"Then came Corinna in a long loose gown/ Her white neck hid with tresses hanging down"

The great Roman poet Ovid (43BC -17AD) wrote much about erotic themes. Here is one of my favorite poems of his, from the first book of his Amores or “Loves”, a series of short, elegiac poems on the theme of love. In this particular poem, the fifth in the book, Ovid is describing a warm summer afternoon where he enjoys first the sight, and the then body, of his mistress, Corinna. Whether Ovid actually had a mistress named Corinna is a source of debate, she may have nothing more than a product of his literary imagination, but I would like to think that she was more than simply a fictitious figure. Something in this poem tells me she was real.

This poem reminds me of all those wonderful, hot and sweaty summer afternoons I spent in bed enjoying the pleasures of love with a woman. I feel sorry for the all those anal retentive, conservative prudes out there who have never experienced such pleasures. Such is their loss. But as far as the world of erotic love, Ovid captures the atmosphere quite well.

The following is a translation of this poem by the great English poet, Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), who himself was a devote of eros. I am sure he found a kindred spirit in Ovid.

Amores, 1.5.

In summer’s heat, and mid-time of the day,
To rest my limbs, upon a bed I lay,
One window shut, the other open stood,
Which gave such light, as twinkles in a wood,
Like twilight glimpse at setting of the sun,
Or night being past, and yet not day begun.
Such light to shamefast maidens must be shown,
Where they may sport, and seem to be unknown.
Then came Corinna in a long loose gown,
Her white neck hid with tresses hanging down,
Resembling fair Semiramis going to bed,
Or Lais of a thousand lovers sped.
I snatched her gown: being thin, the harm was small,
Yet strived she to be covered therewithal,
And striving thus as one that would be cast,
Betrayed herself, and yielded at the last.
Stark naked as she stood before mine eye,
Not one wen in her body could I spy,
What arms and shoulders did I touch and see,
How apt her breasts were to be pressed by me,
How smooth a belly, under her waist saw I,
How large a leg, and what a lusty thigh?
To leave the rest, all liked me passing well,
I clinged her naked body, down she fell,
Judge you the rest, being tired she bade me kiss.
Jove send me more such afternoons as this.

I enjoy the celebration of pure physical beauty in this poem. Ovid is rejoicing in the natural beauty of this woman, the vision she presents to him. Feminists often complain about the “male gaze” and this poem depicts well the gaze of Ovid over his woman’s body. He is in love with the erotic moment itself in all its forbidden pleasure. He conveys this to us through a series of concrete yet concise images of feminine, erotic beauty.

As the poem opens, she is seen first in the summer mid-afternoon light. We can imagine the scene as Ovid lies on his bed, enjoying the sight of her before an open window, while another window is shut. It is a shadowy world, as Ovid says, much like the pictorial effect of chiaroscuro, the contrast of light and shade, of which many Renaissance artists such as Leonardo were so fond: “Like twilight glimpse at setting of the sun/Or night being past, and yet not day begun”. In this world of shadows, a world that is sensuous and partly secret, she presents herself.

She is depicted as wearing a  “long loose gown/ Her white neck hid with tresses hanging down”. How lovely it is to see a woman dressed so. It is the sort of depictions I often strive for here in the erotic photos I post, the same photos that the conservative religious warriors consider “filth”. And yet here is Ovid describing in words what I enjoy showing through art of photos.

Ovid, like any man would, then snatches her gown off. He does not waste time, but Corinna at first resists, then finally succumbs to Ovid’s desire. When she does, and “stark naked as she stood before my eye”, Ovid delights in detailing her beauty. He finds no fault “wen” in her body; her arms and shoulders are perfect; and then the rest of her is described with sensuous pleasure:

"Stark naked as she stood before mine eye..."

How apt her breasts were to be pressed by me,
How smooth a belly, under her waist saw I,
How large a leg, and what a lusty thigh?

Yes, Ovid enjoys feminine beauty. He then takes her, and “down she fell” and we can imagine what happens from there. The scene “fades to black”, to use a film metaphor from earlier Hollywood, and we are finally left with Ovid’s prayer to Jove (Jupiter) to provide him with many more afternoons. Indeed, fucking on a hot summer afternoon is a most pleasant delight. To ask the gods for many more such delights is more than understandable. In the end the poem is a mixture of both implicit and explicit eroticism. Ovid gives us a detailed picture of a beautiful woman and the erotic power she possesses over him, and he delights in that erotic power, while still leaving us with the mystery of what exactly happened the rest of that afternoon. We can imagine what happened, and that is good enough.

I am sure if the religious fundamentalists had their way such a poem, such a blatant and open encomium to feminine beauty, would be eliminated from the face of the earth. After all, our precious souls cannot be corrupted by such expressions of fleshly desire. Our salvation would be in jeopardy, and they religious fanatics know better than we do what is truly good and right for us. I am sure to many out there, such a poem would be considered “porn”. After all, even in his own time, Ovid’s poetry was somewhat scandalous, and eventually contributed to his banishment from Rome.

Like Ovid, how I do love women...

But as Ovid, and many other poets and artists thought the ages, shows, expressing erotic desires and experiences through art is a fundamental human need. And when done well, good erotic expressions, such as this, can also be great art, transcending time and place to become part of a common heritage that is both delightful and instructive. The Roman prudes of his own day tried to suppress his poetry and reputation, but Ovid had the last laugh, and is remembered today, two thousand years later, for his great poetry while the moralist of his own time are largely forgotten.