The “Dangerous” Poems


Reprinted from my post to Becky Lower’s Blog on September 13, 2014:

What is so dangerous about poetry? Nothing! But in 1816 a woman who aspired to scholarship faced a wall of prejudice.   Objections ranged from “women can’t, their brains don’t work that way” to “women who overwork their minds cause their female parts to wither and they can’t perform their ‘natural function.’” Seriously.

In the case of Georgiana in Dangerous Works, she also took on some touchy subject matter. What exactly were these poems the heroine of Dangerous Works was so determined to translate?   They were poems written by women in ancient Greece. While some were innocent enough, many dealt with mythology, metaphors, and double entendre that a respectable lady would not have been expected to know in 1816.

Georgiana found them hidden in plain sight as quotations in the works of men or as fragments in the Anthologia Graeca, a massive compendium of Greek literature. They had simply been neglected. Their works fell into obscurity by the end of the Roman Empire. Today you can find the poems online by searching the poets’ names:

Nossis—who lived in Locri in “Magna Graecia” or southern Italy where a women’s religious cult thrived. She wrote epigrams greatly praised by other Greek poets.

Moero—a lyric poet from 300BC Byzantium. She was a wife and mother who wrote epics, lyrics and epigrams. Little survives.

Korinna—who taught Pindar and was his rival. She lived in the 6th century BC.

Praxilla—who, while highly regarded in her time, was later made fun because of a poem in which she used ‘cucumbers’ along side ‘the sun and moon’ in a description of losses one might suffer.

And of course Sappho—who is probably the best known. She was born and lived most of her life on the Greek island Lesbos. Her poems full of passion and love for both sexes would have been scandalous in Georgiana’s day.

Georgiana hired a tutor to help her give context to the words. Learning a little Greek is one thing, but the art of love is another, she discovered. Here’s an excerpt:

The Greek word “Erotos” she knew meant love, certainly, and romantic love at that. How should I translate this line? she wondered. 

“‘Nothing is sweeter than love.’”

“‘Nothing is sweeter than Eros.’” In English the meaning tilted slightly with the change of wording. The next phrase appeared to be about delight or pleasure.

“Definitely Eros,” she said to the empty room. Whatever it is, Nossis prefers it to honey. Yesterday, Georgiana wouldn’t have understood. Love has a taste; she knew that now. She recalled the feel of Andrew’s mouth on hers, and the taste when he opened and let her explore. The taste was sweeter than honey, indeed. She felt warmth rise again deep within her. Heat colored her neck and pooled deep in her belly.

The words of Nossis hadn’t changed since yesterday, but Georgiana had.

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