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  • Passion and Love: Anacreontic Song and the Roots of Romantic Lyric
  • Marshall Brown

When Beauty fires the Blood, how Love exalts the Mind.

John Dryden 1

Mon corps est un enfant entêté, mon langage est un adulte très civilisé . . . [My body is a headstrong infant, my language is a very civilized adult]

Roland Barthes 2

My topic is the eighteenth-century love lyric. That may seem a double impossibility. First, there was no lyric poetry in the eighteenth century worth speaking of. Good eighteenth-century poetry was satiric or didactic, bad eighteenth-century poetry was descriptive or odic, but, as Margaret Doody writes, in a generally splendid survey, there was an “eclipse of the lyric” and “lyric itself becomes suspect.” 3 And, second, there was no eighteenth-century love poetry. Love poems are confessional. In the “unlyrical or anti-lyrical culture” of the time, “the genuinely reflective love poem . . . became all but impossible.” 4 If not always as direct as Pushkin’s “I love you,” love poems begin, “I find no peace and all my warr is done” (Wyatt), or “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense” (Keats), or “How do I love thee, let me count the ways?” (Barrett Browning). The eighteenth-century tradition has no such poems to show, good or bad. 5

It’s true, a few years ago someone discovered that Pope had feelings and added “Eloisa to Abelard” to the Norton Anthology. But nobody ever had to discover that Petrarch or Barrett Browning had feelings nor said of Keats (as Hippolyte Taine did about “Eloisa to Abelard”) that his poetry was “the noise of the big drum.” 6 “Passion founded on esteem” is the concluding phrase and the ideal of James Hammond’s rather affecting Love Elegies, and the reality that they mostly portray is passion founded on self-love. 7 A perusal of Prior’s titles holds out equally little hope for spontaneity, where “Cupid in Ambush,” “Venus’s Advice to the Muses,” and “Cupid’s Promise” are mixed in with “The Remedy Worse [End Page 373] than the Disease,” “Husband and Wife,” “The Mice,” and “On a Fart, let in the House of Commons.” To be sure, seventeenth-century poets could be pretty cavalier in dealing with the emotions. But compared with the run-of-the-mill breeziness that pervades the poetry of Prior’s day, in the cavalier poets, as Earl Miner says, “The tone is pure, the social relation sound.” 8 The poems I will be discussing in fact want to be bland. My essay, then, will give an overview of the eighteenth-century ordinary—the sort of insignificant poem any gentleman could write in his moments of leisure. 9 Inspired in part by Pierre Bourdieu’s wonderful studies of the ordinary writers around Flaubert—about which I shall say a bit more later—I want to unearth what the eighteenth-century lyric represses without even appearing to struggle. Eighteenth-century poets, when they weren’t spoofing Blowzelinda, wasted many shining hours singing of Chloe and Strephon. “Wie lang soll jeder rauhe Mund / Im Ton Anakreons dich zu besingen wagen?” [How much longer shall every coarse mouth / Dare to celebrate you in Anacreontic song?] one of them in fact asks Venus, in the very act of joining the chorus. 10 I want to ask what the fuss was about.

I. The Seventeenth-Century Background

The tradition I will be surveying and discussing is that of Anacreontic odes. These are the simple lyrics of wine, women, and song that populate the nether regions of large anthologies of period verse from every European country. Indeed, their vogue lasted for three centuries. Under somewhat mysterious circumstances in the mid-sixteenth century, the great humanist Henri Estienne (Henricus Stephanus) discovered and published a collection of some sixty poems mistakenly attributed to the classical Greek master Anacreon. In fact, genuine texts of Anacreon survive only in almost entirely fragmentary reports, and Estienne’s corpus actually derives from various anonymous post-classical writers. But the Anacreontea, as they are known, were long believed genuine and credited as a major rediscovery. Enormously popular and translated or imitated countless times from the age of...

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