A Brief History of Erotic Poetry | The Evolution of Eros in Literature
I: Ancient Times
Erotic poetry has been written since as far back as ancient times with ancient Greece, in particular, producing such poets as Erato who was mythologized as the muse of erotic poetry and mimic imitation and represented holding a lyre according to classical Greek writers (Atsma, n. pag.)
Brief History of Erotic Poetry
Another famous Greek poet was Sappho who was known for writing poetry from the island she resided on, the isle of Lesbos. Sappho wrote poems that were primarily focused on the topics of love, desire, and reflection.
She was a prolific poet and lyricist who had women sent to her island to be educated in the arts. Unfortunately, only one poem of hers in its entirety exists today. She was one of the first known female poets (North, n. pag.)
Roman civilization produced the well-known poet, Ovid, who is recognized for Amores (The Loves); Medicamina Faciei (Cosmetics, the Art of Beauty); Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love); and Remedia Amoris (Remedies for Love).
He was a celebrated poet in his time who was exiled by the Roman emperor, Augustine, to Tomis, a Black Sea port on a remote portion of the Roman Empire (Kenney 1).
Another Roman poet was Gaius Valerius Catullus who was known for translating works by Sappho and writing poetry dedicated to his two lovers, Juventius, his boyfriend, and Clodia, a married woman accused of killing her husband during her affair with Catullus.
Clodia’s name in verse was Lesbia and the poems depict his feelings for her, but also how he criticized her immorality and infidelity (Bocquey 1).
Sextus Propertius was a Roman poet whose only surviving work consists of four books of couplets that are love poems dedicated to his mistress of lower social status, Cynthia. He is recognized for allowing his predominantly male audience to have a good glimpse into his romantic relationship with Cynthia (Cook 1).
II: Medieval Period
As time progressed, more poets emerged in Italy including Guido Cavalcanti and Petrarch. Guido Cavalcanti was best known for publishing Canzone (A lady asks me).
Cavalcanti was friends with a significant literary figure, Dante Aligheri, and Dante was said to have thought of him as the father of modern love poetry (Ruud n. pag.)
Petrarch was known for writing love poems dedicated to a woman he allegedly encountered in a church in Avignon on Good Friday of 1327. From 1327 on he began writing poetry dedicated to this woman and his Canzoniere (Scattered Rhyme) represented his great love for the woman in a collection of 366 lyric poems.
What is significant about this work is his use of the sonnet which became more popular after this work was published. His poems focused on the sexual frustration he experienced from never being able to be alone with the woman, Laura, and the emotions he expressed stemming from this great love (Ruud n. pag).
However, Italy did not produce all of the great poets of this period. Geoffrey Chaucer, a British poet best known for publishing The Canterbury Tales, was also known for depicting the love between Troilus and Criseyde in Troilus and Criseyde which was based on Boccaccio’s Teseida.
Chaucer is considered to be the father of English literature and for making English a more accepted language in literature (Ruud n. pag).
During this same period, a Welsh poet, Dafydd ap Gwilym, was making great contributions to the Welsh literary tradition. Dafydd has been credited with writing over a hundred love poems about the pursuit of love, its successes and failures, and the moods of being in love.
Throughout his poems, Dafydd praised women on their body parts and hardly ever on their dress, jewelry, or superficial appearance.
III: Sixteenth Century
He was most famous though for his three-volume epic poem, Orlando Innamorato (Orlando in Love), which depicted Orlando’s passion for Angelica and the love affair between Ruggiero and Rinaldo’s sister Bradamante.
In the mid-1500s, a French poet, Maurice Sceve, emerged into fame while only a student when he allegedly discovered the tomb of Petrarchâ€™s Laura in Avignon.
In the beginning of his literary career, he wrote short descriptive poems known as blasons on anatomy including poems on the eyebrow, a tear, a neck, a forehead, and a sigh.
During this period he met 16-year-old Pernette du Guillet and developed a close friendship with her. Her marriage to another man led Sceve to write his longest work, Delie, Obiect de plus haulte vertu (Delie, a subject of the highest virtue).
Another writer in the mid-1500s, the French poet, Pierre de Ronsard, tried to mask the intense sexual experiences in his early love poems by infusing classical mythology into his poems about his lover, Cassandre Salviati.
