Love, ancient Roman style: Cupids cook up perfume (love potion?) in this fresco fragment from the first century A.D."

Love, ancient Roman style: Cupids cook up perfume (love potion?) in this fresco fragment from the first century A.D.

Love, in all its glory and frustrations, its heady emotions and sheer physicality, comes alive in Classical Love Poetry, a refreshing dip into the verse of the past for National Poetry Month.

Think classical poetry is stale and stuffy? Quite the opposite—these poems are loose and lively, even at times lascivious. Translated into English, they seem entirely contemporary.

Take this poem by Petronius—it’s about 2,000 years old.

Sex is but brief, degrading fun,
And quickly palls when it is done.
So let’s not, like livestock filled with carnal greed,
Rush blind and headlong at the deed;
Such love goes stale, the flame is burned.
But thus, with business evermore adjourned,
Let’s lie together and just kiss.
There’s no toil, no cause for shame in this.
It pleased, it pleases, it long will please;
It ever starts and knows no cease.

That’s all very human. But for many of these poets, there could be no love—nor its pains and pleasures—without the gods. In the book’s introduction, editor Jonathan Williams writes, “The love gods that so fascinated the poets of Greece and Rome invaded the mind, took possession of the body, distracted the senses, and goaded the heart into sexual obsession and physical madness.” Like love itself, “They were an irresistible force of nature, as destructive as they were delightful.”

Propertius wrote:

I was free, and had no mind to share my bed;
But peace broke out and I was snared by Love
Jupiter, your ancient transgressions are forgiven!
Her hair is auburn, her hands are long, her stature
Tall; she bears it worthily of Jupiter’s own sister,
Or like Athena, striding to the Ithican altars….

Apparently, Pat Benetar wasn’t the first to see love as a battlefield. In these poems, the men are ready to engage. Like this short piece from Anacreon:

Bring water, bring wine, boy, and bring us
Wreaths of flowers. I mean to box with Love.

Yet for all their tough talk, they willingly submit. There are poems to women (and men) praising their beauty, their body parts, their likeness to the gods. It’s the kind of book where you might find just the right thing to say to a lover—or a sparring partner.