The Kiss and its History/Chapter 3
Seigneur, tu m'as donné les baisers de ma mère,
Je te bénis, Seigneur!
F. E Adam.
I bless thee, O Lord, for having given me my mother's kisses.
A kiss can also express feelings from which the erotic element is excluded—feelings that are consequently less ardent and longing, but, most frequently, far deeper and more lasting.
A kiss is expressive of love in the widest and most comprehensive meaning of the word, bringing a message of loyal affection, gratitude, compassion, sympathy, intense joy, and profound sorrow. In the first place a kiss is the expression of the deep and intense feeling which knits parents to their offspring. At its entrance into the world the little helpless infant is received by its father's and mother's warm kiss. In the Middle Ages they kissed the new-born baby thrice in the name of the Holy Trinity. And the parent's kiss follows the child through life. When Hector takes leave of his wife Andromache he lifts his little son up into his arms, but the child is afraid of his father's helmet, "of the gleam of the copper and the nodding crest of horse-hair."
And from his brow
Hector the casque removed, and set it down,
All glittering, on the ground; then kissed his child,
And danced him in his arms.
The Evangelist Luke tells the story of the Prodigal Son's return home. "But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran and fell I on his neck, and kissed him."
The parent's kiss is like the good angel which shields the child from all evil. When Johannes in Sören Kierkegaard's Forførerens dagbog would describe the impression made on him by Cordelia he says, "She looked so young and fresh, as if nature like a tender and opulent mother had that very instant released her from her hand," and he goes on to say: "It seemed to me as if I had been witness to this farewell scene; I marked how the loving mother once again embraced her and bade her farewell; I heard her say: 'Go out into the world now, my child; I have done all for you. Now take this kiss as a seal upon your lips; 'tis a seal the sanctuary preserves; no one can break it against your own will, but when the right man comes, you shall understand him.' And she presses a kiss on her lips—a kiss which, not like a human kiss, takes aught, but a divine kiss that gives all." The chaste purity, which is Cordelia's halo and protection, is, as it were, the reflection of a mother's kiss.
It is for this reason also that in the sagas a quite irresistible power is attributed to the parent's kiss. When Vildering, the king's son, quits Maid Miseri and journeys alone to his parents to tell them what has befallen him, she implores him to be especially careful not to let his parents kiss him, "for should that happen, you will forget me utterly." In spite of his caution his mother kisses him, and oblivion covers the past; he forgets his betrothed, who is sitting and waiting for him in the depths of the forest.
Kisses of affection are exchanged not only between parents and children, but between all the members of the same family; we find them even outside the more narrow family circle, everywhere where deep affection unites people.
When Naomi bade her son's wife farewell, "they lifted up their voice and wept again; and Orpah kissed her mother-in-law; but Ruth clave unto her." When Moses went to meet his father-in-law, "he did obeisance and kissed him; and they asked each other of their welfare; and they came into the tent;" and when Jacob had wrestled with the Lord he met Esau, ran towards him, fell on his neck and kissed him.
The family kiss was also much in vogue with the Romans. Propertius, in one of his elegies, chides his mistress for inventing quite ad libitum a whole crowd of relations so as always to have at hand some one to kiss her. This is how that came to pass: In ancient times there was a so-called jus osculi, which allowed all a woman's relations to kiss her. There are several curious stories about this peculiar privilege. The old traditions, which have been solemnly discussed by several writers, relate that once upon a time women were forbidden to drink wine; the above-mentioned law must have been instituted so that the parties concerned should, in a pleasant and practical way, be able to satisfy themselves about observing the prohibition. This highly improbable explanation has been defended in a thesis for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy even in the eighteenth century.
The kiss of affection is often mentioned by the early Greeks. Odysseus, on reaching his home, meets his faithful shepherds, discloses his identity to them, and shows them, as a certain proof, the cicatrix of a wound that he had on one occasion received when out hunting:
"But come, another token most manifest will I show,
That the truth in your souls may be strengthened, and my very self ye may know.
Lo the scar of the hurt, which the wood-boar with his white tooth drave on a tide,
When with Autolycus' children I sought Parnassus' side!"
So saying, the rags about him from the mighty weal he drew,
And they twain looked upon it, and all the tale they knew;
And they wept, and o'er wise Odysseus they cast their hands, they twain,
And kissed his head and his shoulders, and loved him and were fain.
