Poem 5 (Let Us Live, My Lesbia) Summary



Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe wrote imitations of Poem 5, and Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” (“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may”), though directly inspired by Horace’s carpe diem (seize the day), is also strongly reminiscent of this work. Evidently written early on in the poet’s relationship with Lesbia, Poem 5 opens by exhorting the beloved to enjoy sensual love in the present and to ignore moral reproaches from envious older people. What is their disapproval compared with the brevity of life?; because, “. . . when our brief light has set,/ night is one long everlasting sleep.”

At first glance the poem seems very similar in spirit to carpe diem, but it goes on to evoke other levels of meaning. The poet demands numberless kisses of Lesbia: “Give me a thousand kisses, a hundred more,/ another thousand, and another hundred . . .” In this breathless enumeration, some scholars have perceived an innocent, delighted, and amorous confusion. Others inferred a more serious intent: Envious witnesses would somehow be able to harm the young couple by knowing the exact number of kisses exchanged; in Roman belief this knowledge could enable a practitioner of witchcraft to curse the lovers with the evil eye. The lovers should prevent this by concealing the account from their detractors, and even from themselves.

To explain the repeated alternation “a thousand” with “a hundred,” one scholar envisions the lovers tallying kisses with a Roman abacus, which had separate columns for pebbles representing tens, hundreds, and thousands. When the accounting is completed, according to this vivid interpretation, the abacus is shaken vigorously, scattering all the pebbles and wiping out the score, to the confusion of those who would give the evil eye. The poem itself makes no mention of an abacus or of counting pebbles (calculi), but the Latin verb used here, conturbabimus, does denote a throwing into disorder.

Poem 5 is written in hendecasyllabic verse (meaning literally, eleven-syllable line), a form favored by Sappho and the Alexandrians and revived during the Renaissance. Among Renaissance poets striving to re-create or surpass the literary forms of classical literature, a vogue arose for using quantitative meter (hendecasyllabic and others from classical Greek and Latin) in stress-based vernacular languages, especially English. As late as the nineteenth century, poets such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Algernon Charles Swinburne were attempting this form, with varied success.


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