The lyric poems of the Roman poet, Catullus, and the late Middle Ages poet, Petrarch, both trace the cycle of a love affair, but the nature of those affairs is quite different. Catullus depicts a passionate, lusty relationship, whereas Petrarch describes something more akin to worship from afar. The differences likely reflect not only their different experiences, but also the different times in which they lived. Catullus lived in pre-Christian Rome, and his writings evidence the Romans’ open and frank view of sexuality. Petrarch was a product of the Middle Ages, in which the Church dominated all aspects of life.
Catullus and his lover, Lesbia, exchange thousands of kisses. (Lyric 5). He describes another woman as “attractive,” but not “stunning,” because unlike Lesbia, “there’s no spice at all in all the length of her body.” (Lyric 86). He seems to have no reticence with regard to matters of sex. In one passage expressing bitterness at Lesbia’s liaisons with other men, Catullus exclaims: May she have joy & profit from her cocksmen,
Go down embracing hundreds all together,
Never with love, but without interruption
Wringing their balls dry.
Petrarch would never stoop to such earthy language. The object of his affections, Laura, is more remote. The tone of his lyrics is more spiritual. Petrarch is first smitten by her “two pure eyes.” (Sonnet 34). He is captivated by her “divine bearing,” (Sonnet 126). References to Laura’s physical presence are few and soft, for instance, passing mention of her “golden locks” (Sonnet 34) and “lovely body” (Sonnet 126). A reference to her “breast” is accompanied by the adjective, “angelic.” (Sonnet 126). The virginal aura is reinforced with an image associated with the Virgin Mary: “she was sitting humble in such a glory.” (Sonnet 126). Nevertheless, Petrarch does feel passion toward Laura, as in the following passage:
Father in heaven, after...