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.
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Seducing Socrates: The comedy and tragedy of Plato’s Symposium

The Symposium is Plato’s most literary text. In the context of a dinner party for the elite of Athenian society, Plato plays out complex discussions on the relationship between literature and philosophy, the nature of education, and the pursuit of true wisdom.

This painting by Anselm Feuerbach (1873) shows Alcibiades drunkenly disrupting the Symposium

This painting by Anselm Feuerbach (1873) shows Alcibiades disrupting the Symposium

One of the key characters within this text is Alcibiades. Alcibiades was a skilled war general who secured many key victories for Athens. He was charismatic and popular, but his career was one of scandals after he was exiled from Athens for mocking religious rituals and defacing statues of the god Hermes. In exile he defected to Sparta, the enemy of Athens, and served with them for several years before allying with Athens again. The Symposium is set before any of this took place, when Alcibiades was still the pride and joy of his city, but there is a strong sense of the reckless nature that would be his downfall.

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Pindar Pythian 8: Man is the dream of a shadow

Pindar is generally considered both Greek lyric’s best poet, and its most difficult. He is most famous for his epinicians, poems celebrating victors at Greek games such as the Olympics. The beauty of these poems has caused a lot of argument among scholars, chiefly due to the fact that we know Pindar was paid to write them. Scholars struggle with the concept that such beauty is the product of a poet who has been hired by a wealthy, aristocratic victor, and whereas some see an elegance and wisdom in his verses that transcends this motive, others argue that everything within his odes is geared towards praising his employers.

Pythian 8 is concerned with, among other things, the brevity and insecurity of mortal happiness. His description of the victor’s success is overshadowed by a vision of those he has defeated:

Returning to their mothers, sweet laughter does not
rouse delight around them: hidden down alleys and avoiding their enemies
they cower, bitten by misfortune.

This is then followed by a description of the glorious victor, flying on the wings of his success. But even the image of the glorious victor is underlined by the reminder that his happiness is transient:

He who is allotted some new fine thing,
buoyed by hopes at his great splendour,
takes flight
on the wings of his manly strength,
thinking of that which is greater than wealth. In a short time
the delight of mortals grows: but it falls the ground
shaken by hostile will.

Then follows perhaps Pindar’s most celebrated lines. They are extremely difficult to translate, and unfortunately any attempt comes across a bit clumsy and fails to do justice to the Greek:

Creatures of a day! What is someone? What is no-one?
Man is the dream of a shadow. But whenever the radiance of Zeus comes,
a bright light and gentle life rests upon him.

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Horace’s Carpe Diem Ode and Andrew Marvell’s To his coy mistress.

Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero: Seize the day and place as little faith as possible in the hours to come. Horace’s most famous line comes at the end of Ode 1.11, in an address to a girl called Leuconoe. He warns her against trying to read the future; for no man can know his fate. So instead humankind must seize the day, make the most of the present moment. Keep pouring the wine, for even as we speak our short time on earth is flying past.

Leuconoe, do not ask, it is wrong to know, what fate the gods grant us,
whether your fate or mine, don’t waste your time on Babylonian,
futile, calculations. How much better to suffer what happens,
whether Jupiter gives us more winters or this is the last one,
one debilitating the Tyrrhenian Sea on opposing cliffs.
Be wise, and mix the wine, since time is short: limit that far-reaching hope.
The envious moment is flying now, now, while we’re speaking:
Seize the day, place in the hours that come as little faith as you can.

Translation by David West (2008)

Horace’s philosophy is called Epicureanism, which argues that mankind must – uncomplaining – accept life’s unpredictability and the misfortunes that come with this. It was a very popular philosophy and Horace expounds Epicurean ideas in lots of his odes. In this ode he uses nature as a metaphor for life, where the storm outside represents life’s vicissitudes. The storm can also be read as a metaphor for the dangers and discomforts that threaten the philosopher’s inner tranquillity. His conversation with Leuconoe is a safe haven; with wine and company it is an attractive contrast to the wild outdoors, and so emphasises the need to snatch such moments and enjoy their shelter from life’s storms.

So why in my title have I put this ode with To his coy mistress, a poem written by the 17th Century metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell? The similarity between the two has been noted by the scholar Anderson. As Horace senses time flying past even as they speak, so Marvell says:

But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity

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Plato’s Symposium 189a-193e: Aristophanes on the Nature of Love

Ancient Greek sexuality is a fascinating topic. In the Symposium the great philosopher Plato explores the nature of love, and one form of love he particularly admires is that between two males.

The scene is the Greek Symposium; a drinking party where the Athenian male elite would discuss philosophy and perform poetry. The distinguished guests decide that at this Symposium they will discuss the topic of ‘Love’, and so in turn each man gives a speech about what he considers love to be.

Painting of a Symposium found at the Tomb of the Leopards in Etrusca, 480-450 BC.

Painting of a Symposium found at the Tomb of the Leopards in Etrusca, 480-450 BC.

The speech I have focussed on here is that of Aristophanes, the famous Athenian comic playwright. True to his profession it is a very funny speech, at least in an Ancient Athenian sort of way, but it is also incredibly charming, and very interesting in its portrayal of homosexual relationships.

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