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The Classical Period Of Love Poems English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3720 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The humanist concept of recapturing the wisdom and teachings of the 'Golden Age' of the classical period heavily influenced the writings of English Renaissance. Those educated in the humanities of grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry and moral philosophy would have been engrossed in the translation and imitating of many classical poets of the antiquity; including Virgil, Homer and Ovid. This essay will aim to assess the extent to which renaissance love poems could be considered 'Ovidian'; that being based around the techniques, lessons and styles posed by the poet, Publius Ovidius Naso. In particular, focus will be paid to influence within renaissance epyllions, such as Shakespeare's, Venus & Adonis, [1] and Marlowe's, Hero & Leander, [2] as well as on Marvell's The Nymph Complaining for the Death of her Fawn. [3] The tradition of translation and imitation, which was the essence behind the ideals of the Renaissance, meant that the poems written during this period were flooded with the styles and ideas belonging to the classical greats. This does not make them purely Ovidian, but an interpretation formed through an amalgamation of replications that have been shaped by many scholars alongside the addition of contemporary issues specific to the poets' era.

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Francis Mere believed there to be two forms of relationship between English Renaissance poets and their classical predecessors; specifically imitation and the broadly paradigmatic. [4] He argued that many of the Renaissance poets, especially Shakespeare, used Ovid, not to imitate perfectly but as a passage way to create their own original literary style, as, 'imitation by itself is not sufficient; invention came first and is all-important'. [5] Shakespeare's epyllion, Venus and Adonis, begins with an epigraph of Latin lines taken from Ovid's, Amores (I. XV. L.35-36), which roughly translate to, 'Let the mob admire base things; may Golden Apollo serve me, full goblets from the Castilian Fount'. [6] A part from the title itself, this is a clear indication that what is to follow is going to have a heavy Ovidian influence. It is a sort of mini dedication to Ovid and Shakespeare's way of indicating that the classical poet provides him with a route to the 'Castilian Spring' - his source of literary creativeness.

Considered as one of the most important and influential works of literature, Ovid's, Metamorphoses, has been described by critics such as Milowicki et al. as being not only the, 'favourite classical poem', [7] of the English Renaissance, but as an 'enduring structural code', [8] from which writers should use as a paradigm for supreme poetic eloquence. [9] In other words it was seen as a highly important source that was valued for its applicability to events and issues of their present day. These writers would have first encountered Ovid's works at grammar school, where the extensive reading and memorising of, Metamorphoses, was almost universally required. [10] The principal translation available at these schools for Shakespeare and Marlowe was Arthur Golding's, Ovid's Metamorphoses, [11] which was used in conjunction with their own translations and interpretations, and for Marvell, the translated version by Wye Saltonstall, amongst others. It is not, therefore, an exaggeration to suggest that some of Shakespeare, Marlowe and Marvell's first lessons in the art of poetry would have been in the imitation of Ovid, [12] which explains why their poetry can be seen as very ovidian in style. The Metamrphoses, as well as other Ovidian poems, allowed renaissance poets to draw upon a diverse range of subjects that could inspire and shape their own literature. Such Ovidian subjects as, 'solipsistic rapists, lamenting victims, indifferent adolescents and aggressive female wooers', [13] provided a great platform that opened many doors into the realms of poetic exploration. It is therefore not surprising that many of these themes, characters and styles found in Metamorphoses, are also apparent in the Renaissance literature of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Marvell and their contemporaries. Shakespeare's, Venus & Adonis, is based on the tenth book of the Metamorphoses, and describes the myth of Venus' unrequited and relentless pursuit of the young Adonis; which ultimately ends with his tragic death. Hero and Leander, whilst based on the myth of the tragic lovers by the Alexandrian poet, Musaeus, is very Ovidian in the technique and themes raised within the poem. Marvell's complaint poem is based on Ovid's Heroides; the poem that formed the genre of the female complaint in Renaissance literature.

Meres stated that, 'the sweete wittie soule of Ovid lives in mellifluous & hony-tongued Shakespeare'. [14] What he is suggesting by this is that Shakespeare is a metamorphosis, or reincarnation, of Ovid in Elizabethan England. This idea can be supported through close analysis of the Shakespeare's works, as many of his poems concerning the, truly ovidian, concept of love are littered with the tones and styles of his roman precursor. For instance, it has, and can be, plausibly argued that Ovid's fifteenth book of the Metamorphoses, is the 'prime paradigma' [15] for his sonnets; although sonnets are a very Petrarchan form and Ovid would not have been familiar with this genre, it is therefore not imitative of him but influenced by him. Within the Metamorphoses, Ovid's character, Pythagoras, teaches the concept of metempsychosis, or the idea of the soul being reincarnated. He states that, 'Everything changes, nothing dies: the spirit wanders, arriving here or there, and occupying whatever body it pleases,… but is never destroyed'. [16] This idea is captured in the first line of Sonnet #1; 'From fairest creatures we desire increase, / That thereby beauty's rose may never die, / But as riper should by time decease, / His tender heir might bear his memory'. [17] The concept of immortality is a clear motif in the sonnets and poems of Shakespeare but also in Rennaisance love poetry as a genre. In Hero & Leander, Leander states, 'The richest corne dies, if it be not reapt, // beauty alone is lost, too warily kept', [18] in his somewhat successful persuasion for Hero to sleep with him. In Marvell's, The Nymph Complaining for the Death of her Faun, the Nymph muses upon the new resting place of the dying Fawn's sprit which has, 'vanished to, / Whither the swans and turtles go;/ In fair Elysium'. [19] The Nymph then endeavours to make her and the Fawn immortal through becoming an 'unhappy statue…of purest alabaster made', [20] thereby making her suffering and her complaint known forever.

