Did You Say Love or Death?

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:

[1] The Sea

Meleager 5.190

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?

Leonidas 5.273

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.

[2] Robbery

Anonymous 7.737

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.

Meleager 5.190

κῦμα τὸ πικρὸν Ἔρωτος, ἀκοίμητοί τε πνέοντες
ζῆλοι, καὶ κώμων χειμέριον πέλαγος,
ποῖ φέρομαι; πάντῃ δὲ φρενῶν οἴακες ἀφεῖνται,
ἦ πάλι τὴν τρυφερὴν Σκύλλαν ἐποψόμεθα;

Leonidas 5.273

Εὔρου με τρηχεῖα καὶ αἰπήεσσα καταιγίς,
καὶ νύξ, καὶ δνοφερῆς κύματα πανδυσίης [p. 150]
ἔβλαψ᾽ Ὠρίωνος: ἀπώλισθον δὲ βίοιο
Κάλλαισχρος, Λιβυκοῦ μέσσα θέων πελάγευς.
κἀγὼ μὲν πόντῳ δινεύμενος, ἰχθύσι κύρμα,
οἴχημαι: ψεύστης δ᾽ οὗτος ἔπεστι λίθος.

Anonymous 7.737

ἐνθάδ᾽ ἐγὼ λῃστῆρος ὁ τρισδείλαιος ἄρηι
ἐδμήθην κεῖμαι δ᾽ οὐδενὶ κλαιόμενος.

Diophanes of Myrina 5.309

τρὶς λῃστὴς ὁ Ἔρως καλοῖτ᾽ ἂν ὄντως:
ἀγρυπνεῖ, θρασύς ἐστιν, ἐκδιδύσκει.

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.

Beautiful Mirrors of Beautiful Things

Plutarch, Moralia Dialogue on Love 765 a-b

“When we are sent back there, love does not come near our soul through its own devising but through the body. Just so, teachers of geometry, when their students are not yet capable of comprehending thoughts of the incorporeal or the concepts of immutable essence, they make shapes, manipulable and visible representations of spheres, cubes, and dodecahedrons to give them. In this way, heavenly love creates beautiful mirrors of the beautiful things, mortal versions of the divine, changeable manifestations of the unchanging, and merely sensible representations of pure thought.

By creating these things in the shape and color and image of the beautiful people in their youth, Love moves our memory carefully, and it is kindled first by these things.”

Ἐνταῦθα δὲ πάλιν πεμπομένων αὐτῇ μὲν οὐ πλησιάζει ψυχῇ καθ᾿ ἑαυτήν, ἀλλὰ διὰ σώματος. ὡς δὲ γεωμέτραι παισὶν οὔπω δυναμένοις ἐφ᾿ ἑαυτῶν τὰ νοητὰ μυηθῆναι τῆς ἀσωμάτου καὶ ἀπαθοῦς οὐσίας εἴδη πλάττοντες ἁπτὰ καὶ ὁρατὰ μιμήματα σφαιρῶν καὶ κύβων καὶ δωδεκαέδρων προτείνουσιν· οὕτως ἡμῖν ὁ οὐράνιος Ἔρως ἔσοπτρα καλῶν καλά, θνητὰ μέντοι θείων καὶ ἀπαθῶν παθητὰ καὶ νοητῶν αἰσθητὰ μηχανώμενος ἔν τε σχήμασι καὶ χρώμασι καὶ εἴδεσι νέων ὥρᾳ στίλβοντα δείκνυσι καὶ κινεῖ τὴν μνήμην ἀτρέμα διὰ τούτων ἀναφλεγομένην τὸ πρῶτον.

an Etruscan Mirror and the Dallas Museum of Art

A Lover Betrayed

“The truth of the matter is that–by an exorbitant paradox–I never stop believing that I am loved. I hallucinate what I desire. Each wound proceeds less from a doubt than from a betrayal: for only the one who loves can betray, only the one who believes himself loved can be jealous…”–Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse.

Dioscorides 5.52 (Greek Anthology)

We swore a mutual oath to Eros,
And based on that oath, Sosipater
Placed his loving trust in Arsinoe.
But she is false, and her oath is empty,
While his love, nonetheless, abides intact.
What the gods can do, hasn’t yet been done:
O Hymenaeus, chant sorrowful songs
At Arsinoe’s latched door, condemning
The betrayal that is her marriage bed.

