Odd poem: Frederick the Great’s erotic poem for a male lover

‘La Jouissance’, translated as ‘The Ecstacy’ or ‘The Orgasm’

This night, vigorous desire in full measure,
Algarotti wallowed in a sea of pleasure.
A body not even a Praxitiles fashions
Redoubled his senses and imbued his passions
Everything that speaks to eyes and touches hearts,
Was found in the fond object that enflamed his parts.
Transported by love and trembling with excitement
In Cloris’ arms he yields himself to contentment
The love that unites them heated their embraces
And tied bodies and arms as tightly as laces.
Divine sensual pleasure! To the world a king!
Mother of their delights, an unstaunchable spring,
Speak through my verses, lend me your voice and tenses
Tell of their fire, acts, the ecstasy of their senses!
Our fortunate lovers, transported high above
Know only themselves in the fury of love:
Kissing, enjoying, feeling, sighing and dying
Reviving, kissing, then back to pleasure flying.
And in Knidos’ grove, breathless and worn out
Was these lovers’ happy destiny, without doubt.
But all joy is finite; in the morning ends the bout.
Fortunate the man whose mind was never the prey
To luxury, or grand airs, one who knows how to say
A moment of climax for a fortunate lover
Is worth so many aeons of star-spangled honour.

The poem may not be world-shaking, but the backstory is intriguing: Frederick, the oldest son of the King of Prussia, was gay which his ultramasculine father didn’t like. In his teens one lover, his father’s page, was exiled to an unpopular regiment on the Dutch border; another lover, a tutor, was executed–Frederick was forced to watch the beheading. At 21 he was married to a relative of the Habsburg dynasty although, as he wrote to his sister “there can be neither love nor friendship between us.” When he became King at age 28 he prevented his wife from visiting the Court. He set her up with a palace and with Berlin apartments, saw her rarely and never showed her any affection.

The poem above was written in French, Frederick’s preferred language, in July 1740, shortly after he became King. (The translation is by Giles MacDonogh.) Frederick had just been joined at Court by his Italian friend the philosopher Francesco Algarotti who had apparently made disparaging comments about the lack of passion in northern Europeans. Frederick wrote to Voltaire that the poem was a response to the charge; physical passion between Frederick and Algarotti was clearly part of the issue. Algarotti’s manuscript of the poem, headed ‘From Königsberg to Monsieur Algarotti, Swan of Padua‘, was discovered in archives in Berlin in 2011.

Frederick ruled for 46 years, his reign notable for military successes and Prussian expansion, and for his patronage of the Arts and support for the Enlightenment. He died at age 74 in 1786, childless of course.

Photo: “Frederick the Great Bust” by mrsmecomber is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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