Study Guide for Classical LovePoetry

Study Guide for Classical LovePoetry


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):

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, oftenconsidered the greatest lyric poet of antiquity; but whether she was a"lesbian" in the modern sense is still disputed. She was married andhad 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 wouldprobably call her a bisexual. Plato called her "the Tenth Muse," otherscriticized her shamelessness, but until the Christian era she was widely read andadmired. The Church set itself against her, destroying her writings when theywere found and - - more importantly - - not recopying them. They exist today primarilyas "fragments": brief quotations in discourses on literature, etc. Somesubstantial pieces were recovered in our own time from a papyrus manuscript whichhad been cut into strips to wrap an Egyptian mummy. Her modern fame thus rests ona mere handful of poems, of which "To Anaktoria" is one of the mostfamous. Helen of Troy left her husband King Agamemnon to go with Paris, Prince ofTroy, an act that triggered the Trojan War whenAgamemnon 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 Sapphois drawing in this poem? What is its main message?
Poems aboutSappho
Materials for acourse 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 savageland. What is the basic contrast the poet is drawing here?

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

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

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

From Barnstone, no. 330
Chariot racing was wildly popularin antiquity, and star charioteers were treated like movie stars today. The poetclearly has a crush on one of these, who cannot be all that young if he ismanaging a racing chariot. The poem could be read either as a message to theindifferent youth or as the musings of the poet to himself. Anakreon was one ofthe most famous lyric poets of antiquity.

"Philainion is short"
Rexroth, Kenneth, trans. Poems from the Greek Anthology. AnnArbor: University of Michigan Press, 1962., p. 29.
People of African originwere unusual enough in Greek culture to stand out, but far from rare. Some ofthem 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 Greeksociety than in ours, some of them being widely admired for their intelligenceand creativity. A cestus is a musical instrument. In what ways isthe poet rebelling against standard notions of beauty?

Asklepiades (Alexandria, fl. c. 270 BCE):
From Barnstone, no. 195.
This poem from theHellenistic period was written in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, a great centerof both learning and luxury, where many blacks would have lived. By this date,the population was very mixed, with all pigmentations mingling freely. Like thepreceding poem, it reflects the mild general prejudice against dark skin amongthe Greeks, but rejects it. How does the poet make blackness a positive quality?
"It is sweet insummer";
From Rexroth, p. 29.
Only very wealthy people couldhave 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 wifepoignantly addresses her dead husband. When people died and went to Hades theywere thought to drink from the waters of the River Lethe, which wiped theirmemories clean and left them little better then mindless ghosts. Can you deduceanything 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 poetswas 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 poetsduring the Hellenistic age, they create an idealized countryside in whichshepherds and goatherds have little to do but play panpipes, sing, and try toseduce each other. This dream - world, utterly removed from the real world ofordinary peasants, exercised an enormous fascination over Greeks, Romans, andlater Europeans for many centuries, inspiring innumerable poems, novels, paintings, sculptures,ballets, operas, and other works. There is a set list of names associated withArcadia (the rural area in Greece depicted in this poetry), and the mere mentionof a name such as "Corydon" or "Alexis" (both names ofmen - - calling women "Alexis" is a modern innovation) immediatelyidentifies a poem as pastoral.

Some pastoral poetry is heterosexual,some homosexual. The latter is presented as a common and unremarkablealternative. (When the Arcadian ideal is resurrected in the Renaissance, however,it is overwhelmingly heterosexual in orientation.) How does Corydon release theanguish he feels at being rejected by Alexis? His songs are called"artless" to signify that this is natural, spontaneous, rustic poetryrather than polished urban verse. This notion is part of the essence of Arcadianpoetry, which is in fact the product of highly urbanized poets who cansentimentalize about the simple life in the country from a safe distance. Thepassage beginning "Were it not best to bear" means that Corydon isasking himself whether he wouldn't be better off loving Amaryllis (a woman'sname) or Menalcas (another man). What is he saying about Alexis' light skin colorin this stanza? Amphion was famous for his musical skills. Myth said that hecontributed to the development of the lyre and was able to charm stones from theground with his music to rebuild ruined walls. It was his brother Zethus who wasmore interested in tending herds; but Virgil imagines him as an especiallymusical cowherd. Attica is the Greek peninsula where Athens is located. Why wasCorydon 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 - - theHellenistic poet who founded the Arcadian tradition - - tells the story of a youthnamed Daphnis who dies resisting love, and Longus' Daphnis andChloe is familiar to modern audiences by having been made into a balletby Serge Diaghilev with music by Maurice Ravel. Another of Virgil's Eclogues isalso about Daphnis. Since the name was associated with extraordinarily attractiveyouths, what is Corydon claiming about this own looks? "Pierce thehind" means "hunt deer." Panis a god of the countryside, famous for his reed "panpipes." Corydonoffers Alexis his own panpipe, given him by Damoetas, though Amyntas coveted itfor himself. By telling this story, Corydon is trying to establish the worth ofhis gift, well worth having. In addition he offers a pair of fawns. How is whathe says about them similar to what he has said about the panpipes? Notice howflexible gender relations are in this poetry: Thestylis is a woman. Nymphsare fun - loving demigods especially associated with Arcadia, and Naiads are waterspirits associated with rivers and streams. These spirits, always portrayed asbeautiful, 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 betaken 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 asuitor, and is trying to argue his rival into giving up. With the words"What have I done" this narrator begins to address Alexis, complainingthat his own pursuit of the youth has laid waste to the countryside. Alexisshould 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 outsidethe city. Pallas is PallasAthena, the patron goddess of Athens, of wisdom, and therefore a symbol ofcivic virtue. The poet prefers the ways of nature. What is the pattern of naturalbehavior depicted in the next to last stanza? Does it seem designed to reassureAlexis? Frustrated, in the last stanza the narrator turns back to Corydon toargue that Corydon will never succeed in seducing Alexis and might as well getback to work. An "osier" is a willow stem. The final lines imply thatif Corydon can't get his mind off Alexis by working, he should content himselfwith 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 intensepoems 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 onCatullus

