Throned in splendor, deathless, O Aphrodite,
child of Zeus, charm-fashioner, I entreat you
not with griefs and bitterness to break my
spirit, O goddess–Sappho, tr. by Richmond Lattimore
It is delightful in this hot weather to pore over my old school text, Greek lyric Poetry: A Selection of Early Greek Lyric, Elegaic and Iambic Poetry, ed. by David A. Campell. I translate the Greek with my Liddell and Scott dictionary and Smythe grammar, and have a freshly sharpened pencil and notebook by my side.
The lyric poets include Sappho (of whom you have all heard), Anacreon, Archilochus, Pindar, and Theognis. The poetry, written between 650-450 B.C., is often personal, about love, death, and drinking.
The poetry was also political, reflecting the events of the 6th and 7th centuries B.C., David A. Campbell explains in the introduction.
Political revolutions resulted in the almost complete disappearance of hereditary kingship and the rise of the tyrants: in the lyrics of Alcaeus we read the reactions of a man who took part in the struggle for power in Mytilene; his contemporary, Solon, used verse to record the aims of his legislation and to answer detractors in the years immediately before the establishment of tyranny in Athens; Theognis of Megara grumbles at the influx of peasants into the city, and exclaims against the new rich.
I am a Latinist, though I also studied Greek. I know the Greek poets best through the borrowings of Roman poets, Catullus, Virgil (Eclogues), Tibullus, and Propertius. One of Catullus’ most famous poems is a direct translation from a poem by Sappho.
As a young woman, when I first read Greek lyric poetry, I found love quite devastating. I prayed to Aphrodite to keep far, far away: I prayed to Athena to let me focus on my work. But I was frequently enchanted by glamorous men. (The word “glamour “originally meant magic or enchantment; a variation of “gramarye” or “grammar”: magic spells are related to spelling of words.).
One day Aphrodite cast a spell on me as a tall, dark, handsome, slightly unhygienic man (men somehow weren’t showering enough in those days) crossed the Pentacrest. Why his appearance in a shabby tweed jacket, ancient khaki pants, and hiking boots illuminated him as the most beautiful person I had ever seen I cannot tell you. Possibly I was dazed by having spent an hour in a bookstore.
We went out for coffee; when the coffee made me sick he accompanied me to Student Health; we took picnics in cow fields; lived on Ramen noodles; and we drank at George’s. It was very nice.
Still, there was a certain insecurity.
If you are involved with a beautiful person when you are not beautiful (I was described, much to my annoyance in those days, as “a bubbly blonde,” or, even worse, “effervescent”) you sometimes do not set limits. If he is not available to celebrate your winning an award because he has decided to spend 12 hours watching a sports event, you will be annoyed, but will not break up with him. Your women friends will shrug and say, “He is a handsome man, and he probably knows it.” Gay men friends will say, “He’s handsome in a macho way, and that’s what happens.”
In other words, beauty itself can make people behave badly.
I came up with a glam scale eventually (far, far too late). If somebody is too glamorous, YOU HAVE TO STOP LOOKING AT HIM RIGHT NOW. Come on, honey! It’s like Cupid and Psyche. Don’t light that torch and ogle. Don’t cross that river and fetch golden wool from the fierce, monstrous sheep, or any of the other pointless tasks. He’ll be doing what Venus says.
We each have our personal glam susceptibilities: long married, I no longer have a glam scale; marriage is a relationship with different rules and corallaries; but the following glam items will come in handy for women coming up the ladder of glam. (You can skip the glam scale and go right to the translations of three more Greek poems if you prefer.)
1. All classicists love Colin Farrell, because he hired a classicist to translate two lines of dialogue into Latin for a vampire movie (see Monica S. Cyrino’s “I Was Colin Farrell’s Latin Teacher,” Classical Journal, Feb./March 2012, Vol. 107/No. 3). Uhhhhhh….but he’s too young…he’s already taken…and the Latin was cut. Still, I can’t wait to see him in Winter’s Tale, a movie based on Mark Helprin’s novel.
2. Do not date Republicans, even if they look like Democrats. They will want to frack your back yard.
3. If the Beautiful Man spends all his time sailing and you do not even know how to swim, or, worse, watches PBS Civil War shows round the clock when you are yearning for a sitcom or food porn, you are probably not soulmates.
4. Scrabble freaks, brain surgeons, marathon runners, and guys in bands are otherwise engaged when you need them to change a light bulb (the kitchen ceiling is just too high for me to reach.).
And now for more Greek lyric poetry:
Love, like a blacksmith, struck me with a giant
hammer, then plunged me in a wintry torrent.–Anacreon, translated by Kat
Here I lie mournful with desire,
feeble in bitterness of the pain gods inflicted upon me,
stuck through the bones with love.
–Archilochus, translated by Richmond Lattimore
The story is not true.
You never sailed in the benched ships.
You never went to the city of Troy.
–Stesichorus, “Palinode to Helen,” tr. by Lattimore