The Kiss and its History/Chapter 1

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1981918The Kiss and its History — Chapter I. What Is a Kiss?William Frederick HarveyKristoffer Nyrop





It may perhaps seem somewhat futile to begin with discussing what a kiss is: that every child of course knows. We are greeted with kisses directly we enter the world, and kisses follow us all our life long, as Hölty sings—

Giving kisses, snatching kisses,
Keeps the busy world employed.

W. F. H.

Nevertheless the question is not altogether superfluous. It seems to me even to offer certain points of interest, inasmuch as it is by no means so easy as people may imagine to define what a kiss is. If we turn to the poets we are often put off with the answer that a kiss is something that should be merely felt, and that people would do well to refrain from speculating as to what it actually is.

What says this glance? What meaning lurks in this
Squeezing of hands, embrace, and ling'ring kiss?
This only can your heart explain to you.
What have such matters with the brain to do?

W. F. H.

So, for instance, says Aarestrup; but he adds as a sort of explanation—

But when I see thee my fond kiss denying,
And straightway, nathless, mine embrace not spurning,
Then needs must I to tedious arts be turning,
And let crabb'd wisdom from my lips go flying.

Know then the voice alone interprets rightful
And with poetic fire from heart's depth welleth,
And yet the sweetest of them all by no means!

Whereas the bosom, arms, and lips, and eye-sheens—
How shall I call it? for the total swelleth
Unto a language wordless as delightful.

W. F. H.

which has not brought us nearer to a solution of the question. Other poets give us an allegorical transcription, couched in vague poetical terms, which rather refer to the feelings of which the kiss may be an expression than attempt to define its physiology. Thus Paul Verlaine defines a kiss as "the fiery accompaniment on the board of the teeth of the lovely songs which love sings in a burning heart."

Baiser! rose trémière au jardin des caresses!
Vif accompagnement sur le clavier des dents,
Des doux refrains qu'Amour chante en les cœurs ardents
Avec sa voix d'archange aux langueurs charmeresses!

This definition, which seems to me to be as original as it is beautiful and apt, deals, however, exclusively with the kiss of love; but kisses, as we all know, are capable of expressing many other emotions, and it enlightens us not one whit as to the external side of the nature of a kiss. Let us, therefore, leave the poets, and seek refuge with the philologists.

In the Dictionary of the Danish Philological Society (Videnskabernes Selskabs Ordbog) a kiss is defined as "a pressure of the mouth against a body." As every one at once perceives, this explanation is very unsatisfactory, for, from the above statements, we could hardly accept more than one, viz., the mouth. Now, of course, it is quite clear that one of the first requisites for a kiss is a mouth. "Einen Kuss an sich, ohne Mund, kann man nicht geben," say the Germans, and it is also remarkable that in Finnish, antaa sunta, "to kiss," means literally "to give mouth."

How does the mouth produce a kiss?

A kiss is produced by a kind of sucking movement of the muscles of the lips, accompanied by a weaker or louder sound. Thus, from a purely phonetic point of view, a kiss may be defined as an inspiratory bilabial sound, which English phoneticians call the lip-click, i.e., the sound made by smacking the lip. This movement of the muscles, however, is not of itself sufficient to produce a kiss, it being, as you know, employed by coachmen when they want to start their horses; but it becomes a kiss only when it is used as an expression of a certain feeling, and when the lips are pressed against, or simply come into contact with, a living creature or object.

The sound which follows a kiss has been carefully investigated by the Austrian savant, W. von Kempelen, in his remarkable book entitled The Mechanism of Human Speech (Wien, 1791). He divides kisses into three sorts, according to their sound. First he treats of kisses proper, which he characterises as a freundschaftlich hellklatschender Herzenskuss (an affectionate, clear-ringing kiss coming from the heart); next he defines the more discreet, or, from an acoustic point of view, weaker kiss; and, lastly, speaks contemptuously of a third kind of kiss, which is designated an ekelhafter Schmatz (a loathsome smack).

Many other writers have, although in a less scientific manner, sought to define and elucidate the sound that arises from a kiss. Johannes Jørgensen says very delicately in his Stemninger that "the splash of the waves against the pebbles of the beach is like the sound of long kisses."

