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CHAPTER II.

LOVES

OF

THE

CLASSIC POETS.

I am not sufficiently an antiquarian or scholar, to trace the muses “ upward to their spring,” neither is there occasion to seek our first examples of poetical loves in the days of fables and of demi-gods; or in those pastoral ages when shepherds were kings and poets: the loves of Or. pheus and Eurydice are a little too shadowy, and those of the royal Solomon rather too mixed and too mystical for our purpose.—To descend then at once to the classical ages of antiquity.

It must be allowed, that as far as women are concerned, we have not much reason to regard them with reverence. The fragments of the amatory poetry of the Greeks, which have been preserved to our times, show too plainly in what light we were then regarded; and graceful and exquisite as many of them are, they bear about them the taint of degraded morals and manners, and are utterly destitute of that exalted sentiment of respect and tenderness for woman, either individually or as a sex, which alone can give them value in our eyes.

I must leave it then to learned commentators to explore and elucidate the loves of Sappho and Anacreon. To us unlearned women they shine out through the long lapse of ages, bright names, and little else; a kind of half-real,half-ideal impersonations of love and song; the one enveloped in “a fair luminous cloud,” the other “ veiled in shadowing roses;” and thus veiled and thus shadowed, by all accounts, they had better remain.

The same remark, with the same reservation, applies to the Latin poets. They wrote beautiful verses, admirable for their harmony, elegance, and perspicuity of expression ;

and are studied as models of style in a language, the knowledge of which, as far as these poets are concerned, were best confined to the other sex. They lived in a corrupted age, and their pages are deeply stained with its licentiousness; they inspire no sympathy for their love, no interest, no respect for the objects of it. How, indeed, should that be possible, when their mistresses, even according to the lover's painting, were all either perfectly insipid, or utterly abandoned and odious ?* Ovid, he who has revealed to mortal ears “all the soft scandal of the laughing sky,” and whose gallantry has become proverbial, represents himself as so incensed by the public and shameless infidelities of his Corinna, that he treats her with the unmanly brutality of some street ruffian;-in plain language, he beats her. They are then reconciled, and again there are quarrels, coarse reproaches, and mutual blows. At length the lady, as might be expected from such tuition, becoming more and more abandoned, this delicate and poetical lover requests, as a last favour, that she will, for the future, take some trouble to deceive him more effectually; and the fair one, can she do less ? kindly consents!

Cynthia, the mistress of Propertius, gets tipsy, overturns the supper table, and throws the cups at her lover's head; he is delighted with her playfulness: she leaves bim to follow the camp with a soldier; he weeps and faments : she returns to him again, and he is enchanted with her amiable condescension. Her excesses are such, that he is reduced to blush for her and for himself; and he confesses that he is become, for her sake, the laughing-stock of all Rome. Cynthia is the only one of these classical loves who seems to have possessed any mental accomplishments. The poet praises, incidentally, her talents for music and poetry; but not as if they added to her charms or enhanced her value in his estimation. The Lesbiat of Catullus,

* I need scarcely observe, that the following sketch of the lyrical poets of Rome is abridged from the analysis of their works, in Ginguene's His loire Litéraire, vol. iii. + Clodia, the wife of Quintus Metellus Celer,

whose eyes were red with weeping the loss of her favourite sparrow, crowned a life of the most flagitious excesses by poisoning her husband. Of the various ladies celebrated by Horace and Tibullus, it would really be difficult to discover which was most worthless, venal, and profligate. These were the refined loves of the classic poets.

*

The passion they celebrated never seems to have inspired one ennobling or generous sentiment, nor to have lifted them for one moment above the grossest selfishness. They had no scruple in exhibiting their mistresses to our eyes, as doubtless they appeared in their own, degraded by every vice, and in every sense contemptible; beings, not only beyond the pale of our sympathy, but of our toleration. Throughout their works, virtue appears a mere jest: Love stripped of his divinity, even by those who first deified him, is what we disdain to call by that name; sentiment, as we now understand the word, that is, the union of fervent love with reverence and delicacy towards its object,-a thing unknown and unheard of,—and all is “ of the earth, earthy.".

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It is for women I write; the fair, pure-hearted, delicateminded, and unclassical reader will recollect that I do not presume to speak of these poets critically, being neither critic nor scholar; but merely with a reference to my subject, and with a reference to my sex. As monuments of the language and literature of a great and polished people, rich with a thousand beauties of thought and of style, doubtless they have their value and their merit: but as monuments also of a state of morals inconceivably gross and corrupt; of the condition of women degraded by their own vices, the vices and tyranny of the other sex, and the prevalence of the Epicurean philosophy, the tendency of which, (however disguised by rhetoric,) was ever to lower the tone of the mind; considered in this point of view, they might as well have all burned together in that vast bonfire of love-poetry which the Doctors of the Church

raised at Constantinople:-- what a flame it must have made !*

* “J'ai oui dire dans mon enfance à Demetrius Chalcondyle, homme tres instruit de tout ce qui regarde la Grèce, qui les Prétres avaient eu assez d'influence sur les Empereurs de Constantinople, pour les engager à bruler les ouvrages de pleusieurs anciens poëtes Grecs, et en particulier de ceux qui parlaient des amours, &c. *** Ces prêtres, sans doute, mon. trèrent une malveillance honteuse envers les anciens poëtes; mais ils donnerent une grande preuve d'integrite, de probité, et de religion."

ALCYONIUS. This sentiment is put into the mouth of Leo X. at a time when the mania of classical learning was at its height.-See Roscoe, (Leo X.,) and Ginguené.

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The irruptions of the northern nations, among whom our sex was far better appreciated than among the polished Greeks and Romans; the rise of Christianity, and the institution of chivalry, by changing the moral condition of women, gave also a totally different character to the homage addressed to them. It was in the ages called gothic and barbarous,—in that era of high feelings and fierce passions,- of love, war, and wild adventure, that the sex began to take their true station in society. From the midst of ignorance, superstition, and ferosity, sprung up that enthusiasm, that exaggeration of sentiment, that serious, passionate, and imaginative adoration of women, which has since, indeed, degenerated into mere gallantry, but was the very fountain of all that is most elevated and elegant in modern poetry, and most graceful and refined in modern manners.

The amatory poetry of Provence had the same source with the national poetry of Spain; both were derived from the Arabians. To them we trace not only the use of rhyme, and the various forms of stanzas employed by the early lyric poets, but by a strange revolution, it was from the East, where women are now held in seclusion, as mere soulless slaves of the passions and caprices of their masters, that the sentimental devotion paid to our sex in the chivalrous ages was derived.* The poetry of the Troubadours kept alive and enhanced the tone of feeling on which it was founded; it was cause and effect re-acting

* Sismundi--Littérature du Midi.

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