P. RAJA - A FEAST AT DEAD OF NIGHT
P.RAJA (October 07, 1952) a son of this divine soil, Pondicherry, India famed for its spiritual heritage, writes in his chosen language, English, and also in his mother tongue, Tamil. More than 5000 of his works – poems, short stories, interviews, articles, book reviews, plays, skits, featuresand novellas – have seen the light through newspapers and magazines that number to 350 in both India and elsewhere. He has 30 books for adults and 8 books for children in English and 14 books in Tamil. Apart from contributing special articles to Encyclopaedia of Post-Colonial Literature in English (London), Encyclopaedia of Tamil Literature in English, and to several other edited volumes, he has also written scripts for Television (Delhi). He broadcasts his short stories and poems from All India Radio, Pondicherry. He was GENERAL COUNCIL MEMBER of CENTRAL SAHITYA AKADEMI, New Delhi (ENGLISH ADVISORY BOARD -- 2008-2012) representing Pondicherry University. He is EDITOR of TRANSFIRE, a literary quarterly devoted to translations from various languages into English. His website: www.professorraja.com
A FEAST AT DEAD OF NIGHT
Somehow I’ve developed a fascination for fat volumes as I have for buxom women. I am of the opinion that the latter serve as feast for the eyes, while the former for the mind. It is not that the slims fail to serve such a purpose, but the fat ones have something more to tell. I have a harem of fat ones in my study, and all of them have a pride of place on the reference shelves.
Whenever I am inside bookshops, be it new or used, my eyes greedily look for the fat ones because most often they turn out to be reference volumes, sometimes very rare ones.
Once my eyes stood riveted on a huge pile of bulky volumes in a wastepaper godown. Expecting a treasure trove, I began to read the titles printed on the spine. In the process, I stood, I sat, I craned my neck, I stooped, and did all sorts of gymnastics. But to my dismay, I found that most of them were Directories meant to please the businessmen by lessening their burden of income tax and sales tax. Amidst those books with exquisite jacket covers, slept conveniently quite an unattractive black spined book. Since it looked quite odd in that pile, I strained my eyes hiding behind thick glasses to read those tiny faded out letters on its spine: Poetica Erotica.
Joy surged within me. Wow! Erotic poetry! What a treasure find! As I jumped for joy, a doubt began to haunt me. Is it in English or as the title suggests, in Greek? I pulled it out and riffled through its pages and then heaved a sigh of relief. Yes. The book was in English. The heart within me stirred and I asked the shopkeeper “How much should I pay for this book?”
“Anything you like…That book was lying there for long. Who ever wants to buy a book of poems these days? Give me anything you like,” he said.
I wanted to pay him magnanimously for that book. And so I pushed my fingers enthusiastically into my shirt pocket, with the noble intention of giving him whatever money came into my hand. I did pull out but what did I find in my hand! My identity card, a couple of my visiting cards, a foolscap size paper folded eight times, containing the long list of grocery items my wife wanted me to buy on credit, a five rupee note and two twenty-five paise coins.
The shopkeeper took the five-rupee note from my hand and said contentedly: “Thank you. This is enough for that book. Keep the change”. He then looked at me as if I were an idiot willing to pay more than the book really deserved.
Poor fellow! He never knew that he gave me a treasury of the best erotic poems in English and in western classical languages in an admirable English translation.
Edited by T.R.Smith and published by Liveright, New York in 1927, the work Poetica Erotica, a collection of rare and curious amatory verse, was issued in a limited subscription edition so that “it may possibly not reach the over-fastidious or the coarse minded ones who secretly admire what they pretend to dislike; people quite incapable of appreciating literature for its better qualities.”
What strikes the reader at the first instance is that this fairly comprehensive and representative collection of erotic verse is quite different in character from the unusual love poetry printed in anthologies. The editor really deserves our applause and a pat on his back for selecting such poems that possess charm, passion and humour. He had conveniently brushed aside those poems that would stoop to the merely vulgar and obscene category. While ‘What is vulgar?’ and ‘What is obscene?’ are still debatable, a reading of this book makes it clear that, at least from the point of view of the editor, nudes are obscene and vulgar, but when they are draped with see-through tapestries they look charming. No Bowdler or Comstock would raise a finger.
