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Alex Wong, The Poetry of Kissing in Early Modern Europe
by Syrithe Pugh

Alex Wong, The Poetry of Kissing in Early Modern Europe from the Catullan Revival to Secundus, Shakespeare and the English Cavaliers (D. S. Brewer, 2017)

In his fifth poem, Catullus famously demands a thousand kisses from Lesbia, to be followed by a hundred, then a thousand more, and another hundred, and so on until they lose count (or ‘go bankrupt’—conturbabimus). It is a pleasant game in both erotic and poetic terms. Despite his careful accounting, we all know that Catullus will never be satisfied (as he spells out in poem 7—‘You ask how many kisses will be enough for me? As many as there are grains of sand in the Libyan desert,’ etc.). Meanwhile, the reader is invited both to share and to chuckle over his insatiability, the tunnel vision of his erotic obsessiveness and his immunity to boredom, as a few unpromising words (a thousand, a hundred, then, another) are repeated to the brink of nausea, arranged into hendecasyllabics with just enough rhythmic variety to keep our attention fixed on Catullus’ metrical skill—how resourcefully he fits the numbers into the numbers—before we go on to admire the contrasting, luxuriant treatment of the same theme in poem 7’s evocative adynatoi. When Johannes Secundus publishes an entire collection of neo-Latin poems about kisses under the title Basia (‘Kisses’) in 1541, transforming a tradition ‘unwittingly sired’ (284) by Catullus into an independent genre, kisses are implicitly identified with poems about kissing, and the game becomes metapoetic. As Secundus offers up his own copious basia at once to his Neaera and to his readers, the demand for many kisses in return becomes also an invitation to write further poems in this vein. His many imitators, in Latin, Italian, French and English, responded eagerly to the challenge over the next century and more. If the reader grows a little faint at the prospect of hundreds or thousands of poetic variations on such a narrow theme (and ‘the possibility of tiresomeness’ is itself always ‘part of the joke’ in this genre, as Wong nicely shows (316)), Basium 10, at the centre of Secundus’ sequence, guards against satiety by introducing a new rule into what is now explicitly a game (ludat): Secundus and Neaera will exchange kisses, but no two kisses may be alike, and the first who fails to vary their style will suffer a penalty—a heavy toll of further kisses. Wong adduces this poem charmingly to illustrate his claim that the basium genre presents an extreme example (‘imitation in its most self-heralding mood’, xiv) of the importance of playful and inventive imitation in Renaissance poetry: ‘In this way the supposed motive force behind the genre…was powered by, or identical with, a rationale already written into its prime models: the notion of unceasing pleasure to be had from unceasing kisses, so long as those kisses are varied unceasingly, and with skill’ (6). The poet’s task is to persuade the reader ‘that we are still interested in further kisses: that we are still amenable, unsatisfied, and do not have better things to be doing with our time’.

This is the first book-length study of basia, and it succeeds in persuading us that the subject is worth a book, and our time. Neo-latin in origin, the basium genre has suffered the fate of other neo-Latin poetry, in that it has been largely forgotten by modern scholarship, despite its significant role and widespread influence in Renaissance literary culture. Not least among the merits of this volume is that the wide range of examples it presents, drawn from Latin and vernacular languages, in generous quotation and always accompanied by reliable English translations, constitutes a kind of anthology of poems which might otherwise be difficult to access, especially for non-linguists. Many of these well deserve to be remembered simply for their own poetic merits, and Wong does an excellent job of highlighting those merits. He has a sensitive ear for the formal and aesthetic qualities of Latin verse in particular, and shares his appreciation with the reader eagerly and effectively. The non-specialist will learn to recognise distinctive features of Catullan style (e.g. p. 188: ‘hendecasyllables, patterned repetitions and parallel syntax’, a ‘superflux of diminutives’), and why some aspects of it do not work as well in English as they do in Latin, French, Italian, or even Dutch (owing to the relative paucity of diminutive endings to append to nouns, a favourite Catullan habit); Latin metres are often helpfully explained in unobtrusive footnotes. He also has a keen eye for spotting intertextual allusion and imitation, particularly between the neo-Latin poets, and appreciates the range of effects such imitation can achieve, from the ‘allusive filigree lyricism’ (40) of Caspar von Barth, to Jonson’s ‘playful dialogue with Catullus’ (43) and the ‘self-conscious inter-generic capering’ of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis. (272)

