The Last Infirmity

Here are two lyric expressions (Sappho and Callimachus) of the Greek idea that poetry in some fashion bestows immortality, or at least compensates for the ineluctable fact of mortality.

(Milton, for all his attachment to Greek things, dismissed the desire for poetic fame as “that last infirmity of noble mind.”)

Sappho Fr. 55.

Once you die, there you will lie, forgotten.
There will be no lasting longing for you.
The Pierian roses were not your thing;
So, as a no-body in Hades’ demesne
You will move among the obscure dead–
Once, as I say, you have flown away.

κατθάνοισα δὲ κείσῃ οὐδέ ποτα μναμοσύνα σέθεν
ἔσσετ’ οὐδὲ πόθα εἰς ὔστερον· οὐ γὰρ πεδέχῃς βρόδων
τὼν ἐκ Πιερίας, ἀλλ’ ἀφάνης κἀν Ἀίδα δόμῳ
φοιτάσῃς πεδ’ ἀμαύρων νεκύων ἐκπεποταμένα.

Callimachus 2. (Gow-Page 34)

Heraclitus, someone spoke of your death.
It made me cry to recall all the times
Our tête-à-têtes brought on sunset.
O my Halicarnassian friend,
You have been ashes a long long while,
But your nightingales still live!
Hades (Universal Thief) will not touch them.

εἶπέ τις, Ἡράκλειτε, τεὸν μόρον, ἐς δέ με δάκρυ
ἤγαγεν, ἐμνήσθην δ᾽ ὁσσάκις ἀμφότεροι
ἥλιον ἐν λέσχῃ κατεδύσαμεν: ἀλλὰ σὺ μέν που,
ξεῖν᾽ Ἁλικαρνησεῦ, τετράπαλαι σποδιή:
αἱ δὲ τεαὶ ζώουσιν ἀηδόνες, ᾗσιν ὁ πάντων
ἁρπακτὴς Ἀίδης οὐκ ἐπὶ χεῖρα βαλεῖ.

“Remember my name!
I’m going to live forever!
I’m going to learn how to fly!”

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

Leave a Reply