In the same hearty manner the shepherd Eumæus received Odysseus' son on the latter's return from his journey, and lucky escape from the treacherous plot of the suitors:
And on the head he kissed him, and both his eyes so fair,
And both his hands, moreover, and he shed a mighty tear;
And e'en as a loving father makes much of his dear son,
Who has come from an alien country where the tenth long year is done,
His only son and darling for whom he hath travailed sore,
E'en so the goodly swineherd now kisseth him o'er and o'er
Telemachus the godlike, as one escaped from death.
He gets the same reception from his old nurse and his mother:
But the nurse, e'en Euryclea, beheld him first of all
As the fleecy fells she was spreading o'er the painted seats of the hall,
And, weeping, went straight toward him; and the other maids thereto
Of Odysseus hardy-hearted, all round-about him drew,
And they kissed him and caressed him, his shoulders and his head.
Then Penelope the wise-heart from her chamber forth she sped,
Like to golden Aphrodite or Artemis the fair,
And she cast her arms amidst weeping round her son beloved and dear;
And therewithal she kissed him, his head and his lovely eyes.
We have another famous scene of recognition, but of far later date, in the old French epic of Girart de Roussillon. Girart, after many years' absence, returns in poverty and sickness to France. He presents himself to the queen, who recognises him by means of a ring, and, "although it was Good Friday, she fell on Girart's neck and kissed him seven times."
It would perhaps be superfluous to quote more instances of the kisses of affection. We meet with it in all ages in grave and solemn moments, not only among those who love each other, but also as an expression of profound gratitude. When the Apostle Paul took leave of the elders of the congregation at Ephesus, "they all wept sore, and fell on Paul's neck and kissed him" (Acts xx. 37).
When De Malesherbes had solicited for himself the perilous honour of undertaking the defence of Louis XVI., that monarch got up and, in order to show his gratitude, kissed him publicly.
Even among persons who are utter strangers to each other, kisses such as these may be exchanged. The profoundest sympathy with, the warmest interest in, another's weal or woe can be instantly created.
The story of Ingeborg Vinding and Poul Vendelbo Løvenørn is well known. H. P. Giessing relates it, just as he heard it, in the following form: Poul Vendelbo, the poor student, went one day on the ramparts round Copenhagen, and walked with two rich noblemen who, like himself, had matriculated at the university from Horsen's School. They happened to notice a singularly beautiful woman sitting at the window of one of the adjacent houses. One of the noblemen then said half-mockingly to Vendelbo, "Now, if you could get a kiss from that lady, Poul, we would defray the expenses of that tour abroad which you are so anxious to make." Vendelbo took him at his word, went up to the beautiful lady, and told her how his whole future possibly depended on her. She then drew him towards the window, and, in the view of the nobleman, gave him the kiss he craved. He went abroad, and, returning at last as Adjutant-General Løvenørn, paid the fair lady a visit. She was none other than Ingeborg Vinding.
This is the anecdote, equally characteristic of both parties, that Carl Ploug has so prettily treated in his poem Et Kys (A Kiss).
The professor's daughter is sitting alone in the sitting-room, and "humming a song she has learnt by heart." Then some one knocks at the door, and in steps young Poul with his audacious request; first she will refuse him indignantly:
Ere yet a word she uttered
She raised her eyes again.
Their angry flash should wither
That overbold young swain.
But, ah, he stood so quiet,
With such a modest grace,
With features stamped with honour,
And such a noble face.
Once more the maiden's glances
Looked down, their anger dead,
And with a blush delicious
She spoke him fair instead.
"'Twas wrong indeed, I take it,
That you should boldly dare
Address a well-born maiden
By stealth with such a prayer.
"But if your looks belie not,
You good and noble are,
And so your path to fortune
I should be loth to mar."
Then by the hand she leads him
To where the window is,
She blushes and she trembles;
They interchange a kiss.
W. F. H.
It would be superfluous to say more about this poem, which I suppose is the most popular of Ploug's essays in epic narrative. How far the anecdote is historical is uncertain; but with the knowledge we have of his and her character it cannot, in any case, be regarded as improbable. Ploug may thus be right when he says:
A kiss has with its gentle flame
Once kindled honour's beacon high;
A kiss has given Denmark's fame
A hero's name that shall not die.
