Hero and Leander by Christopher Marlowe (NSFW)

WARNING: Hero and Leander is an erotic poem from the Elizabethan period. This review contains references to sex and frank discussion of sexuality and erotica. If this makes you uncomfortable, don't feel obliged to read this post. When I was in high school, reading Shakespeare, our teachers (all of them) pointed out the dirty jokes to us. I remember this clearly, because I remember feeling like this was a sort of pat on the head - "well, they're just kids they can't enjoy this, so we'd better at least point out the dirty jokes. They'll like that". Dirty Jokes are not rare in Shakespeare. But normally they're just that - dirty jokes, nothing more. Shakespeare is frequently romantic, but in my limited experience, never erotic. Christopher Marlowe is an entirely different ball of wax. I will admit I had never read anything by Mr. Marlowe. I knew him as that guy who got killed in a barfight and wrote poems. Hero and Leander came up as a new recording on Librivox recently, I wanted to listen to a long poem while I was driving on a trip for work this week, and the powers converged. This was NOT what I expected. Witness this scene between Neptune and Leander, the male hero:
He clapped his plump cheeks, with his tresses played And, smiling wantonly, his love bewrayed. He watched his arms and, as they opened wide At every stroke, betwixt them would he slide And steal a kiss, and then run out and dance, And, as he turned, cast many a lustful glance, And threw him gaudy toys to please his eye, And dive into the water, and there pry Upon his breast, his thighs, and every limb, And up again, and close beside him swim, And talk of love.
Or this, between Leander and Hero, his beloved, as she loses her virginity:
For though the rising ivory mount he scaled, Which is with azure circling lines empaled, Much like a globe (a globe may I term this, By which love sails to regions full of bliss) Yet there with Sisyphus he toiled in vain, Till gentle parley did the truce obtain. Wherein Leander on her quivering breast Breathless spoke something, and sighed out the rest;
The poem tells the story of two classically star-crossed lovers: the (ironically) virginal priestess of Aphrodite and Leander a man whose beauty Marlowe describes with a wanton luxury of words:
I could tell ye How smooth his breast was and how white his belly; And whose immortal fingers did imprint That heavenly path with many a curious dint That runs along his back, but my rude pen Can hardly blazon forth the loves of men, Much less of powerful gods.
They fall in love, she tells him to come to her in her tower, and they... fool around, but don't fully consummate their love. She tells him to come back the next day, but his father finds out and forbids it. Unwilling to give up his love, Leander leaps into the waters of the Hellespont that separate the two, where Neptune, mistaking him for Ganymede, the beautiful cupbearer of Zeus attempts to seduce him. Realizing that the boy is drowning, Neptune figures out it ISN'T an immortal (always a good sign of that, drowning), and after talking to him about how lovely sex between men can be, finally gives up on the boy, and Leander arrives at Hero's tower - naked. Leander flees, to the shadows. Then to her stairs. Then to her room. Then to her bed. Yes, the implication is that she's not REALLY fleeing. The two of them consummate their amours, and the poem draws to a close as the sun rises (it was probably unfinished). I could talk about the beauty of Marlowe's language, I could tell you about the imagery he used, or the symbolic nature of the poem, I could dance endlessly around the central issue, but the central issue is this: this poem is about sex, and about how wonderful and exciting it is, hands down, no question. It's supposed to be a bit of a romp, yes, and admittedly, there is supposed to a bit of humor to Neptune trying to seduce the boy, but really, throughout the work, the poem is intense, erotic, and beautiful. And this is where I find myself stymied. Ironically, while our modern day talks incessantly about sex, there is a sort of code, that we can talk about it only in one of three ways: very clinically (like it's discussed on the news), very humorously (or at least with the attempt to be so), and talking 'dirty'. Our lexicon of sex tends towards the degrading, the angry. It's no coincidence that our words for the sexual act, or for the organs involved are either meant for textbooks, or used dually as descriptors and curse words. This is how sex is in our culture - it is either something we acknowledge logically, or something we're supposed to wallow in. Sex as beautiful gets paid lipservice, and some people really honestly fight for the beauty to come back to sex. But more or less? Sex is something we snigger about. More than anything else, listening to this, I was struck by sadness of that. Sex lives in the shadows of our lives - even of our private lives. Sex is associated with words like 'naughty' and 'dirty', if it's vocalized, often even within couples who have been having sex for ages. It brings up an interesting set of questions, really. For example, why is it hard for a person to tell their lover how great their sex was without either discussing tactics (clinical) or 'talking dirty'? Why is, say, a wife making a video of herself undressing or masturbating for her husband something 'naughty'? Maybe these things should be, I don't know. I certainly am not arguing that people should talk about their sex in the middle of a crowded restaurant the way they talk about the football game, or anything. But, when did 'private' begin to equal 'dirty'? When did 'honest' begin to equal 'clinical'? I don't know the answers, I'm just chewing on the questions


Amateur Reader said...

There's supposed to be a lot of humor in Neptune's seduction of Leander! The humor is in the rhetoric, the metaphors, the mocking elevated tone.

Jason Gignac said...

Forgive me, I wasn't clear - I did not mean I wasn't sure if it was meant to be funny - it certainly *is*. I just meant DESPITE it's 'funniness' it doesn't feel like it's making fun of sex, the way modern culture does.

Valerie said...

This is an interesting post. I am sure that people in the past did also talk about and regard sex in a crude and/or humorous way. But you are probably right that, in today's culture, the erotic and loving parts of it are downplayed or not regarded at all.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Valerie -
I don't know - maybe it's ALWAYS been that way and there's just the occaisional exception like Mr Marlowe?

Jeanne said...

I would like to blame the baby boomers. I think that since the era of "free love" we've de-romanticized sex.