Lyric Aging and Philosophical Relief

Mimnermus fr. 1

“What is life? What enjoyment is there without golden Aphrodite?
May I die when these things no longer interest me:
Secret sex and its moving gifts in bed,
Those blossoms of youth that tug
At men and women alike.

                                              …But then painful old age
Presses down and makes a man ugly and embarrassing.
Cruel thoughts are always wearing down his mind
And he takes no pleasure seeing the sunrise.
No, he’s disgusting to boys and a joke to women too.
That the hard old age god makes for us.”

τίς δὲ βίος, τί δὲ τερπνὸν ἄτερ χρυσῆς ᾿Αφροδίτης;
τεθναίην, ὅτε μοι μηκέτι ταῦτα μέλοι,
κρυπταδίη φιλότης καὶ μείλιχα δῶρα καὶ εὐνή,
οἷ’ ἥβης ἄνθεα γίνεται ἁρπαλέα
ἀνδράσιν ἠδὲ γυναιξίν· ἐπεὶ δ’ ὀδυνηρὸν ἐπέλθηι
γῆρας, ὅ τ’ αἰσχρὸν ὁμῶς καὶ κακὸν ἄνδρα τιθεῖ,
αἰεί μιν φρένας ἀμφὶ κακαὶ τείρουσι μέριμναι,
οὐδ’ αὐγὰς προσορῶν τέρπεται ἠελίου,
ἀλλ’ ἐχθρὸς μὲν παισίν, ἀτίμαστος δὲ γυναιξίν·
οὕτως ἀργαλέον γῆρας ἔθηκε θεός.

Counterpoint

Plato, Republic 329:

“I was once with Sophocles when someone asked him, ‘O Sophocles, how do things stand with you in the old love-making line? Can you still lie with a woman?’ Sophocles responded, ‘Ah man, you should sing a song of triumph for me – for indeed, I have most gladly fled from love as though I had gotten away from a cruel and raving master.’

It seemed to me at the time that he had spoken well on the subject, and I think so no less even today. Indeed, we are granted a certain peace and freedom from such concerns in old age. When our desires relent and finally cease to draw us out, then indeed does Sophocles’ saying come true, and we are entirely freed from many a raving master.

But respecting these things, and our relationships with our friends, my dear Socrates, there is one cause to consider – not old age, but rather the person’s character. If they have their lives well-ordered and are easily contented, then old age is a moderate burden. But to a man of the opposite character, both old age and youth happen to be burdensome affairs.

καὶ δὴ καὶ Σοφοκλεῖ ποτε τῷ ποιητῇ παρεγενόμην ἐρωτωμένῳ ὑπό τινος· “Πῶς,” ἔφη, “ὦ Σοφόκλεις, ἔχεις πρὸς τἀφροδίσια; ἔτι οἷός τε εἶ γυναικὶ συγγίγνεσθαι”; καὶ ὅς, “Εὐφήμει,” ἔφη, “ὦ ἄνθρωπε· ἁσμενέστατα μέντοι αὐτὸ ἀπέφυγον, ὥσπερ λυττῶντά τινα καὶ ἄγριον δεσπότην ἀποδράς.” εὖ οὖν μοι καὶ τότε ἔδοξεν ἐκεῖνος εἰπεῖν, καὶ νῦν οὐχ ἧττον. παντάπασι γὰρ τῶν γε τοιούτων ἐν τῷ γήρᾳ πολλὴ εἰρήνη γίγνεται καὶ ἐλευθερία· ἐπειδὰν αἱ ἐπιθυμίαι παύσωνται κατατείνουσαι καὶ χαλάσωσιν, παντάπασιν τὸ τοῦ Σοφοκλέους γίγνεται, δεσποτῶν πάνυ πολλῶν ἐστι καὶ μαινομένων ἀπηλλάχθαι. ἀλλὰ καὶ τούτων πέρι καὶ τῶν γε πρὸς τοὺς οἰκείους μία τις αἰτία ἐστίν, οὐ τὸ γῆρας, ὦ Σώκρατες, ἀλλ’ ὁ τρόπος τῶν ἀνθρώπων. ἂν μὲν γὰρ κόσμιοι καὶ εὔκολοι ὦσιν, καὶ τὸ γῆρας μετρίως ἐστὶν ἐπίπονον· εἰ δὲ μή, καὶ γῆρας, ὦ Σώκρατες, καὶ νεότης χαλεπὴ τῷ τοιούτῳ συμβαίνει.

