The Purpose of Song

In 1923 Rainer Maria Rilke published Sonnets to Orpheus, a sequence of poems dedicated to the mythical father of song. The poems are as beautiful and subtle as they are challenging. 

A Platonic concept animates the third sonnet: namely, song’s audial aspect (I treat the word as interchangeable with “music”) should direct us to the art’s higher, pure form. In fact, it should move us beyond the world of appearances and reconcile us with fundamental reality. 

And so Socrates says of song: “certainly it is useful in the search for the beautiful and the good” [Republic 531c]. Like geometry and astronomy, song should “compel contemplation of being itself” [Republic 526e]. 

With these lofty claims in mind, enjoy Rilke:

Sonnets to Orpheus: III

A god is able. But tell me, how could
a man follow him through the narrow lyre?
Man’s mind is conflict. At the meeting of two
heart-paths there is no temple to Apollo.

Song, as you teach it, is not desire,
not an instrument for reaching a goal.
Song is being. For a god, a simple thing.
But when will we be? When will he turn

the earth and the stars toward our being?
Song’s not there, youth, for when you fall in love,
though your voice forces your mouth open. Learn

to forget you sang that way. It will pass.
True singing is breath of another kind:
A breath about nothing. A flutter in the god. A wind.

Plato’s Republic, 531c:

χρήσιμον μὲν οὖν, ἦν δ᾽ ἐγώ, πρὸς τὴν τοῦ καλοῦ τε καὶ ἀγαθοῦ ζήτησιν, ἄλλως δὲ μεταδιωκόμενον ἄχρηστον.

526e:

“οὐκοῦν εἰ μὲν οὐσίαν ἀναγκάζει θεάσασθαι, προσήκει . . .”

Rilke’s Die Sonette An Orpheus: III

Ein Gott vermags. Wie aber, sag mir, soll
ein Mann ihm folgen durch die schmale Leier?
Sein Sinn ist Zwiespalt. An der Kreuzung zweier
Herzwege steht kein Tempel für Apoll.

Gesang, wie du ihn lehrst, ist nicht Begehr,
nicht Werbung um ein endlich noch Erreichtes ;
Gesang ist Dasein. Für den Gott ein Leichtes.
Wann aber sind wir? Und wann wendet er

an unser Sein die Erde und die Sterne?
Dies ists nicht, Jüngling, daß du liebst, wenn auch
die Stimme dann den Mund dir aufstößt, – lerne

vergessen, daß du aufsangst. Das verrinnt.
In Wahrheit singen, ist ein andrer Hauch.
Ein Hauch um nichts. Ein Wehn im Gott. Ein Wind.

Rilke at 25 bore some resemblance to young Stalin.

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.

Tawdry Tuesday: Wanton Verse, Pure Heart. And Dicks for Sale (NSFW)

Hadrian, fr. II [A minor Latin Poet and a Major Roman Emperor]

“You were wanton in verse, but pure of thought”

Lascivus versu, mente pudicus eras.

 Martial, 12.97

“Even though your wife is a girl of a kind
A man would scarcely seek with inappropriate prayers
(rich, noble, erudite, chase, what a find!)
You bust your nut, Bassus, but on the hair
Of the the men you buy with your wife’s money.

And when to its mistress your dick is returned
Though it was for so many thousands bought
It is so limp that its full size cannot be earned
Even if by sweet whispers or soft strokings sought.

For once, have some shame or let’s go to court.
Bassus, you sold it—your dick ain’t yours.”

Uxor cum tibi sit puella qualem
votis vix petat improbis maritus,
dives, nobilis, erudita, casta,
rumpis, Basse, latus, sed in comatis,
uxoris tibi dote quos parasti.
et sic ad dominam reversa languet
multis mentula milibus redempta
ut nec vocibus excitata blandis
molli pollice nec rogata surgat.
sit tandem pudor aut eamus in ius.
non est haec tua, Basse: vendidisti.

Image result for Priapus weighing penis pompeii
Wall-painting: Priapus weighing his phallus (Pompeii)

Thanks For the Love, But . . .

Catullus 87

No woman can say she’s been truly loved
As my Lesbia has been loved by me.
Nothing counted on in any compact
Was ever so assured as what’s been found,
On my side, in my love, for you.