Here is an excerpt from a poem titled “The Wonderful Grot” published in 1783 and whose author is unknown:
“Beneath a chalky cliff is found
Nor in the air, nor on the ground
A Grot! There cupid keeps his court.
There Venus and her nymphs resort.
Close shaded, it on pillars stands;
Pillars ne’er raised by mortal hands,
No marble can so polished show,
Whiter they than alpine snow,
From hence proceeds a magic dew,
That gives all things a glossy hue
To glittering stars it gives their birth,
With dewy gems it spangles earth…
Most strange it is, a thing so wild
Should choose a mate that storms more wild
Well! Not a single vulgar word; not a single obscene line. Yet we can find both only if we can read between the lines. And that reminds me of a saying: “Naked dogs are obscene; mating dogs are quite decent” for the two vulgar parts are hidden from sight. Is not Fanny Hill, the best erotic novel in English, though its author John Cleland , did not use a single four-letter word in it?
It is not that English literature, original and in translation, lacks in any way pornographic specimens. One may find a cartload of them as in any other language. The Drollery Books of the 17th century, Pills to Purge Melancholy (1707) and Merry, Facetious and Witty Songs and Ballads Prior to 1800 (1890) contain in them the best examples of such coarse and obscene poetry. As one who had enjoyed reading these books in the study of a fortunate bibliophile, I doubt if all these volumes put together would outdo the salacious verses of Aristophanes and Juvenal. Perhaps that is the reason why this anthology includes only the sixth satire of Juvenal and plays blind to Aristophanes.
Since the editor was keen in not allowing the words that would rhyme with ‘duck’ and all such words that continue to be taboo to the modern mind, only Eros and Aphrodite rule this anthology that starts with the “Song of Solomon” and ends with “Songs Written for the Entertainment of My Lady Joan” authored by the 20th century American poet, Francis Page.
Poets down the ages, round the globe found nothing much to write about man, except his ‘dildoe’. But they found in woman God’s plenty. And so throughout this anthology women rule the roost. Good news to feminists.
To Andrew Marvell, the metaphysical poet, one lifetime was too tiny a period to praise the beauty of his woman. And so here is what he said “To His Coy Mistress”(1681):
“…An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore to each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart;
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.”
Sensual poets (not to be confused with sensuous poets like John Keats and others, who have no place in this anthology) didn’t live long like William Wordsworth and make a nuisance of themselves. As they were aware of “Time’s winged chariot hurrying near”, they recorded for posterity in sizzling verse their impressions on the alluring beauty of women. And this anthology serves as ample testimony to the fact that the woman’s beauty is but a vague reflection of God’s formless beauty.
The subject matter may be the same in all these charming poems found in this pillow like book. But what makes the difference is the point of view. If Anacreon, the Greek lyric poet (c.572-488 B.C.) likes to look at his beloved starting from her hair “as black as bright” and proceed to her “alabaster brow”, and then to
“Her dark eyebrows so dispose
That they neither part nor close
But by a divorce so slight
Be joined, may cheat the sight”
And finally to the rest “that hidden may be guessed”, another Greek poet likes to portray his girl from the foot up:
“O fairy foot! O shapely leg! O tempting taper thigh!
O comely back! O clipsome waist! With ivory which vie;
O shoulders soft! O budding breasts! O neck of swan-like fall!
O lovely hands! O lustrous eyes! For which I madden all,
O gestures of transcendent grace!…”
and ends with:
“…O kisses! Sweeter far
Than nectar, and, o voice! To which my senses are-”
And King Solomon in his “Song of Songs” (from the Bible) enumerates the female charms in both ways, that is from head to foot (chapter IV) and from the joints of her thighs to her head (chapter VII). Well! It is a question of taste, as some would like to take a peg of whisky on rocks, some with soda water, some with tap-water, some simply raw, and some with a dash of lime.
William Shakespeare described the sexual act as “making a beast with two backs”. And Ovid, who lived some sixteen centuries before Shakespeare, had put it in a couplet:
“Both bodies in a single body mix.
