainly Voltaire was no facile optimist. He distrusted utopianism, instead trying to cajole Europeans out of their more harmful stupidities. Whether we acknowledge his influence or not, we still think today more like him than like his enemies.

As we go through his most influential work, The Philosophical Dictionary, look for passages which helped lay the groundwork for modern patterns of thought. Look also for passages which still seem challenging, pieces of arguments that continue today.

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