This theme of immortality is perpetuated by the fact that Ovid's characters' experiences beg for tragic endings, but they do not die, instead they go through this metempsychosis and become animals, plants etc. This idea is continued into Venus and Adonis but with slight differences. Adonis' mother, Myrrha, is transformed into a tree at the end of Ovid's Book Fourteen and therefore he is born the, 'child of a tree'; [21] Shakespeare literally mirrors this at the end of his epyllion, as he has Adonis, 'give birth', to a flower from, 'his blood that on the ground lay spilled', [22] rather than literally transform into a flower. Shakespeare's interpretation of immorality focuses more upon the idea that the 'tender heir might bear his memory', [23] than the ovidian idea of literal transformation at death. Shakespeare's immortality is achieved through the poems and plays he gives life to: they are his 'heirs'. Similarly, Marlowe gives his lovers in, Hero and Leander, literary immortality. Whilst whether the epyllion is finished or if there is 'Desunt nonnulla', is to this day a contested subject. If the opinion that Marlowe intended the poem to finish at this point is taken, the fact that the poem ends 'in medias res', [24] means that the lovers do not experience their tragic fate as the myth dictates, but are left after the consummation of their love forever more. Supporting the argument for this being the intended and complete version of the poem is the fact that there is an ovidian metamorphosis at the end. Instead of the lovers 'dying' and being reincarnated, Marlowe ends the second sestiad with the naturally occurring metamorphosis of night to day. What these poets are doing through their own creations are taking the ovidian concepts given to them through the, Metamorphoses etc. and twisting the existing interpretations to craft deeper, and in some cases more original, constructs.

Through his translation of, Metamorphoses, Arthur Golding's interpretation of Ovid was that the main argument being depicted throughout his poems was the idea that if you give you're your passion and desire, it will make you suffer. In the fourteenth book of Metamorphoses Ovid states that, 'Nature…permits queer customs and disgusting habits', [25] and it would appear that those who give in to this naturally occurring desire do end up in rather tragic situations of torment, or even death. However, the interpretations given by the renaissance poets add a caveat to this theory. What they suggest through their versions is that, seemingly however you behave, love will make you suffer. Whilst Hero embraces her desire and love for Leander, and suffers emotionally because of it, in the myth they both die. In Shakespeare's version of Venus and Adonis, Adonis rejects Venus' advances when he, 'winks and turns his lips another way', [26] yet he still ends up dead. Likewise, the Nymph laments on, 'the love of false and cruel men', [27] and unrequited desire but does not act upon her feelings, yet still ends up suffering over the loss of her Fawn; the only token of her love for Sylvio. These further explorations of the established interpretations of ovidian literature therefore add original elements to the Elizabethan writers.

The concept of desire is further developed through the exploration of gender and sexuality. These themes are abundant in Ovid's poems and it reveals a seeming great delight to draw upon the comparisons of the human physiology and psychology, especially in relation to human desires; critic Lively stated that Ovid's poems are, 'provocative, dangerous, sexy, and, in all senses of the word, queer'. [28] Both Venus and Adonis and Hero and Leander, as erotic poems, could be described as having this same ovidian tone. They both challenge the idea of masculinity; the former blurs the lines between masculine and feminine as both protagonists display traits of both sexes, the latter pays particular attention to the male form. Shakespeare veers off from the ovidian template by having the goddess of love and sexuality, who is 'sweet Venus', in the Metamorphoses, appear as a sort of sweaty and muscular rapist. She is described as being a, 'love faced suitor', [29] who, 'would be thrust', [30] and physically forces the young Adonis; pulling him from his horse and clambering over him, pushing him down to the floor. This imagery is more suited to a lusty male, such as Leander, trying to persuade a coy mistress, than the most beautiful goddess in antiquity. Coupled with this is her almost incestuous desire to be Adonis' lover but also his mother. She, 'enfold[s] him', [31] into her arms and is left at the end of the poem placing the flower issued from his blood into the, 'hollow cradle', [32] so that her, 'heart shall rock thee day and night'. [33] This image perpetuates Ovid's poem as Adonis is born of an incestuous relationship between a father and daughter and ends with a lover being transferred to maternal love. Adonis on the other hand displays distinctly feminine characteristics missing from Ovid's version; he plays the female role of the resisting object of male desire more usually displayed in Petrarchan sonnets. He is described as beautiful rather than handsome; he constantly blushes through shame and at points he acts with great petulance which alludes to the fact that his character is clearly influenced by Ovid's characters, Hermaphroditus, for the dissolution of gender and the self-absorption of Narcissus.