ὅρκον κοινὸν Ἔρωτ᾽ ἀνεθήκαμεν ὅρκος ὁ πιστὴν
Ἀρσινόης θέμενος Σωσιπάτρῳ φιλίην.
ἀλλ᾽ ἡ μὲν ψευδὴς κενὰ δ᾽ ὅρκια, τῷ δ᾽ ἐφυλάχθη
ἵμερος: ἡ δὲ θεῶν οὐ φανερὴ δύναμις.
θρήνους, ὦ Ὑμέναιε, παρὰ κληῖσιν ἀΰσαις
Ἀρσινόης, παστῷ μεμψάμενος προδότῃ.

5th Century BC Greek loutrophoros, a bathing vessel, depicting a wedding procession.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

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.

Commitments in the Absence of a Notary

Meleager 5.8 (Greek Anthology)

Holy Night and Lamp,
We took no other witnesses,
Except you two, for our oaths:
He to be content with me,
I never to desert him.
We swore, and you bore joint witness.
But those oaths, he now says, are written in water.
Lamp, that’s why you see him in the arms of others.

νὺξ ἱερὴ καὶ λύχνε, συνίστορας οὔτινας ἄλλους
ὅρκοις, ἀλλ᾽ ὑμέας, εἱλόμεθ᾽ ἀμφότεροι
χὠ μὲν ἐμὲ στέρξειν, κεῖνον δ᾽ ἐγὼ οὔ ποτε λείψειν
ὠμόσαμεν κοινὴν δ᾽ εἴχετε μαρτυρίην.
νῦν δ᾽ ὁ μὲν μὲν ὅρκια φησιν ἐν ὕδατι κεῖνα φέρεσθαι,
λύχνε, σὺ δ᾽ ἐν κόλποις αὐτὸν ὁρᾷς ἑτέρων.

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.

What A Little Moonlight Can Do

Philodemus 5.123 (Greek Anthology)

Lady of the night,
Two-horned lover of nocturnal revels,
Shine, Selene!
Shine, and as you beam through latticed shutters
Illume golden Kallistion.
There’s no wrong in a goddess watching
The doings of lovers.
To you, she and I are happy, I know, Selene.
For your soul was inflamed by Endymion too.

Note: Selene, the moon, is described as crescent shaped (“two-horned”). She fell in love with, and made love with, Endymion while he slept. The speaker of the epigram seems to suggest that he too will accost his beloved, Kallistion, while she sleeps.

Νυκτερινή, δίκερως, φιλοπάννυχε, φαῖνε, Σελήνη,
φαῖνε, δι᾽ εὐτρήτων βαλλομένη θυρίδων
αὔγαζε χρυσέην Καλλίστιον ἐς τὰ φιλεύντων
ἔργα κατοπτεύειν οὐ φθόνος ἀθανάτῃ.
ὀλβίζεις καὶ τήνδε καὶ ἡμέας, οἶδα, Σελήνη:
καὶ γὰρ σὴν ψυχὴν ἔφλεγεν Ἐνδυμίων.

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.

No Less Romantic than Zeus

Bassus 5.125 (Greek Anthology)

I won’t change into gold, one of these days.
Another might show himself as a bull,
Or as a sweet-voiced swan on the sea shore.
Let Zeus keep these games.
I’ll fork over some obols to Corrina,
Exactly two—and I certainly don’t fly.

οὐ μέλλω ῥεύσειν χρυσός ποτε: βοῦς δὲ γένοιτο
ἄλλος, χὠ μελίθρους κύκνος ἐπῃόνιος.
Ζηνὶ φυλασσέσθω τάδε παίγνια: τῇ δὲ Κορίννῃ
τοὺς ὀβολοὺς δώσω τοὺς δύο, κοὐ πέτομαι.

5th century BC vase attributed to the Berlin Painter.
National Archaeological Museum Tarquinia.

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.

How Will I know If She Really Loves Me?

Rufinus 5.87 (from the Greek Anthology)

Melissias will not admit her love,
But her body screams like it’s on the receiving end
Of a quiver of arrows: unsteady steps,
Bouts of gasping breath,
And hollow love-struck sockets.
Now then, O Longings, in your mother’s name,
(Cytherea with the beautiful garland)
Inflame the unyielding woman
Until she cries out, “I’m burning!”

ἀρνεῖται τὸν ἔρωτα Μελισσιάς, ἀλλὰ τὸ σῶμα
κέκραγ᾽ ὡς βελέων δεξάμενον φαρέτρην,
καὶ βάσις ἀστατέουσα, καὶ ἄστατος ἄσθματος ὁρμή,
καὶ κοῖλαι βλεφάρων ἰοτυπεῖς βάσιες.
ἀλλά, Πόθοι, πρὸς μητρὸς ἐϋστεφάνου Κυθερείης,
φλέξατε τὴν ἀπιθῆ, μέχρις ἐρεῖ ‘ Φλέγομαι.’

