Monday, June 23, 2014

Lucretius on Love

A bundle of myrrh is my well-beloved unto me; he shall lie all night betwixt my breasts.
—Song of Songs
Photo credit: Rosie English

It has been at least 2200 years since the Song of Songs celebrated the raw sensuous beauty and passion of sex. That book probably holds the record as the one least referenced in Lutheran church services. Just try to imagine the preacher wearing his Sunday suit and sitting stiffly behind his pulpit, reading, “Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits” (4:16). Or this (7:6):

How fair and how pleasant art thou, O love, for delights!

This thy stature is like to a palm tree,

and thy breasts to clusters of grapes.

I said, I will go up to the palm tree,

I will take hold of the boughs thereof:

Now also thy breasts shall be as clusters of the vine,

and the smell of thy nose like apples;

and the roof of thy mouth like the best wine for my beloved,

that goeth down sweetly,

causing the lips of those that are asleep to speak.

Given how much Christianity has wielded the Bible (the same one in which the Song of Songs appears, oddly, like a bikini on an Amish grandmother) to supress human sexuality, it is worthwhile to stop and reconsider what a normal and natural part of life sex really is. We are all of us the warm wet products of some sexual union decades ago, between two participants who each were the products of an earlier one. It goes all the way back to the grunted cave couplings of prehistoric hominids on furs by firelight, and beyond.

Bud Burst  [Flickr page]

Over its centuries of dominance, the church has sown in our society a minefield of hair-trigger offense that separate us from acceptance and expression of the very act that formed us. In the outermost reaches of fundamentalism, it is sinful for a young person to even linger on thoughts about how this primal drive might at last be satisfied. The explosions of offense get louder if the poor sinner traverses further into the minefield: sex without children in mind, masturbation, sex before marriage, sex with someone of your own gender.

To that we can add a further boundary, sex outside marriage. It is one that most of society, myself included, still considers a valid taboo. Frankly, cheating is just a deceptive act of selfishness. But even extramarital sex has been a nuanced topic: What if, for example, all parties are consenting? I personally can’t imagine such an arrangement, but who am I to judge? In the early 1500s, someone more radical than myself about the idea suggested this course of discussion for a sexually dissatisfied wife:

Look, my dear husband, you are unable to fulfill your conjugal duty toward me; you have cheated me out of my maidenhood and even imperiled my honor and my soul’s salvation; in the sight of God there is no real marriage between us. Grant me the privilege of contracting a secret marriage with your brother or closest relative, and you retain the title of husband so that your property will not fall to strangers. Consent to being betrayed voluntarily by me, as you have betrayed me without my consent.

The writer was Martin Luther.

Any proper Lutherans shocked by this or the Song of Songs, those who consider gay marriage to be a sure sign that the End of Times is upon us at last, may not be aware of just how much sex has been going on throughout human existence, and how varied it has been. I could mention the exploits of Enkidu in The Epic of Gilgamesh some four thousand years ago, or the incest and prostitution in Genesis, or the misogynist pornography of Ezekiel 23. Perhaps in future essays I will. But for this one, I want to turn to one writer from antiquity with a remarkably free mind: Lucretius.

He came from a time and place where it was “taken for granted that male sexual desire may be for either a younger male or a female.” So says Ronald Melville in a footnote to this passage Lucretius wrote sometime in the first century B.C., in the secular masterpiece On the Nature of Things:

Thus, therefore, he, who feels the fiery dart

Of strong desire transfix his amorous heart,

Whether some beauteous boy’s alluring face,

Or lovelier maid, with unresisting grace,

From her each part the winged arrow sends,

From whence he first was struck he thither tends;

Restless he roams, impatient to be freed,

And eager to inject the sprightly seed;

For fierce desire does all his mind employ,

And ardent love assures approaching joy.

Pretty candid stuff, for both the ancient philosopher poet as well as the bold translator of these lines and the ones that follow, John Dryden [1631-1700]. I am awed and inspired by what I’ve been discovering in Lucretius, and am happy to finally be thinking for myself about issues where the proper opinions were once prepackaged for me. But I’m certainly glad we’ve moved past some of the things he and his culture accepted, like “Beautious boy,” or, considering the difference in age and power that he likely had in mind, “lovelier maid.” Yuck.

Book IV of On the Nature of Things has a lot more sordid stuff in it, and we’ll see a bit more of that in a minute. It was so scandalous to the prim eyes of Oxford University Press in 1913 that their edition of The Poems of John Dryden omitted his translation of the entire fourth book, offering only the curt footnote, “It is impossible to reprint this piece.”1

Come Hither  [Flickr page]

After acknowledging nature’s raw power, Lucretius advises his (presumably male) readers to find sexual outlets that don’t lead to infatuation and commitment.

