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Hannah Lavery, The Impotency Poem from Ancient Latin to Restoration English
by Lindsay Ann Reid

Lavery, Hannah. The Impotency Poem from Ancient Latin to Restoration English Literature. Farnham: Ashgate, 2014. 197 pp. ISBN: 978-1472422026. $135.00 cloth.


“quid me ludis?” ait, “quis te, male sane, iubebat
    invitum nostro ponere membra toro?”

… … … … … … … … … … …

nec mora, desiluit tunica velata soluta— 
    et decuit nudos proripuisse pedes!— 
neve suae possent intactam scire ministrae,
    dedecus hoc sumpta dissimulavit aqua.

“Why do you insult me? Are you out of your mind? Who asked you to come to bed if you are not in the mood?” … With that she leapt out of bed, wrapped in her ungirdled robe (and a pretty sight she was, as she tripped forth barefoot). And to stop the maids realizing that she had not enjoyed me, she covered up my sorry performance by taking a bath.

Thus ends Ovid’s Amores 3.7 (as translated in Grant Showerman’s Loeb edition).[1] The first-person poet-lover has found his uncooperative male member frustratingly unmoved by the attentions and attractions of his mistress: rather, “praemortua” [already dead], it is “turpiter languidiora hesterna rosa” [more jaded than the rose of yesterday] (3.7.65-66). Defeated by the limitations of his own physical anatomy and accused—perhaps rightly—of having previously spent himself elsewhere, Ovid’s self-mocking narrative persona is therefore left to ponder: “quo me iuvenumque virumque?” [what is the point of being young and male?] (3.7.19). Hannah Lavery opens The Impotency Poem from Ancient Latin to Restoration English Literature with the observation that there is a famed intertextual link between Ovid’s above elegy and the Earl of Rochester’s Restoration-era “Imperfect Enjoyment,” a piece in which a romantic tryst is left similarly unconsummated. Her claim here is well founded, as a representative textual note on Rochester’s poem in The Broadview Anthology of British Literature attests: “Stemming from Ovid’s Amores, the tradition of seventeenth-century ‘imperfect enjoyment’ poems includes works by Aphra Behn and George Etherege, as well as by several French poets.”[2] The raison d’être of Lavery’s monograph, then, is to connect these frequently reiterated yet less often explored dots between Ovid and Rochester and thereby “produce a more comprehensive history of this type of poetry than has previously been seen” (1). Lavery’s resultant work of scholarship is, somewhat paradoxically, both narrow and wide-ranging in its scope. What may, at first blush, seem like a highly specific focus—the literary representation and metaphoric significance of male impotence—provides her with a constructive lens through which to read the works of ancients such as Catullus, Horace, and Propertius alongside a host of English exemplars including Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Nashe, and William Wycherley.

As Lavery’s intention is to chart the historical evolution of an enduring literary trope “incubated by the Latin love elegists but fledged under Ovid” (63), it comes as little surprise that she has organized this book in a primarily chronological manner. Sandwiched between a short introduction and an even more succinct conclusion, we find nine constituent chapters: the first three center on classical poetry, with the remainder dedicated to examinations of (mostly) English engagements with the impotency motif from the mid-sixteenth to the early eighteenth century. One potential pitfall of writing such a wide-ranging study, however, is that it can be difficult to situate individual authors, cultural phenomena, and literary movements efficiently within a broader narrative of reception. Despite their brevity, Lavery’s chapters can sometimes feel slightly bogged down by biographical information and other contextual details at the expense of sustained literary analysis.

“If Ovid is popularly considered to be the father of impotency poetry,” Lavery reasons, “Catullus could therefore be considered the grandfather of the tradition” (13). Chapter 1 of her work therefore sets out to establish a contextual framework for Amores 3.7 by examining works by Catullus and another of Ovid’s Roman precursors, Horace. In both the Carmen and the Epodes, Lavery senses the characteristic mingling of sexual and socio-political concerns that typify later impotency literature. Chapter 2 pairs Ovid with fellow elegists Propertius and Tibullus, “as it is the interrelations between them that prompt some key developments for the writing of impotency poetry” (33). And Chapter 3 treats Petronius’s Satyricon. Taken together, this triad of classically oriented chapters provides a useful interpretative foundation for Lavery’s later discussions of English literature.

Chapters 4 and 5 of The Impotency Poem are likely to be of the greatest interest to readers of The Spenser Review, as they center on the development of this literary tradition by Spenser’s Early Modern contemporaries. Lavery’s discussions here are valuable, since relatively little work has been done on the impotence motif in pre-Restoration English literature. Given the centrality of Amores 3.7 to her narrative, Lavery’s work in these chapters is also a welcome addition to the extant body of scholarship on the reception of Ovid’s poetry in the Early Modern era; although Elizabethan and Jacobean engagements with the Metamorphoses—and, increasingly, the Heroides—routinely command critical attention, the reception of Ovid’s Amores remains understudied (notable exceptions being M.L. Stapleton’s Harmful Eloquence: Ovid’s Amores from Antiquity to Shakespeare and his Marlowe’s Ovid: The Elegies in the Marlowe Canon).[3]

Chapter 4 centers its attention primarily upon Rémy Belleau and Christopher Marlowe. Lavery locates the former’s mid-sixteenth-century “Jan qui ne peult” as operating within and in response to Petronian and Horatian as well as Ovidian traditions, here relying on distinctions between these models made in her earlier chapters. Her discussion of Marlowe’s treatment of Amores 3.7 is somewhat less straightforward. Contrary to expectation, Lavery does not offer what could be described as a detailed reading of the inaugural English translation of this paradigmatic elegy. Rather, this section tends towards a more vague consideration of “the crossover between life and work, poetry and politics” in relation to Marlowe (75). Lavery’s subsequent discussion of Thomas Nashe in Chapter 5 is considerably more focused. In one of Lavery’s strongest chapters, she argues that Nashe’s “Choise of Valentines” was written partially in response to Marlowe’s earlier translation of Amores 3.7 and that, rather than “an exercise in bawdy,” it ought to be read within “the larger oeuvre of his more conservative satires, in which he rails against the corruptions he sees as threatening contemporary society” (77).