A Song from the Old Days

The famously troublesome opening lines of Pindar’s second Isthmian Ode turn on a contrast between past and present poetic practices. In the noble past, Pindar says, poets spontaneously composed their songs when passion moved them. In the degraded present, however, they produce commissioned work when the fee is right.

A scholiast supposed that Pindar’s condemnation of his poetic contemporaries was chiefly a condemnation of Simonides. This isn’t particularly convincing given that Pindar himself “worked on commission” for an assortment of tyrants, and the lines in question belong to a commissioned work!

I suspect there’s a tongue-in-cheek aspect to Pindar’s critique:

Isthmian Ode 2 (lines 1-10)

In the old days, Thrasyboulus,
Men mounted the gold-wreathed Muses’ chariot
To partake of the glorious lyre.
Effortlessly they let fly sweet-voiced hymns to boys,
Provided one were beautiful
And had that most agreeable ripeness
Which calls to mind gorgeously throned Aphrodite.

Back then, the Muse was not a lover of profit,
And neither was she a working girl.
Sweet-voiced Terpsichore, Muse of the gladdening dance,
Did not sell her sweet soft-toned songs,
Their bodies covered in silver.

But Nowadays, she says observe the Argive’s maxim
As it best approximates truth:
“Money, money makes the man,” he said,
As he lost his wealth and lovers at the same time.

(Note: “Their bodies covered in silver”: the phrase may mean something like “wholly commercialized,” “completely bought and paid for,” etc. In contemporary language we might say “covered in dollar bills” or something of the like.)

In the old days, Pindar wrote at least one of those “hymns to boys.” Ancient sources regarded the lyric as autobiographical–something, as it were, which arose “effortlessly” from authentic feeling.

But praise poems of this type were highly conventional; I’m disinclined to read the fine fragment 123 below as verse confession. I’m sympathetic to scholars who suspect that the lyric was, like the poetry of “nowadays,” commissioned and paid for by a patron.

Pindar Fr. 123: Encomium for Theoxenus of Tenedos, Son of Hagesilas

You must pluck love in season, my heart,
At the fit age. Yet, a man who sees the sparkling rays
of Theoxenus’s eyes but doesn’t swell with lust
Has a black heart, one forged in a cold flame
From iron or steel. Aphrodite’s slighted him,
She of the curving eyelids,
So he works like mad for money,
Or he’s enchained to the impudence of women
And led down an altogether frigid path.

But I, by the grace of the goddess,
Melt like sacred bees-wax stung by the hot sun
When I see the fresh young limbs of boys.
In Tenedos, it’s true, Persuasion and Charm
Dwell in the son of Hagesilas.

Isthmian Ode 2 (lines 1-11)

οἱ μὲν πάλαι, ὦ Θρασύβουλε, φῶτες, οἳ χρυσαμπύκων
ἐς δίφρον Μοισᾶν ἔβαινον κλυτᾷ φόρμιγγι συναντόμενοι,
ῥίμφα παιδείους ἐτόξευον μελιγάρυας ὕμνους,
ὅστις ἐὼν καλὸς εἶχεν Ἀφροδίτας
εὐθρόνου μνάστειραν ἁδίσταν ὀπώραν.
ἁ Μοῖσα γὰρ οὐ φιλοκερδής πω τότ᾽ ἦν οὐδ᾽ ἐργάτις:
οὐδ᾽ ἐπέρναντο γλυκεῖαι μελιφθόγγου ποτὶ Τερψιχόρας
ἀργυρωθεῖσαι πρόσωπα μαλθακόφωνοι ἀοιδαί.
νῦν δ᾽ ἐφίητι <τὸ> τὠργείου φυλάξαι
ῥῆμ᾽ ἀλαθείας [ ] ἄγχιστα βαῖνον,
‘χρήματα, χρήματ᾽ ἀνήρ,’ ὃς φᾶ κτεάνων θ᾽ ἅμα λειφθεὶς καὶ φίλων.

