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A new poetic speaker emerged in Greece around the 7th century BCE. Something different was afoot, leading poetry away from grand Homeric visions of the past and towards the immediate and intense expression of amatory experience. Why did this happen, and why did this eventually fall out of favour? These questions could also be asked of peri-Augustan Rome, which saw a massive outpouring of Latin love elegy in a short period of time. We tend to think of love poetry as some universal thing—love makes poets of us all, the philosopher said—but love elegy was a project for a committed and perverse few, writing in times of political turbulence and social change.

Yet we hold fast to the idea that love poetry is universal. Our concepts of love, our romantic scenarios, romance itself, all seem to derive from poetry: love is blind, crazy, a battlefield, a triangle; lovers are young, fools, slaves; beloveds are forbidden, unattainable; kisses are stolen; dawn cruelly breaks. It all sounds indubitable, but the link between poetry and love is not certain. Catullus said the lover is on fire and speaks. But why should she speak? What’s poetry got to do with it?

This summer we’ll be sweatin’ to the classics with the lyrics of Sappho and the love elegies of Ovid. We will think about this poetry in its place: how do the intimate and luxurious lyrics of Sappho relate to the rise of the Greek city-state; how do Ovid’s cynical, urbane poems materialise the tail-end of the elegiac project, which roughly coincides with the end of the Republic? Turning our attention to a selection of figures and tropes in the poems, we will witness wild assertions about how language locates us in love, and, importantly, the pleasures this affords. Together, we will find ways to think about what these poets made language do, and how this making bears on love and poetry today.

Course Schedule

The time of love. Ancient Greek lyric hurled its audience out of the distant past and into the here and now. What could this new time accommodate? This session introduces the life and lyric of Sappho, with a special focus on the bittersweet time of the early Greek lyricists

  • CORE READING: Sappho, Fragments 1, 16 and 130 (trans. Anne Carson)
  • ADDITIONAL READING: Anne Burnett, ‘Desire and Memory (Sappho Frag. 94),’ Classical Philology 74.1 (1979), 16-27.

The geometry of pleasure. This session develops Sappho’s radical mapping of desire and gratification. Situations are seemingly populated by romantic rivals, but effectively devoid of rivalry. What are the vertices of her love triangles? And what is going on in the lover’s mind, the principal site of lyric action?

  • ADDITIONAL READING: Anne Carson, Eros, the Bittersweet (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986)
  • CORE READING: Sappho, Fragments 22, 31, 94 (trans. Aaron Poochigian)

The desultor amoris. This session introduces the love-worn, cynical and insincere protagonist of late Roman elegy, Ovid’s Naso. Why is this strangely resigned fellow so committed to the elevation of the minor god, Cupid, and what does love have to do with Rome and power?

  • FURTHER READING: Rebecca Armstrong, Ovid and His Love Poetry (London: Duckworth, 2005)
  • CORE READING: Ovid, Ars Amatoria, Book 1; Ovid, Amores (trans. Peter Green)

Desire for discourse. This session focuses on the curious treatment of paraclausithyron in the Amores, introducing the idea of Naso’s authorial perversion, his logophilia. What is writing to the lover? What if writing was not a substitute for sex, but a form of sex? 

  • FURTHER READING: Ellen Oliensis, Loving Writing/Ovid’s Amores (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2019)
  • CORE READING: Ovid, Amores 1.1, 1.6, 2.4 (trans. Peter Green)

After that I loathe, I runne. This session shuttles past Petrarch (who exorcised the desultor from lyric poetry), pauses at Shakespeare (who reanimated, aged and hardened him in the Sonnets) and finally lands in the late 20th century to think about love poetry in our time. What resemblance does it bear to those original bursts of classical love poetry? Who is the lover today, and what do they do in the love-poetry connection?

  • CORE READING: William Shakespeare, Sonnets 135, 146; Anne Carson, ‘The Glass Essay’
  • FURTHER READING: M. L. Stapleton, ‘ “After that I loathe, I runne”: Shakespeare’s Sonnets 127-54 and Marlowe’s All Ovid’s Elegies