“Yo, I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want”
-Spice Girls, “Wannabe,” 1996 A.D.
Philodemus 11.34 (Greek Anthology)
White violets and songs to the lyre,
Wines from Chios and myrrh from Syria,
Drinking parties and writhing harlots—
No thanks. Not again. I would lose my mind.
But wreaths of narcissus, put ‘em ‘round me.
Give me a taste of what the flute can do.
Rub my limbs with crocus-scented oils,
And soak my pipes with Mytilene wine.
Oh, and bring me a wife, a virgin and shy.
Λευκοΐνους πάλι δὴ καὶ ψάλματα, καὶ πάλι Χίους
οἴνους, καὶ πάλι δὴ σμύρναν ἔχειν Συρίην,
καὶ πάλι κωμάζειν, καὶ ἔχειν πάλι διψάδα πόρνην
οὐκ ἐθέλω: μισῶ ταὺτα τὰ πρὸς μανίην.
ἀλλά με ναρκίσσοις ἀναδήσατε, καὶ πλαγιαύλων
γεύσατε, καὶ κροκίνοις χρίσατε γυῖα μύροις,
καὶ Μυτιληναίῳ τὸν πνεύμονα τέγξατε Βάκχῳ,
καὶ συζεύξατέ μοι φωλάδα παρθενικήν.
Perhaps it will be the case that you’re called to be an artist. If so, take that fate upon yourself and bear it–its weight and its greatness.
–Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
Crinagoras 9.234 (Greek Anthology)
“Tormented soul, how long will you put off
All your dreams except your dreams of riches?
Empty hopes wing you to the closest cold cloud.
Know this: things worth having don’t just come to man.
You must pursue the gifts of the Muses!
And as for your mind’s dim fancies,
Leave them to crazy people.”
The Greek Anthology records fifty-one poems by the versatile Crinagoras of Mytilene (c. 1st century BC – 1st century AD). Here are 2 uncharitable epigrams of his regarding the tomb and decaying remains of one Eunicides:
7.380 (Greek Anthology)
Though the tomb’s been cut from a block of white marble,
And it’s been made fine with a mason’s straight rule,
It does not belong to a good man.
Do not appraise the dead, my friend, based on stone.
Stone is witless: this is how it covers
Even a corpse already turned black.
Here lies that limp rag, Eunicides,
Rotting away under the ashes.
7.401 (Greek Anthology)
The tomb atop his odious head
Crushes the bones of the reprobate
Who lies beneath the accursed dirt:
It crushes his jutting chest,
His foul-smelling row of teeth,
His legs bandaged like a slave’s,
And his hairless head as well.
Eunicides’ half-burnt remains, these,
And they’re still full of greenish pus.
Earth, you’ve made an unfortunate marriage;
Don’t now lie lightly, or even slightly,
On this misshapen man’s ashes.
I give the same advice to everyone
so that someone young,
someone still possessing the splendid bloom,
thinks over in his mind what is good
but all the while enjoys his wealth.
for there is no growing young again
—twice is for the gods—
and there is no release from death for people.
rather, devastating old age shames the beautiful man–
it takes him by the crown of his head.
Two epigrams by Palladas (c. 4th century CE), one a nocturnal sentiment, and the other a morning song:
In tears I was born, and after tears I die.
I found all of life in a river of tears.
O race of men: tearful, feeble, pitiful—
You appear on earth, and fast you melt away.
With night’s passing, we’re born anew, day after day.
Nothing remains of our former life.
Estranged from yesterday’s experiences,
Today we start on what life lies ahead.
So don’t speak of your years, old man, as too many–
You have no part today in days already past.
Some unvarnished views on life, as expressed by the epigramist Palladas (c. 4th century CE) and the French moralist La Rochefoucauld (17th century):
I hate the man whose nature is two-fold:
Kind in words, but hostile in his actions.
La Rochefoucauld #197
There are people in whom one couldn’t expect evil without having seen it, but there’s no one in whom it ought to surprise us when we do see it.
The fear of death is quite a painful grief,
And a mortal profits when freed from it.
So don’t lament a man’s exit from life:
There’s no further suffering after death.
La Rochefoucauld #23
Few people know death. One doesn’t ordinarily suffer it in accordance with a resolution, but in keeping with stupidity and custom; what’s more, most men die because they can’t stop themselves dying.
Your love is a sham:
You do it out of fear and need.
Nothing is more untrue than love like that.
La Rochefoucauld #76
True love is like a spiritual apparition: everybody talks about it, but few people have seen it.
Whenever someone hates a man god loves,
He does something truly absurd:
Manifestly, he arms himself for battle
Against god himself!
From his envy he reaps immense bitterness.
One must love that man whom god loves.
La Rochefoucauld #93
Old people love to dole out good precepts in order to console themselves for no longer being able to set bad examples.
I am Heraclitus. Why do you buffoons
Wrestle with me? It was not for you
I labored, but for those in the know.
To me, one man is worth thirty thousand,
And an infinite number not worth one man.
This I would say even in Persephone’s house.
For those in the know, here are some fragments of Heraclitus to wrestle with:
If all that exists should become smoke, nostrils would pick out one thing from the other.
A man in the night kindles a light in himself after his sight is extinguished. A living man, but he engages with a dead man when he sleeps. And when he wakes, he understands sleeping man.
For souls, it’s death to become water, and for water, it’s death to become earth. But from earth water is born, and from water, a soul.
In any event, the name of the bow is life but its work is death
The exchange: all things for fire and fire for all things; and in like manner, goods for gold and gold for goods.
Alciphron (ca. 170-220 CE) wrote fictional prose letters depicting scenes from the lives of ordinary people. Like the epigrams on which they were modeled, the letters offer snapshots of experience, portraits of vivid emotions. They are pictures rather than meditations.