A single body with a double sex.”
And Shakespeare is known for his “little Latin and less Greek”. Several such descriptions pepper the pages of this anthology. A lad tells his neighbour’s willing wife to put her husband to sleep by giving him wine, so that she could be his on that afternoon. But look how he warns her:
“Let not they neck by his vile arms be prest,
Nor lean thy soft head on his boisterous breast.
Thy bosom’s roseate buds let him not finger,
“Chiefly on thy lips let his lips linger…
Mingle not things, not to his leg join thine,
Nor thy soft foot with his hardfoot combine.”
Perhaps he wants her fresh at least on that day. And when the husband began to snore “oppressed with wine and sleep”, the lucky lad and the luckier lady were fully awake. And here is a secret the lad likes to share with the readers:
“Stark naked as she stood before mine,
Not one wen in her body could I spy.
What arms and shoulders did I touch and see,
How apt her breasts were to be pressed by me,
How smooth a belly under her waist saw I,
How large a leg, and what a lusty thigh.
To leave the rest, all liked me passing well;
I clinged her naked body, down she fell:
Judge you the rest, being tired she bade me kiss;
Jove send me more such afternoons as this!”
Here is someone who likes to enjoy all sorts of women, for he believes that every woman has one purpose or the other to serve in bed:
“If she be tall, she’s like an Amazon,
And therefore fills the bed she lies upon.
If short, she lies the rounder, to say troth,
But short and long please me, for I love both.
A white wench thralls me, so doth golden yellow,
And nut-brown girls in doing have no fellow.
A young wench pleaseth, and an old one is good.
This for her looks, that for her womanhood.”
And here is a different man with a different taste:
“Fat love, and too much fulsome, me annoys,
Even as sweet meat a glutted stomach cloys.”
Now pity the man who is in love with two women at once. Poor fellow! He loves both women equally and hence could not make any decision:
“Both are well favoured, both rich in array,
which is the loveliest it is hard to say:
This seems the fairest, so doth that to me;
And this doth please me most, and so doth she;
Even as a boat tossed by contrary wind,
So with this love and that wavers my mind.
Venus, why doublest thou my endless smart?
Was not one wench enough to grieve my heart?”
God save him, for we, the married know for certain what great chaos, catastrophe and havoc await the man with two wives.
In yet another case, two women fall in love with one man and a war of words ensues between the two. It goes on until the man himself puts an end to their quarrel by saying that he loves neither of them, but loves another “dear creature with everything in its proper shape and order”. A lusty youth married to a “blithe and bonny lass” with “rolling eye, and forehead high, and all good parts Nature could give her” learns to his utter dismay that “she could not keep her legs together”. Imagine the plight of the discontented married man.
Love is a bold man’s affair. Yet cowards too couldn’t resist the temptation. And what could a coward do, other than record his thoughts:
“To touch her hand, her hand binds thy desire’
To wear her ring, her ring is Nessus gift,
To feel her breast, her breast doth blow the fire,
To see her bare, her bare a baleful drift,
To bait thine eyes thereon, is loss of sight,
To think of it, confounds thy senses quite”.
It need not be construed that it is only men who express their desire for the female body. There are also maids “full of longing thoughts” who are more open and frank than men are. And here is a maid who is very adamant that she
“…Would not die a maid, because I had a mother
As I was by one brought forth I would bring forth another.”
In our travel in this realm of erotic gold, we meet a lusty lady (and there are several others too) who cajoles a “courteous knight, to lay her body flat on the ground. This done, she held her legs so wide for the young knight to slip between. The knight, good at storming castles with his “battering ram”, did succeed with “her hairy castle” too and the lady in ecstasy murmurs:
“…There is no such comfort
As lying with a man”.
In yet another poem titled “Blame Not a Woman”, most probably written by a woman, (this anthology contains a lot of poems by anonymous poets) the poetess appeals to men not to blame women for their lewdness, instead praise them for they are entitled to it. The entire poem seems to ask men: “What do you lose when women use something that belongs to them?” And be not baffled at the following excerpt from the poem:
“But if women should not trade, how should the world increase?
