Helen being chosen found life flat and dull
And later had much trouble from a fool,
While that great Queen, that rose out of the spray,
Being fatherless could have her way
Yet chose a bandy-leggèd smith for man.
It’s certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat
Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.
The fourth stanza os Yeats’ “A Prayer for My Daughter” (1919) is one I share with my students when teaching myths of Aphrodite. The great Queen has numerous affairs (Anchises, Hermes, Adonis, and most notably, Ares), but she is married to Hephaestus, whose limp and personal ugliness make him a caricacture of a god. Yeats is not the only poet to address the topic (I’m fond of e.e. cummings’ “in heavenly relams of hellas dwelt,” with its final couplet, “my tragic tale concludes herewith: / soldier, beware of mrs smith”), and artists have long enjoyed the contrast of the unattractive old man together with his glamorous young wife: capping this tradition must be the scene from the Pythonesque movie The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen (1988), in which a crusty Vulcan played by Oliver Reed greets Uma Thurman, arriving as Venus on the half-shell:
At any rate, I’m thinking of this after reading an article in yesterday’s Washington Post about “assortative mating.” The piece is based on a study called “Leveling the PLaying Field” done last year about why couples generally are at the same level of physical attractiveness (although who adjudicates these aesthetic matters is unclear), those that are not –where one mate is decidedly “better-looking” than the other–could be explained by the way in which the couple has gotten together. According to the study abstract:
As predicted, couples revealed stronger evidence of assortative mating to the extent that they knew each other for a short time and were not friends before initiating a romantic relationship.
The research seems to show that shorter courtships are based on exterior matters, while longer ones see past the surface. I’m not sure Yeats sees it this way, and while I still would love to know what the hell he means by “crazy salad” (the title of Nora Ephron’s collection of essays about gender relations in the mid-70s), I don’t think the Olympian gods did either. The Greeks, of course, invented the concept of irony. And it is worth noting that couples that are made up of two very attractive people sometimes are lackig in other areas. To my mind, the ultimate American example is Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio, who were divorced after a few months. Sure, sure, “None but the brave deserve the fair!” (as Dryden says), but our twentieth-century Venus seems to have been happier with Arthur Miller, the wordsmith.