At one time or another, you may have had the unpleasant situation of being shut out of your sweetheart’s apartment or bedroom. You might even find your way blocked to a less intimate place, such as a business meeting, a maxed-out class, a bar after closing time. There’s a poem for that: the paraclausithyron.
A paraclausithyron is a motif in poetry that expresses a lover’s lament before the beloved’s closed door. I learned about this arcane delight from a couple of my students who had studied a good deal of Latin. One day in creative writing class, they started talking about this word, which is hard to pronounce at first, then rolls off the tongue in a couple of dactyls after you get the hang of it. Pára-claw-sí-thi-ron. The i’s are pronounced as short i’s as in the word “it.” I’m not sure what triggered the discussion: a stuck or squeaky door, an image of one character trying to gain entry to a house? Those students knew of the motif because some of the best-known paraclausithyra come from the Latin poets.
In a paraclausithyron, the lover, often speaking at night, pleads entry. His tone may be seductive, cajoling, angry, comic, rowdy, drunken, desperate, or a combination of any of those things. Ovid, in The Art of Love (Book One: VI), has his speaker cry out to a gatekeeper in the dark of night and begs him to open the gate just enough to let him slip in to visit his lady. Horace, on the other hand, takes a rather threatening approach in his paraclausithyron “To Lycia” (Odes, Book Three: X). Instead of sweet-talking Lycia into opening her door, Horace first tells her that she could do a lot worse than to have him as a lover. Then he insults her virtue, calls her cold-hearted, and warns her—while standing in her garden on a freezing night—that there’s a limit to his patience.
Edgar Allen Poe offers a haunted paraclausithyron in “The Raven.” As the speaker sits in his study on a midnight dreary, he hears a tapping:
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door –
Only this and nothing more.”
“’Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; –
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; –
This it is and nothing more.”
As with many paraclausithyra, the poem takes place at night, and the speaker is a bereft lover. But who is that knocking on the door? Not the lover but the raven appearing as the ghost of the speaker’s lost Lenore.
I find that the paraclausithyron makes an extremely effective poetry prompt. I include it in Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets (Texture Press, 2013) along with a selection of paraclausithyra written by my students, plus one by me and one by Emily Dickinson.
I encourage you to write you own lament before a shut door. Your paraclausithyron may be spooky, ardent, funny, apologetic, hopeless, or optimistic. Your speaker may even succeed in gaining entry.