Comment

Isn’t it strange that the speaker’s great desire is for Melissias to say aloud what he purportedly already knows? This limited ambition begs the question, what in the first place justifies his belief that she’s in love? To hear him tell it, her body gives her away: her eyes, her feet, her breathing. It’s worth noting that the speaker describes Melissias’s body not as showing how she feels but as uttering it (κράζω: to shout, scream, shriek). It’s worth noting precisely because what the speaker is now asking for is more of the same: more utterances, but this time from the mouth. 

But what’s gained by having her mouth join the chorus of signifying body parts? The idea seems to be that the mouth is uniquely subject to the will while eyes and feet, for example, are not. Speech, that is, evidences an internal reality, a second being which might well be free even after the body submits. If that’s the case, then the behavior of the eyes and feet don’t suffice as evidence of the love, undermining the speaker’s explicit claim to the contrary. In other words, it appears the speaker actually doubts the reliability of the signs his conclusion rests on. And so he’s asked for . . . more signs.  

But words, like the body, can deceive. After all, Melissias has denied what she’ll next affirm. Where then is certainty to be found? That’s the speaker’s question, and ours. Here it’s worth recalling Wittgenstein’s insight: at some point the demand for certainty is no longer a desire for knowledge of the object but a desire to be the object. In other words, certainty would require collapsing the third-person and first-person perspectives, such that there would be no difference between saying “I know myself” and “I know her.” And that, I suspect, is beyond the power of the gods.

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.

Woe Is Catullus

Catullus 75

The fault is yours, my Lesbia,
That my mind is reduced to this:
It ruined itself by its own doings,
And now it couldn’t wish you well,
Even if you became perfect;
Neither could it stop loving you,
Even if you act wantonly.

Huc est mens deducta tua, mea Lesbia, culpa,
atque ita se officio perdidit ipsa suo,
ut iam nec bene velle queat tibi, si optuma fias,
nec desistere amare, omnia si facias.

Le Roy Flint, Sad Man, n.d., softground etching, Smithsonian American Art Museum

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.

Sappho or Catullus: Who To Believe?

Sappho: Fr. 48

You came,
I sought after you,
And you cooled my soul burnt up with longing.

Catullus 70

My woman says there’s nobody she prefers to marry
than me—not even if Jupiter himself wooed her,
She says. But what a woman says to a burning lover
One should scribble in the breeze and in the fast-flowing water.

Sappho

Ἦλθες ἔγω δέ σ’ ἐμαιόμαν,
ὂν δ’ ἔψυξας ἔμαν φρένα καιομέναν πόθῳ.

Catullus

Nulli se dicit mulier mea nubere malle
quam mihi, non si se Iuppiter ipse petat.
dicit: sed mulier cupido quod dicit amanti
in vento et rapida scribere oportet aqua.

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.

Just Who Do You Think You Are?

Anacreon 358

Yet again, hitting me with his bright ball,
Golden-haired Eros calls me out to play
With a girl in richly spangled sandals.
But she—because she’s from fancy Lesbos—
Of my hair—because it’s white—disapproves.
And so, at some other girl, she gapes!

Catullus 43

Howdy, girl with the not-small nose,
Feet not beautiful, eyes not black,
Fingers not long, the lips not dry,
A tongue not quite so elegant,
“Friend” of a Formian bankrupt.
The sticks proclaim you’re beautiful?
With you our Lesbia is compared?
O times, unthinking and vulgar!

Anacreon

σφαίρῃ δηὖτέ με πορφυρέῃ
βάλλων χρυσοκόμης Ἔρως,
νήνι ποικιλοσαμβάλῳ
συμπαίζειν προκαλεῖται.

ἣ δ’, ἐστὶν γὰρ ἀπ’ εὐκτίτου
Λέσβου, τὴν μὲν ἐμὴν κόμην,
λευκὴ γάρ, καταμέμφεται,
πρὸς δ’ ἄλλην τινὰ χάσκει.

Catullus:

Salve, nec minimo puella naso
nec bello pede nec nigris ocellis
nec longis digitis nec ore sicco
nec sane nimis elegante lingua,
decoctoris amica Formiani.
ten provincia narrat esse bellam?
tecum Lesbia nostra comparatur?
o saeclum insapiens et infacetum!

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.