He had numerous affairs throughout his life and addressed his poems to multiple partners. He particularly wrote poems about these women including such names as Cassandre, Genevre, Jeanne, Marguerite, Marie, and Helene.
The poems he wrote about Helene were collected in Sonets pour Helene (1578) and were some of his best works as he wrote from the viewpoint of a jaded lover who began to see love as a physical desire according to the â€œEncyclopedia of Renaissance Literature.
In the late 1500s, Sir Philip Sidney produced The Countess of Pembrokeâ€™s Arcadia, a romance in five books dedicated to his muse, his sister, Mary. Arcadia was filled with damsels in distress, knights, subverted gender roles, and sexual freedom.
Sidney was also known for his sequence of sonnets, Astrophel and Stella, which depicted the relationship between Astrophel and Stella.
During this same period, Edmund Spenser, a British poet celebrated for his The Faerie Queene, married Elizabeth Boyle and described his love for her in Amoretti, a series of sonnets.
His writing of love poems continued with the publication of Four Hymns of love and beauty and Prothalamion, a song describing the betrothal of two daughters of the Earl of Spencer.
William Shakespeare was the most renowned poet at the end of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the 17th century.
Shakespeare’s first published work was the narrative poem, Venus and Adonis, which at the time was his most popular work due to the erotic content within the poem. He was, of course, best known for his large body of dramatic works but his poetry is still alluded to in contemporary literature.
In the late 1600s, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, achieved fame for his poetry that specialized in the libertine tradition which according to The Facts on File Companion to British Poetry, 17th, and 18th Centuries is a tradition that reflects the values of the skeptic who questions traditional moral ideas.
He along with other poets was known to use sexual references to express disgust. Libertines were extremely interested in women preferring them over men. Wilmot’s legacy remains in his profane poetry that gave power to women at a time when women were very much considered subordinate to men.
A former British spy, Aphra Benn, was one of the first popular female English poets in the late 17th century. She served as a spy in Holland for England but had to plead the English court for payment. She ended up in debtors prison but a man she had met in Holland, Tom Killigrew, may have paid her way out of prison.
She became fascinated with sex and power from her time engaged in espionage and had many lovers one of which inspired her most widely circulated poems including The Disappointment; The Dream; Love Armed; On Her Loving Two Equally; On the Death of Waller; To the Fair Clarinda; and The Willing Mistress.
Behn was best known in her time for the sexual imagery she incorporated into her writing according to The Facts on File Companion to British Poetry, 17th, and 18th Centuries.
V: Eighteenth Century
When the 18th century began, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was the first significant German writer and poet and was known for writing great lyrical poetry. He was also a researcher who conducted scientific research in evolutionary biology, anatomy, and the theory of color and critically analyzed non-Western literature (Burt n. pag).
His work was widely admired in his time and he contributed several significant works to the literary canon including Faust, Erotic Poems, and The Sorrows of Young Werther.
An Irish poet, Jonathan Swift, widely recognized for the publication of Gulliver’s Travels, wrote about his romantic relationship with the daughter of the steward of a statesman and diplomat, Esther Johnson.
He characterized her as Stella in his poems and she was a significant part of his life until her death. However, she was not the only woman who dominated his life. The second woman, Esther Vanhomrigh, was known as Vanessa in his poems such as Cadenus and Vanessa.
He was known in his time as a man who was involved in many romantic relationships but these two were the most important in his life (Brackett n. pag).
A significant Scottish poet, Robert Burns, wrote heavily about sensuality and love in poems such as A Red, Red Rose; A Fond Kiss and Then We Sever; My Girl, Sheâ€™s Airy; and The Fornicator.
These poems described his relationships with women and the physical aspects of love. He was married to one woman but was known to flirt with a number of other women (Hager n. pag.)
VI: Nineteenth Century
He described his love for his comrades in works such as the classic Leaves of Grass including poems such as From Pent-Up Aching Rivers and As I Lay with My Head in Your Lap. Whitman is recognized for helping to make sex an acceptable subject in mainstream literature (Huff n. pag.)
Charles Baudelaire, a French poet, wrote a number of erotic poems inspired by a serious of romantic affairs. One woman in particular, Jeanne Duval, who he met in 1842, inspired his La chevelure (The Head of Hair).
He also wrote poetry about two other women, Marie Daubrun, an actress, and Apollonie Sabatier, who led a salon for artists and writers. The first collection of his erotic poetry, Les fleurs du Mal was published in 1857 and contained erotic, satanic, and lesbian themes. It was not well received publicly and six poems were banned from public reading (Diamond n. pag.)
