Old age and the Greek lyric poets

Fear of old age was a popular theme among the Greek lyricists. This made for some beautiful poetry that is most touching in its bittersweet admiration of youth. Dating from the 7th to the 6th century BC, these four poems are the first we have in a poetic tradition that stretches across Western literature.

Mimnermus is easily the most miserable of the lyric poets. The below is very typical of the sort of poetry he wrote, and as you can see it is pretty gloomy stuff. There is no comfort or consolation, no quiet acceptance or even resignation. Once you are grey, no young boy or girl will sleep with you, and as far as Mimnermus is concerned that means life simply isn’t worth living any more.

(1)

What’s life, what’s joy, without love’s heavenly gold?
I hope I die when I no longer care
for secret closeness, tender favours, bed,
which are the rapturous flowers that grace youth’s prime
for men and women. But when painful age
comes on, that makes a man loathsome and vile,
malignant troubles ever vex his heart;
seeing the sunlight gives him joy no more.
He is abhorred by boys, by women scorned:
so hard a thing God made old age to be.

Alcman‘s poetry on old age is far more charming in its appreciation of the brightness of youth. A halycon is a type of kingfisher, and so he imagines young girls as a flock of these colourful, quick birds. His spirit is still young and he longs to fly with the girls, but as an old man he must be content to admire them from afar.

(26)

My legs can support me no longer, young ladies
with voices of honey and songs so divine!
Ah, would that I could be a kingfisher, flying
sea-blue, fearless, amid you halycons
down to rest on the foaming brine.

Unfortunately Sappho‘s poetry on old age is fragmentary. What we do have though teasingly hints at a beautiful and evocative lament. Like Alcman she uses animals, this time fawns, to describe the beauty and grace of youth. In the myth of Tithonus and Dawn that she references, Dawn falls in love with the young man Tithonus and begs Zeus to make him immortal. However, she forgets to ask for his eternal youth and so he is doomed to grow old forever. The message is that no mortal can escape the onset of old age, not even those who are loved by the gods.

Tithonus and Aurora by Julien Simon (1735)

Tithonus and Aurora by Julien Simon (1735)

(58)

…young girls…
…deep-bosomed Muses’ lovely gifts
…clear melodious lyre.
But as for me, old age has got my whole 
body, my hair is white that once was dark.
…my knees will not hold up
…to dance like young fawns
…but what can I do?
To stay untouched by age, that cannot be:
a lesson, so they say, the goddess Dawn
learned, when in her arms she bore Tithonus
off to the world’s east limit; still old age 
caught up with him…his immortal bride.

It is, I think, impossible for Anacreon to be completely serious. Even in this long tradition he cannot resist his own playful take on the theme of old age. Normally I’m against making translations rhyme, I think it comes across a bit forced, however in this translation the rhyme captures the light-hearted tone of the poem. Anacreon abruptly laments his fear of death, but I suspect he is not distracted for too long and quickly returns to the drinking and partying that he was famous for, even as an old man.

(395)

My temples are grey,
my hair is white, 
youth’s beauty past

my teeth rot away;
life’s sweet delight 
not long now can last.

So I often lament,
afraid of Hell:
it’s a dreadful tip,

with a grim descent,
as you know full well
it’s a one-way trip.

Translations are all taken from Martin West (1993).

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