W. F. H.
In early French literature there is a story somewhat akin to this; it occurs in the old miracle play of "La Marquise de la Gaudine." In her husband's absence she has been falsely accused of adultery and thrown into prison. Nobody dares to undertake her defence when, suddenly, a knight named Anthenor steps up and offers, with sword in hand, to undertake the defence of her innocence, having a long time back owed her a deep debt of gratitude for having, on one occasion, saved his life by a kiss. He himself tells us naïvely and ingenuously how it happened: "Once upon a time I found myself, as you are aware, in peril of death; the king suspected me and believed I aspired to his wife's favour. Ah, this was not the case at all, you know. But one day he said he would believe me if I divulged to him who my sweetheart was. I did not know what to do, and to save my life I said that the marquise was my amie. He was not, however, content with this, but, as a proof, demanded that I should take her by the waist in his presence and ask her for a kiss. She gave it me and thus saved me from the snare the king had laid. I shall never be able to repay her for what she has done for me."
The kiss of affection is also bestowed on some person or thing that excites detestation and abhorrence.
The legends of St Martin tell us how, on coming one day to Lutetia, followed by a great crowd of people, he caught sight of a leper at the gate of the city, who was so terrible an object to look at that everybody turned away from him with loathing. To give those who followed him a lesson in Christian charity, he went up to the poor sick man, kissed and blessed him, and on the following morning the latter was cured as by a miracle.
It is just through overcoming oneself in respect to that which is intrinsically foul and repugnant that this kiss gets its high significance and dignity. St Francis of Assisi had bidden farewell to an existence of luxury, bestowed his wealth on the necessitous, and lived the life of a beggar, but his conversion was still incomplete; he did not become ripe for his great work of charity until he had overcome his repugnance to the leprous. One day, when out riding, he met one of these wretched sufferers, whose whole body was like a great open wound, and he reined his horse aside in disgust; but shame overtook him at once, he leapt off his horse, spoke kindly to the sick man, gave him what money he had, and kissed both his hands. Such is the account given by the historical chronicles, but the legend goes on to say that the leper immediately afterwards vanished: it was Christ Himself who wished, in this wise, to bestow His benediction on the noble and beautiful life's work of the saint.
The kiss of affection also plays an important part in folk-poetry; that alone has power to cast off spells, that alone breaks all the bonds of witchcraft and sorcery, and is able to restore man to his original shape.
In the Scotch ballad of Kempion we are told how the Earl of Estmereland's daughter is persecuted by her wicked stepmother, who at last by magic arts changes her into a snake:
Cum heir, cum heir, ye freely feed
And lay your head low on my knee;
The heaviest weird I will you read,
That ever was read to gay ladye.
O meikle dolour sall ye dree,
And aye the salt seas o'er ye'se swim;
And far mair dolour sall ye dree,
On Estmere crags, when ye them climb.
"I weired ye to a fiery beast,
And relieved sall ye never be,
Till Kempion, the king's son,
Cum to the crag, and thrice kiss thee."
O meikle dolour did she dree,
And aye the salt seas o'er she swam;
And far mair dolour did she dree
On Estmere crags, when she them clamb.
And aye she cried for Kempion,
Gin he would but come to her hand.
At last Kempion hears her voice, and straightway rows towards the foot of the mountain:
Out of my stythe I winna rise,
Till Kempion, the king's son,
Cum to the crag, and thrice kiss me;
implores the snake; but Kempion dares not. The snake coils in and out, and the mountain is aflame; at last Kempion summons all his courage:
He's louted him o'er the lofty crag,
And he has given her kisses three;
Awa she gaed, and again she cam,
The loveliest ladye e'er could be!
The same subject is found in the ballads of other countries. In the Danish Jomfruen i ormeham the young maiden has been changed into a little snake, compelled to wriggle in the grass. However, the knight Jennus comes:
It was the brave knight Jennus;
Forth to the greenwood he hies.
As o'er the grass he rideth,
A little snake he espies.
It was the brave knight Jennus;
Over his saddle he lay.
He kissed the little serpent;
A maiden it turned straightway.
It was the brave knight Jennus;
Troth to the maid he did plight.
He bade them keep his wedding
For both with much delight.
W. F. H.
In another ballad the maiden has been turned by her stepmother into a lime-tree, and makes her moan:
She changed me into a lime-tree, and
She bade me e'en in the greenwood stand.
She bade me stand and hope for no bote,
Until a king's son should kiss my root.
Here have I tarried for years full five,
Nor kissed me has any king's son alive.
Here have I tarried for years now ten,
Nor has a king's son kissed me since then.
W. F. H.
But at last the hour of her freedom arrives; the king's daughter has heard the lime-tree's lamentation, and she sends a message to her brother, who comes at once:
He hoisted his silken sail of red,
And o'er the salt sea on he sped.
The knight on his back a red cloak threw,
And fared to the lime-tree without ado.
He kissed himself the lime-tree's feet,
Which straight became a maiden sweet.
