As I mentioned in my earlier post on World Poetry , this book presents poetry chronology, further divided by culture. The first division is poets of Bronze and Iron Ages, which the book dates from 2200-250 BCE. That’s long period of time. The editors say they chose the poems for their ability to “surprise and delight the common reader.”
There is a short introduction which is informative but only so far.
The present section it long, and is described as “from the Lyric Age through the Hellenistic Period.” I will deal with only a handful today: Alcman (654-611 BCE); Sappho (c 612 BCE); Alcaeus (c. 658-620 BCE); and Anacreon (570-? BCE). All four are lyric poets and are of the canonical “ nine lyric poets ” scholars of Hellenistic Alexandria considered “worthy of study.”
What strikes me on reading these poets is the sensuousness of their writing, whether they’re expressing a view of the natural world or longing for a lover. It is quite striking. Perhaps most writers would be embarrassed to write such things today, but there is in inherent beauty in much of the writing:
They sleep, mountain crags and gullies,
Headland and brooks, and the whole race
Of footed creatures the black earth pulls from its womb,
Mountain beasts and the republic of bees,
And vast fish looming in the hollows
Of the purple sea: they sleep
Too, bird with wide, cloud-tipped wings…
(Alcman “Fragment 58: Night and Sleep” p. 90 World Poetry )
Sappho’s poetry, with is erotic imagery and eternal longing for a lover, has gotten more popular recently, though her poetry was popular in the ancient world as well. She seems forever desperately in love with someone who doesn’t love her back, someone who doesn’t notice her or someone who is leaving her. Was this true to life or merely a poetic persona? Impossible to tell. Wikipedia gave a little more information about her dates of birth and death, stating the she was born some time between 630 and 612 BCE and is believed to have died about 570 BCE.
In a poem titled “The Arbor,” Sappho writes of jealously and despair:
He seems to be a god, that man
Facing you, who leans to be close,
Smiles, and, alert and glad,
To your mellow voice
And quickens in love at your laughter.
That stings my breasts, jolts my heart
If I dare the shock of a glance.
I cannot speak,
My tongue sticks to my dry mouth,
Thin fire spreads beneath my skin,
My eyes cannot see and my aching ears
Roar in their labyrinths.
Chill sweat glides down my back,
I shake, I turn greener than grass.
I am neither living nor dread and cry
From the narrow between.
(p. 91 World Poetry)
This is great writing, telling the reader what’s going on by listing the physical responses. It reaches into the gut, rather than just saying, “I saw a hot guy chatting up my girlfriend. I was bummed.” But it’s very typical—and powerful—of what I’ve read of much of Sappho’s stuff.
According to Wikipedia , the next poet, Alcaeus of Mytilene, threw his shield away and ran away after Mytilene lost a battle with Athens. He then wrote a drinking poem to commemorate the occasion and sent it to his friend Melanippus. It begins:
Come tip a few with me
Melanippus, and you’ll see
Why you cross over Acheron
Once again searching for the sun.
(p . 94 World Poetry )
The last poet, Anacreon, is given only one selection in the book:
Count, if you can, every leaf on every tree.
And count each wave that comes ashore
From every possible sea—
Then you might number my plethora of lovers.
(p. 95 World Poetry )
And it goes on like that. According to Wikipedia, he was mostly into drinking songs and became attached to court where he composed a lot of odes, rather like Horace. I would have thought they could have come up with a better example.
There was some beautiful lyric poetry this time around and some fun stuff.
World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse from Antiquity to Our Time 1998
Eds: Katherine Washburn, John S. Major, and Clifton Fadiman
©2015 Denise Longrie
Image Credit » http://pixabay.com/en/bronze-statue-male-nude-playing-419464/ by RonPorter