Old age and the Greek lyric poets

Lamenting old age was a popular trope 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 some of the first we have in a poetic tradition that stretches across Western literature.

Mimnermus is easily the most despondent of the lyric poets. The below is very typical of the sort of thing 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. She also references the myth of Tithonus and Dawn, in which 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 age eternally. The message is that no mortal can escape the onset of old age.

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.

In this melancholy tradition, Anacreon cannot resist his own playful take on the theme of old age. Normally translators of ancient poetry avoid rhyme, as it risks feeling overly contrived. However, in this translation the rhyme captures the light-hearted tone of the poem, which in the Greek is conveyed by the everyday vocabulary and skipping meter, also reflected in the below.

(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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