Fr. 123: Encomium for Theoxenus of Tenedos

Xρῆν μὲν κατὰ καιρὸν ἐρώτων δρέπεαθαι, θυμέ, σὺν ἁλικίᾳ·
τὰς δὲ Θεοξένου ἀκτῖνας πρὸς ὂσσων
μαρμαρυζοίσας δρακείς
ὃς μὴ πόθῳ κυμαίνεται, ἐξ ἀδάμαντος
ἢ σιδάρου κεχάλκευται μέλαναν καρδίαν
ψυζρᾷ φλογί, πρὸς δ᾽ Ἀφροδίτας ἀτιμασθεὶς ἑλικογλεφάρου
ἢ περὶ χρήμασι μοχθίζει βιαίως
ἢ γυναικείῳ θράσει
ψυχράν φορεῖται πᾶσαν ὁδὸν θεραπεύων.
Ἀλλ᾽ ἐγὼ τὰς ἕκατι κηρὸς ὥς δαχθεὶς ἕλᾳ
ἱρᾶν μελισσᾶν τάκομαι, εὖτ᾽ ἂν ἲδω
παίσων νεόγυιον ἐς ἣβαν ·
ἐν δ᾽ ἂρα καὶ Tενέδῳ
Πειθώ τ᾽ ἒναιεν καὶ Xάρις
υἱὸν Ἁγηςίλα.

Bust of Pindar. Roman copy of a mid-5th century BC original. Napoli, Museo Archeologica Nazionale.

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.

When ‘Good’ Means ‘Good Enough’

In the dialogue “Protagoras,” Plato attributes the following poem to Simonides of Ceos, the itinerant and influential poet who lived between the late-6th century and mid-5th century BC.

The text is anything but pristine. Plato did not quote all of the verses and he interpolated verses of his own (I’ve excised the lines editors have found most doubtful).

I’ve done some violence of my own: to make the poem’s argument–and what an argument it is!–somewhat easier to follow (and it still isn’t easy), I’ve divided the poem into more stanzas than exist in the Greek.

Simonides Fr. 542 (PMG)

It’s hard for a man to be truly good
in hands, feet, and mind,
a square, as it were, drawn without blemish . . .

Yet Pittacus’ maxim does not suit me,
though it was spoken by a wise man:
it’s hard, he said, to be good,
an honor only a god could enjoy.

A man can’t help but be bad when misfortune,
before which he’s helpless, overtakes him.
When things are going well, all men are good,
but when things are going badly, men are bad . . .

So, I’d never waste my allotted life searching
in empty, vain hope for the impossible:
an altogether unblemished man
among us men who eat the broad earth’s fruits.
But if I find one, I’ll let you know.

I praise and I love every man
who, when he’s free to choose,
does nothing blameworthy.
Against compulsion though,
not even the gods can fight . . .

<Someone> who’s not too lazy,
who judges what profits the city,
this is a sound man.
Even I can’t fault him,
not when the race of fools is countless.
Truth be told, all things are beautiful
when base things aren’t intermixed.

Fr.542 (PMG)

ἄνδρ᾿ ἀγαθὸν μὲν ἀλαθέως γενέσθαι
χαλεπὸν χερσίν τε καὶ ποσὶ καὶ νόῳ
τετράγωνον ἄνευ ψόγου τετυγμένον.

[Between 6 and 15 lines are missing]

οὐδέ μοι ἐμμελέως τὸ Πιττάκειον
νέμεται, καίτοι σοφοῦ παρὰ φωτὸς εἰρημένον·
χαλεπὸν φάτ᾿ ἐσθλὸν ἔμμεναι.
θεὸς ἂν μόνος τοῦτ᾿ ἔχοι γέρας, ἄνδρα δ᾿ οὐκ
ἔστι μὴ οὐ κακὸν ἔμμεναι,
ὃν ἀμήχανος συμφορὰ καθέλῃ·
πράξας γὰρ εὖ πᾶς ἀνὴρ ἀγαθός,
κακὸς δ᾿ εἰ κακῶς [ ]
[
[

