In an attempt to appreciate the innocence of Valentine’s Day without the dreaded Hallmark sentiment, we’re looking back at several ancient love poems. The term “ancient” is applied loosely in some instances. But throughout the centuries, fragments of swoon-worthy, erotic lines from poets often unnamed have offered clues about some of the oldest literary examples from the ancient world. Here are some of the most compelling.
Petrarch’s Love Sonnets to Laura
In 1327, Italian poet Petrarch (known as the “Father of Humanism”) attended a mass at Sainte-Claire d’Avignon and saw, it’s believed, Laura de Noves for the first time — the wife of Count Hugues de Sade (an ancestor of the Marquis de Sade). Laura’s true identity continues to be a source of speculation, but the fair-haired woman would become the subject of his poetry throughout his lifetime.
It was the day the sun’s ray had turned pale with pity for the suffering of his Maker when I was caught, and I put up no fight, my lady, for your lovely eyes had bound me.
“The Love Song for Shu-Sin”
An inscription dating back to c.2000 BCE, The Love Song for Shu-Sin is described as the world’s oldest known love poem. “Once a year, according to Sumerian belief, it was the sacred duty of the ruler to marry a priestess and votary of Inanna, the goddess of love and procreation, in order to ensure fertility to the soil and fecundity to the womb,” writes Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer. “The time-honored ceremony was celebrated on New Year’s day and was preceeded by feasts and banquets accompanied by music, song, and dance. The poem inscribed on the little Istanbul clay tablet was in all probability recited by the chosen bride of King Shu-Sin in the course of one of these New Year celebrations.”
Bridegroom, dear to my heart, Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet, Lion, dear to my heart, Goodly is your beauty, honeysweet. You have captivated me, let me stand tremblingly before you. Bridegroom, I would be taken by you to the bedchamber, You have captivated me, let me stand tremblingly before you. Lion, I would be taken by you to the bedchamber.
Song of Songs
From translators Ariel and Chana Bloch about a poem that has inspired everyone from Kate Bush to Toni Morrison:
“The Song of Songs is a poem about the sexual awakening of a young woman and her lover. In a series of subtly articulated scenes, the two meet in an idealized landscape of fertility and abundance — a kind of Eden — where they discover the pleasures of love. The passage from innocence to experience is a subject of the Eden story, too, but there the loss of innocence is fraught with consequences. The Song looks at the same border-crossing and sees only the joy of discovery.”
Kiss me, make me drunk with your kisses! Your sweet loving is better than wine. You are fragrant, you are myrrh and aloes. All the young women want you. Take me by the hand, let us run together! My lover, my king, has brought me into his chambers. We will laugh, you and I, and count each kiss, better than wine. Every one of them wants you.
“The Flower Song”
Something interesting to note about Ancient Egyptian poems in general from National Geographic:
“Women’s voices were strong in Egyptian poetry — as the narrators of poems or as lovers making choices about their beloveds, for example. This strength confirms that women had a higher position in ancient Egyptian culture than in other societies at the time, [Egyptologist Terry] Wilfong said. Women may even have written some of the poetry.”
To hear your voice is pomegranate wine to me: I draw life from hearing it. Could I see you with every glance, It would be better for me Than to eat or to drink.
“Alas Madam for Stealing of a Kiss”
Clearly the saying “treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen” applies to 16th-century English poet Sir Thomas Wyatt, whose works fixated on a cruel, impossible-to-possess woman. Wyatt was rumored to be the lover of Anne Boleyn and was in the Tower of London where he possibly witnessed her execution.
Another kiss shall have my life ended, For to my mouth the first my heart did suck; The next shall clean out of my breast it pluck
Idyll XII (The Beloved)
Theocritus is known as the originator of ancient Greek bucolic poetry.
“I run to you as the traveller runs towards shade when scorched by the sun.”
One of Sappho’s many lovestruck poems to her friends.
Like the breath of morning Or a breeze from sea, Fresh thy beauty smote me, Virile of the north. Startled by thy vision, Transports half divine Flooded veins and bosom, Shook me with desire.
Latin poet Catullus wrote a number of works for the love of his life, identified as “Lesbia” (most likely an aristocrat named Clodia Metelli).
Give me a thousand kisses, then another hundred, then another thousand, then a second hundred, then yet another thousand more, then another hundred. Then, when we have made many thousands, we will mix them all up so that we don’t know, and so that no one can be jealous of us when he finds out how many kisses we have shared.
Ovid’s Amores is the poet’s book of elegiac couplets, much of which focuses on his relationship with his mistress Corinna. The Roman poet gets right down to business in his celebration of their sexual love.
The door opens. In comes Corinna, her dress half buttoned, her hair fixed to show off that lovely neck. She looked as lovely as Semiramis on her wedding night or Lais in anyone’s bed. I tore off the dress. To make it more fun she fought to keep the flimsy thing half on. We struggled; I won! Her protests betrayed the truth: she had wanted to lose. Clothes littered the room. There stood Corinna nude. God, what a masterpiece she was!
Alisher Navoi’s ghazals
A ghazal is a lyrical poem, “traditionally invoking melancholy, love, longing, and metaphysical questions, ghazals are often sung by Iranian, Indian, and Pakistani musicians.” Navoi, one of the greatest Uzbek poets, was a master of the ghazal.
“I sweep the floor at your feet with my eyelashes.”