Love and Desire in ancient Greece--World Poetry Project
There is something in the modern concept of love that is too rarefied, too ideal, and therefore false. It is too much image, too little flesh and blood, so that those who operate as if it represents the reality of love achievable in life are doomed to disappointment. the best modern love poetry departs from the imagined. Even the best of the old does so, as in Shakespeare's sonnet 130:
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
What happened to love that brought us to this? In part I blame the middle ages, when the perfect love, true love, was divorced from bodies, from humans altogether, and made to participate in an allegory that celebrated the spirit to the detriment of the flesh. All mortal life and affection was inferior, a corrupted analog of the truth, useful insofar as it protected people from further, even more deleterious vices, but sinful, nonetheless. Petrarch's sonnets may be beautiful, but they celebrate a woman untouched by him, removed from the mortal world and all merely human connections: she is a perfect container for all that is not her real self. Dante's Beatrice suffers from the same perfection. It is only in ribald, vulgar, and consciously vulgar at that, works that women have flesh of their own and are touched by men: Chaucer's wife of Bath and the chansons of Villon, for example. There was holy love and unholy sex, and in between them both the hard-headed business matter of marriage, and love and sex could not meet without complex poetic aerobatics to disguise the flesh.
When love imperfect returned to the world, when we began to promote marriage as being less about property than it was about emotional attachment and desire, it still suffered from its medieval past. The object of one's affections, husband or wife, remained an ideal from which real wives and husbands departed, inevitably and always to the detriment of the real. Wives were never as docile or submissive as they were supposed to be; the home was not as free from conflict as the Victorian ideal home should have been. Husbands were never as strong, brave, and civilized as they were supposed to be. Love lived and love imagined remained divorced, one destroying the other and bringing forth bitterness and regret.
However, love does include the flesh. Physical attraction and contact are vital to it, even though they are not the whole of it and love well-tended outlasts the beauty of youth. Largely, men do not marry women they find truly ugly, nor women men who repel them. Even though we treasure other qualities in addition to the physical, and these other qualities may, indeed, become more important to us over time, the first moments of contact between the sexes, or between partners of the same sex, is suspended on a thread of beauty. My wife and I have both aged, and neither of us is as beautiful today as we were when we first met, yet day to day I do not see her as an aging woman, but as a wondrous, sometimes exasperating, partner in a life we create together, tempered by our mutual strengths and weaknesses. Most of the time, the fact of her age is invisible to me and it does not appear to me that she has ever looked different, or rather, when I look at her, her present self carries also that beauty it bore ten years and more ago.
The ancient Greeks, too, wrote of love, both holy and profane. The had less severity than the Christian middle ages regarding the profane, and their holy love seems to have something of the profane in it. We can expect no less from a culture that so often equated virtue and beauty, that feared decay so deeply, and that so joyfully participated in rituals of sexual fertility which today we find pornographic, ridiculous, or both. We do not often consciously think of the rites surrounding Priapos and of Aristotle within the same cultural space, but they did share that space and Aristotle would have been unashamed of Priapos. The power of the sexual drive for good and for ill was not an invention of Dr. Freud, and the ancient Greeks I think would be rather amused by our inability to honestly speak of it without hiding behind euphemisms or strained vulgarity.
Let's move on to the poets, then. We begin with Meleager (c.140-70 BCE). Meleagar's subject is desire, for women and for boys. He is haunted by the beauty of Alexis in "At 12 o'clock in the afternoon", translated by Peter Whigham, as are all selections from Meleagar in World Poetry . The poet recalls the exact moment at which he saw this boy in the street:
Summer had all but brought the fruit
to its perilous end:
& the summer sun & that boy's look
did their work on me.
Decay haunts beauty: beauty haunts Meleagar. It is the Alexis of this single noon in summer that ignites his passion and takes over his sleep. It is a perfection of the body at a single moment in time, fragile and transient, but in and of itself without flaw. It is the future of decay and weakness that haunts the ancient Greek as much, or even more, than it is the prospect of death.
Others feel sleep as feathered rest;
mine but in flame refigures
your image lit in me.
When I was a very young man, before I met my wife, I saw a woman in a doorway adjusting the strap on her left shoe. She was in that moment perfectly framed and lit. She was in that moment, with her hair falling over one shoulder and her body somehow graceful and fluid despite the awkward angles of the standing and adjusting, I never knew her name, nor saw her again. I do not know if she retained that beauty in other frame, but in that single moment she was Beauty in a doorway.
Meleagar also writes of satisfied desire in "I was thirsty". Here he is sated, served by Antiochus. He imagines Zeus under Hera's "watchful eye" similarly served by Ganymede:
from soul to soul
as those vast draughts
pours now for me!
Desire, like thirst, is a need, and one satisfied by service. Meleagar and Zeus are, moreover, in being served by the boys who have just recently satisfied them, adding to their passions satisfaction the spice of the illicit and the secret. Desire is made more flavorful by crime, by a secret shared with no one else, with the continuing risk of discovery.
Meleagar's last selection, "White violets flower" celebrates a woman's beauty in terms that will be recognized by all readers of poetry. This woman's beauty is such that nature is outdone:
o hills o fields your laughter rings
falsely through the flowered spring
for she outshines your garlanding.
Antipater of Sidon (c. 130 BCE) and Philodemus (110-40 BCE) take us from love and beauty to the celebration of sex. Antipater does so in writing of another poet, Anacreon:
This is Anacreon's grave. Here lie
the shreds of his exuberant lust,
but hints of perfume linger by
his gravestone still, as if he must
have chosen for his last retreat
a place perpetually on heat.
[tr. Robin Skelton]
Philodemus writes of his own pursuits. Again, what is to be noted is the openness of the lyrics, their lack of shame. This lack of shame allows health and vitality to inhabit rather risque situations. For example, in "Demo and Thermion both slay me", as translated by George Economou, Philodemus debates the attractions of a professional and a virgin, and finds in favor of the virgin for his mystery and untouchability. In "Make the bedlamp tipsy with oil", translated by James Laughlin, we are with Philodemus at the moment of success, retreating to bed with a lover:
…There are times when
The god Eros wants no living witness.
Close the door tight. Then let the
Bed, the lovers' friends, teach us
The rest of Aphrodite's secrets.
Last, we have Paulus Silentarius, (575 CE), translated by Dudley Fitts, and the poem, "Tantalus". Tantalus in Greek mythology was condemned to an afterlife of unsatisfied desire, fruit forever out of reach. Silentarius writes of that very frustrating, difficult woman, the tease. He lies with her "mouth to mouth", his hands on her breasts, but is denied further access.
She denies me her bed. Half of her body to Love
She has given, half to Prudence:
I die between.
Early efforts at romance, at least mine, had their share of such frustration. I did not die of it, of course, but at the time it felt a close thing. With this we will leave the Greeks with their lovers and desires to address in my next World Poetry Project installment, and the last on ancient Greece, the subject of death.