The importance of the poems as a formative influence on and vital interpretive context for vernacular works more familiar today is also a case well made. The detailed and careful tracing of the evolution of conventional tropes in the second (‘A Thousand Kisses’) and especially the excellent fifth chapter (‘The Soul in the Kiss’) enrich our understanding of commonly encountered motifs with literary-historical depth, and the last two chapters of the book show how strongly the basium tradition informs the work of such well-known English poets as Sidney, Shakespeare, Donne and the Cavaliers. Beyond simply drawing attention to the importance of contemporary neo-Latin literature for Renaissance studies, the most valuable parts of Wong’s argument for future criticism are, in my opinion, the emphasis he places on sexual euphemism (most directly in the first section of chapter three, but also in many of the readings of individual poems throughout), and the careful analysis of the trope of the ‘soul kiss’ in chapter five, where he argues persuasively that the broadly Neo-Platonic idea of the soul being involved in a kiss (and perhaps transferred or exchanged between lovers) is ‘thoroughly entwined in practice’ (156) with the quite separate conceit of a purely physical exchange of Galenic pneumata. Renaissance poets may be speaking ‘more literally than one might have expected’ (155) with reference to the latter, while using the former for poetic ends within ‘a spectrum of figuration, and a spectrum of seriousness’: indeed, he argues, ‘Florentine Neo-Platonism’ was itself ‘poetic’ in its ‘nature and inspiration’ (163), characterized by ‘subtle, poetical structures of thought’ which ‘offered a fertile mould in which to make poetry’, whether ‘to impart lofty spirituality and heavenly grandeur, or to set up nuanced and vivid ironies’ (164)—effects often achieved by the interplay and tensions between Galenic and Neo-Platonic intimations. The reader will emerge from Wong’s study in no doubt as to the importance and vitality of the basium genre in Renaissance Europe, not least as a ‘Petrarchan counterdiscourse’ affording a medium for the poetic treatment of reciprocal and consummated love.

I must now confess my reservations about chapters three and four, where gender relations and the question of sexual violence are to the fore, and the lively appreciation of irony which elsewhere serves the author so well seems to flag. Many of the poems introduced in these chapters are rape fantasies, sometimes explicit, sometimes lightly veiled by euphemism. Wong plays down the violence wherever possible, apparently fearful of incurring a charge of anachronistic feminism should he emphasise it: ‘whatever we may think of the figurative language by modern standards of sexual morality…’ (71); ‘the response of an early reader, most likely in early years to have been male, and whose sense of sexual ethics was in any case not the same as ours…’ (80-81); ‘The threatening ambiguities which modern readers will surely and rightly find repugnant may have been somewhat less shocking to an early reader’ (114). The first of these comments refers to Secundus’ Basium 9, in which the speaker complains that consensual love-making is starting to cloy, and proposes that Neaera help him to act out a fantasy, which he then describes at length: she must deliberately disappoint his demand for kisses and flee, at which ‘I’ll follow you into the deepest shadows; I’ll follow you into the inmost chambers; and as a conqueror, taking you with both of my mastering hands, I’ll seize my prey with fervour, as the hawk seizes with its curved talons the unwarlike dove. You, the conquered, will give me your supplicating hands, and clinging pendulous with all the might of your arms, you will wish in vain to placate me…’ (Wong’s translation) The speaker will hold her fast by the neck (impediam collum), until she has atoned for her crime with many ‘kisses’ and sworn an oath (iurabis) that she wants ‘to suffer such punishments very often in future’ (saepius poenas easdem…subire). The hawk and dove image is a favourite of Ovid’s: Wong (70) quotes some lines from Alpheus’ pursuit of Arethusa in Book V of the Metamorphoses, though Tereus’s rape of Philomel in the next book, where the image is used again, seems by far the closer analogy, and indeed the allusion intended to be recognised: compare ll. 529-30 and 516-18 (where we also meet the ‘curved talons’), the general situation of inescapable captivity within a deeply hidden lair (521), and the repetition and prospect of endless future repetition of the violation. Would a typical early modern reader—even a male one! (see quotation above)—really have been undisturbed by a speaker who says he wants to imitate Tereus? If in doubt about this, one need only think of Titus Andronicus.