It is generally, however, an exclusively humorous or satirical aspect that is most conspicuous. In the Seducer's Diary (Forførerens dagbog) of Sören Kierkegaard, Johannes speaks of the engaged couples who used to assemble in numbers at his uncle's house: "Without interruption, the whole evenings through, one hears a sound as if a person was going round with a fly-flap: that is the lovers' kisses." A still more drastic comparison is found in the German expression, "the kiss sounded just like when a cow drags her hind hoof out of a swamp." This metaphor, which is used, you know, by Mark Twain, is as graphic as it is easy of comprehension; whereas, on the other hand, I am somewhat perplexed with regard to an old Danish expression that is to be found in the Ole Lade's Phrases (Fraser): "He kissed her so that it rang just as it does when one strikes the horns off felled cows." Another old author speaks of kissing that sounds as if one was pulling the horn out of an owl.

The emotions expressed by this more or less noisy lip-sound are manifold and varying: burning love and affectionate friendship, exultant joy and profound grief, etc., etc.; consequently there must be many different sorts of kisses.

The austere old Rabbis only recognised three kinds of kisses, viz.: those of greeting, farewell, and respect. The Romans had also three kinds, but their classification was essentially at variance with the Rabbis': they distinguished between oscula,[1] friendly kisses, basia, kisses of love, and suavia, passionate kisses. The significance of these words is clearly expressed in the following lines:—

Basia coniugibus, sed et oscula dantur amicis,
Suavia lascivis miscantur grata labellis.

But the Romans' division is by no means exhaustive; kisses are and have been actually employed to express many other feelings than those above-mentioned.

That kisses in this book are arranged in five groups, viz., kisses of passion, love, peace, respect, and friendship, is chiefly due to practical considerations; for, to be precise, these artificially-formed groups are inadequate, and, besides, often overlap one another.

A modern French writer reckons no less than twenty sorts of kisses, but I find in German dictionaries over thirty different designations: Abschiedskuss, Brautkuss, Bruderkuss, Dankkuss, Doppelkuss, Ehrenkuss, Erwiderungskuss, Feuerkuss, Flammenkuss, Frauenkuss, Freundschaftskuss, Friedenskuss, Gegenkuss, Geisterkuss, Handkuss, Honigkuss, Inbruntskuss, Judaskuss, Lehenskuss, Liebeskuss, Mädchenkuss, Minnekuss, Morgenkuss, Mutterkuss, Nebenkuss, Pantoffelkuss, Segenskuss, Söhnungskuss, Undschuldskuss, Vermählungskuss, Versöhnungskuss, Wechselkuss, Weihekuss, Zuckerkuss, etc., etc. In German the verb itself, "to kiss," is varied in many different ways, e.g., in Germany one may auküssen, aufküssen, ausküssen, beküssen, durchküssen, emporküssen, entküssen, erküssen, fortküssen, herküssen, nachküssen, verküssen, vorbeiküssen, wegküssen, widerküssen, zerküssen, zuküssen, and zurückküssen.

We must give the Germans the credit of being thorough, and in the highest degree methodical and exhaustive in their nomenclature, for can we conceive a more admirable word than, for instance, nachküssen, which is explained as "making up for kisses that have been omitted, or supplementing kisses"? However, on the other hand, it cannot be denied that they are at the same time awkward and tasteless in their expressions; a word such as ausküssen, which, for instance, is used in the refrain: Trink aus! Kuss aus! seems to me to smack perilously of the ale-house.

We have now seen what a kiss is; but before proceeding to investigate the different kinds of kisses, their significance in the history of civilisation, and treatment in poetry, it still remains for us to reply to some of the ordinary queries regarding the nature and characteristics of the kiss.

In the first place we must investigate the kiss in its gustative aspect. I here confine myself to what Kierkegaard calls "the perfect kiss," i.e., the kiss between man and woman; kisses between men are, according to that authority, insipid.

Küssen, wo smekt dat? see de maid. Yes, its taste naturally depends entirely on the circumstances, and experience is here a teacher that sets every theory at nought; but a few leading features may, however, be indicated.

When Lars Iversen, in Schandorph's Skovfogedbørnene, has kissed Mette Splyd, he wipes his mouth and says, when he has got well outside the door, "That tasted like meat that has been kept too long." When the old minnesinger, King Wenceslaus of Bohemia, had kissed his sweetheart he sang: "Just as a rose that opens its calix when it drinks the sweet dew, she offered me her sugar-sweet red mouth."

Recht als ein rôse diu sich ûz ir klôsen lât,
Swenn si des süezen touwes gert,
Sus bôt si mir ir zuckersüezen rôten munt.

As we perceive from both these examples, there is a great distinction between kisses in their gustative aspect, but, for obvious reasons, I shall entirely exclude the variety represented by Mette Splyd.