George Gordon, Lord Byron, a British poet, first became involved in passionate relationships with other men while being educated at Harrow. He then fell in love with his cousin, Mary Chaworth, who inspired poems such as Hills of Annesley, The Adieu, Stanzas to a Lady on Leaving England, and The Dream.
During this relationship, he began writing to his half-sister, Augusta, who became his lover and wife. He wrote about this relationship in works such as The Bride of Abydos and Parisina, Manfred, and Cain (Bloom n. pag).
Friedrich Holderin was a German poet who wrote several famous poems about a love affair he was engaged in. The woman was often referred to as Diotima in his poems. His poems about Diotima were classical in nature and considered among the greatest German lyrical poems (Diamond n. pag.)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti emerged in the mid-1800s as a British poet whose work was intensely sexual. In poems such as â€œNuptial Sleep and The Stream’s Secret he reflected on sex and passion.
Rossetti was a passionate and romantic lover who was responsible for the suicide of his wife. He was a member of the pre-Raphaelite school of poetry that often included poets who were also painters (Flesch, n. pag.)
VII: Twentieth Century to the Present
As the twentieth century began erotic poetry began to evolve. In the early twentieth century, an Egyptian poet, Constantine Cavafy wrote poems that influenced Greek poets. His poetry was mainly known for its open expression of homosexuality and its themes of love and desire (Diamond, n. pag).
A Japanese poet, Yosano Akiko at the dawn of the twentieth century was one of the first women to have complete work published in Japan.
The collection, Tangled Hair, contained poems about sexual desire and the experience of falling in love. Akiko wrote these poems based on her relationship with the man who would become her husband (Arana, n. pag.)
One of the first major Hispanic poets, Pablo Neruda, published a series of poems about love entitled Veinte poemas de amor y una cancion desperada (Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair) that expressed how he felt about love.
In poems such as â€œI like for you to be still and Tonight I Can Write, Neruda was able to enthrall romantic partners and depicted his own series of love affairs.
Later in his life he published a collection of love sonnets entitled Cien sonetos de amor (One Hundred Love Sonnets depicting his relationship with Matilde Urrutia who became his third wife (Beasley, n. pag.)
Another Hispanic poet from Nicaragua, Giocanda Belli, wrote a poem that according to literary critics was vaginal poetry and shameless pornography.
In poems such as And God Made Me Woman Belli wrote verses that depicted her love for her body. Her poems about love and sex were collected in works such as Sobre la grama (On the Grass; Amor insurrecto (Insurrectional love); and El ojo de la mujer (Woman’s Eye) (Roof, n. pag).
An Argentinian poet, Alfonsina Storni, was known for her poems about passionate love which were contained in works such as La inquietud de rosal (Anxiety of the Rosebush); El dulce dano (Sweet Pain); Irremediablemente (Irremediably); and Languidez (Languor).
She was controversial in her time for having an illegitimate child with a man she had a romantic relationship with (Roof, n. pag.)
The Indian-born British poet, Lawrence Durrell, wrote several volumes of poetry based on the classical Greek tradition that was considered sensual in nature. He described the imagery of love and the senses that lovers felt while together (Stade and Karbiener n. pag.)
A significant Palestinian poet, Mahmud Darwish, wrote poems that alluded to works from ancient Greece, Mesopotamia, pre-Islamic Arabia, Persia, and India. One poem that he wrote, Lesson from the Kama Sutra, depicted erotic love in a sensual manner that was poetic and filled with a sense of desire and yearning (Ghazoul, n. pag.)
The first major Haitian poet, Rene Depestre, depicted women in an erotic manner in poems such as Alleluia pour une femme-jardin (Hallelujah for a Garden-Woman) and Eros dans un train chinois (Eros in a Chinese train).
These poems helped develop the style of poetry referred to as erotic-magical realism (Diamond, n. pag).
As is evident by these poets and their works, erotic poetry has evolved over time from the classical tradition of Ancient Greece to more contemporary works that embrace controversial themes such as homosexuality. These poems are filled with passion and display admiration for the beauty of love.
Early erotic poets may have been considered scandalous in their time but it is clear that they are more widely accepted today especially with the publication of novels like Fifty Shades of Grey.
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