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. It is a truly beautiful image in which the girl’s sad loneliness is echoed in the quiet, moonlit night.

…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 2.6: The Weary Soldier

Horace Ode 2.6 is one of my favourite poems. Addressed to his friend Septimius, Horace turns down an invitation to the restless corners of the Empire, pleading the war-weariness of a footsore soldier. He would rather stay in Italy, by the river Tibur, or maybe go down south to the river Galaesus, a place famous for its rich pastures. The description of these places is beautiful, a paradise of nature blessed by the gods, a haven of peace. The poem ends with gentle and charming humour that is characteristic of Horace. This is where the poet wants to die. He grandly commands Septimius to his funeral with a mock-solemnity to give him the tear that he owes him as his friend.

Septimus, you, who are prepared to visit
Cadiz with me, and its tribes (they’re not used
to bearing our yoke) and barbarous Syrtes,
by the Moors’ fierce Sea,

I’d rather Tibur, founded by men of Greece,
were my home when I’m old, let it be my goal,
when I’m tired of the seas, and the roads, and all
this endless fighting.

But if the cruel Fates deny me that place,
I’ll head for the river Galaesus, sweet
with its precious sheep, on Spartan fields, once ruled
by King Phalanthus.

That corner of earth is the brightest to me,
where the honey gives nothing away to that
of Hymettus, and its olives compete with
green Venafrum:

where Jupiter grants a lengthy spring, and mild
winters, and Aulon’s hill-slopes, dear to fertile
Bacchus, are filled with least envy for those rich
grapes of Falernum.

That place, and its lovely heights, call out to me,
to you: and there’ll you’ll scatter your debt of a sad
tear, over the still-glowing ashes of this,
the poet, your friend.

(Translated by A. S. Kline © 2003)

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