The most frequently employed and, at the same time undoubtedly the most fitting epithet of a kiss, is that it is sweet. The shepherd in the French pastorals is fond of asking for a sweet kiss (un doux baiser), and poets innumerable, like Wenceslaus, have sung about the beloved's sugar mouth. During the Renaissance such expressions as her bouche sucrine (sugary mouth) and bouche pleine de sucre et d'ambregris (mouth full of sugar and ambergris) were often employed.

We find this further borne out by two Latin epigrams. One asks:—"What is sweeter than mead?" and the answer runs: "The dew of heaven. And what is sweeter than dew?—Honey from Hybla? What is sweeter than honey?—Nectar. Than nectar?—A kiss."

Quid mulso præstat? Ros cœli. Rore quid? Hyblæ Mel. Melle hoc? Nectar. Nectare? Suaviolum.

The second epigram goes through a similar string of comparisons, and arrives at the same result: "What is better than sugar?—Honey-cake. Than honey-cake?—The flavour of honey-combs. Than this flavour?—Dewy kisses"—

Saccharo quid superat? Libum. Quid libo? Favorum Gustus. At hunc gustum? Basia roscidula.

Kisses are sweet as woman's gentle breath, which, according to a Roumanian folk-song, smells of "delicate young wine," or, as the French poets say, of "thousands of flowers."—

Laughing mouth, mouth to caress,
Kissing ere its lips you press;
Sweet for kissing, balmy breath
Like the perfume of fresh heath.

W. F. H.

A woman's breath, which intoxicates man, is, as it were, the ethereal expression of her whole being. In the description of the youthful Blancheflor we are told that her breath is so delicious and refreshing that he who experiences it knows not pain, and needs no food for a whole week.

De sa bouche ist si douce haleine,
Vivre en peut-on une semaine;
Qui au lundi le sentiroit
En la semaine mal n'avroit.

Moreover, as the flavour of a kiss depends on the woman's mouth, let us, therefore, investigate how a woman's mouth ought to be fashioned in order to fulfil its purpose from a philematological point of view. When the mediæval French poets describe a beautiful and desirable woman they say of her mouth that it must be "well-formed and sweet to kiss" (bien faite et douce pour baiser). The troubadours likewise in their love poems praise the mouth that is ben faita ad obs de baisar.

If more detailed explanations are wanted they can easily be given. The lips must, in the first place, be bewitchingly soft; next, they must be as red as coral:

Los labios de la su boca
Como un fino coral,

or else red as roses:

La bocca piccioletta e colorita,
Vermiglia come rosa di giardino,
Piagente ed amorosa per baciare.[2]

This last simile is one of the most frequently employed. The beloved one's mouth is likened to a rose; it has the scent and colour of a rose:

Hæc dulcis in amore
Est et plena decore,
Rosa rubet rubore,
Et lilium convallium
Tota vincit odore,

sang the wandering clerks in the Middle Ages, the jolly Goliards, and they extolled the youth who was lucky enough to kiss the mouth of such a woman:

Felix est qui osculis mellifluis
Ipsius potitur.

And, they went on to say, "on every maiden's lips the kiss sits like a rose which only longs to be plucked":

Sedit in ore
Rosa cum pudore.

The old German minnesingers use the expression Küssblümlein (kiss-floweret), and a bard of the Netherlands sings: "My beloved is my summer, my beloved is my joy, all the roses bloom every time she gives me a kiss":

Mijn liefken is mijn somer,
Min liefken is mijn lust,
En al de rosen bloejen
So dicmael si mi cust.

But all this is only poetry, merely feeble imageries which only give an entirely weak idea of the reality. How accurate is Thomas Moore when, in one of his poems, he declares that roses are not so warm as his beloved's mouth, nor can the dew approach it in sweetness.

Now if we turn to the other aspect of the case and see what women expect from a man's kiss, then the question becomes somewhat more difficult to treat, inasmuch as so exceedingly few women have treated of kisses in poetry—a fact which is also in itself quite natural. Runeberg, who himself has so often sung the praises of kissing without, however, being versed in their nature:

For my part I've ne'er understood
Of kisses what can be the good;
But I should die if kept away
From thy red lips one single day.

W. F. H.

asks his beloved:

Now, dearest maiden, answer me,
What joy can kisses bring to thee?

W. F. H.

But she fails to answer him:

I ask thee now, as I asked this,
And all thy answer's kiss on kiss.