If women all were nice, what seed should then be sown?
If women were all coy, they would breed men’s annoy;
Then blame them not for using of their own…
If any take offence at this my song,
I think that no good manners he hath known,
We all from women came: Why should we women blame,
And for a little using of their own?”
Perhaps that is the reason why a jealous husband says, “Beneath each female robe a lover lies”. In a good number of poems, we see women “rutting endlessly, lewder than sparrows in the lusty spring”, and take eight husbands in five years. A prostitute caresses “a gouty impotent old man” and says “it’s all for money”. And a wife who allows her father-in-law to make a cuckold of his son says, “Well! It’s all for the pleasure of cheating the husband.” What then you expect the poor husband to do but grumble when he comes to know of the affair:
“She is an adulteress by form of law;
By a more straight-forward prostitute
I am offended less…”
We encounter a daughter who has willingly lost her virginity to a false man. Her mother consoles by saying that she too was the target of a “rude spear that could easily make a virgin shed her sacred name”. But the girl is quite conscious that her would-be would definitely detect it on their wedding night. And the mother promises to teach a method to cheat her would-be, a method she adopted to cheat her husband on their bridal night.
Juvenal, the Roman satirist, who studied women for several years, made his research known to the public in his sixth “Satire”:
“Women, in judgement weak, in feeling strong,
By every gust of passion borne along,
Act, in their fits, such crimes, that to be just,
The least pernicious of their sins is lust.”
Well! That’s woman. And by pointing an accusing finger at the weak spot of both men and women, the poets make the readers merry. A series of droll ballads included in this anthology make us all the more merrier. Three virgins who stake their maidenheads in a game of dice and lose them all to a lucky young man, at last learn their lesson:
“…That maidens fair
Might have a care,
And play no such game…”
In another ballad, we meet a wench involved in a clandestine love affair. She brings him home in the guise of a tinker “to clout her cauldron”. The “job over” she pays him a fee for “doing his work exceedingly well” and sends him away with a request to come and “view the cauldron”, every quarter of the year. Her husband too agrees.
While a couple of ballads tell us about the dowry system prevalent in those days, several highlight the “false flattering tongue of young men” that lead the young and charming girls astray, which only ends up in:
“Her belly got up to her chin,
And her spirits quite down to her heels”.
No wonder a clever old woman advises a Scotch lass thus:
“First marry then you may be sure,
Your child shall have a father.”
Coy wench with virgin eyes, mild wench with sweetly speaking eyes, mad wench with swimming eyes and wild wench with killing eyes parade this anthology. Black girl with marble breasts, white girl with snowy breasts, yellow girl with swollen breasts, red girl with high breasts delicate, and a bevy with panting breasts exhibit their bounty in this anthology. “Those dear concealed delights below the waist” and “those parts, which maids keep unespy’d” find their pride of place in this anthology. At times, the smell of sweat from “over-laboured loins” assails our nostrils. And when the lover boy’s “…ink was run; his pen was done”, we hear the insatiable lady say:
“Now let me roll and rub it in my hand!
Perhaps the silly worm had laboured sore,
And worked so that it can do no more.”
“Simple love poetry but it must emphasize the sensual” is what is said of erotic poetry. But whatever may be its content or form, its aim is to entertain and make the readers have their belly laugh. Erotica is not written with any malice towards women or men. And a joke, as we know, is always at other’s expense. Martial, the most entertaining Roman writer of epigrams begs his readers thus:
“This is the rule assigned to jocular poems,
To be unable to please unless they are prurient.
Wherefore lay aside your squeamishness,
And spare my pleasantries and my jokes,
I beg you, and do not seek to castrate my poems”.
Thanks to the editor of this anthology for not being a “prude’ and for publishing the uncastrated version of the poems. And our mind that has so far wandered at will in the “hills and dales” and entered the “grottos and forts of love” says with Lucretius:
“The more we still enjoy, the more we still desire.”
And after the banquet, here comes the beeda for us to savour and munch, and if possible to chew and digest. It is a bawdy riddle:
“Thou thing of subtle, slippery kind,
Which women lose, and yet no man can find.”
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