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Herrick • Marlowe • Rochester • Jonson • Byron • Keats • Tennyson • Betjeman
Classic Erotic Verse
It is natural that poets should write about erotic love. The erotic urge is amongst the most raw and primeval of human impulses and it would be odd indeed if it were ignored in literature. Rather, the intensity of that emotion, and that of the whole creative process, make this a natural subject for writers.
Erotic love, or lust, differs from other kinds of love in that it possesses a certain degree of physicality—in very early Egyptian and Sumerian literature it is perceived as a sickness. This anthology of classic erotic verse is a celebration of this most irrational yet irrepressible of emotions.
Of course, the word love (derived from the Sanskrit lubh—to desire) has come to denote a variety of meanings in our language. As so often, the Greeks had a word for it—three in fact—but it was eros which indicated sexual love.
As in all literary genres, poetry reflects the time and society in which it is composed. This is perhaps particularly apparent in literature which concerns itself with matters of love, and especially sexual love.
The well-documented Victorian period stands as an obvious example of repression (though often accompanied by hypocrisy) and represents one extreme on the scale of tolerance. The sexual revolution of the 1960s and the liberation it heralded (in matters sexual, as well as self-expression) typifies the other. Thus, nineteenth century prudery can give rise to a slightly amusing use of metaphor which may not always be immediately apparent.
On the other hand, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries produce literature which is far more forthright while often retaining great beauty of language and form—and a seductive tenor. Rochester, for example, is a particularly good example of the sexual freedom and bawdiness which came to symbolise the Restoration.
This collection draws mainly on poetry from the English language though French literature is also represented with poems by Baudelaire, Verlaine and Rimbaud. There is a rich sensuous tradition in the East as well, and we have poems from the Chinese, Sanskrit and Arabic.
By its very nature the poetry of erotic love—perhaps as opposed to romantic love—is introspective and selfish in that it is generally written by the poet for him- or her-self. It has been suggested that true eroticism—the wisp of a veil, the sheen on the skin, the curve of a thigh—is largely a private affair; when it becomes public, it moves into the area of the bawdy. In spite of this there is a thread that runs through much of this verse which is derived from the commonality and passion of human emotion.
This collection has been structured in three ages and, inevitably, there are more poems written from a youthful perspective than from a maturer point of view. Clearly, this does not mean that these poets were young when they wrote these lines, but rather indicates the ideal of young love.
I have included poems which are homosexual in nature, as to omit this area of literature would be to gloss over some of the important and tender erotic verse known to us. And our society no longer demands such censorship.
I have also included several poems which deal with eroticism in mythology. The two Elizabethan poems (by Marlowe and Beaumont) are both heavily influenced by Ovid although they also contain much from their own time and both contain comic as well as erotic elements. I am grateful to David Timson for his suggestions which add greatly to this collection—these he reads himself in this recording.
Notes by Anthony Anderson
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CLASSIC EROTIC VERSE