Published online by Cambridge University Press: 22 September 2009
Looking at a portrait of the twenty-nine-year-old Mörike, one sees what could be the archetypal image of a shy, refined poet (Illus. 1). But twenty-nine-year-olds have usually, then and now, learned the difference between roseate love in literature and the grittier stuff of sex in real life, fraught with contingencies of pain, power, disease, pregnancy, exploitation, and the ephemerality of attraction. If they were writers, they could, and often did, speak of sexuality in their works along a gamut which runs from pornography (its purposes prurient and commercial rather than aesthetic) to high poetic art, the latter inevitably more rare than the former, and what they wrote is a mirror of their own erotic psychology and of the society that shaped them. The balance between frankness and euphemism, fantasy and fact, society's stereotypes and individuality, varies from one work to another – and there are many works which partake of erotica, even where they are not defined as such. The best writers traffic in what truly matters, and the coupling (or not) of sex with love in heart and mind appears on anyone's short list of life's larger concerns.
They were certainly fodder for poetry in Mörike's world because he conceived of a problematic link between eroticism and the making of art, and he wrote of that vexed pairing in multiple literary guises.