W. F. H.

Besides, it seems very evident from the last line that the situation did not admit of the calmer and more sober observation which forms the necessary condition for a reliable answer to the question. I am, therefore, obliged to attempt to reply to the question myself; but I readily admit my deficiency in the essential qualification of being able to do so in a satisfactory manner. Moreover, the literary material at my disposal is exceedingly inadequate, and, for that reason, I cannot claim any universal application for my treatment, of the subject.

In the first place it seems indisputable that a woman gives a decided preference to a man with a beard; at all events a heiduke sings in a Roumanian ballad: "I am still too young to marry; my beard has not yet sprouted. What married woman then will care about kissing me?"

Cǎ sîmt voinic neînsorat;
Nici mustete nu m'a dat:
Cum sîmt bun de sărutat
La neveste cu bărbat?

To judge from the part the heidukes play in the ballad literature of the Roumanians and Serbs, they must be very experienced in everything that has to do with women and love, and their testimony must therefore be accepted as being sufficiently reliable. Besides, we find the same taste among women in Northern Europe. In Germany there is said to be nothing in a kiss without a beard: Ein Kuss ohne Bart ist eine Vesper ohne Magnificat (a kiss without a beard is like Vespers without the Magnificat); or, still more strongly, Ein Kuss ohne Bart ist ein Ei ohne Salz (a kiss without a beard is like an egg without salt). The young girls in Holland also incline to this point of view: Een kussje zonder baard, een eitje zonder zout (an egg without salt), and they have in the Frisian Islands some who share their taste: An Kleeb sanner Biard as äs en Brei sanner Salt (porridge without salt). Lastly, the Jutland lassies also take the same view of the matter—in fact they are, if I may say so, even more refined in their requirements; a kiss is not only to sound, but it must have some flavour about it—it ought to be strong and luscious: At kysse en karl uden skrå og skaeg er som at kysse en leret vaeg (kissing a fellow without a quid of tobacco and a beard is like kissing a clay wall), say those who express themselves in the most refined manner; but there are others who are not so particular in the choice of words, and these latter say straight out: Å kys jen, dæ hveken røger eller skråer, de æ som mæ ku kys æ spæ kal i r., (kissing one who neither smokes nor chews tobacco is like kissing a new-born calf on the rump). On the other hand, a person should not be too wet about the mouth—that they do not like; e.g., the scornful saying: "He is nice to kiss when one is thirsty," or, as the German girls say: Einen Kuss mit Sauce bekommen (to get a kiss with sauce).

It apparently follows from this that women are not so simple in their tastes as men; a kiss by itself is not sufficient, it requires some condiment or other in addition—and, for the credit of women's taste, let it be said—this need not always be tobacco. In a French folk-song the lover tells us that he has smeared his mouth with fresh butter so that it may taste better:

J'avais toujou dans ma pochette
Du bon bieur' frais,
O qué je me gressais la goule,
Quand j' l'embrassais.

I have already mentioned in my preface how dangerous the mere reading about kisses may be; but, apart from literature, a kiss is something which has to be dealt with most cautiously. Now hear what Socrates said to Xenophon one day: "Kritobulus is the most foolhardy and rash fellow in the world; he is rasher than if he meant to dance on naked sword-points or fling himself into the fire; he has had the audacity to kiss a pretty face."—"But," asked Xenophon, "is that such a deed of daring? I am certainly no desperado, but still I think I would venture to expose myself to the same risk."—"Luckless wight," replied Socrates, "you are not thinking what would betide you. If you kissed a pretty face, would you not that very instant lose your freedom and become a slave? Would you not have to spend much money on harmful amusements, and would you not do much which you would despise, if your understanding were not clouded? Hercules forbid what dreadful effects a poor kiss can have! And dost thou marvel at it, Xenophon? You know, I take it, those tiny spiders which are not half the size of an obol, and yet they can, through merely touching a person's mouth, cause him the keenest pains; nay, even deprive him of his understanding. But, by Jupiter, anyhow this is quite another matter; for spiders poison the wound directly they inflict a sting. O, thou simple fellow, dost thou not know that lustful kisses are poisoned, even if thou failest to perceive the poison? Dost thou not know that she to whom the name of beautiful is given is a wild beast far more dangerous than scorpions; for the latter only poison us by their touch, whereas beauty destroys us without actual contact with us, and even ejects from a long distance a venom so dangerous that people are deprived thereby of their wits. This is the reason why I advise you, O Xenophon, to run away as fast as you can the very instant you see a beautiful woman, and with regard to yourself, O Kritobulus, I deem you will act most prudently in spending a whole year abroad; for that is the least time necessary for curing thy wound."[3]