But strive those pleasing phantoms to remove,

And shun the aërial images of love,

That feed the flame: when one molests thy mind,

Discharge thy loins on all the leaky kind;2

For that’s a wiser way, than to restrain

Within thy swelling nerves that hoard of pain.

Sex without love, how convenient—for the man. As Melville translates him, “by avoiding love you need not miss / The fruits that Venus offers, but instead / You may take the goods without the penalty.” Women readers may be forgiven for dismissing Lucretius immediately as just another jerk of a man. Some things never change.

But they might wish to hear him out just a bit longer. Lucretius goes on to describe, in graphic detail that will make even modern readers blush a bit, the grasping passion of lovesick sex. He means it as a warning to his fellow commitment-phobic, privileged freemen of ancient Rome. But to me it’s the good part, ironically a fine tribute to the best moments we can hope to attain from a dedicated love match, something two life partners can look back on with smiles even when the candle burns lower.

So I leave you, now, to read some steamy stuff from antiquity. As you do so (and admit it, you will), keep in mind just how remarkable it is: Penned a hundred years before Christ, a thousand years before the long shadow of the Dark Ages, 1800 years before prim and starched Victorian England! And during most of the intervening centuries between when Lucretius scratched his Latin onto some scroll now disintegrated into the atoms he taught of, these sensuous lines were preserved, copy by painstaking copy at the hand of monks whose cloistered lives were as far from this experience as one might imagine. Officially and publicly, at least.

When love its utmost vigour does employ,

Even then ‘tis but a restless wandering joy;

Nor knows the lover in that wild excess,

With hands or eyes,

what first he would possess;

But strains at all, and,

fastening where he strains,

Too closely presses with his frantic pains;

With biting kisses hurts the twining fair,

Which shows his joys imperfect, insincere:

For, stung with inward rage,

he flings around,

And strives to avenge the smart

on that which gave the wound.

But love those eager bitings does restrain,

And mingling pleasure mollifies the pain.

For ardent hope still flatters anxious grief,

And sends him to his foe to seek relief:

Which yet the nature of the thing denies;

For love, and love alone of all our joys,

By full possession does but fan the fire;

The more we still enjoy,

the more we still desire.

Rose  [Flickr page]

Nature for meat and drink provides a space,

And, when received,

they fill their certain place;

Hence thirst and hunger may be satisfied,

But this repletion is to love denied:

Form, feature, colour, whatsoe’er delight

Provokes the lover’s endless appetite,

These fill no space,

nor can we thence remove

With lips, or hands,

or all our instruments of love:

In our deluded grasp we nothing find,

But thin aërial shapes,

that fleet before the mind.

As he, who in a dream with drought is cursed,

And finds no real drink to quench his thirst,

Runs to imagined lakes his heat to steep,

And vainly swills and labours in his sleep;

So love with phantoms cheats our longing eyes,

Which hourly seeing never satisfies:

Our hands pull nothing

from the parts they strain,

But wander o’er the lovely limbs in vain.

Nor when the youthful pair more closely join,

When hands in hands they lock,

and thighs in thighs they twine,

Just in the raging foam of full desire,

When both press on, both murmur,

both expire,

They gripe, they squeeze,

their humid tongues they dart,

As each would force their way

to the other’s heart:

In vain; they only cruise about the coast;

For bodies cannot pierce,

nor be in bodies lost,

As sure they strive to be,

when both engage

In that tumultuous momentary rage;

So tangled in the nets of love they lie,

Till man dissolves in that excess of joy.

Then, when the gathered bag has burst its way,

And ebbing tides the slackened nerves betray,

A pause ensues; and nature nods awhile,

Till with recruited rage new spirits boil;

And then the same vain violence returns,

With flames renewed the erected furnace burns…3

Thanks to Rosie English for permission to use her outstanding photograph, “Evening Swimmerettes” of two beachgoers. The other photos are my own: Click on individual ones to enlarge, or check out my most “interesting” photos on Flickr. All are Copyright © 2013-14 Edwin A. Suominen. You may freely use them (not Rosie’s, at least not without her permission) for non-commercial purposes, with attribution, under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.


  1. See 

  2. Dryden’s phrase “leaky kind” Ronald Melville translates as “other bodies,” i.e., those of the promiscuous: “Reject, and turn the mind away, and throw / The pent-up fluid into other bodies, / And let it go, not with one single love / Straitjacketed, not storing in your heart / The certainty of endless cares and pain.” 

  3. John Dryden, trans., “The Latter Part of the Fourth Book of Lucretius Concerning the Nature of Love.” In John Dryden: The Complete Poetical Works (Annotated), N. John McArthur, ed.