Peter Jones in the Literary Review May 2007
In the popular Ovid’s Amores 1.5 (c. 20 BC), Ovid is lying on his bed one sultry mid-day, in his half-shuttered room (‘the light for shy girls’), when ecce, Corinna venit, in a loose shift, hair tumbling down over her shoulders. After a half-hearted struggle, she stands naked before him. He admires every feature of her flawless body, presses her to him, and cetera quis nescit? Lassi requievimus ambo./proveniant medii sic mihi saepe dies ‘Who does not know the rest? Exhausted, we both lay back./May my mid-days often turn out like this’.
The erotic charge is evident, but despite that ambo, there is a lack of mutuality. The physical description of Corinna’s body does not work – women do indeed have shoulders, arms, breasts, etc. but that is hardly the point – and cetera quis nescit? is a sad admission. As WH Auden pointed out, ‘All of us know the few things Man as mammal can do’. The one you love offers a unique experience, which by definition nobody else can know.
Homer, composer of the West’s first literature (c. 700 BC), also produced the West’s first scene of love-making: Iliad 14 (346-53), where Hera persuades her husband Zeus to make love to her. Her motive is ulterior - to knock him out, so that she can subvert his will and ensure the Greeks get the upper hand against the Trojans. It is the battle of the sexes, and very funny too. Then the crunch: ‘The son of Cronus spoke, and seized his wife in his arms; and spring flowers rose from the divine earth under them - dewy clover, crocuses and soft, crowded beds of hyacinth - lifting them high off the ground. In this the two lay, cloaked in a beautiful cloud of gold; and glistening dewdrops fell. So the Father nodded peacefully off on top of Mount Gargarus, overcome by sleep and love, his wife in his arms …’.
Here Homer describes not the act but nature’s fertile response to it. However, the bed is there, and one can make what one likes of the glistening dewdrops. Zeus begins by seizing his wife and ends, overcome, with her in his arms. The oblique suggestiveness allows the imagination full rein.
Propertius (c. 26 BC) extends the range of possibilities: O me felicem! o nox mihi candida! et o tu,/Lectule, deliciis facte beate meis!/quam multa apposita narramus verba lucerna,/quantaque sublato lumine rixa fuit!/nam modo nudatis mecum est luctata papillis,/interdum tunica duxit operta moram./illa meos somno lassos patefecit ocellos/ore suo et dixit, “Sicine, lente, iaces?”/quam vario amplexu mutamus bracchia! Quantum/oscula sunt labris nostra morata tuis! ‘What happiness for me! What a rapturous night I had!/And you, o little bed, become my paradise of pleasures!/How much we talked by lamp-light,/What a set-to, when the light was gone!/Now, breasts bared, she wrestled with me,/Now, covering up, induced delay./She opened my drowsy eyelids/with her kisses and said : “Just lying there, sleepy-head?”/How variously, with shifting arms, we embraced!/How my kisses lingered on your lips! …’.
This adds a different dimension, combining the physical with the companionate (that talking by lamp-light) and a strong sense of reciprocal enjoyment.
Petronius Arbiter (c. AD 50?) goes yet further: qualis nox fuit illa, di deaeque,/quam mollis torus. haesimus calentes/et transfudimus hinc et hinc labellis/errantes animas./valete, curae mortales ‘What a night that was, gods and goddesses,/how soft the bed. We clung, hotly, and each to each transfused with our lips/our wandering souls. Farewell, mortal cares.’ Helen Waddell (Medieval Latin Lyrics) evocatively translates: ‘Ah God, ah God, that night when we two clung/So close, our hungry lips/Transfused each into each our hovering souls,/Mortality’s eclipse …’.
This poem plays with the ancient idea that we will never be fulfilled until our souls enter the one we love, and their soul enters us. The other person is, suddenly, as important as the speaker. Further, to the mutual sensual ecstasy is added a new element - the transcendental, the sense that love-making of this intensity raises both participants from the mortal to the divine.
The full spectrum of possibilities is here on offer in poetry over 2,000 years old - from the explicit to the oblique, the exclusive to the mutual, the physical to the transcendental. Far from being ‘dead’, Greek and Roman literature is merely immortal. Which leaves one final thought: what would a Sappho or Sulpicia have made of the subject? Sulpicia’s six brief elegies (appended to Tibullus in the Loeb Catullus/Tibullus edition) are the only extant female poems from the Roman classical period. She describes an affair in which she admits her passion (in one poem she rebukes herself for deserting Cerinthus once in order to conceal it) but avoids the subject of copulation – a step too far?
Sappho (c. 600 BC), ‘the tenth muse’, wrote nine books of poems. That little survives is due to Christian censorship, which suggests there was explicit material there. In one fragment Sappho reminds a departing girl of the times they had, including ‘…and on soft beds …you would satisfy your longing for tender…’; in another, very fragmentary papyrus, there is possibly a reference to a dildo, perhaps meant as an insult. But Sappho’s surviving love poetry is characterized by a lack of competitiveness and greater sense of mutuality than most male love poetry. That suggests her good sex would have been very, very good.