Secundus is surely employing an ironic persona (a mask, like those worn by actors) here, and intends the reader to form a moral judgement on the stance taken. Wong is sure that the speaker ‘is sure that Neaera will enjoy the game’ (71). I cannot see any evidence of this in the poem, unless Wong means the oath the speaker puts into her mouth at the end, which will be extracted under duress in order to license this behaviour as a new norm in the relationship. Her enjoyment really does not seem a major concern for him; indeed the premise of the entire poem is that his jaded appetite can no longer be aroused unless he at least ‘makes believe’ that she is his desperate and unwilling victim. It seems to me, though, that the poem gives us no reason to believe that the fantasy will ever be acted out as written, or even, perhaps, that the speaker seriously intends it should be: the sequel he expects (I would imagine) is that Neaera should rebuke and ridicule him for his offensive posturing, at which he will apologise profusely and make it up to her, in one of those lovers’ quarrels which Ovid recommends because they lead to a tender reaffirmation of love (Ars amoris, 2.451-66). But regarding the content of the fantasy itself, it is hard to accept Wong’s judgement that the ‘kisses’ the speaker will exact from the conquered fugitive (victa, fugitiva) are ‘ultimately innocuous’, giving ‘final, soft relief to the tension accrued by all the sexual aggression of the foregoing imagery’ (71). If ever there was a case for reading ‘kisses’ euphemistically, surely this is one.

The other poems of this nature adduced by Wong, similarly, can easily be read as deploying ironic personae. Very often they do so with an eye to Ovid—not only the rapes of the Metamorphoses, but the lover of the Amores, who reproaches himself bitterly for beating Corinna in 1.7, and recounts in 2.5 how, on another occasion, he was momentarily tempted by jealousy to strike her again. Secundus alludes to the lascivious kisses which sparked Ovid’s jealousy in Amores 2.5 (l. 27) at lines 12-13 (as Wong elsewhere observes, without noting the context of Ovid’s lines; 84); we might add that, when Secundus’ persona fantasises about ‘laying his lordly hands’ on Neaera (herileis iniiciens manus, l. 22), he recalls Ovid’s threat of a violent sequel: iniciam dominas in mea iura manus! (‘I shall lay my masterful hands on my rights!’ Amores 2.5.30). Recalling this episode in the Ars amoris, Ovid laments barbaria noster abundat amor (‘my love is full of barbarity’, Ars 2.552; compare Tibullus’ condemnation of men who beat women in 1.10. Clearly it is not anachronistic to condemn violence and rape in Augustan poetry, either).

Wong recasts these rape poems as ‘knowing, formalized sexual role-play’ (69), as though a liberal attitude to sado-masochistic sex-games were more authentically ‘early modern’ than moral judgement: ‘just as consensual play between lovers can provide a safe and legitimate outlet for fantasies of erotic force—of domination and submission—so the theme of the kiss provided early modern poets with a ground for the exploration of these same impulses’ (76). But we should notice how much of this is happening not between consenting adults, or indeed in the real world, but merely inside the speakers’ heads. The remark about ‘sexual role-play’ above, for instance, is made in connection to a poem where Pontano is informing his mistress Focilla about a fierce but mutually amorous scene played out between them the night before In somnis (the opening words of the poem), which culminated with her proposal that they act these things out more fully in the day-time. (It is included here because it involves biting—‘sado-masochism’ has its own index-entry.) Wong translates the opening In somnis ‘In your sleep’, but the poem makes more sense if we read ‘In my sleep’. That is, Pontano’s speaker is trying to hold his mistress to imaginary promises which only ever existed in his dreams—ludicra imaginesque noctis, ‘the shows and apparitions of the night’, as the dream-Focilla actually calls them. How Focilla will respond to his demand we never learn, but the poem itself is a little joke about the preposterous sophistries to which lovers will resort for purposes of seduction. When rape fantasies are too explicit and too violent to be dealt with in such ways, Wong’s reluctance to countenance the idea that the poets are using an ironic persona—that the reader is supposed to make a moral judgement, and find the speaker shocking or ridiculous—leaves him with a Victorian frown as his only recourse: Dousa’s Basium 16 (a particularly Grand Guignol example, originally published in his Epigrams) is ‘less morally agreeable than most of its peers’ (74); ‘not infrequently’ the poets’ ‘impulses’ ‘were given too free rein’ (76).