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Hero and Leander similarly challenges gender issues through the use of paradoxes and extended imagery of the naked male form. The poem is surrounded by the idea that sexual desire is pointedly directed at the male form. For example, the male worshippers that travel to Venus' tomb are not there to worship Venus but, 'for his sake whom their goddesse held so deare, / Rose-cheekt Adonis'. [34] The significance of this point is highlighted further when we consider where this occurs in the poem; attentions are being paid to the homoerotic, which somewhat undermines the lovers' first meeting. Similarly to Ovid, it is apparent that Marlowe delights in the seemingly lusty behaviour of the pagan gods, especially during Leander's encounter with Neptune. The god of the sea mistakes Leander for Ganymedes, the Trojan prince who was abducted by Zeus and often used within literature as a metaphor for male homosexual desire. This episode contains the most detailed and prolonged description of the male form, more so than during the heterosexual intimate moments involving Hero. He is described in the words of heavy desire, 'even as delicious meat is to the tast…how smooth his brest was', Neptune 'prie[s] upon his brest, his thighs, and everie lim', [35] which are illustrated in great detail; conversely Hero is almost always covered in heavy and elaborate clothing, emphasising the attentions made to the male erotic form.

Marvell appears to adhere closer to the ovidian template for his complaint. Although the Nymph's gender is never alluded to directly, the use of this mythical creature as the poem's voice in the genre of complaint suggests that it is female. However, nymphs were regarded for their sexual appetites and bisexual endeavours which plays towards the ovidian exploration of sexuality amongst mythological creatures and deities. This Nymph, through frustration at her unrequited love from Sylvio, has focussed her attentions to his Fawn. She compares the love received from the Fawn to that of Sylvio, wondering whether 'it too might have done so / As Sylvio did'. [36] Whilst this could be read to have sexual connotations it is can also be seen as the Nymph clinging to the Fawn as a representation of the issue of her and Sylvio's, 'love of false and cruel men'. She is the Fawn's mother, which, 'with sweetest milk and sugar first I it at mine own fingers nursed'. This description does not have the incestuous connotations seen in between Venus and Adonis and so is more an imitation of ovidian style than Marvell's own exploration of the ovidian themes.

Ovidian characters were put in place to provide representation of certain polarities and to demonstrate the conflict and contradiction between them. This love of juxtaposed elements is a style that is very evident within Renaissance poetry; the tragic and the grotesque, comic and pathetic, cynical and forgiving for example, are often applied to allow the poet to explore, mirror dramatically, sometimes in parody, elements of society or tradition. Character development was also achieved through the use of ovidian 'split awareness', [37] where personal conflict is achieved through what Milowicki calls, "Ovid's four 'Rs'"; [38] relativized values, where rhetorical distortion, rationalisation and reduction through irony. These phases can be most popularly traced back to Ovid's female characters, such as Medea and Myrrha, but in much of renaissance literature, it can be traced mainly to the male characters. In The Rape of Lucrece and Hero & Leander for example, the protagonists, Tarquin and Hero, rationalise their moral dilemmas in the form of soliloquy; outlining both sides of the argument but ultimately weighting the rhetoric in favour of the characters' deep-set desires to give an ironical sense to the apparent split awareness. Tarquin rationalises his rape of Lucrece through questioning 'why hunt I then for colour or excuses? / All orators are dumb when Beauty pleadeth'. [39] This originally ovidian technique is employed through most of renaissance love poetry and has given the poets arguably a very powerful and flexible technique of characterisation.

It is clear to see that amongst all of the great poets of the antiquity, Ovid is undoubtedly one of the most influential for Renaissance writers. The constant use and referral to his poems and style are ubiquitous, and a clear mark of respect to the poet. He was their muse to lead them to the 'Castilian Spring' of literary genius and variety, but once at this place of enlightenment, I would argue that, firstly through Petrarch, then eventually through Shakespeare, Marlowe, Marvell and their contemporaries, Ovid's masterpieces have been moulded and shaped into something more original. The Ovidian themes they explore have been taken and interpreted to leave arguably a more in depth version of the classics. The manners in which their characters are developed continue on from the ideas left behind by Ovid. In other words, these Renaissance masters transform the Ovidian concept into a new genre and style, fit for the audience at the time but also for generations to come. These continually changing interpretations of these poems mean that, whilst initially based on Ovid's template, Renaissance love poetry is a separate genre: a fusion of the past with as much, if not more, of their own present. Ovid taught them the skills and techniques to become the rightful heirs to his immortality and through this classical great, Renaissance love poetry could grow.


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