"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 alsobeing self - consciously "cute." "Beauty" is here personifiedas 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 sympatheticmourning. Orcus is a less common name for Pluto, the King of the Underworld, orHades, where all dead souls go. What do you think might be his motivation forwriting this poem?

"Lesbia/live with me"
From Whigham, p.55
This is one of Catullus' most famous poems. The tumblingurgency of this translation is most apparent if it is read aloud rapidly. This isa classic example of the theme tempus fugit - - "time flies." What is the argument the poet is presenting as itrelates 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 suchanguish over her: their relationship was a troubled one, to put it mildly. Thewomen featured in almost all Roman love elegies were courtesans who felt littleobligation to be strictly faithful to their admirers.

Propertius(c. 50 - c. 10 BCE):
Quam fueram magnis olim patefactatriumphis.. .
Carrier, Constance, trans. The Poems ofPropertius. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963, pp. 48 - 49.
Like the Egyptian poem we read earlier, this is a poem about a door whichseparates lovers. It was customary for rejected lovers to sleep on theirbeloved's doorsteps in a public demonstration of their devotion designed to shamethee woman into opening up. Propertius displays his originality by having thedoor itself be the speaker. But this is actually a satire in which Propertiuscynically comments on the promiscuity of Tarpeia. The door begins by rememberingthe "good old days" when she was visited by respectable people, but nowher reputation is gone, drunken louts come at all hours, and she shuts out onlyher faithful lover (Propertius?). The door used to be able to fend off allcomers, but now crowds of men fling the torches which have lit their way throughthe dark streets at the doorstep as they enter unhindered. The door's hingesgroan and creak from frequent use. Meanwhile, the faithful lover complains to thedoor in classic style. What does the word "cruel" seem to mean in thispoem?

O me felicem! O nox mihi candida! Et tu.. .
From Carrier, pp. 80 - 81.
Propertius' most famous love was named Cynthia. Thispoem is simply a rapturous celebration of lovemaking combined with a tempus fugit closing designed to persuade her torepeat the experience. Paris' love for Helen, wife of Menelaus, was famous as thecause of the Trojan War.Diana, the virgin moon goddess, usually shunned men, but nevertheless fell inlove with Endymion.

Qualis Thesea iacuit cedente carina. ..
From Carrier, pp. 28 - 29.
The Roman love poets seem strikinglycontemporary partly because of their informality, but even more because of theway in which they reveal themselves so personally as individuals. Very fewpersonalities from the ancient past come across so vividly as those of Ovid,Catullus, and Propertius, partly because they are not afraid to describe theirown flaws, even exposing themselves to ridicule. The Roman poets were famous assatirists, but these three had the rare gift of satirizing themselves as well asothers. In this poem Propertius portrays himself as having come home to Cynthiaafter a late - night party, drunk and sentimental. The contrast between his moodand 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 everycontemporary reader knew intimately. Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos ofCrete, helped theadventurer Theseus slay the fearsome Minotaur to whom he had been given as asacrifice. Theseus repaid her love by abandoning her on the island of Naxos [click here to see a contemporarypainting related to this scene: warning - - contains frontal nudity] where,according to the most common version of her myth, she committed suicide byjumping off the rocky headland into the sea. Andromeda was chained to a rock tobe sacrificed to a sea monster, but was rescued by the hero Perseus. Maenads werethe female worshippers and companions of Dionysus(Bacchus) who danced themselves into an orgiastic frenzy in his worship and thencollapsed. This trio of exhausted women has little in common besides theirexhaustion, but for Roman readers a whole set of images of anguish and frenzywould be conjured up which are half - seriously applied to the upset Cynthia. Thewealthy had their way lit for them through dark Roman streets by torch - bearingslaves. Argus had a hundred eyes all over his body. Juno jealously changed Iointo 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 whenhe slept, some of his eyes were open. But Hermes,the divine thief, was sent by Jupiter to steal Io and succeeded in lulling all ofArgus' eyes closed with stories and songs, after which he cut off the guard'shead. Obviously to gaze at a woman like Argus is to gaze very intently. (For thesame reason, "Argus" used to be a popular name for newspapers.) Romanswore wreaths - - typically vine - leaves - - in their hair during parties. Fruit wasexpensive, and the poet has tried to please Cynthia by bringing some home forher; but the original poem makes it clear that he dumps them clumsily in herbosom. "Trying the window" suggests a would - be intruder trying to breakin. What gestures suggest that the poet has genuine affection for Cynthia? How doyou react to Cynthia's accusations? Is she more or less sympathetic than thepoet?

