Literary Notes: Neither private joy nor public pleasure

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EROTICISM IS in danger of extinction, a sad reflection on the eve of Valentine's Day. At least, that can be the only conclusion in a world where arousal is ruled by Interporn or, as it is also called, cyberporn.

Eroticism has been the most predictable and constant feature of mankind, and it is no surprise that in the poetry that has survived the centuries there is a considerable corpus of erotic verse. Homer needed very few words to suggest the erotic charge between the god of war and the goddess of love: Mars entering, seized her hand, hung on it, and thus urged his suit: "To bed, my fair, and let us love."

Sappho, Aristophanes, Anacreon, Euripides, Theocritus and other Greeks displayed the same need to arouse the senses with words before deeds; and what the poetry lacked in intimate detail it more than made up for in grace. This wasn't always true of the libidinously active Romans, who tended to more earthier flavours, sometimes edging near the graphic as in this excerpt from one of Ovid's Amores:

What arms and shoulder did I

touch and see.

How apt her breasts were to be press'd by me.

How smooth her belly under her waist saw I.

How large a leg and what a lusty thigh.

Yet the art of poetry imposes its own peculiar restraints which, in skilled hands, heightens, not lessens the effect. This was why classical erotic verse had a profound influence on much later times. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Elizabethan age, where Spenser, Marlowe, Campion and Jonson rushed around, translating Ovid, Catullus and Horace with unmistakable glee.

Generally, we find that verse and prose produced by the 16th and 17th centuries is forthright on matters sexual. This is not to say that it lacks eloquence, but merely mirrors what was permitted by the conventions of the day. John Wilmot, Lord Rochester is a good example of the sexual freedom which came to symbolise the Restoration:

Smiling, she chides in a kind

murmuring noise

And from her body wipes the clammy joys,

When with a thousand kisses wandering o'er

My panting bosom, "Is there then no more?"

The 18th and 19th centuries tend to use metaphor as a veil and this, once again, respects the conventions of the time: for Sheridan, in his poem "The Geranium", the plant is a suitably graphic - and red - representation of the male genitalia in all its glory. To today's reader this has its amusing side - either in admiration at the often ingenious way in which sex is disguised or in mockery at the prudery of the society which necessitated such measures.

But how to define the nature of erotic poetry? It is there in the very earliest literature - though it seems that the Sumerian and Egyptians saw sex as guilt-free but out of man's control as can be seen from this fragment of Egyptian poetry written over 30 centuries ago:

I found my lover on his bed,

And my heart was sweet to excess

I shall stroll with you

In every favourite place.

And in our time poets as different as John Betjeman and e.e. cummings expressed their views:

may i feel said he

i'll squeal said she

just once said he

it's fun said she.

It is not prudery that revolts at Interporn; but the brazen no-holds- barred nature of Interporn can only blunt the sensitivity required to appreciate true eroticism. Eroticism, the wisp of a veil, is a private joy while the bawdy frolic is a public pleasure. But Interporn is neither - and probably only too closely related to the reduction in the male sperm count - or the sad tales of sexual dysfunction in the latest American sexual report published, alas, in time for Valentine's Day.

Anthony Anderson has compiled the audiobook recordings `Classic Love Poetry' and `Naked She Lay - Classic Erotic Verse' (Naxos AudioBooks, each pounds 8.99/pounds 10.99)