It may perhaps be thought that Socrates' fear of kissing is a trifle exaggerated, his idea possibly arising from a certain prejudice derived from Mistress Xantippe; anyhow, nowadays, we regard the matter from a far more sober point of view. We ought, nevertheless, to be well on our guard against the frivolous opinion expressed in so many modern sayings, that a kiss is a thing of no consequence whatever. The Italians bluntly assert "that a mouth is none the worse for having been kissed" (bocca baciata non perde ventura), and a French writer of the present day even goes so far as to compare a kiss with those usually-harmless bullets which are exchanged in modern duels. Bah! deux baisers, qu'est que cela? On les échange comme des balles sans résultat, et l'honneur reste satisfait (Bah! two kisses. What of that? They are exchanged like bullets that miss the mark, and honour is satisfied).

This frivolous notion must not, however, be deemed peculiar to the Latin nations: it is to be met with even in the North. In Norway there is a song:

Jens Johannesen, the Goth so brave,
The maid on her chops a good buss gave.
He kissed her once, and once again,
But each time was she likewise fain,
But each time was she likewise fain.

W. F. H.

As you see, the last line of the verse is repeated as if for the purpose of duly impressing the moral of the song.

It is said in Als: Et kys er et stow, den der it vil ha et, ka vask et ow (a kiss is like a grain of dust, which any one who would be rid of it can wash away). We read as far back as Peder Syv[4]: Et kys kan afviskes (a kiss can be washed away), but he adds solemnly, and for our warning: "She who permits a kiss also permits more; and he who has access to kisses has also access to more." Even the Germans say: Kuss kann man zwar abwischen, aber das Feuer im Herzen nick löschen (a kiss may indeed be washed away, but the fire in the heart cannot be quenched).

Thus hardly the shadow of a doubt ought to exist as to kisses being extraordinarily dangerous—or, in any case, capable of becoming so—far more dangerous, for instance, than dynamite or gun-cotton; in the first place, at any rate, inasmuch as people are not in the habit of walking about with such explosives in their pockets, whereas every one has kisses always at hand, or, more correctly speaking, in their mouths; secondly, we are rid of dynamite when once it has exploded, but, on the other hand, we can never actually be quit of a kiss—without at the same time returning it; for we take back the kisses we give, you know, and we give, too, those we take back—and, adds the proverb, "nobody is the loser." Einen Kuss den man raubt giebt man wieder (One returns a stolen kiss), say the Germans; and the Spaniards have expressed the same thought in a neat little copla: "Dost thy mother chide thee for having given me a kiss? Then take back, dear girl, thy kiss, and bid her hold her tongue."

¿Porque un beso me has dado
Riñe tu madre?
Toma, niña, tu beso;
Dile que calle.

Marot has treated the same subject in his epigram Le Baiser Volé, or the Stolen Kiss.

About my daring now you grieve,
To snatch a kiss without ado,
Nor even saying, "By your leave."
Come, I will make my peace with you,
And now I want you to believe
I'm loth your soul again to grieve
By theft of kisses, since, alack,
My kiss has wrought such dole and teen;
Yet 'tis not lost; I'll give it back,
And that right blithely, too, I ween.

W. F. H.

There is a French anecdote of the present day about a student who took the liberty of kissing a young girl. She got very angry however, and called him an insolent puppy, whereupon he retorted with irrefutable logic: Pour Dieu! Mademoiselle ne vous fâchez pas, si ce baiser vous gêne, rendez-le-moi (For goodness' sake, don't be cross, young lady. If that kiss annoys you, give it back to me). It seems to have had a more amicable settlement in the case of a Danish couple who had resolved to break off their engagement: "It is best, I suppose, that we return each other's letters?" said he. "I think so too," replied she, "but shall we not at the same time give each other all our kisses back?" They did so, and thus agreed to renew their engagement.

This little story shows us that a kiss is something which cannot be so easily lost, and I hope, not least for the sake of my book, that we shall concur in the Italian proverb which says: Bacio dato non e mai perduto (a kiss once given is never lost).

  1. From osculum we get the words osculogy, the science of kissing, and osculogical, that which pertains to kissing; but the Greek derivations philematology and philematological are perhaps preferable.
  2. The tiny little mouth, red as a rose
    That blossoms hidden in some garden-close,
    Pleasant and amorous through being kissed.W. F. H.

  3. Translated from the Danish Version.
  4. A Danish poet, philologist, and collector of proverbs (1631–1702).