Here’s a particularly egregious specimen:
This unfortunate liaison - as we learn from Philippe Ariès's The Hour of Our Death - began as early as the beginning of the 16th century. At this date the visual arts first turn the medieval, dark but chaste danse macabre into a lascivious danse érotique. Later the phenomenon takes on necrophiliac features, followed by sadistic aspects even before de Sade, and makes its way into literature.I’m becoming increasingly aware that just about any claim about beginnings in the history of literature can easily be countered with a ‘but what about…?’ My ‘but what about…?’ here will be Propertius. I would say the point when ‘Eros throws himself violently into the arms of Thanatos as if to merge with him, when love seeks to find its highest and purest form, indeed its fulfilment, in death’ has been reached in literature long before the period where Süskind locates it. It has been reached already in that most death-obsessed of the Roman elegists, Sextus Propertius.
The fantasy of the death that perfects and eternalizes the lovers’ union, or the moment of orgasm, is nothing unusual in poetry. So when Propertius concludes elegy 2.15, a poem suffused with post-coital languor, with the words: ‘perhaps tomorrow will bring death for us’ (‘forsitan includet crastina fata dies’), though it seems almost a wish, it is entirely conventional. Love and death converge on the ‘carpe diem’ topos. (One of the finest examples of which—‘soles occidere et redire possunt:/ nobis, cum semel occidit brevis lux,/ nox est perpetua una dormienda’—I quote here only so that I can reproduce Walter Ralegh’s beautiful version of it: ‘The Sunne may set and rise:/ But we contrariwise/ Sleepe after our short light/ One everlasting night’).
But the long habit of loving (to paraphrase Thomas Browne) indisposeth us for dying, and love poets generally tend to weight their emphasis more towards the vivamus atque amemus component than to dwell on the fact that death is coming, and soon.
Not so Propertius. He imagines the lover’s death far more thoroughly, and with a kind of sustained perversity that is far removed from either the ‘death comes to all, therefore: love’ conceit, or the languid death-in-life of the typical elegiac lover. It seems I’m not saying anything new here, since one Theodore D. Papanghelis has already written a book on this (Propertius: A Hellenistic Poet on Love and Death), in which comparisons are drawn between the elegist and the French symbolists, especially Baudelaire, and sundry nineteenth-century decadents. I can’t help wondering if the reason why it was the French that made the most of the love-death nexus is traceable to the phonetic similarity of the two words in that language. But that doesn’t explain it: la mort is blunter, less sensual than l’amour and (to my ear, at least) it doesn’t sound anywhere near as desirable. Incidentally, Papanghelis discusses at some length the line that provides the title for this post, ‘laus in amore mori’ (‘To die in love is glory’), arguing that in the wordplay there is a point being made about the common etymology of the two words, a counter to Lucretius’s explanation of ‘amor’ as ‘umor’.
Propertius fantasizes his own death in 2.13, complete with an intriguing necrophiliac element (‘tu vero nudum pectus lacerata sequeris […] osculaque in gelidis pones suprema labellis’ – ‘And you will follow and lash your naked breast, and press kisses on my frozen lips for the last time’). He also fantasizes the death of his beloved (2.26). Then Cynthia really does die (really?), and the poet dreams her as a revenant. Cynthia’s shade closes her speech to the poet with the words: ‘nunc te possideant aliae: mox sola tenebo: / mecum eris, et mixtis ossibus ossa teram.’ (‘Though other women possess you now, soon I alone will hold you: and you will be with me, and I will grind against your bones and unite them with mine.’) Sounds pretty unpleasant. Maybe we should see other people?
Propertius is perhaps more influential on Renaissance poetry than he is generally given credit for. Perhaps not so much on someone like Donne (who investigated the paradoxes of love and death in a different way), but certainly on neo-Latin poets. The Neo-Platonism of Ficino gave point to the by then conventional Petrarchan paradoxes: the lovers literally exchanged souls, dying as the soul left the body and being revived as a living corpse by the soul of the beloved. Johannes Secundus has a particularly bizarre exploration of this conceit (Basium 13): dying a death (that is to say, knackered after sex), the poet wishes for his beloved to act as a kind of erotic life-support machine for him, by sharing her soul in a perpetual kiss of life. Some of Secundus’s sex/death conceits certainly draw directly on Propertius (his and Neaera’s imagined death in Basium 2 certainly has a model in Propertius 2.28); and his death-tinged fantasies generally seem very Propertian in spirit.
[By the way, nothing to do with death, but this virtuoso translation of one of Secundus’s poems deserves to be read by all.]
One thing to add: it’s worth remarking that in French poetry the unattractive sounding ‘mort’ can be avoided in favour of the more euphonious subjunctive mood of the verb. Samuel Beckett does it here, and succeeds in making death sound much preferable to love:
je voudrais que mon amour meureIn the TLS a couple of weeks ago there was an excellent article on Beckett’s poetry, which includes his English version of this piece.
qu’il pleuve sur le cimetière
et les ruelles où je vais
pleurant celle qui crut m’aimer