My next poem is by Anacreon. It is an extremely playful piece describing an encounter with a beautiful girl playing ball. There is a build up of anticipation where the narrator imagines that the god of love Eros has orchestrated this propitious meeting, and then a self-mocking anticlimax when he realises that she is completely out of his league, and also happens to fancy someone of her own sex.
Anacreon is often over-looked as one of the Greek lyric poets, and unfairly so I think. As I hope to show his poems are extremely witty and many-layered, building up a wonderful irony, here at the narrator’s own expense.
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 setting of the first stanza can be imagined as this: the author is hit by a ball thrown by a fancy girl, probably playing with her friends. The author decides this isn’t chance, and that the god of love Eros has intervened for his sake. Love affairs are clearly a big concern for him. The word for ‘again’ shows it is not unusual for Eros to strike him. Also, he thinks of love before he even sees the girl. The sequence of action is that he is hit by the ball, he decides Eros is behind this, and his hope is apparently fulfilled when a girl comes to collect it. The ball is an invitation from the god and he is only too eager to accept.
Sadly in the second stanza his hopes are dashed in a devastating anticlimax. The first clue comes when we learn that the girl is from Lesbos, a city associated with sophisticated and beautiful girls. And not only is she from Lesbos, she is from ‘euktitou’ Lesbos. I have translated this word as ‘proud’, but a more literal translation is ‘well-built’. In other words, a city with good defences. Like the city, the girl is impregnable. We then learn that the narrator has white hair, he is too old to tempt this class of girl.
But the final blow is revealed in the last line of the poem. The girl is a Lesbian in all senses of the word, and she is trailing after someone else. There is a little humour at the expense of the girl, a jibe by the spurned party mocking the way this classy girl gawps. But of course he is the true butt of the joke.
There is another layer to this poem which completes the narrator’s disappointment. 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. So the narrator begins by taking on the role of the mighty hero Odysseus. However in the end it is only the contrast between the two that highlights the true state of affairs. For in Homer Nausciaa is very struck by Odysseus’ good looks. She says to her maids that he is like a god, and that she could marry a man like him. Of course here the impression made is not so favourable. The narrator thought Eros had given him the part of a great hero, but it turns out he’s just a randy old man.
I hope that this commentary will help people understand one of my favourite Greek poets. It is worth noting that I have assumed that the narrator, the poetic ‘I’, is male, but I did not have to. It is possible that archaic poets would sometimes take on roles, and so we can read the narrator as female. There is nothing in the Greek to suggest otherwise.
Most of my ideas for this article have been taken from Pfeijffer’s brilliant article: Playing Ball with Homer. An Interpretation of Anacreon 358 PMG, (2000). If you have enjoyed my post I would definitely recommend having a look at this!