- Eros at Dusk: Ancient Wedding and Love Poetry by Katherine Wasdin
This book is a beautifully written, well researched, and wide-ranging examination of the shared elements of ancient Greek and Latin wedding and love poetry. As Wasdin explains in her Introduction, nuptial poems eroticize the wedding, although in reality the couple's sexual desires were generally not a relevant factor motivating marriage in the Greco-Roman world, while in turn love poems often evoke nuptials even as they depict desire and relationships outside of marriage. In successive thematic chapters, Wasdin explores how in both genres we find night-time journeys from one doorway to another ("eros at dusk"), the symbol of the evening (and morning) star and poetic refrains, flower and vine imagery, horse, ox, and deer metaphors, heroic paradigms of Helen, Achilles, and Peleus and Thetis, thematization of charis (grace and/or gratification) and assimilation of the poem's actors to blessed divinity, and interacting tropes of persuasion and violence. But Wasdin goes far beyond identifying generic overlaps; she analyzes how wedding and love poetry often treat these common features in different ways, and this book's key contributions are Wasdin's delineation of the distinctive contours of each individual genre and her demonstration of their complex interplay in particular works.
In the introductory chapter, for example, Wasdin observes an important rhetorical difference between the poetry that celebrates the wedding and that celebrating the love affair: nuptial poetry is narrated by an erotically neutral third party—either an individual speaker or a chorus—while love poetry is narrated by the desiring lover, and this suggests the identification of Sappho's Fragment 31 as an erotic song that makes use of nuptial tropes, rather than vice versa. In the last chapters of the book, Wasdin draws another fascinating conclusion about [End Page 375] the different temporalities of wedding and love poetry. The former is static, ignoring past and future in its focus on the singular moment of the nuptials, during which the bride and groom are idealized as perfectly youthful, attractive, and happy—heroic or godlike. The latter, however, is iterative or diachronic, figuring desire as endlessly repeated or tracking the rise and fall of the love affair over time. This distinction emerges first from Wasdin's discussion of how wedding poems approach myth synchronically, invoking Helen, for example, as a paradigmatic bride on the basis of her semi-divinity, beauty, and eroticization as both object and subject of desire while ignoring her conflict-generating serial marriages (and mortal parents); love poems, on the other hand, are more willing to acknowledge less savory parts of mythological biographies.
In this book, Sappho and especially Catullus take starring roles, although Wasdin also examines in detail selections from Greek lyric by male authors, Greek tragedy and epigram, Theocritus, Virgil, Horace, Latin love elegy, Statius, and Claudian, inter alia. Given the variety and chronological scope of the texts considered, I would have appreciated in the Introduction a survey and explanation of the works to be discussed in order to orient the reader both to the book and to the ancient corpora of wedding and love poetry. In addition, the author could have done more to justify her claims of specific allusions across large swaths of space and time, such as Hellenistic allusions to particular fragments of Sappho (and the potential significance of that poet's unique female voice might also have been considered). While Wasdin productively analyzes Greek vase painting and other visual evidence elsewhere in support of her textual arguments, she misses the opportunity to discuss the François Vase in her analysis of Peleus and Thetis' musical wedding as a paradigmatic nuptial myth.
Despite these minor issues, this book is distinguished by Wasdin's sensitive and nuanced close readings that avoid irresponsible generalizing or simplification. It is also extensively footnoted with a very up-to-date bibliography. It is essential reading for those interested in ancient Greek and Roman wedding poetry, which is the axis of the book, and...