τοὔνεκεν οὔ ποτ᾿ ἐγὼ τὸ μὴ γενέσθαι
δυνατὸν διζήμενος κενεὰν ἐς ἄπρακτον
ἐλπίδα μοῖραν αἰῶνος βαλέω,
πανάμωμον ἄνθρωπον, εὐρυεδέος ὅσοι
καρπὸν αἰνύμεθα χθονός·
ἐπὶ δ᾿ ὑμὶν εὑρὼν ἀπαγγελέω.
πάντας δ᾿ ἐπαίνημι καὶ φιλέω,
ἑκὼν ὅστις ἔρδῃ
μηδὲν αἰσχρόν· ἀνάγκᾳ
δ᾿ οὐδὲ θεοὶ μάχονται.

[
[
] μηδ᾿ ἄγαν ἀπάλαμνος εἰδώς
γ᾿ ὀνησίπολιν δίκαν,
ὑγιὴς ἀνήρ· οὐδὲ μή μιν ἐγὼ
μωμήσομαι· τῶν γὰρ ἠλιθίων
ἀπείρων γενέθλα.
πάντα τοι καλά, τοῖσίν
τ᾿ αἰσχρὰ μὴ μέμεικται.

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.

 

Mothers & Daughters

Sappho Fr. 132

I have a beautiful child: much-loved Cleis.
Her appearance brings to mind golden flowers.
Not for all of Lydia would I  “<part with> her.

Greek Anthology 7.647

So, Gorgo spoke these final words to her dear mother,
Weeping, clinging to her neck:
“Stay here with father and have another child,
One with a better destiny than mine,
A helpmate in your grey old age.”

Sappho Fr. 132

ἔστι μοι κάλα πάις χρυσίοισιν ἀνθέμοισιν
ἐμφέρη⟨ν⟩ ἔχοισα μόρφαν Κλέις ἀγαπάτα,
ἀντὶ τᾶς ἔγωὐδὲ Λυδίαν παῖσαν οὐδ’ ἐράνναν . . .

Greek Anthology 7.647

ὕστατα δὴ τάδ᾽ ἔειπε φίλην ποτὶ μητέρα Γοργὼ
δακρυόεσσα, δέρης χερσὶν ἐφαπτομένη:
αὖθι μένοις παρὰ πατρί, τέκοις δ᾽ ἐπὶ λῴονι μοίρᾳ
ἄλλαν, σῷ πολιῷ γήραϊ καδεμόνα.

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.

Gustave Klimt. Detail from the painting Le Tre Eta (1905).

The Most Musical and Bellicose Men

Pindar, Fragments from Uncertain Places, 199

“Where the plans of the old
And the spears of young men are the best,
Along with the choruses and the Mouse and Aglaia…”

ἔνθα βουλαὶ γερόντων
καὶ νέων ἀνδρῶν ἀριστεύοισιν αἰχμαί,
καὶ χοροὶ καὶ Μοῖσα καὶ ᾿Αγλαΐα

This is quoted by Plutarchin the Life of Lycurgus (21.3) where he says

“For he has composed this about the Spartans, “where the spear of the young flourishes along with the clear-voiced Muse, and wide-wayed justice”

Pindar also says, “where the councils of the old and the spears of the young are the best along with the choruses and the Muse and Aglaia…”

For these lines demonstrate that they are the most musical and the most bellicose people at the same time.”

ὁ μὲν γὰρ οὕτως πεποίηκε περὶ τῶν Λακεδαιμονίων·

῎Ενθ’ αἰχμά τε νέων θάλλει καὶ μοῦσα λίγεια
καὶ δίκα εὐρυάγυια— —

Πίνδαρος δέ φησιν·

῎Ενθα βουλαὶ γερόντων
καὶ νέων ἀνδρῶν ἀριστεύοντι αἰχμαὶ
καὶ χοροὶ καὶ Μοῦσα καὶ ἀγλαΐα.

Μουσικωτάτους γὰρ ἅμα καὶ πολεμικωτάτους ἀποφαίνουσιν αὐτούς

JordanImage from:

Jordan, Borimir. “The Honors for Themistocles after Salamis.” The American Journal of Philology, vol. 109, no. 4, 1988, pp. 547–571. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/295081.

