May 252003

Mike Snider, via The Blowhards, mourns the dearth of hetero male sex poetry. I got your hetero male sex poetry right here! Granted, I had to raid the 16th century to find it.

All my senses, like beacons’ flame,
Gave alarum to desire
To take arms in Cynthia’s name,
And set all my thoughts on fire:
Fury’s wit persuaded me,
Happy love was hazard’s heir,
Cupid did best shoot and see
In the night where smooth is fair;
Up I start believing well
To see if Cynthia were awake;
Wonders I saw, who can tell?
And thus unto myself I spake:
Sweet god Cupid where am I,
That by pale Diana’s light:
Such rich beauties do espy,
As harm our sense with delight?
Am I borne up to the skies?
See where Jove and Venus shine,
Showing in her heavenly eyes
That desire is divine:
Look where lies the Milken Way,
Way unto that dainty throne,
Where while all the gods would play,
Vulcan thinks to dwell alone.
I gave reins to this conceit,
Hope went on the wheel of lust:
Fancy’s scales are false of weight,
Thoughts take thought that go of trust,
I stepp’d forth to touch the sky,
I a god by Cupid dreams,
Cynthia who did naked lie,
Runs away like silver streams;
Leaving hollow banks behind,
Who can neither forward move,
Nor if rivers be unkind,
Turn away or leave to love.
There stand I, like Arctic Pole,
Where Sol passeth o’er the line,
Mourning my benighted soul,
Which so loseth light divine.
There stand I like men that preach
From the execution place,
At their death content to teach
All the world with their disgrace:
He that lets his Cynthia lie,
Naked on a bed of play,
To say prayers ere she die,
Teacheth time to run away:
Let no love-desiring heart,
In the stars go seek his fate,
Love is only Nature’s art,
Wonder hinders love and hate.
None can well behold with eyes,
But what underneath him lies.

–Fulke Greville

Greville (Lord Brooke), incidentally, friend and biographer of Sidney and finance minister to Queen Elizabeth I, is the greatest English poet that you’ve never heard of. To clear up a few difficulties of diction and syntax: “Die” has the standard Elizabethan double meaning of sexual climax. “Lies,” in the last line, has both of its modern senses. “Thoughts take thought that go of trust” means that one’s own anxiety makes one’s thoughts unreliable; it is a gloss on the preceding line.

This poem mocks the conventions of Elizabethan courtly love poetry and praises sex for its own sake in the most brutal terms. Greville gives us the dithering lover, absorbing himself in spiritual concerns, in three brilliant images: the river running away from the river-bank, the North Pole deserted by the sun (the “line” of “Where Sol passeth o’er the line” is the Equator), and the convict preaching from the gallows. The poem’s brutality derives from the fact that Greville, a Calvinist, believed in the absolute separation of body and soul, and allegiance to one, for him, entails rejection of the other. He later turned to the soul and wrote even better poems than this one, which is a post for another day.