During the summer I undertook the Laidlaw Internship in Research and Leadership, and spent ten weeks working on my own research. My project was titled: “Mad, Drunk, Diseased, or simply In Love?”, and it was a cross-cultural exploration of imagery used in love poetry from 1300BC to the present day, and from East to West. Originally, I had only chosen to examine imagery within Ancient Greek lyric poetry, the Latin love elegists, and the Sufi poet Rumi, but this later expanded to include Ancient Egyptian poetry, British poetry from Shakespeare, and contemporary British poetry, as well as other Persian authors. Similarly, I identified a greater number of motifs than previously anticipated: madness, disease, drunkenness, light or sight, fire, death or destruction, war and slavery. After I had selected the specific authors, and texts, which I was going to include in my study, I translated the Latin and Ancient Greek texts, and then proceeded to compile every instance of each motif together, so that I could explore how these motifs were being used, and evaluate the difference in usages, and prevalence, between each culture.
Disease, for example, was used as a motif in a number of ways. Firstly, the idea of disease was conveyed through love metaphorically consuming the body, which was especially manifest from the vocabulary which was used to describe this, (e.g. ‘edo’ – to eat), and the reference to body parts (e.g. ‘medulla’ – marrow, ‘ossa’ – bones, and ‘pectora’ – heart). Secondly, this was illustrated in the description of love as a wound, which connects with the motif of love being depicted as war, and the analogy of Love to a bee, which is used very ironically in a poem where Cupid complains about the pain caused by a bee sting. Thirdly, love is described as a disease, by virtue of the effects and symptoms caused by being in love. This is represented, most famously, in Sappho’s poem 51, and Catullus’ imitation of this, poem 31, where she describes how at the sight of her lover, she suffers from a loss of speech and sight, feels a flame run through her, has ringing ears, and becomes pale. However, there are many other instances of this, which also include other symptoms: sleeplessness, loss of appetite, sweating, feverish, and becoming haggard or woe-begone. This is also reinforced verbally through the use of very suggestive vocabulary: ‘semimortua’ – half-dead, ‘perdo’ – to destroy, lose, waste’ and ‘dolor’ – grief. Moreover, love is even explicitly referred to as an illness: ‘pestem perniciem’, ‘taetrum…morbum’ and ‘νόσος’ ‘ἀνία’ ‘πολύφιλτρος’, but one which, mostly, has no cure: ‘φάρμακον’ ‘ἔγχριστος’ ‘ἐπίπαστος’. However, in cases of love-sickness, or unrequited love, the presence of the object of your love is, in fact, the cure, as I discovered in the poetry of Rumi, and the Ancient Egyptian poetry, amongst others: “just telling me ‘here she is’ is my cure”.
Disease was one of the few motifs which was prevalent in every single culture, presumably because it was a part of everyday life for all, and so it is an example of love imagery transcending all boundaries of time and culture. On the other hand, motifs such as war and slavery were primarily poignant in Latin elegiac poetry, which can be explained by the prominence of these factors in their society. Nevertheless, these same circumstances were also prevalent for the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians, which indicates that the motifs of war and slavery were developed to a greater extent by the Latin love elegists.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this experience of conducting my own research project, which allowed me a great amount of flexibility and independence, and from which I honed several skills. As part of the internship your findings have to be presented in poster format, together with a short report, and attendance at two leadership weekends is mandatory; however, I hope to evaluate my data further from a cross-cultural perspective, and write an article for publishing later this year.
Elinor Bushell, Classics 4th year