 

Who knows what Pindar poem this may have come from or what the context was–chances are it cannot be taken too seriously considering the on-again-off-again relationship between Sparta and Thebes and the fact that everything Pindar composed has to be understood from the perspective of the goal of the overall poem, to praise someone in particular by praising their country, their family, and their patron gods. (See Elroy Bundy’s Studia Pindarica for the clearest explanation of this.)

Knowing When to Bow Out

Sappho Fr. 121

Since you’re a friend to us,
find a younger wife.
I won’t countenance marriage,
being older than you.

Philodemus 5.112

I loved—who hasn’t? And partied—who’s a stranger to that?
But my loss of all control, what was the cause? A god, no?
To hell with it! Grey hair is fast closing in on black ones,
Harbinger of the sober stage of life.
When it was the season to play, I played.
Now that’s over, I’m turning to more suitable concerns.

Sappho Fr. 121

ἀλλ’ ἔων φίλος ἄμμι
λέχος ἄρνυσο νεώτερον·
οὐ γὰρ τλάσομ’ ἔγω συνοί-
κην ἔοισα γεραιτέρα

Philodemus 5.112

ἠράσθην τίς δ᾽ οὐχί; κεκώμακα: τίς δ᾽ ἀμύητος
κώμων; ἀλλ᾽ ἐμάνην ἐκ τίνος; οὐχὶ θεοῦ;
ἐρρίφθω: πολιὴ γὰρ ἐπείγεται ἀντὶ μελαίνης
θρὶξ ἤδη, συνετῆς ἄγγελος ἡλικίης.
καὶ παίζειν ὅτε καιρός, ἐπαίξαμεν ἡνίκα καὶ νῦν
οὐκέτι, λωϊτέρης φροντίδος ἁψόμεθα.

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.

Meeting You in Song Space

We say God and the imagination are one.
How high that highest candle lights the dark.

-Wallace Stevens, “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour”

Sappho Fr. 2

Come from Crete to me, to the holy temple
where there’s an elegant apple orchard
and altars
smoking with frankincense.

There, cool water babbles through apple-branches;
the place is entirely shadowed with roses;
and from bright stirring leaves
deep sleep pours down.

There, a meadow where horses graze
blooms with spring flowers,
and the honied breezes blow . . .
[ ]

In this place, Kypris, as you take up [ ],
into golden cups gently pour
nectar
mixed with our rejoicing.

Sappho Fr. 2 is addressed to Aphrodite (Kypris), summoning the god to her temple precinct.

The precinct may have existed in Lesbos, but this being song, I’m going to suggest it exists in the mind. In other words, the “me” and the “holy temple” (the first verse) are one and the same.

The sensuous landscape seems very much a mindscape: obscured by smoke, shaded throughout (fancifully, by roses), and the light filtering through dancing leaves brings enchanted sleep.

It is here, in the space created by and for song, that the communion with the god occurs.

Something similar is at work in Rilke’s Sonnet to Orpheus I.I.

The poem’s central conceit is that of a song-space: a place where the father of song and the creatures attentive to his music gather. This place of communion (“a temple”) is situated not in the physical world, but inside of them (“in the ear”).

It’s in this interior space that Sappho and her god, and Rilke and his demi-god, meet in song.

Rilke: Sonnets to Orpheus I.I

A tree sprung up there. O pure transcendence!
O Orpheus singing! O tall tree in the ear!
And all was quiet. Yet in the silence itself
a new beginning, an intimation, a change came on.

Creatures of stillness thronged out of the clear
untroubled forest, from their lairs and nests.
And it was not from cunning,
nor from fear, were they so quiet in themselves,

but from listening. Bellow, cry, roar
seemed small in their hearts. And where there was scarcely
even a hut to host this,

a shelter made of their darkest longing,
its entryway held up by wobbly posts–
there you built for them a temple in the ear.