Sappho, Fr. 94 (strophes 1-3)

To be honest, I wish I were dead.
With a lot of crying, she left me,
And had this to say:
“How dreadful a thing we’ve suffered, Sappho!
On my word, I left you reluctantly.”
This was my reply:
“Farewell! Go! But remember me,
For you know how we cared for you.”

Catullus

Nulla potest mulier tantum se dicere amatam
vere, quantum a me Lesbia amata mea es
nulla fides ullo fuit unquam in foedere tanta
quanta in amore tuo ex parte reperta mea est.

Sappho

[ ]
τεθνάκην δ’ ἀδόλως, θέλω·
ἀ με ψισδομένα κατελίμπανεν

πόλλα καὶ τόδ’ ἔειπέ [. .
ὤιμ’ ὠς δεῖνα πεπ[όνθ]αμεν,

Ψάπφ’, ἦ μάν σ’ ἀέκοισ’ ἀπυλιμπάνω.

τὰν δ’ ἔγω τάδ’ ἀμειβόμαν·
χαίροισ’ ἔρχεο κἄμεθεν
μέμναισ’, οἶσθα γὰρ ὤς σε πεδήπομεν·

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.

Weekend Plans with Alcaeus

Alcaeus, Fr. 38A (P. Oxy. 1233 fr. 1 ii 8–20 + 2166(b)1)

“Drink and get drunk with me, Melanippos.
Why would you say that once you cross the great eddying
River of Acheron you will see the pure light of the sun again?
Come on, don’t hope for great things.

For even the son of Aiolos, Sisyphos used to claim
He was better than death because he knew the most of men.
Even though he was so very wise, he crossed
The eddying river Acheron twice thanks to fate
And Kronos’ son granted that he would have toil
Beneath the dark earth. So don’t hope for these things.

As long as we are young, now is the time we must
Endure whatever of these things the god soon grants us to suffer.”

πῶνε [καὶ μέθυ᾿ ὦ] Μελάνιππ᾿ ἄμ᾿ ἔμοι· τί [φαῖς †
ὄταμε[. . . .]διννάεντ᾿ † Ἀχέροντα μέγ[αν πόρον
ζάβαι[ς ἀ]ελίω κόθαρον φάος [ἄψερον
ὄψεσθ᾿; ἀλλ᾿ ἄγι μὴ μεγάλων ἐπ[ιβάλλεο·
καὶ γὰρ Σίσυφος Αἰολίδαις βασίλευς [ἔφα
ἄνδρων πλεῖστα νοησάμενος [θανάτω κρέτην·
ἀλλὰ καὶ πολύιδρις ἔων ὐπὰ κᾶρι [δὶς
δ̣ιννάεντ᾿ Ἀχέροντ᾿ ἐπέραισε, μ[έμηδε δ᾿ ὦν
αὔτῳ μόχθον ἔχην Κρονίδαις βα [σίλευς κάτω
ελαίνας χθόνος· ἀλλ᾿ ἄγι μὴ τά[δ᾿ ἐπέλπεο·
θᾶς] τ᾿ ἀβάσομεν αἴ ποτα κἄλλοτα ν [ῦν χρέων
φέρ]ην ὄττινα τῶνδε πάθην τά[χα δῷ θέος.

Image result for medieval manuscript acheron
Dante Being rowed across Acheron, 5th c, Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 6r. B.L.

Some of us can’t say this any more…

The Fruitless Toil of Worry: Two Passages on Happiness

Horace, Odes 2.16 25-32

“The spirit which is happy for a single day
Has learned not to worry about what remains
And tempers bitter tastes with a gentle smile—
Nothing is blessed through and through.

A swift death stole famed Achilles away;
Drawn-out old age wore Tithonos down.
Perhaps some hour will hand to me
Whatever it has refused to you.”

laetus in praesens animus quod ultra est
oderit curare et amara lento
temperet risu; nihil est ab omni
parte beatum.

abstulit clarum cita mors Achillem,
longa Tithonum minuit senectus,
et mihi forsan, tibi quod negarit,
porriget hora.

Bacchylides, Processionals fr. 11-12

“There is one border, a single path to happiness for mortals—
When a person is able to keep a heart free of grief
Until the end of life. Whoever keeps a ten thousand
Affairs in their thoughts
Whoever tortures their heart
Night and day over what may come,
Has toil which brings no profit.”

