The Poetry of Sex

From Sappho to Carol Ann Duffy

by Brian Arkins (Author)
©2023 Prompt X, 144 Pages


Deals in a comprehensive, but succinct way with poets who wrote of sex and love. It covers Greek and Roman poets, the Troubadours of Provence and also Chaucer and Shakespeare, who wrote briefly about the tyranny of sexual desire. Also, in England, Shelley and Byron, who wrote of incest. The book cites a number of Irish Writers from the modern period. These include Eavan Boland, John Montagu and Desmond Egan. The book is a contribution to the history of ideas.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Preliminaries
  • Chapter 1 Heterosexual Love: Happiness
  • Chapter 2 Heterosexual Love: Unhappiness
  • Chapter 3 Marriage
  • Chapter 4 Gay Love
  • Chapter 5 Lesbian Love
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index

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1. John Montague, Copyright The Gallery Press.

2. Lines from Petrarch, Copyright Harvard University Press.

3. Michael O’Siadhail ‘Healing’, Copyright Bloodaxe Books.

4. Translations from the Troubadours, Copyright Cambridge University Press.

5. Translations from Lorca, Copyright Oxford University Press.

6. Collected Poems by Michael Longley, published by Jonathan Cape, Copyright The Random House Group Limited.

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Richard Kraft-Ebbing, one of the pioneers of discourse about sex, held that ‘sexuality is the most powerful factor in individual and social existence’1. As is well known, Freud also believed sex to be very important for women and men (though he did not regard it as the only shaping force in human life). In 1975, the Roman Catholic Church, a body hardly noted for progressive attitudes to sex, acknowledged sexuality ‘as one of the factors which give to each individual’s life the principal traits that distinguish it’. While sex for the man or woman can be purely physical, it can also be strongly linked to ‘the biological, emotional, and psychological grounding of our capacity to love’2. Accordingly, much of this book will focus on sexual love in all of its complexity. Remembering, of course, that a person can have sex without love, and can love without having sex.

Few would agree with T. E. Lawrence’s statement, after reading D. H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’ s Lover: ‘Surely the sex business isn’t worth all this damned fuss? I’ve met only a handful of people who cared a biscuit for it’3.

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Sex is, however, not just a natural thing: it is also, to a great extent, socially constructed4. At each moment in history, each society validates some forms of sexual activity and rejects others. The point is made by contrasting sexual practices in the modern West with those of Athens in the fifth century B.C. Now in the West, marriage is based on sexual love between a man and a woman; premarital sex is common, as is divorce; homosexual and lesbian sex between adults is permitted. In Athens, marriages were arranged between a couple who did not know each other; premarital sex for women did not exist (men could use prostitutes), and divorce was rare; there were no lesbian relationships, and homosexuality took the form of a relationship between an older man (who was or would be married) and an adolescent boy5.

It is not just sexual mores that change from era to era; so too do the terms used to describe them. The labels ‘heterosexual’ and ‘homosexual’ (which now seem so inevitable) are an invention of the late nineteenth century, and illustrate how, in the social sciences, the naming of a category helps to create that category. So too with the term ‘lesbian’, which derives from the relationships between the poet Sappho and adolescent girls on the island of Lesbos about 600 B.C. but is not used in a sexual sense until the twentieth century. Both male homosexuals and lesbians can now lay claim not just to a form of sexual behaviour, but also to a type of lifestyle.


The historian of sexuality, Michel Foucault, asserts of the modern world that sex ‘has become more important than our soul, more important than almost our life’6. This view that sex in the modern West is utterly ←2 | 3→pervasive is put in a striking manner in Larkin’s famous assertion about the sexual revolution of the Sixties (which had been called for by the Freudian Left)7:

Sexual intercourse began

In nineteen sixty-three

(Which was rather late for me) –

Between the end of the Chatterley ban

And the Beatles’ first LP.

While most people in the West are not actively involved in politics or organised religion, they are involved in sexual relationships of one kind or another. Enormous importance is attached to these relationships, creating an expectation of sexual satisfaction that may not be met. In one of his most crucial insights into the human sexual condition, Freud stated that ‘we must reckon with the strange possibility’ that ‘something in the nature of the sexual instinct is unfavourable to the achievement of absolute gratification’8. As much anguished love poetry shows.

The problem may be the irreducible separation of human beings, of men and women, whether in hetero- or homosexual relationships. So, in D. H. Lawrence’s novel Women in Love Rupert Birkin reflects on his relationship with Ursula Brangwen: ‘On the whole, he hated sex, it was such a limitation. It was sex that turned a man into a broken half of a couple, the woman into the other broken half’. Indeed, what is sought in sexual love is wholeness, as the comic dramatist Aristophanes states in Plato’s Symposium: ‘love is the name for the desire and pursuit of wholeness’9.

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Since sexuality is so potent a force in the lives of women and of men, it is inevitably subject to controls of various kinds. The most obvious and pervasive instance of this is the way society organises and tames sex by ensuring (as far as possible) that it is contained within monogamous marriage between a man and a woman. In many societies, these marriages are arranged, so that sexual love between the partners does not arise; this is what Blake called ‘the marriage hearse’10.

Another pervasive type of control about sex is that exercised by the Christian Churches of the West (in the East, the Orthodox tradition is much more positive about the body)11. These Churches have had a tradition of hostility to sex, together with an incessant stress on it, that has no Gospel authority, that bears no relation to the usual experience of women and of men. While the rot set in with Paul, the real villain here is Augustine (AD 354–430), the most influential theologian of Western Christianity, and one of the most disastrous persons in the history of ideas12.

For some nine years, Augustine belonged to the heretical sect the Manichees, who held that the soul is good, the body evil. This means being hostile to sex, and, even when he became an orthodox Christian, Augustine retained that frame of mind. He places sexuality at the centre of the human person, but sees it as distorted by the will of men and of women, and so hates the sexual pleasure that comes from intercourse. More: Augustine’s viciously negative view of sex led him to the radical view that intercourse carries original sin to the child.

Blake knew what was going on here, as he castigates Chapel and Priests for their attack on Love in his poem ‘The Garden of Love’13:

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I went to the Garden of Love.

And saw what I never had seen:

A Chapel was built in the midst,

Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut,

And Thou shalt not writ over the door;

So I turn’d to the Garden of Love,


X, 144
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2023 (May)
Arkins, The Poetry of Sex Love poetry gay and lesbian poetry The Poetry of Sex From Sappho to Carol Ann Duffy Arkins Brian
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2023. X, 144 pp.

Biographical notes

Brian Arkins (Author)

Brian Arkins is Professor Emeritus of classics at the University of Galway, where he taught for 37 years. He is the author of fourteen books of criticism that include: three on Latin poetry, two on Yeats and one on Joyce. He is also the author of more than 150 journal articles published in France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Denmark, England, Ireland and the United States. Dr Arkins has been Honorary President of Classical Association of Ireland, and Director of the Irish Institute of Hellenic Studies of Athens.


Title: The Poetry of Sex