10 JULY 1964, Page 28

Much Ado About Nothing

'Dom°, a filthy pleasure is, and short' goes the first line of Ben Jonson's imitation of Petronios, which finds a place in William Cole's anthologY, Erotic Poety, under the heading of 'Importunities and Advice.' Not advice, to judge from his foreword, of which Stephen Spender woula approve. The erotic, Mr. Spender instructs us, is intimately associated with the religious, ail attitude traditionally upheld in the Orient but not 'in the pagan Latin world,' which was 'too .cynical to be absorbed into the sensual.' A tribute, in my view, to the good sense of the Romans: so far as they were concerned, all sex and religion had in common was their intrinsic absurdity.

Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, at any rate on the showing of Mr. Cole's col- lection, that it is not so much sex and religion which are absurd as the postures, whether mental or physical, of their practitioners. There is, between these two covers, a great deal of por- tentously bad verse, most of it modern and all of it by people who were taking sex (and them- selves) very seriously. There is also a lot of very good verse: mostly by poets who were de- tached, who were prepared to laugh at them- selves, who were writing about the erotic rather than trying to write erotically. This is not to deny that there are poems here which success- fully convey erotic experience; but those which do are not those which go grinding on about bogus mystiques of union, they are those which recognise the brevity and brutishness of the per- formance.

This anthology covers 5,000 years of assorted folly; the main thing which strikes one is that so many people should have spent so much energy in pursuit of an over-rated sensation which lasts a bare ten seconds and is often compromised, even at that, by one drink too many or too few. This thought, I am bound to say, had occurred to several of the contributors. H. Phelps Putnam writes sardonically of . . . the farce that men must stagger through For love of you, old slit, for love of you; while it is left to a seventeenth-century catch song finally to dismiss the whole dotty imposture : So kiss my Arse disdainful sow!

Good claret is my mistress now.

After 500 -pages• of erotic verse, it was rather in that frame of mind that I approached Alex Comfort's translation of The Koka Shastra. This volume consists of a pious preface by W. G. Archer, an introduction by Mr. Comfort about Indian erotic manuals of the Middle Ages, and then the text of the most important of these, i.e. The Koka Shastra itself. I suppose this was bound to be printed here sooner or later, but for the life of me I can't see why.

Although some of this tedious commonplace night come as news to a boy of ten, even he doesn't need telling not to marry a woman with a beard, or that most girls prefer young men. There is one exciting moment, when it looks as if we are to be told how 'one woman may enjoy four men' and vice versa, but the treatment of this topic is too generalised to be of practical value.