εἷς ὅρος, μία βροτοῖσίν ἐστιν εὐτυχίας ὁδός,
θυμὸν εἴ τις ἔχων ἀπενθῆ δύναται
διατελεῖν βίον· ὃς δὲ μυρία
μὲν ἀμφιπολεῖ φρενί,
τὸ δὲ παρ᾿ ἆμάρ τε <καὶ> νύκτα μελλόντων
χάριν αἰὲν ἰάπτεται
κέαρ, ἄκαρπον ἔχει πόνον.

Image result for medieval manuscript happiness
BLMedieval Sloane MS 278, 1280-1300

Tawdry Tuesday: Wanton Verse, Pure Heart. And Dicks for Sale (NSFW)

Hadrian, fr. II [A minor Latin Poet and a Major Roman Emperor]

“You were wanton in verse, but pure of thought”

Lascivus versu, mente pudicus eras.

 Martial, 12.97

“Even though your wife is a girl of a kind
A man would scarcely seek with inappropriate prayers
(rich, noble, erudite, chase, what a find!)
You bust your nut, Bassus, but on the hair
Of the the men you buy with your wife’s money.

And when to its mistress your dick is returned
Though it was for so many thousands bought
It is so limp that its full size cannot be earned
Even if by sweet whispers or soft strokings sought.

For once, have some shame or let’s go to court.
Bassus, you sold it—your dick ain’t yours.”

Uxor cum tibi sit puella qualem
votis vix petat improbis maritus,
dives, nobilis, erudita, casta,
rumpis, Basse, latus, sed in comatis,
uxoris tibi dote quos parasti.
et sic ad dominam reversa languet
multis mentula milibus redempta
ut nec vocibus excitata blandis
molli pollice nec rogata surgat.
sit tandem pudor aut eamus in ius.
non est haec tua, Basse: vendidisti.

Image result for Priapus weighing penis pompeii
Wall-painting: Priapus weighing his phallus (Pompeii)

One Love, Two Bodies

Greek Anthology, 5.88 (Rufinus): The Fire of Unrequited Love

“Fire-bearing love, if you haven’t the strength to light two equally afire
Either extinguish it or share the flame burning in only one.”

Εἰ δυσὶν οὐκ ἴσχυσας ἴσην φλόγα, πυρφόρε, καῦσαι,
τὴν ἑνὶ καιομένην ἢ σβέσον ἢ μετάθες.

Diogenes Laertius, Aristotle 5.21

When [Aristotle] was asked what a friend is, he replied “one soul occupying two bodies.”

ἐρωτηθεὶς τί ἐστι φίλος, ἔφη, “μία ψυχὴ δύο σώμασιν ἐνοικοῦσα.”

Catullus, 87

“No woman can claim that she has been loved as much
Truly, as my Lesbia has been loved by me.
No promise has ever been made in as much faith
As can be found on my part in loving you.”

Nulla potest mulier tantum se dicere amatam
vere, quantum a me Lesbia amata mea est.
nulla fides ullo fuit umquam foedere tanta,
quanta in amore tuo ex parte reperta mea est.

Image result for medieval manuscript love
from here

Aiakos Built A Wall…And the Gods Paid for It

According to some authors Aiakos, who ends up as a judge of the dead in the underworld, was the son of Zeus and Europa. According to others (Pindar, Corinna) he was son of Zeus and Aegina (Or Poseidon and Aegina). When Poseidon and Apollo went to build the walls of Troy, they took Aiakos along to help them. A scholiast reports that it had to happen this way: since a mortal helped build the walls, they were not wholly invincible.

Pindar’s account of this emphasizes an omen that appeared at the completion of the walls. In his telling, Apollo interprets the omen as indicating that the descendants of Aiakos will be instrumental in the destruction of the city. Who are his descendants? Ajax, Achilles. Oh, Neoptolemos and Epeius the builder of the Trojan horse too!
(go here for the full Ode and a good commentary).