Sappho Fr. 2:

δεῦρυ μ’ ἐκ Κρητας .π[ ]ναῦον
ἄγνον, ὄππ[ ] χάριεν μὲν ἄλσος
μαλί[αν], βῶμοι δὲ τεθυμιάμε-
νοι [λι]βανώτῳ·

ἐν δ’ ὔδωρ ψῦχρον κελάδει δι’ ὔσδων
μαλίνων, βρόδοισι δὲ παῖς ὀ χῶρος
ἐσκίαστ’, αἰθυσσομένων δὲ φύλλων
κῶμα κατέρρει·

ἐν δὲ λείμων ἰππόβοτος τέθαλεν
ἠρινίοισιν ἄνθεσιν, αἰ δ’ ἄνητοι
μέλλιχα πνέοισιν [
[ ]

ἔλθα δὴ σὺ [ ] ἔλοισα Κύπρι,
χρυσίαισιν ἐν κυλίκεσσιν ἄβρως
ὀμ[με]μείχμενον θαλίαισι νέκταρ
Οἰνοχόαισον

Rilke Die Sonette An Orpheus I.I

Da stieg ein Baum. O reine Übersteigung!
O Orpheus singt! O hoher Baum im Ohr!
Und alles schwieg. Doch selbst in der Verschweigung
ging neuer Anfang, Wink und Wandlung vor.

Tiere aus Stille drangen aus dem klaren
gelösten Wald von Lager und Genist;
und da ergab sich, daß sie nicht aus List
und nicht aus Angst in sich so leise waren,

sondern aus Hören. Brüllen, Schrei, Geröhr
schien klein in ihren Herzen. Und wo eben
kaum eine Hütte war, dies zu empfangen,

ein Unterschlupf aus dunkelstem Verlangen
mit einem Zugang, dessen Pfosten beben, –
da schufst du ihnen Tempel im Gehör.

A pottery shard, circa 250-100 B.C., inscribed with Sappho 2.
It is held in the Biblioteca Laurenziana in Florence.

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.

An Apple A Day

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!

Paul Cezanne, Still Life with Apples and Pears (1892).

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.

Martial on His Summer Sleep Schedule

Epigrams 12.68

“Morning appointment–my reason for leaving the city–
If you knew better, you would visit more ambitious homes.
I am no lawyer, no man prepared for harsh suits,
I am a lazy and aging friend of the Muses.
Sleep and leisure make me happy—the very things
Which Rome denied me. But I’ll go back if I can’t sleep here.”

Matutine cliens, urbis mihi causa relictae,
atria, si sapias, ambitiosa colas.
non sum ego causidicus nec amaris litibus aptus,
sed piger et senior Pieridumque comes;
otia me somnusque iuvant, quae magna negavit
Roma mihi: redeo, si vigilatur et hic.

12.80

“Callistratus praises everyone so he may not praise the worthy.
What good can he be when he doesn’t think anyone’s bad?

Ne laudet dignos, laudat Callistratus omnes.
cui malus est nemo, quis bonus esse potest?

Image result for medieval manuscript summertime
St. Mark with a lion, BL Add MS 18852 

O Sappho, Who Wrongs You?

Sappho, fr. 1

Many-minded immortal Aphrodite,
Child of Zeus, plot weaver, I implore you:
Don’t with vexations and frustrations break
My heart, O queen.

Instead, come here, if ever in past times
From far off you heard, and heeded, my calls;
And quitting your father’s golden palace,
You came,

After yoking the chariot. Small birds,
Handsome, swift, bore you across the black earth.
Their fast wings whirred from the upper heavens
down through the middle air.

Quick, their arrival. Then you, blessed one,
A smile on your immortal countenance,
Asked: what is it, this time, that’s happened to me;
Why, this time, do I call;

And what does my crazed heart most desire:
“Whom, this time, must I persuade—
Go out, that is, and bring into your love?
O Sappho, who wrongs you?

Even if she’s fleeing, soon she’ll pursue.
If she’s refusing gifts, she’ll give them.
If she’s not in love, soon she’ll be in love—
Even if against her will.”

Come this time too. Release me from hard cares.
Whatever my heart wishes to see done,
Bring about. And you yourself, be my ally
In this fight.

