Theognis 237-54: Remember my name

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.

237-54

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:

Il. 6.357-8
(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.”

Od. 24.93-4
(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.

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Horace 3.26: The Unassailable Chloe

In a temple of Venus, Horace dedicates his weapons of love to the goddess: he is done with his campaigns of the heart. But the ode ends unexpectedly when the poet has one last request: please punish Chloe for rejecting him.

I have lived my life, till lately popular with girls, and I have been a soldier not without renown: now these weapons and this lyre that has completed its military service this wall shall keep which guards the left side of sea-born Venus. Here, here place the gleaming torches and the crowbars and the bows that threaten barred doors:

“O goddess, you who dwell in blessed Cyprus and Memphis that is free from Thracian snow, queen touch just once with uplifted lash Chloe the arrogant”.

The tone of the poem is that of mock-solemnity. The first word, ‘I have lived’, is the same as that of Dido’s speech before she commits suicide for being abandoned by her lover Aeneas. Horace’s dedication is therefore incredibly melodramatic: as far as he is concerned his life is over.

Horace uses a common metaphor in comparing love to war. All of the weapons that he describes: torch, crowbar, and bow, are those that would be required to assault a besieged city, or in this case, a girl’s door that has been barred against him. The imagery is comic in the grand, epic resonances of the military language used to describe the poet’s many love affairs.

When the prayer begins a Roman audience would be expecting a traditional dedication to the goddess. This appears to be the case when it opens conventionally with a list of Aphrodite’s dwelling places. However, while Cyprus is her most famous home, Memphis, located in Egypt, is not such an obvious choice. Its inclusion is explained by the following reference to Thrace, Chloe’s homeland, located in comparatively chilly northern Greece. Horace is asking the goddess of sunny climes to melt Chloe’s frozen heart.

But the ode does not necessarily suggest a searing passion on Horace’s part. He wants ‘arrogant’ Chloe to be subjugated under Venus’ whip. The implication is that she has humiliated Horace, and for his revenge the poet wants her in turn to feel the painful lash of love. This suggests an amusing twist: the reason for Horace’s solemn despair is the slight he feels at Chloe’s persistent “no”. His dramatic retirement is no more than a strategic withdrawal, as he asks the goddess to warm Chloe to his advances.

Sources:

Translation from Gordon Williams (1969)

Gordon Williams, ed., The Third Book of Horace’s Odes (Oxford, 1969).
Kenneth Quinn, ed. Horace the Odes (Bristol, 1980).

Anacreon fr. 417: I heard you were a wild one

Another funny little poem by Anacreon. Here the poet, an old man again, clumsily tries to impress a beautiful young girl. In an extended metaphor the narrator compares her to a ‘filly’, a young horse, and asks her why she is avoiding him. After all, he is an experienced lover and could show her a good time.

Thracian filly, why so sharply
shy away with sidelong glances,
thinking I’ve no expertise?

Be assured, I’d put your bit on
smartly, hold the rains and run you
round the limits of the course.

But for now you graze the meadows,
frisk and play, for want of any
good experienced riding man.

Sadly, this would-be-seducer is rather unconvincing. Worry about his lack of expertise is probably the least of the girl’s concerns. After all the narrator’s promise to ‘put her bit on’ and ‘run her around the course’ does not sound especially appealing. The description of her in the third stanza playing in the meadow sounds far more pleasant than anything of the things Anacreon wants to do with her. This misunderstanding as to why he is being rejected also suggests that the narrator is not as worldly as he would have us believe. Anacreon unconvincingly tries to pass off his advanced age as experience, however he cannot help but see the funny side as he chases after girls who are far out of his league

 

Translation:
West, M. (2008).

Sappho Fr. 96: The moonlit girl

This is perhaps Sappho’s most beautiful fragment. She describes a girl who is as lovely as the moon at night, and yet who is consumed by her love for Atthis. The two lovers are separated, but Sappho consoles Atthis by reminding him that across the sea in Lydia his beloved is thinking of him.

…But now among the women of Lydia
she shines, as after the sun has set 
the rosy-fingered moon will appear, surpassing

all the stars, bestowing her light alike
upon the waves of the briny sea
and on the fields that sparkle with countless flowers.
Everything is bathed in the lovely dew:
roses take their nourishment, and 
soft chervil, and the blossoming honey-lotus.

Often, as she moves on her daily round,
she’ll be eating her tender heart
when she thinks of her love for gentle Atthis…

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Theocritus Idyll XI: The Cyclops falls in love.

Galatea by Gustave Moreau c. 1880

Galatea by Gustave Moreau c. 1880

Idyll XI is the love song of the Cyclops for the sea nymph Galatea. The nymph appears to him in his dreams, but when he wakes she flees his monstrous form. To entice her the Cyclops offers cheeses, baby animals and flowers, but ultimately she is a creature of the sea and he is tied to the land; it is a doomed passion.

In this Idyll we see the Cyclops as a bumbling adolescent, clumsily attempting to woo the beautiful nymph. Most commentators have seen him as a comic figure. He clumsily compares her to cream cheese, and whereas the language of love is not concerned with reality or details, he pedantically points out his expertise in cheese-making, and labours over the point that he could not literally bring her snowdrops and poppies at the same time.

However he is not completely inept. Personally the promise of flowers and baby animals is pretty appealing, not to mention cheese! He promises her a pastoral paradise. In places his song is very similar to Sappho, the ultimate Greek love poet. But it is not too hard imagine Galatea laughing at her hairy lover, and his promise to singe off all his hair isn’t much more appealing.

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Horace 3.9: A Strangely Matched Pair

‘With you I would live, and die, happily’. But we get the impression that this is not the fate in store for Lydia and Horace, the two speakers of this moving poem. Horace’s infidelity broke them apart, and they have both now moved on. However, love is never predictable, and here the pair here reflect on what might have been, and on what still could be.

The poem is a dialogue where Horace speaks first. Although Horace is not named, scholars pretty much agree it must be him speaking. He is usually the narrator of his Odes, and the complaints that he is fickle and quick-tempered are faults Horace admits to in another poem. Also Lydia’s claim that she was famous is probably talking about poetry Horace had written about her. We have no idea who this Lydia might have been, she survives only in Horace’s poetry.

Horace:
For as long as you loved me
and no other man, more dear, clasped his arms
around your white neck,
I was richer than the king of Persia.

Lydia:
While you desired no one else
and Lydia was not second to Chloe,
I, famous Lydia,
shone brighter than Ilia of Rome.

H:
Thracian Chloe rules me now,
who knows sweet songs and plays on the lyre.
I’m not afraid to die
if the fates would only spare my darling.

L:
I love he who returns my love,
Calais, son of Thurian Ornytus.
I would die twice over
if the fates would spare my beloved boy.

H:
What if our love were to return,
and forced us again under a bronze yoke,
if I spurned blonde Chloe
and opened the door closed to Lydia?

L:
Though he is fairer than starlight
and you are fickle and more quick-tempered
than the Hadrian sea,
With you I would live, and with you, die happily.

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