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

Another funny little poem by Anacreon, a Greek lyricist writing from the the 6th century BC. In this ode the poet, an old man, 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 knows what he is doing 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 very 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. In fact the description of her playing by herself in the meadow sounds far more pleasant than anything of the things he wants to do with her! The narrator completely misunderstands why he is being rejected, suggesting that he is not quite as worldly as he would have us believe.

We have a few fragments where Anacreon takes on the persona of an elderly and unsuccessful lover. I look at his most famous here. The tradition goes that that Anacreon lived to a very old age, and that he was a great lover and laugher all the way up to his death. These poems then are perhaps the poet having a joke at his own expense when he is past his prime. 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 well out of his league.

West, M. (2008).

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.
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Anacreon 358: A Short-Lived Affair

My next poem is by Anacreon. It is an extremely playful piece describing an encounter with a beautiful girl playing ball. There is a build up of anticipation where the narrator imagines that the god of love Eros has orchestrated this propitious meeting, and then a self-mocking anticlimax when he realises that she is completely out of his league, and also happens to fancy someone of her own sex.

Anacreon is often over-looked as one of the Greek lyric poets, and unfairly so I think. As I hope to show his poems are extremely witty and many-layered, building up a wonderful irony, here at the narrator’s own expense.

Golden-haired Eros strikes me
once again with a purple ball
And invites me to play with a
girl in fancy sandals.

But she is from proud Lesbos,
and turns her nose up at my
grey hair; she is gawping after
some other girl.

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