W. F. H.
Corresponding poetical stories of the redeeming power of the kiss are to be found in the literature of many countries, especially, for example, in the Old French Arthurian romances (Lancelot, Guiglain, Tirant le blanc) in which the princess is changed by evil arts into a dreadful dragon, and can only resume her human shape in the case of a knight being brave enough to kiss her. This kiss is called le fier baiser. From French the subject migrated to Italian literature, in which it was taken up and made use of first in Carduino, later on in Boiardo's Orlando innamorato. The hero, after many perilous adventures, reaches an enchanted castle where a young and beautiful maiden is sitting by a tomb. She tells him she can be released if he will venture to lift the stone from the tomb and kiss what then appears. Without giving it a second thought, the knight opens the tomb, and a horrible serpent with hissing tongue and venomous breath darts forth. Trembling with fear, he fulfils his promise, and that very instant the monster is transformed into a lovely fairy who overwhelms her benefactor with recompenses. This motif formed the subject of a drama in the last century by Gozzi in La donna serpente: fiaba teatrale tragicomica.
Finally many folk-stories on this subject may be quoted. In the tale of "Beauty and the Beast," the transformed prince begged the young maiden he had carried off on his back for a kiss. "No," answered she, "how could I kiss you who are so ugly and have seven horns on your forehead?" Then the beast went its way, and she saw it no more till one day she found it lying dead under a bush in the garden, whereupon she wept as she had never wept before, and cast herself down on the beast and kissed it. Then it returned to life, and the ugly beast became the handsomest prince her eyes could see. He then told her that he had been bewitched by a wicked fairy, and could not be delivered unless a maid fell in love with him and kissed him, despite his ugliness.
In this case the kiss redeems from death, and likewise death itself is nothing more than a great kiss of affection. When a human being quits this earthly life it is God who takes His child in His arms, kisses it, and carries it away from earth to brighter and more blissful spheres.
This highly poetical and beautiful conception of death has found expression in Italian, where, instead of the word "die," one can say, "fall asleep in the Lord's kiss" (addormentarsi nel bacio del Signore). And this has got flesh and blood in an old legend of the saints, where it is told of St Monica that, as she lay dying on her couch, a little child whom nobody knew came and kissed her on her breast, and straightway, as if the child had called her, she bowed her head and breathed forth her last sigh.
The kiss of affection follows man even after death; with a kiss one takes leave of the lifeless body.
In Genesis we read that when Jacob was dead, "Joseph fell upon his father's face and wept upon him and kissed him"; and it is told of Abu Bekr, Mahomet's first disciple, father-in-law, and successor, that, when the prophet was dead, he went into the latter's tent, uncovered his face, and kissed him.
In the curious poem of Ebbe Tygesøns dödsridt, when the knight's horse carries his corpse back to his betrothed, it is said:
She lifted up his gory head,
And raised it to her lips to kiss;
She swooned away, and fell back dead,
In very sooth, as she did this.
W. F. H.
In ancient times lovers always demanded of each other this act of love. "When the alabaster box, filled with Syrian perfume, has been poured out over my dead body, then do thou, O Cynthia, press thy last kisses on my cold lips," sings Propertius in one of his elegies:
Osculaque in gelidis pones suprema labellis,
Cum dabitur Syrio munere plenus onyx.
Propertius iii. 4, 29, 30.
And the same wish is expressed by Tibullus (I., i. 61, 62):
Flebis et arsuro positum me, Delia, lecto,
Tristibus et lacrymis oscula mixta dabis.
"You'll weep for me, dear Delia, ere flames have caught my bier,
And mingle with your kisses full many a bitter tear."
W. F. H.
The death-kiss is something so natural that it is superfluous to point out its existence amongst different nations. It was not only a mark of love, but it was also an article of belief that the soul might be detained for a brief while by such a kiss. Ovid, in his Tristia, laments over his joyless existence in Tomis, whither Augustus had banished him, and is in despair because, when the hour of death approaches, he will not have his beloved wife by his side to detain his fleeting spirit by her kisses mingled with tears.
The kiss is the last tender proof of love bestowed on one we have loved, and was believed, in ancient times, to follow mankind to the nether world. Even in our own days, popular belief in many places demands that the nearest relative shall kiss the corpse's forehead ere the coffin lid is screwed down; in certain parts, indeed, it is incumbent on every one who sees a dead body to kiss it, otherwise he will get no peace for the dead.
- Translated by Edward, Earl of Derby.
- William Morris' Translation.
- William Morris' Translation.
- William Morris' Translation.