My next poem is ascribed to a poet called Anacreon, a Greek lyricist writing from the 6th century BC. The lives of these ancient poets are shrouded in half-truths and legend, but the tradition went that Anacreon lived to a very old age, and that he was a great lover and laugher all the way up to his death. This is one of the most famous examples of a few fragments that have survived where Anacreon takes on the persona of an elderly and unsuccessful lover.
358 is an extremely playful piece describing an initially promising encounter. The poet is struck by a ball thrown by a well-dressed girl, probably while she is playing with her friends. He decides this isn’t a chance encounter, and rather that the god of love, Eros, has intervened for his sake.
Golden-haired Eros strikes me
once again with a purple ball
And invites me to play with a
girl in fancy sandals.
But she is from proud Lesbos,
and turns her nose up at my
grey hair; she is gawping after
some other girl.
The image of the girl with a ball recalls Homer’s Odyssey book 6, in which Odysseus stumbles across the Phaeacian King’s daughter Nausicaa playing with her maids. In this scene, Nausicaa is very struck by Odysseus’ good looks, and so Anacreon begins by optimistically casting himself as a handsome epic hero.
But his hopes are dashed in a devastating anti-climax. First we learn that the girl is from Lesbos, a city then associated with sophisticated and beautiful girls – far too classy for this grey old man. Not only this, she is from ‘proud’ Lesbos. While this translation of the Greek word does work, a more literal translation would be ‘well-built’, suggesting somewhere with good defences. Like the city, this girl is impregnable.
But the final blow is revealed in the last line of the poem. The girl is Lesbian in more than one sense, and she is trailing after another female. There is a little humour at her expense here, a jibe by the spurned party mocking the way this sophisticated girl gawps. But ultimately the poet is the true butt of his merry joke.
Sources: Pfeijffer, Playing Ball with Homer. An Interpretation of Anacreon 358 PMG, (2000)