Anonymous (2nd - 4th C. BCE?):
The Vigilof Venus
Wilhelm, James J., ed. Medieval Song: An Anthology ofHymns and Lyrics. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1971, pp. 21 - 24.
This lateRoman hymn differs from the previous poems by being a serious religious textdevoted to the goddess Venus (or "Dione" as she is also known, not tobe confused with "Diana," the anti - sexual virgin goddess). The occasionis the night before her springtime holiday on April 1. Because so many of theRoman authors we still read were cynical about traditional religion, we sometimeslose sight of the fact that many people took the gods quite seriously. Mostscholars agree that the poem is an artificial composition rather than anauthentic hymn; but though it is elegantly written, it reflects the primevalbelief underlying all fertility goddesses: that human sexuality is intimatelyconnected with the fertility of nature. Because of this linkage, Venus' holidaywas celebrated when plants were sprouting in the early rains. The raindrops areimagined as fertilizing sperm, nature as fertile femininity. "Dione" is"terrible" in the sense of "awe - inspiring." The law of lovewhich 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 creatorsky - god ("Father Heaven"), imprisoned his children, they rebelled, andhis son Saturn castrated him, flinging his bloody genitals into the sea near theisland of Cyprus. The combination of blood, semen, and sea water gave rise toVenus: 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 Venusto agriculture? The opening of rosebuds into full flowers is an ancient metaphorfor the loss of virginity - - or the gaining of sexual maturity. Venus is called"the Paphian" after Paphos, the city on Cyprus where her cult wascelebrated. 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 whichinevitably cause love in their victims. Note the edge of danger which the ancientworld consistently associated with love; it was desirable, but hazardous. How isthe virginal Diana treated on this holiday? Ceres is the goddess of grain,Bacchus of wine: so people are planning to eat and drink freely. Apollois 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 Romulusand Remus (the founders of Rome) on Rea Silvia, the daughter of Numitor, King ofAlba, though she had been dedicated as a Vestal Virgin. When the early Romansseized the Sabine women, they began a war resolved only when Romulus suggestedthat the two groups intermarry. The incident is known as "the rape[kidnapping] of the Sabine women," and has often been depicted in art. Theresult of this union is all future Romans, including Julius Caesar and his nephewAugustus. 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 hehad 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 itsounds lovely, but is actually singing of a terrible crime. Note the consistentassociation of violence, rape, and betrayal that runs through these storiesassociated with Venus. The poet finally expresses her/his yearning to be able tosing of love from experience.
Sandro Botticelli: TheBirth of Venus
William - Adolphe Bouguereau:The Birth of Venus

Florus :
Venerunt aliquandorosæ
From Wilhelm, pp. 24 - 25.
This late classical poem isan example of a theme closely related to tempus fugit: carpe diem("seize the day"). Although theoretically it could be interpreted asan exhortation to enjoy any aspect of life in the brief time allotted to us onearth, in poetry it is in fact almost always an argument made by a man topersuade 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 noone wants it. The warning to women is plain: do not resist so long that you loseyour 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 themessage conveyed by such a poem?

More poems by women authors from Wendy Mulford, ed.: Love Poems byWomen
"I Hear that Andromeda";
FromMulford, p. 27.
It is impossible to tell whether the "you" of thispoem is a woman or man. A "hayseed" is a countryfied, unsophisticatedperson. 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, hencethe many ellipses toward the end. As Sappho parts from her friend (lover?), shereminds him of the things they have enjoyed together. It provides some of thestrongest 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 andjealousy. The opening situation is that the poet is in love with a woman who istalking to a man, rendered god - like in Sappho's eyes only because he is allowedto be where she would like to be, next to the beloved woman, and the focus of herattention. What about these lines suggests that it is the woman that she admiresmore than the man? In what way does Sappho see herself as being at a disadvantagecompared to the man, even when she meets her beloved alone on the street? Theexistence of only a brief rainy season in Greece means that grass more often acreamy color than a bright green.

Nossis of Locri:
"Nothing is Sweeter than Eros"
From Mulford, p.161.
Read the biographical note on p. 261. "Cypris" is Aphrodite,named after her home island of Cyprus.

"Finally a Love Has Come"
From Mulford, p.195.
Read the biographical note on p. 266. Female Roman poets were even rarerthan Greek ones. "Rumor" is here personified as a god. Cythera wasanother island associated with Venus. The Museswere gods who inspired various arts, in this case poetry. What is the mood andmessage of this poem?

"Light of My Life"
FromMulford, p. 211.
Of what is Sulpicia ashamed in this apologetic poem? We willread similar expressions of regret in later European women's poetry. Can youcompare the attitudes these women express toward love with the mens'?

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