Theognis of Megara is a Greek elegist, probably writing in the 6th century BC. Much of his poetry is political, addressed to his agathoi – fellow Greek aristocrats. However, his main addressee is Cyrnus, a young man with whom he is in an erotic relationship. Theognis’ relationship with Cyrnus was a stormy one, as the poem below shows. It is a beautiful but bitter piece, notable for its use of Homeric tropes to exact a poetic revenge on his deceitful lover.
For my part, I have made you wings on which to fly
across the endless sea and all the earth
with ease, you’ll soon be at every dinner, every feast,
and many a man will have you on his lips,
and lovely lads accompanied by alto pipes
will sing of you in voices sweet and clear
and orderly. And when, down in the earth’s dark nooks,
you go to Hades’ house of wailing grief,
not even in death will your fame fade, but men
will always cherish your immortal name,
Cyrnus, as you roam over all the land of Greece,
and all the islands of the teeming sea,
not riding then on horseback; no, the violet wreathed
Muses will speed you by their noble grace.
Future men likewise, all who have an interest,
will sing of you, while earth and sun exist.
And yet from you I cannot get some slight respect;
you lie to me as if I were a child.
Poetic immortality was a very important concern for the Ancient Greeks. The use of the trope in this poem particularly recalls the following lines in the Odyssey and the Iliad:
(Helen addressing Hector)
“Zeus has brought an evil fate upon us, and in days to come we shall be a song for those yet unborn.”
(the ghost of Agamemnon describing the funeral of Achilles)
“So your name was not lost, Achilles, in death, and you will be famous indeed forever among men.”
Theognis uses Homeric imagery to imbue his promises with an epic grandeur. In Homer words are often described as “winged“, and here these wings become those that will transport Cyrnus into immortal fame. However, this grandeur is lost in the sting of the final two lines, where Theognis complains of the indignity of Cyrnus’ treatment towards him.
Scholars have shown how Theognis carefully uses Homer to hint towards the poem’s unhappy ending. For example, in the second line of the poem, the phrase “across the endless sea” is only found once in both the Iliad and the Odyssey, when Achilles at Il. 1.350 angrily looks across the sea, mulling over his loss of honour. Likewise in line 10, the translation “men will cherish your immortal name“, and in the fourth line from the bottom “all who have an interest”, cherish and have an interest are both different translations for the Greek verb “μέλω“, which literally means “to be an object of care”. This is an ambiguous word that can suggest something that is a concern or a worry. It is also used in Homer by Odysseus at 9.20 when he states that “I am a concern for men”, talking about his own great fame as a trickster. So not only does this word ambiguously suggest the concerns that Cyrnus brings to Theognis, its association with cunning Odysseus means it can be read as a masked reference towards Cyrnus’ own betrayal.
Theognis does not only echo epic paradigms of poetic fame, he parodies these paradigms. Theognis repays Cyrnus with a betrayal of his own, so that he is not immortalised for his great deeds but instead gains an everlasting reputation for deceit. The list of the ways in which Cyrnus will be remembered is overblown and exaggerated: he will fly across the earth, he will always be on men’s lips, even in death his name will be cherished. Thegonis whets Cyrnus’ appetite for ever greater, ever more extravagant praise, but the crescendo is only a clever deceit to match Cyrnus’ own. And so Cyrnus is a name still known to us today, but only within the context of his quarrels with the immortal poet Theognis.
Translation by Martin West (1993)
Goldhill, S. (1990) The Poet’s Voice: Essays on Poetics and Greek Literature.
Tarkow, T.A. (1977) “Theognis 237-54: A Re-examination”, Quaderni Urbinati di Cultura Classica, No. 26, pp. 99-114.
Feature image is from Gustav Klimt, Music (1895).