Locus amoenus

Reading The Rings of Saturn is an adventurous journey. Today it led me to have a look at the concept:

Locus amoenus

latin for “pleasant place”, locus amoenus is a literary term which generally refers to an idealized place of safety or comfort. A locus amoenus is usually a beautiful, shady lawn or open woodland, sometimes with connotations of Eden.
In 1953, Ernst Robert Curtius wrote the concept’s definitive formulation in his European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. A locus amoenus will have three basic elements: trees, grass, and water. Often, the garden will be in a remote place and function as a landscape of the mind. It can also be used to highlight the differences between urban and rural life or be a place of refuge from the processes of time and mortality. Some gardens in the genre also have overtones of the regenerative powers of human sexuality. The literary use of this type of setting goes back, in Western literature at least, to Homer, and it became a staple of the pastoral works of poets such as Theocritus and Virgil. Horace (Ars poetica, 17) and the commentators on Virgil, such as Servius, recognize that descriptions of loci amoeni have become a rhetorical commonplace.
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the function of the locus amoenus is inverted. Instead of offering a respite from dangers, it is itself usually the scene of violent encounters.
In the works of William Shakespeare, the locus amoenus is the space that lies outside of city limits. It is where erotic passions can be freely explored, away from civilization and thus hidden from the social order which acts to suppress and regulate sexual behavior. It is mysterious and dark, a feminine place, as opposed to the rigid masculine civil structure. Examples can be found in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It,
I find Ovid’s inconsistent use of the term very interesting, and wonder if Shakespeare’s locus amoenus actually have aspects of both Virgil’s & Ovid’s loci?

Anonymous after Hendrik Goltzius (Dutch, 1558-1617),The Age of Gold, 1589. Plate 3 from the series of 52 plates illustrating Ovid’sMetamorphoses. Engraving. Engraved in the workshop of Goltzius. 

9 Comments Add yours

  1. Max says:

    Often there will be a fountain, or maybe that is just in the Italian tradition. I am thinking of the third location in Boccaccio’s Decameron. Trees, grass, water, are present in this pleasant place, but it also provides a safe place in which narration can take place. The ten narrators are also removed from their usual city lives. The locus amoenus is also found in a lot of Renaissance dialogues. Anyways, hi! I hope you are well. I couldn’t resist commenting after reading your title. I feel a bit nerdy wanting to jump in on this subject, but then again, none of my friends want to discuss these things with me (and very few of my students too!) and it is really nice that we can have our own common ground.

    1. Sigrun says:

      Thank you for commenting!!!
      Do you know anything about the more “unsafe/threatening” versions of locus amoenus, like the places Ovid is creating?
      And also: a heaven-like place, paradise, wouldn’t it really be uninhabitable?

      1. Max says:

        Ovid’s locus amoenus is really curious when looking upon in hindsight, isn’t it? . Shakespeare’s locus amoenus is more like the Boccaccio, but I’ve often found Shakespeare quite Italian. A place that allows narration to take place is what may link these concepts. Metamophoses, with its emphasis on transformation does recall storytelling as dangerous, unexpected and deceptive. Like the image of narrative as a chimera-3 part beast. Or like the 1001 nights – storytelling to postpone death. For Ovid we may have to look backwards for connections?

  2. Some years back, I attended a conference on environmentalism and literature where someone presented a paper on the etymology, history and concept of “paradise”…from the Persian words meaning “around” “wall” and, in connotation more than in actual meaning, “garden.” The garden in question was likely to contain trees, water, and a clearing–all surrounded/protected by a wall (hence, a protected place or world apart). As I recall, protectedness was key. Lovely opportunities for metaphor and symbolism, I suppose, with locus amoenus.

  3. Sigrun says:

    Thank you Max & Ann, I will try to do some further topological investigations, and will – if something interesting turns up – post on it …!

    1. Funny how conversations can take place through time–it’s been almost four years since you wrote this, but I am reading it just now. There is an article on Ovid that you might find interesting, if you haven’t already found it. It’s called “Locus Amoenus and Locus Horridus in Ovid’s Metamorphoses” by Neil Bernstein and you can find it via a google search. (I just found this post of yours while prepping for the section in our Renaissance Lit class on pastoral–I will come back to read more of your blog.)

      1. Sigrun says:

        Wonderful, thank you!

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