There is no sex life in the grave (II)

Dediqué ya un post, hace tiempo, al tópico literario que podríamos etiquetar como "No hay vida sexual tras la tumba" ("There is no sexual life in the grave"), al hilo de una cita de Jaime Gil de Biedma. Ver aquí. Comentaba entonces que había localizado un texto, supuestamente de Auden, sobre el tema. Pero, dado el estilo poco sutil del poema, me inclinaba por pensar que no era de este autor. Una investigación más cuidadosa ha aportado resultados: el poema es de Auden, pero en realidad es un pasaje procedente de una "antimasque" (especie de sainete grotesco o esperpento) titulada The Entertainment of the Senses. Además, el texto está puesto en boca de un mono (sí, un mono). De ahí, quizá, su vulgaridad. A continuación reproduzco en este post un breve artículo que sobre la cuestión he publicado en la revista CA News 36 (June 2007), págs. 7-8 (con la colaboración de Mónica M. Martínez), en el que trazamos la historia del motivo en la poesía clásica e inglesa.

Nota: CA News es el órgano de The Classical Association (la Sociedad de Estudios Clásicos británica).


The carpe diem is one of the most ancient and celebrated tropes in Western Literature. It is an epicurean exhortation to seize the day and to enjoy love and wine as a kind of solace for the brevity of human life. This invitation becomes an instrument of seduction when the poet attempts to convince the female addressee that she should love him now, while she is still young and fresh like a rose, being her beauty as ephemeral as that of the flower. As an argument to strengthen his case, the poet may adduce then the post mortem nulla voluptas argument: there is no sex life in the grave. Statements of this kind did already occur in the Anacreontea (IV, IX, XXXVI) and in the Greek Anthology. Among the many epigrams on love and death in the latter, the following (V 85), written by the Hellenistic poet Asclepiades of Samos, is by far the most meaningful:

Φείδῃ παρθενίης. καὶ τί πλέον; οὐ γὰρ ἐς Ἅιδην
ἐλθοῦσ' εὑρήσεις τὸν φιλέοντα, κόρη.
ἐν ζωοῖσι τὰ τερπνὰ τὰ Κύπριδος· ἐν δ' Ἀχέροντι
ὀστέα καὶ σποδιή, παρθένε, κεισόμεθα.
Around 1888, Andrew Lang wrote an English version of the Greek epigram:


Believe me, love, it is not good
To hoard a mortal maidenhood;
In Hades thou wilt never find,
Maiden, a lover to thy mind;
Love’s for the living! presently
Ashes and dust in death are we.
This motif is developed in English Literature. Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) resorts to it in his famous “To his coy Mistress”, a poem included in many compilations of seventeenth-century poetry. In the first part of this poem (ll. 1-20), Marvell pictures the hypothesis that he and his lady could enjoy their love without limits of space and time: in that case there would be no need to hurry or seize the day. In the second part (ll. 21-32), Marvell envisages the corruption of the tomb, developing the post mortem nulla voluptas argument:

But at my back I alwaies hear
Times winged Charriot hurrying near:
And yonder all before us lye
Desarts of vast Eternity.
Thy Beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble Vault, shall sound
My echoing Song: then Worms shall try
That long preserv’d Virginity:
And your quaint Honour turn to dust;
And into ashes all my Lust.
The Grave’s a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.
As death is not only inevitable but joyless, the pleasures of life, specially love and sex, must be boldly seized. This is the conclusion reached by the poem’s speaker in the third part (ll. 33-46).

There are other occurrences of the post mortem nulla voluptas motif in English literature. One quite famous in contemporary poetry appears in The Entertainment of the Senses (1973), an antimasque written by W. H. Auden (1907-1973) and Chester Kallman (1921-1975). The characters of this play are five apes, who represent the five senses and speak by turns, and a CHAMBERLAIN, who introduces and closes the antimasque. All of them encourage the audience to enjoy the pleasures of the senses before the arrival of Death. The FIRST APE, who represents Touch, asserts:

When you see a fair form, chase it
And if possible embrace it,
Be it a girl or boy.
Don’t be bashful: be brash, be fresh.
Life is short, so enjoy
Whatever contact your flesh
May at the moment crave:
There’s no sex-life in the grave.
Incidentally, this passage is quoted in the film Gruppo di Famiglia in un Interno (1974), by L. Visconti. Where Marvell had warned his lady of time’s fleeting nature and the imminence of death, urging her to physically consummate their love, these contemporary poets urge their audience to seize the day promiscuously. In both we can see the refusal to exchange the pleasures of the present for a dubious promise of happiness in a world to come. They knew for sure: there is no sex life in the grave.

Gabriel Laguna Mariscal (University of Córdoba)
Mónica María Martínez-Sariego (University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria

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