I’ve paired Alciphron’s letter about a rural youth’s desire to travel to the city with a letter from an 18th century epistolary novel about an urban youth’s move to the country. Alciphron’s letter is a portrait of naive yearning; and Goethe’s, a portrait of sober reflection.
Alciphron: Letter 2.28
From Philocomus to Astyllus
Since I’ve never yet gone into town, I don’t know what this thing called “a city” is. I so want to see the fresh spectacle of people living close together, as if in a web; and I want to learn the many other ways city and country life differ. If you should have occasion to go into town, do go, and take me along this time. I’ll surely experience to the full what it has to offer. After all, my first beard is coming out! And really, is there anyone more qualified to introduce me to the multitude of city things than you, one who wanders about inside its gates?
Goethe: The Sorrows of Young Werther June 21
I have thought over all kinds of things: about man’s desire to spread himself, make new discoveries, wander about. And then also about his inner impulse to willingly surrender himself to his limitations, to continue on with the same habits, and not to worry about what’s to his left or right . . . O, distance is like the future! Something enormous and dark rises before our soul, our emotions become blurred, and our eyes too . . . And alas! When we hurry to it, when the “there” becomes “here,” everything is just as before, and we stand there in our poverty, in our limitation, and our soul thirsts for an elusive balm.
Lieber Wilhelm, ich habe allerlei nachgedacht, über die Begier im Menschen, sich auszubreiten, neue Entdeckungen zu machen, herumzuschweifen; und dann wieder über den inneren Trieb, sich der Einschränkung willig zu ergeben, in dem Gleise der Gewohnheit so hinzufahren und sich weder um Rechts noch um Links zu bekümmern . . . O es ist mit der Ferne wie mit der Zukunft! Ein großes dämmerndes Ganze ruht vor unserer Seele, unsere Empfindung verschwimmt darin wie unser Auge . . . und ach! Wenn wir hinzueilen, wenn das Dort nun Hier wird, ist alles vor wie nach, und wir stehen in unserer Armut, in unserer Eingeschränktheit, und unsere Seele lechzt nach entschlüpftem Labsale.
Joel sings “love is a battlefield” at every department holiday party, and yet no general ever says at muster, “troops, war is loving.” We don’t, that is, ordinarily reverse the terms of a metaphor. In practice, one term stands still and the other term does the work of elucidating it.
But what if metaphor flowed both ways (metaphorically speaking), such that on one occasion X elucidated Y, and on another occasion Y elucidated X? That is what we find in the Greek Anthology when we compare epigrams across their sepulchral and amatory boundaries.
It’s a dissonant reading, but one we’re justified in making when topoi arranged to make a poem about death are rearranged to make an equally effective poem about love. Furthermore, I think we can say that when responsibility for clarifying terms (love, death) passes back and forth between the terms themselves, the end result is a body of poems whose referents are one another.
Here are two pairings of an amatory and sepulchral epigram. In the first, it is the imagery of the sea, and in the second the imagery of robbery, that are employed to account for the phenomenologically distinct experiences of loving and dying. With each pairing, try to think not only of how death is a metaphor for love, but how love is a metaphor for death:
 The Sea
Bitter wave of desire,
Restless winds of jealousy,
And a wintry sea of celebrations:
Where to, am I being carried?
Since my heart’s tiller swings this way and that,
Will I see that tender Scylla again?
The East wind’s savage, sudden gusts,
Night, and waves from Orion’s dark setting
Did me in: I, Callaeschrus, lost my hold on life
While sailing in the middle of the Libyan sea.
Tumbling about in the water, prey for fish,
I died. And so, this gravestone is a liar.
Here I am, a wretched man three times over:
Overpowered by a thief’s violence,
Prostrate, and wept for by no one.
Diophanes of Myrina 5.309
A thief three times over,
That’s what Desire should really be called:
He’s watchful, he’s brazen, he strips you bare.
Here is a pairing of Hellenistic sepulchral epigrams with Felix Feneon’s 1906 “news in three lines” (nouvelles en trois lignes).
Feneon’s journalistic task was to relay a factual incident in no more than 130 characters. Perhaps we can look at the epigrams through Feneon’s “epigrammatic” style and see certain things more clearly than we otherwise might: the uncomplicated X-happened-because-of-Y logic; the invitation to pure spectation and foreclosure of emotional involvement; and certainly, the foregrounding of the writerly discipline such productions require.
 The Roof’s Gone!
Antipater of Thessalonica 7.402 (Greek Anthology)
Because of winter snow melting on its roof,
The house fell down, killing the old woman, Lysidike.
Neighbors did not build a tomb with dug-up earth,
But made the house itself her grave.
Gas explosion in the home of Larrieu from Bordeaux.
He was injured. His mother-in-law’s hair caught fire.
The ceiling blew open.
 One Bad Step
Antipater of Thessalonica 7.398 (Greek Anthology)
I don’t know whether to fault Dionysus
Or blame Zeus’ rain, but both are tricky
For feet: once, coming down from the country
After a banquet, the grave seized Polyxenos
When he fell from a slippery hilltop.
Now he lies far from Aeolian Smyrna.
Take my advice, a drunk person in the dark
Should fear a wet path.
A misstep, at dusk, on the bridge
in Rue du Moulin, in Dontilly,
and Madame Louis Nourry drowned.
Eutolmius Scholasticus 7.608 (Greek Anthology)
Mourning the death of her short-lived son,
Menippa poured out her life breath
Along with her booming dirge.
She would not have it back again
To weep when she drew breath.
No, she ended her lament and her life
At the same time.
Her daughter dead, her son far away,
Madame Boulet, from Buchet (commune of Buhy),
hanged herself in despair.