The fragment below is what survives of a hymn to Adonis by Praxilla (5th-century-BC female poet). The lines are Adonis’ response to a question put to him in Hades: what’s the most beautiful thing you left behind in the world of the living?
Praxilla Fr.747 (PMG)
The loveliest thing I leave behind is sunlight;
Then follows brilliant stars and the face of the moon,
And also ripe cucumbers, and apples, and pears.
κάλλιστον μὲν ἐγὼ λείπω φάος ἠελίοιο,
δεύτερον ἄστρα φαεινὰ σεληναίης τε πρόσωπον
ἠδὲ καὶ ὡραίους σικύους καὶ μῆλα καὶ ὄγχνας·
Zenobius (2nd century AD) preserved the fragment in his collection of proverbs. He explains that the inclusion of fruits and vegetables alongside the moon and stars is so foolish that it gave rise to the saying “sillier than Praxilla’s Adonis.”
But is it silly to rank fruits with the heavenly bodies as life’s singular blessings? Looked at from the perspective of Rilke, a 20th-century poet much influenced by Greek lyric, Praxilla was prescient, not silly.
In poem I.13 of his Sonnets to Orpheus, Rilke celebrates the eating of fruit as a transporting, ineffable experience which carries with it sensations of life as well as intimations of death. In other words, the aspirations of lyric are little other than what the humble apple and pear already accomplish for us.
Rilke: Sonnets to Orpheus I.13
Ripe apple, pear, and banana,
Gooseberry . . . These all speak
Death and life into the mouth . . .I infer . . .
Read it in a child’s expression
when she tastes them. This comes from far away.
Does this nameless thing slowly happen in your mouth?
Where words used to be, discoveries flow
From pulp surprised at being set free.
Try to say what it is you call ‘apple.’
This sweetness that’s at first tightly contained,
Then, when tasted, gently unfolds
To become clear, alive and transparent,
Double in meaning, sunny, earthy, present—:
O experience, feeling, joy—colossal!
Rilke: Sonette an Orpheus, I.13
Voller Apfel, Birne und Banane,
Stachelbeere … Alles dieses spricht
Tod und Leben in den Mund … Ich ahne …
Lest es einem Kind vom Angesicht,
wenn es sie erschmeckt. Dies kommt von weit.
Wird euch langsam namenlos im Munde?
Wo sonst Worte waren, fließen Funde,
aus dem Fruchtfleisch überrascht befreit.
Wagt zu sagen, was ihr Apfel nennt.
Diese Süße, die sich erst verdichtet,
um, im Schmecken leise aufgerichtet,
klar zu werden, wach und transparent,
doppeldeutig, sonnig, erdig, hiesig –:
O Erfahrung, Fühlung, Freude –, riesig!
Larry Benn has a B.A. in English Literature from Harvard College, an M.Phil in English Literature from Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. Making amends for a working life misspent in finance, he’s now a hobbyist in ancient languages and blogs at featsofgreek.blogspot.com.