Pindar, Ol. 8.24-54

“For whatever weighs a great deal is hard
To judge with a fair mind at the right time.
But some law of the gods established this sea-protected land [Aegina]
As a sacred pillar
For every kind of stranger.
May rising time never tire
Of making this true
for this land tended by the Dorian people since Aiakos’ time.
It was Aiakos that Leto’s son and wide-ruling Apollo took
When they were going to build a wall around Troy. They summoned him
As a coworker for the wall. For it was fated that
When wars arose in the city-sacking battles,
That the wall would breathe out twisting smoke.
When the wall was just built, three dark serpents
Leapt up at it: two fell against it
and, stunned, lost their lives.
One rose up with cries of mourning.
Apollo interpreted this sign immediately and said:
“Pergamos will be sacked, hero, by your hands’ deeds:
So this sacred vision says to me
Sent by loud-thundering Zeus.
And it won’t be done without your sons: the city will be slaughtered by the first
And the third generations.*” So the god spoke clearly
And he rode Xanthus to the well-horsed Amazons and to the Danube.
The trident-bearer directed his swift-chariot.
To the sea by the Isthmus
Bearing Aiakos here
With golden horses,
Gazing upon the ridge of Corinth, famous for its feasts.
But nothing is equally pleasing among men.”

… ὅ τι γὰρ πολὺ καὶ πολλᾷ ῥέπῃ,
ὀρθᾷ διακρίνειν φρενὶ μὴ παρὰ καιρόν,
δυσπαλές: τεθμὸς δέ τις ἀθανάτων καὶ τάνδ᾽ ἁλιερκέα χώραν
παντοδαποῖσιν ὑπέστασε ξένοις
κίονα δαιμονίαν
ὁ δ᾽ ἐπαντέλλων χρόνος
τοῦτο πράσσων μὴ κάμοι
Δωριεῖ λαῷ ταμιευομέναν ἐξ Αἰακοῦ:
τὸν παῖς ὁ Λατοῦς εὐρυμέδων τε Ποσειδᾶν,
Ἰλίῳ μέλλοντες ἐπὶ στέφανον τεῦξαι, καλέσαντο συνεργὸν
τείχεος, ἦν ὅτι νιν πεπρωμένον
ὀρνυμένων πολέμων
πτολιπόρθοις ἐν μάχαις
λάβρον ἀμπνεῦσαι καπνόν.
γλαυκοὶ δὲ δράκοντες, ἐπεὶ κτίσθη νέον,
πύργον ἐσαλλόμενοι τρεῖς, οἱ δύο μὲν κάπετον,
αὖθι δ᾽ ἀτυζομένω ψυχὰς βάλον:
εἷς δ᾽ ἀνόρουσε βοάσαις.
ἔννεπε δ᾽ ἀντίον ὁρμαίνων τέρας εὐθὺς, Ἀπόλλων:
‘ Πέργαμος ἀμφὶ τεαῖς, ἥρως, χερὸς ἐργασίαι ἁλίσκεται:
ὣς ἐμοὶ φάσμα λέγει Κρονίδα
πεμφθὲν βαρυγδούπου Διός:
οὐκ ἄτερ παίδων σέθεν, ἀλλ᾽ ἅμα πρώτοις ῥάζεται
καὶ τερτάτοις.’ ὣς ἆρα θεὸς σάφα εἴπαις
Ξάνθον ἤπειγεν καὶ Ἀμαζόνας εὐίππους καὶ ἐς Ἴστρον ἐλαύνων.
Ὀρσοτρίαινα δ᾽ ἐπ᾽ Ἰσθμῷ ποντίᾳ
ἅρμα θοὸν τανύεν,
ἀποπέμπων Αἰακὸν
δεῦρ᾽ ἀν᾽ ἵπποις χρυσέαις,
καὶ Κορίνθου δειράδ᾽ ἐποψόμενος δαιτικλυτάν.
τερπνὸν δ᾽ ἐν ἀνθρώποις ἴσον ἔσσεται οὐδέν.

*First and Third generation: Aiakos had two sons (Telemon and Peleus) with Endeis and one with another woman (Phocus). Telemon and Peleus killed their half-brother; but the three sons fathered Ajax, Achilles and Panopeus (Phocus). The latter two grandsons fathered Neoptolemus and Epeios. Achilles’ son Neoptolemus helped take Troy; Epeios built the wooden horse.