A more general consideration of Lavery’s main Renaissance-era authorial exemplars (i.e. Belleau, Marlowe, and Nashe) raises broader questions about the principles of inclusion and exclusion that underlie her study. Though this may well reflect limitations of space—after all, The Impotency Poem covers much historical ground in just under two hundred pages—Lavery’s examples here are uniformly conservative: she does little in these chapters to query or expand the parameters of the modest, previously identified canon of sixteenth-century impotency literature. This reads as something of a missed opportunity, given that, as Lavery herself posits, “the cluster of impotency poems that appeared in the Renaissance … constitute important links in the development of the form” (63). It seems a shame, for example, that Lavery has omitted from her discussion George Gascoigne’s “Lullaby,” particularly its notoriously explicit fifth stanza:

Eke lullaby, my loving boy,
My little Robin, take thy rest.
Since age is cold and nothing coy,
Keep close thy coin, for so is best.
With lullaby be thou content,
With lullaby thy lusts relent.
Let others pay which hath mo pence;
Thou art too poor for such expense. [4]

Considering that Gascoigne’s address to his “little Robin”—which, in an oft-repeated anecdote, Arthur Quiller-Couch found too bawdy to include in his Oxford Book of English Verse of 1900—appears to draw inspiration from Ovid’s phallic invocation at Amores 3.7.65-72, it would have made a natural pairing with Lavery’s discussions of Belleau and Marlowe in Chapter 4. Along similar lines, a less obvious yet equally rich Tudor example might have been found in Thomas Wyatt’s “They Flee from Me,” a poem that has been interpreted on occasion as an impotency piece and which, as C.E. Nelson long ago pointed out, seems to incorporate imagery from Amores 3.7.[5]

Chapters 6 to 9 of Lavery’s work focus on more frequently trodden ground: “the boom in impotency poetry in England taking place in the years following the Restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660” (103). Though, admittedly, in the early works of the Cavalier poets we find “no impotency poem proper,” Lavery nonetheless uses Chapter 6 as a means of discussing the “motifs and images that would later be picked up and developed in Restoration texts,” arguing that they are “key to our understanding of the development of the English impotency poetry in the latter half of the century” (105-106). Treated here are texts by Thomas Carew, John Suckling, Robert Herrick, and John Dryden. Chapter 7 turns its attention to Rochester’s “Imperfect Enjoyment” along with near-contemporaneous poems by George Etherege and Aphra Behn and discusses these impotency pieces in conjunction with seventeenth-century French exemplars. Chapter 8 concentrates on additional, anonymously composed pieces of the same era in which “the impotency poem tradition climaxes” (137), while Chapter 9 focuses on a slightly later series of relevant pieces authored by William Wycherley.

Throughout The Impotency Poem, Lavery is sensitive to the ways in which the literature under her consideration is meant to be comic. Yet she is also attuned to the inherent critical potential of such texts, acknowledging that “the satiric laughter these poems provoked carries an edge which highlights certain fears and anxieties explored therein” (105). Indeed, one of the central threads running through her many chapters is the notion that a “defining feature of the impotency poem is its capacity for political critique,” whereby “sexual failure … metaphorically comments upon the relationship implied between master and servant, or figures of authority and subjugation” (2).

The press might have employed a more exacting copy-editing process, as minor oversights (e.g. incorrectly formatted titles, spacing problems, a lack of uniformity in the treatment of ellipses, errors in the presentation of block quotations, and variances in capitalization practices) occasionally mar the text. The most consistent formatting inconsistency, however, relates to punctuation where a parenthetical citation follows quoted material: sometimes a full stop follows the final inverted comma, at other times it follows the parentheses, and a full stop frequently appears in both positions at once. Copy-editing issues aside, Lavery’s The Impotency Poem is admirably ambitious in the breadth of its scope, spanning distinct periods of English literary history and crossing linguistic boundaries. This is a work of scholarship that, despite some limitations, will hold considerable interest for scholars of Early Modern poetry and the classical tradition.


Lindsay Ann Reid
National University of Ireland, Galway 

[1] Ovid, Heroides; Amores, trans. Grant Showerman, rev. G.P. Goold, Loeb Classical Library 41 (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2002), 3.7.77-78, at 81-84.

[2] Joseph Black et al., eds., The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: One-Volume Compact Edition (Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2015), 920 n. 1.

[3] M.L. Stapleton, Harmful Eloquence: Ovid’s Amores from Antiquity to Shakespeare (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1996), and Marlowe’s Ovid: The Elegies in the Marlowe Canon (Burlington: Ashgate, 2014).

[4] George Gascoigne, “Gascoigne’s Lullaby,” The Broadview Anthology, at 440-41.

[5] C.E. Nelson, “A Note on Wyatt and Ovid,” MLR 58.1 (1963): 60-63. 


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Lindsay Ann Reid, "Hannah Lavery, The Impotency Poem from Ancient Latin to Restoration English," Spenser Review 45.3.8 (Winter 2016). Accessed April 14th, 2024.
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