Poetry Analysis: Petronius’s “Doing”

petronius statue

“Doing”

By Gaius Petronius

Doing, a filthy pleasure is, and short;

And done, we straight repent us of the sport:

Let us not then rush blindly on unto it,

Like lustful beasts, that only know to do it:

For lust will languish, and that heat decay.

But thus, thus, keeping endless holiday,

Let us together closely lie and kiss,

There is no labour, nor no shame in this;

This hath pleased, doth please, and long will please; never

Can this decay, but is beginning ever.

In “Doing,” 1st century A.D. poet Petronius urges us to restrain our physical desire.  The first lines portray “short pleasure” as the dirtiest and most depraved:

“Doing, a filthy pleasure is, and short;/And done, we straight repent us of the sport;/ Let us not then rush blindly on unto it,/ Like lustful beasts, that only know to do it:/ For lust will languish, and that heat decay” (1-5).

To put it in more modern terms, Petronius isn’t the guy who’d chug a beer, slur a brash, unromantic “want to have sex?” in your ear before fucking you in the fastest, most unimaginable way.  No, he’d be a sensualist-the quieter, more amorous guy that understands seduction begins with mystery, with the withholding of gratification.

Ironically, in “Doing” the “doing” itself offers no lasting pleasure. If “doing” is a present participial verb representing eternal action, the actual consummation of desire (sex) is both “filthy” and “short.” Meaning improper and obscene, “filthy” portrays sex as sinful. But before you go assuming that Petronius was a prude who advocated for celibacy and chastity belts, we should make one thing clear: it is not visceral desire that Petronius so stalwartly rallies against-it’s the ways in which we approach sex. When we simply “do” sex like we would do a homework assignment, we miss the rapture and excitement real intimacy can afford.

“And done,” he laments, “we straight repent us of the sport.” Here, the religious word “repent” indicates such lovemaking is a serious sin against God worthy of profound regret. “Sport” further reinforces this image. Rather than depict sex as a blissful communion of both body and spirit, “sport” trivializes the act as if it were just another means of amusement. Such an attitude toward sex represents a devolution to our lower animal nature: like “lustful  beasts” who possess no reason or rationality and simply rely on the impulse of their instincts, the man who sets out to merely fulfill his carnal longings will miss out on a whole other dimension of intimacy-he’ll have sex but no lovemaking.

For Petronius, the problem with lust is it doesn’t last: desire will “languish”; heat “decay”. Both words depict the consummation of sexual longing as intense but ultimately fleeting. To obtain the object of your desire, it seems, is disillusioning. It’s like The Great Gatsby. Though he’s spent years building a fortune in hopes of finally winning back Daisy, the long lost love of his life, when he finally attains her, he feels disenchanted: she was better off as the green light, a hazy, faraway ambition made appealing by its being inaccessible.

The only way for ardor to be sustained over the long-term, then, is for fulfillment to be postponed…at least for a little while:

“But, thus, thus, keeping endless holiday,/ Let us together closely lie and kiss,/ There is no labor nor no shame in this” (Petronius 6-8).

If a holiday is a magical time when one can temporarily vacate their life and take some time off, Petronius is asking his lover to indulge in a brief respite from the world. But their respite is not gratifying their fiery desires-it’s delaying them. Often once you attain the object of your desire, your appetite for them deteriorates; it is only the pursuit of longing that makes sex exciting-not its actual fulfillment. Petronius, the first master of seduction, was well aware of this. By deferring the consummation of their passions, he knows their relationship will remain a blissful honeymoon instead of disintegrate into the all-too-common convention of marriage as hopeless tedium.

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