What makes all this especially problematic is that Wong proceeds to treat such rape fantasies as virtually synonymous with ‘masculine sexuality’, (e.g. 113-15; cp. ‘something stereotypically manly and rapacious’ (79)) and as essential to the genre (e.g. 117, 119). A lengthy treatment of the ideas of ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ in Catullus and the Roman elegists gives the misleading impression that these poets called themselves ‘soft’, and were considered ‘soft’ by contemporaries, because they didn’t ‘go all the way’ with their mistresses, whereas ‘hard’ Roman manliness requires penetrative sex: ‘The significant act is left out…and to the poet’s chums, his lavish attention to the paltry foreplay of kisses looks contemptibly effete’ (90). But all these poets write very explicitly about fully sexual relationships. What makes them ‘soft’ is that they invest time and emotion in a sexual relationship with a mistress instead of devoting themselves to the manly negotium of politics or war, exchanging active public life for a position of emotional dependency and vulnerability. Catullus will be ‘hard’ (obdurat) if he can bring himself to forget Lesbia now that she has abandoned him, as he vainly urges himself to do in poem 8 (compare the prayers of poem 76), but this will never happen, and when she finally returns to him towards the end of the collection he is unable to imagine any greater bliss (107), praying only (and not without pathetic irony) that their ‘eternal bond of sacred love’ (aeternum hoc sanctae foedus amicitiae, 109.6) will last, this time. Note the words foedus and amicitia there: what was really provocative about Catullus in his day was that he applies to a love relationship ideals of mutual respect, fides, and pietas which in contemporary Rome were normally applied only to the world of masculine homosocial relations (a world which Catullus subjects to harsh, often obscene satire because it has betrayed those traditional values: see e.g. 29, 30, 57, 73). There is never the slightest hint of using violence against Lesbia. Yet Wong says that Catullus provided ‘an attractive classical precedent for…sexual rapacity’ (132): he seems to have in mind here the obscene threats Catullus hurls against his male friends Furius and Aurelius in poem 16. Ironically, the idea of ironic persona makes a brief appearance as this idea develops, but to confusing effect: the ‘soft’ kiss-poems to Lesbia are said to present ‘the persona of a poetic lover gleaming with irony, behind which lurk[s] an enigmatic “real” persona’ revealed in the threat to pedicare and irrumare Furius and Aurelius. Secundus and his followers, we are told, work ‘between these two personae’, and ‘The connections and disconnections between virile self-assertion and “effeminate” erotic delicacy were allowed to coexist amid the fog of wit’ (103). Wit may indeed be foggy if it relies on distinguishing a mask from a ‘real’ mask. But the main point is that Catullus’ threats to sodomise men who have betrayed him and the values of amicitia (e.g. 16, 21, 25) should not be conflated with his passionate and tender love for Lesbia; Ovid is interested in the theme of sexual violence in his elegies as well as his epic (though always with vociferous condemnation uppermost in the tonal mix), but the other elegists consistently follow the Catullan line of tender devotion.

In fact, a major part of what Catullus bequeaths to love-poetry is really the opposite of rapacity: a poetry about sincere and intense love, in which women can be equal partners in a fully sexual and consensual relationship. Wong does acknowledge, at the end of this fourth chapter, that basiasometimes’ cultivate ‘a sense of mutuality and reciprocity, symmetry and exchange’, in which ‘the amorous pair, male and female’ are ‘equalized’ (134, my italics). But he immediately goes on to suggest that such equality is possible only if the lovers confine themselves to ‘the limited niceties of kissing’—‘where meeting mouths and answering tongues take the place of those more familiar figures of lopsided agency’ which include ‘manly penetration’. (Cp. the contrast drawn on p. 118 between ‘an occasion for “equal” love; the reciprocal kiss, in which gender roles are levelled’, on one hand, and ‘more advanced forms of lovemaking’ on the other). This seems to be the reason why Behn’s extraordinary Catullan lyric, ‘The Willing Mistress’, ‘does not quite smell like a kiss-poem’ to Wong (116). Behn’s female speaker (Wong calls her a ‘maid’) sits down with her Amyntas, in a spot hidden from prying eyes, ‘to play / A thousand Amorous Tricks’ and exchange ‘A many kisses’. ‘Already fir’d’, she is as eager as he for a fuller consummation, and as he ‘lay[s her] gently on the Ground’ in the final stanza, the Ovidian ending ‘Ah who can guess the rest?’ (cp. Amores 1.5.25: Cetera quis nescit?) leaves us in no doubt as to what follows. This is squarely in the main current of reception of Catullus 5, though at the same time bold and remarkable for being written and voiced by a woman, appropriating the genre to give frank expression to female sexual desire without presenting it as pathology or farce. But Wong (happy elsewhere to admit such tangentially related poems as Janus Dousa’s Carmen 11, on his mistress’s Orphic singing, into the genre) regards Behn’s distinctive Catullan gestures as only ‘in the spirit, vaguely enough’ of basial poetry (116); they are merely ‘generic protocols with a phantom-like life of their own’; and he relegates the poem to a position ‘outside the tradition in which I find those perennial concerns with masculinity and sexual dynamics’ (117), a comment which really makes sense only if we read ‘masculinity and sexual dynamics’ as euphemisms for those rape fantasies we have heard so much about.