Zeus – Aegina
|
Endeis – Aiakos – Psamathe
|                 |
Telamon Peleus                  Phocus
|                |                               |
Ajax       Achilles                  Panopeus
|                                  |
Neoptolemus                 Epeios

Image result for Medieval Manuscript walls of troy

Tawdry Tuesday: Zeus, Ganymede, and a Cock

Greek Anthology, Antipater 5.77

“Hera twisted by the beauty of Ganymede once spoke
As she suffered the heart-rending stab of jealousy in her heart:
“Troy ignited a male fire for Zeus—and so I will send
A fire at Troy, a pain bearing Paris.
No eagle will come to Troy again, but vultures
Will go to the feast when the Greeks get the spoils for their toils.”

Πριομένα κάλλει Γανυμήδεος εἶπέ ποθ᾿ Ἥρα,
θυμοβόρον ζάλου κέντρον ἔχουσα νόῳ·
“Ἄρσεν πῦρ ἔτεκεν Τροία Διΐ· τοιγὰρ ἐγὼ πῦρ
πέμψω ἐπὶ Τροίᾳ, πῆμα φέροντα Πάριν·
ἥξει δ᾿ Ἰλιάδαις οὐκ ἀετός, ἀλλ᾿ ἐπὶ θοίναν
γῦπες, ὅταν Δαναοὶ σκῦλα φέρωσι πόνων.”

Sometimes an Eagle Does show up in stories of Zeus and Ganymede. 

Greek Anthology 12.211

“Go to bright heaven, go carrying the child,
Eagle, keep your twin wings spread wide.
Go holding gentle Ganymede and do not drop
Zeus’ wine-bearer of the sweetest cups.
But be careful not to bloody him with your clawed feet
So that Zeus, upset, won’t hurt you.”

Στεῖχε πρὸς αἰθέρα δῖον, ἀπέρχεο παῖδα κομίζων,
αἰετέ, τὰς διφυεῖς ἐκπετάσας πτέρυγας,
στεῖχε τὸν ἁβρὸν ἔχων Γανυμήδεα, μηδὲ μεθείης
τὸν Διὸς ἡδίστων οἰνοχόον κυλίκων·
φείδεο δ᾿ αἱμάξαι κοῦρον γαμψώνυχι ταρσῷ,
μὴ Ζεὺς ἀλγήσῃ, τοῦτο βαρυνόμενος.

MFA #01.8114

Image result for ganymede rooster Zeus
Terracotta of Zeus with Ganymede (LIMC 56; from Olympia)
Image result for ganymede rooster Zeus
Attic red-figured hydria
Attributed to Eupolis P. by Beazley
Approx. 450 -440 BC
This image from the MFA shows Zeus contemplating what to do with his cock.
Image result for ganymede rooster Zeus Black figure
Zeus pursuing Ganymedes, Athenian red-figure kantharos C5th B.C., Museum of Fine Arts Boston

The Fruitless Toil of Worry: Two Passages on Happiness

Horace, Odes 2.16 25-32

“The spirit which is happy for a single day
Has learned not to worry about what remains
And tempers bitter tastes with a gentle smile—
Nothing is blessed through and through.

A swift death stole famed Achilles away;
Drawn-out old age wore Tithonos down.
Perhaps some hour will hand to me
Whatever it has refused to you.”

laetus in praesens animus quod ultra est
oderit curare et amara lento
temperet risu; nihil est ab omni
parte beatum.

abstulit clarum cita mors Achillem,
longa Tithonum minuit senectus,
et mihi forsan, tibi quod negarit,
porriget hora.

Bacchylides, Processionals fr. 11-12

“There is one border, a single path to happiness for mortals—
When a person is able to keep a heart free of grief
Until the end of life. Whoever keeps a ten thousand
Affairs in their thoughts
Whoever tortures their heart
Night and day over what may come,
Has toil which brings no profit.”

εἷς ὅρος, μία βροτοῖσίν ἐστιν εὐτυχίας ὁδός,
θυμὸν εἴ τις ἔχων ἀπενθῆ δύναται
διατελεῖν βίον· ὃς δὲ μυρία
μὲν ἀμφιπολεῖ φρενί,
τὸ δὲ παρ᾿ ἆμάρ τε <καὶ> νύκτα μελλόντων
χάριν αἰὲν ἰάπτεται
κέαρ, ἄκαρπον ἔχει πόνον.

Image result for medieval manuscript happiness
BLMedieval Sloane MS 278, 1280-1300