Despite the well-known adage that all literature is about sex and death, the Times and the Daily Mail got rather agitated today about the inclusion of that Playboy-esque filthfest, Ovid’s Amores, in the most recent Latin AS-level exam. “Slip off your chemise without a blush”, reads a translation of the extract. “Say all sorts of naughty things, and let the bed creak and groan as you writhe with pleasure.” All sorts of naughty things? Dear God, spare the innocence of our nation’s teenagers!
Forgive me if I don’t join the moral outrage brigade in this instance, but I’m pretty sure the average UK teenager isn’t going to balk at much in Ovid. Take the UK singles chart – a compilation predominantly controlled by the consumer habits of teens – where the present number one,Blurred Lines, includes the lyrics “Lemme be the one you back your ass up to /… Had a bitch, but she ain’t as bad as you / So, hit me up when you pass through / I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two.” Even at its most risqué, Ovid at least preserved a semblance of mutual pleasure. In a world where “tearing you up”, “smashing you”, and “hitting it” is commonplace, exposure to sensual – rather than violent – language surrounding sex might even do the little scamps some good.
Meanwhile, it would be prudent to bear in mind that this is hardly the first time 16-year-olds have encountered amorous literature in the classroom. Studying sex is almost as old as the act itself – as the list below shows.
Solomon’s Song of Songs
The Bible, not usually known as a bastion of liberal sexual attitudes, openly celebrates the honeymoon union of a bride and bridegroom in Solomon’s Song of Songs. There are some delightful euphemisms for a variety of sexual acts in this section that they certainly won’t teach in Sunday school, including: “Blow on my garden, that its fragrance may spread everywhere. Let my beloved come into his garden and taste its choice fruits” – not to mention the fact that every so often during such intimate sessions, the voice of “friends” mysteriously pipe up, prompting the more suspicious reader to wonder exactly where these friends are. Compliments of the day are somewhat lost on the modern reader – “your breasts are like two fawns” might not prompt a favourable response nowadays but then again, Fergie of the Black-Eyed Peas was happy to call hers “lady lumps”, so anything is possible.
The Miller’s Tale
Often thought of as the “bawdiest” Canterbury Tale (although Chaucer provides a surfeit of material to choose from), the Miller’s Tale is a particularly charming story about everyone trying to win the affections of local married beauty Alisoun. Alisoun decides she’ll go with a lodging student, and when another admirer interrupts their lovemaking session, she responds by sticking her bottom out the window in the darkness and admonishing him to kiss her on the lips. The nation’s greatest wordsmith then reports that the admirer “kissed her naked arse full savorly”, apparently still none the wiser that the cheeks he is caressing are an altogether different kind – but, to his credit, he does pause to wonder why she appears to have grown a beard.
The Cement Garden
An A-level text that I myself was subjected to in the classroom, this 1978 novel by Ian McEwan details the incestuous relationships – from mutual masturbation to brother-sister copulation – that develop between four children after the death of their parents. Classroom analysis of this challenging piece of literature was made all the more uncomfortable in my youth by our middle-aged teacher attempting to engage a roomful of 16-year-old boys by asking, “Everybody masturbates, right? Right, guys?” The 1999 film adaptation was summarised by one particularly astute critic as “creepy”.
John Donne’s erotic elegy includes the rhyming couplet beloved of many literary scholars: “License my roving hands, and let them go/ Before, behind, between, above, below.” So far, so sexy. Not every line is gold, however – “Off with that girdle, like heaven’s zone glistering” is more likely to produce tittering than titillation when offered up to your high school girlfriend on the night of your leavers’ ball in 2013.
Another common A-level text, narrative poem Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti warns against the dangers of premarital promiscuity and STDs with the sage words: “We must not look at goblin men/ We must not buy their fruits/ Who knows upon what soil they fed/ Their hungry thirsty roots?” Unfortunately, Laura – the character who is ultimately led astray by “goblin men” – hadn’t been heeding her sensible friend Lizzie’s warnings. In Rossetti’s candid words, she went out for a night on the razz with the goblins and “suck’d until her lips were sore” on those thirsty roots, thus sealing a tragic fate for herself. There’s always one.
The World’s Wife
Finally, who could forget the entire poetry collection of Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife, beloved of A-level examiners the country over? Writing the line from Little Red Cap “I clung till dawn to his thrashing fur” on my homework diary signalled the apotheosis of my teenage obsession with Tom Selleck. Long may it continue.