ποικιλόφρον’ ἀθανάτ Ἀφρόδιτα,
παῖ Δίος δολόπλοκε, λίσσομαί σε,
μή μ’ ἄσαισι μηδ’ ὀνίαισι δάμνα,
πότνια, θῦμον,

ἀλλὰ τυίδ’ ἔλθ’, αἴ ποτα κἀτέρωτα
τὰς ἔμας αὔδας ἀίοισα πήλοι
ἔκλυες, πάτρος δὲ δόμον λίποισα
χρύσιον ἦλθες

ἄρμ’ ὐπασδεύξαισα· κάλοι δέ σ’ ἆγον
ὤκεες στροῦθοι περὶ γᾶς μελαίνας
πύκνα δίννεντες πτέρ’ ἀπ’ ὠράνωἴθε-
ρος διὰ μέσσω·

αἶψα δ’ ἐξίκοντο· σὺ δ’, ὦ μάκαιρα,
μειδιαίσαισ’ ἀθανάτωι προσώπωι
ἤρε’ ὄττι δηὖτε πέπονθα κὤττι
δηὖτε κάλημμι

κὤττι μοι μάλιστα θέλω γένεσθαι
μαινόλαι θύμωι· τίνα δηὖτε πείθω
[βαι]σ’ ἄγην ἐς σὰν φιλότατα; τίς σ’, ὦ
Ψάπφ’, ἀδικήει;

καὶ γὰρ αἰ φεύγει, ταχέως διώξει,
αἰ δὲ δῶρα μὴ δέκετ’, ἀλλὰ δώσει,
αἰ δὲ μὴ φίλει, ταχέως φιλήσει
κωὐκ ἐθέλοισα.

ἔλθε μοι καὶ νῦν, χαλέπαν δὲ λῦσον
ἐκ μερίμναν, ὄσσα δέ μοι τέλεσσαι
θῦμος ἰμέρρει, τέλεσον, σὺ δ’ αὔτα
σύμμαχος ἔσσο.

A wayward thought:

The conventional reading of the lyric assumes that the speaker is a lover (name: Sappho) who needs Aphrodite’s help to win (or punish) a reluctant beloved. An alternative interpretation: Sappho is a singer who needs Aphrodite’s help not to win a lover but to compose a persuasive love song. This reading turns first on the summons “come here” and “come”, and then on the god’s epiphany—or rather, the unexpected sounding of the god’s voice.

The temptation is to hear in the call to Aphrodite the traditional summons of lyric hymn. There, the suppliant speaker calls on the god to perform some beneficial task. For example, Anacreon 357:

On my knees I beg you,
Come to me,
Listen to my pleasing prayer:
To Cleobulus be
A good counselor so that he accepts
My love, O Dionysus.

In Sappho 1, things are somewhat different. The call to Aphrodite more resembles an invocation to the muse, the plea to enable song making (not find a lover). We might associate this practice with epic, but of course it exists in Archaic lyric too. Alcman 27:

Come, Muse Calliope, daughter of Zeus—
Begin with lovely verses—
Put charm into our hymn—
And make our dance a graceful one.

In Alcman’s figural language, the muse is to “begin” the very song Alcman himself is beginning to sing. Hesiod says of the muses, “they breathed into me wonderous song,” (Theog. 31-32) and Alcman asks the same of his muse. And so does Sappho. But what’s distinctive about Sappho is that she makes literal what is only metaphorical in the tradition. The voice of her responsive god literally issues from her throat as she sings her song (strophes 5 and 6). This is what it means for the god to have come: it is Aphrodite who “begins” when Sappho sings, enabling her song. The struggle of song-making: That’s the fight in which she needs an ally. In the absence of the allied muse, song-making would be an exercise in “vexations and frustrations.”

Anacreon 357 (excerpt)

γουνοῦμαί σε, σὺ δ’ εὐμενὴς
ἔλθ’ ἡμίν, κεχαρισμένης
δ’ εὐχωλῆς ἐπακούειν·
Κλεοβούλωι δ’ ἀγαθὸς γένεο
σύμβουλος, τὸν ἐμόν γ’ ἔρωτ’,
ὦ Δεόνυσε, δέχεσθαι.

Alcman 27

Μῶσ᾿ ἄγε Καλλιόπα, θύγατερ Διός,
ἄρχ᾿ ἐρατῶν ϝεπέων, ἐπὶ δ᾿ ἵμερον
ὕμνῳ καὶ χαρίεντα τίθη χορόν.

Terra Cotta amphora. Attributed to the Berlin Painter. c.490 BC. Young man singing and playing the Kythera. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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.