Louise Labé is the only female poet Wong regards as ‘engag[ing] fully and obviously in the true basium tradition’, (126) even though (and the tone of exceptionality here is very explicit) her voice in the two sonnets she writes on kissing (13 and 18) is that of ‘a serious and committed lover on an apparently equal footing with her male beloved’, rather than that of ‘a coy maiden or a kinky commanding minx’, and even though the poems contain ‘no admixture of rough obscenity or innuendo, no brash irony or sexual aggression’ (128-9). But then, fully half of the space given to Labé is devoted to expounding Mireille Huchon’s controversial thesis that she didn’t exist, but was ‘an elaborate hoax’ concocted by a group of male poets—her name being their cheeky ‘basial’ pun on labia (129-32). Wong concludes that ‘Huchon’s hypothesis seems rather too far-fetched’—wisely, I think, though rather surprisingly, since he hasn’t offered any counter-arguments, but only remarked parenthetically (and without directing us to any examples) that it has met strong resistance from scholars ‘with good show of reason’ (129; my italics). But given that this is his conclusion, it is strange that the theory has taken up so large a proportion of the space afforded this remarkable poet. It would be a shame to think that this single woman had been permitted entry to Wong’s genre because the spirit of Mr Mybug was on hand to cancel her out. Especially if we remember the extent of Catullus’ debt to Sappho (foregrounded especially in Lesbia’s name and in the direct translation of poem 51), this seems a sad fate for those who have inherited her lyre (Labé, Elegy 1, ll. 14-16).

Having said all this (at greater length than I intended), I do still heartily recommend that you read this book. You will encounter a wealth of interesting poems, almost certainly including some you did not know before, as well as new perspectives on some that you did, and also some excellent analysis, even if you find yourself inclined to take issue with some of it, as I did. Followers of this journal in particular are likely to find much that resonates with Spenser in thought-provoking ways, though Spenser is not one of the rich array of poets offered up to us here. For instance, readers may be struck by the fact that several Basia volumes, including Secundus’, culminate (like Spenser’s Amoretti) in an epithalamium. Perhaps it should not be surprising to find two genres which share not only erotic themes but also such a strongly Catullan heritage yoked together, and Catullus’ epithalamic songs are certainly also among the sources for the neo-Latin basia themselves: the images of the vine entwining the elm and the ivy the oak, for example, which open Secundus’ second Basium 2 and become ‘a strong Secundan association’ in later poetry (217), were invented by Catullus in two epithalamia (61.33-35 and 102-5, 62.49-59), to be taken up enthusiastically by several poets of the next generation (though Catullus isn’t mentioned in Wong’s long footnote on the classical background of the motif on pp. 173-74). But the coincidence provides a suggestive context for Spenser’s innovative twist on the Petrarchan genre, and more widely for his redefinition of chastity as faithful, mutual and consummated love. The book is nicely produced, with only a few typographical errors. One slip does need correcting, though: on Donatus’ distinction between the types of kiss denoted by the three available Latin words, oscula officiorum sunt, basia pudicorum affectuum, savia libidinum vel amorum, the last two terms have somehow got switched around, so that Donatus is represented as saying that ‘a savium was a kiss of chaste love, and basia were always sexy’ (21).


Syrithe Pugh

University of Aberdeen




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Cite as:

Syrithe Pugh, "Alex Wong, The Poetry of Kissing in Early Modern Europe," Spenser Review 48.3.7 (Fall 2018). Accessed April 14th, 2024.
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