Study Guide for Classical Love Poetry


Using this Guide

List of other study guides

Sources:

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


Greek Love Poetry

Sappho (Lesbos, 7th Century BCE):

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

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


Poems about Sappho
Materials for a course on homosexuality in the Ancient World

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

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

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

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

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

Charioteer
From Barnstone, no. 330

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

Philodemos:
"Philainion is short"

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

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

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

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

Anonymous:
"It is sweet in summer";
From Rexroth, p. 29.

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

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

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

Roman Poetry


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

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

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

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

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

Catullus (c. 84-54 BCE)

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

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

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

"Lesbia/live with me"
From Whigham, p.55

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

Odi et Amo
From Whigham, p. 197

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"I Hear that Andromeda";
From Mulford, p. 27.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sulpicia:
"Finally a Love Has Come"
From Mulford, p. 195.

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

"Light of My Life"
From Mulford, p. 211.

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


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