A Taste of Lyric

Greek lyric is particularly enjoyable on a day like today: pleasantly warm and breezy. I started with a bit of Archilocus; his particular style of snark appealed to me long ago, so I think it makes sense to start with him.

He’s known for a defiant attitude regarding traditional Greek values of civic service; he even goes so far as to advocate running away in battle in one of his poems. He was probably a mercenary soldier, so he may not have seen any need for national loyalty or civic virtue.

He had a rather difficult love affair with a young woman named Neobule, whose father decided that she ought to marry someone other than Archilocus, if we can take his poems autobiographically. Who knows…

His verses are interesting and memorable, and I find the interpretation of them fascinating, particularly the following couplet. I don’t claim to say anything new or interesting; it’s just some of the things I’ve been thinking about lately as I read.

Archilochus 2 translates this way (which I have translated not terribly poetically but more literally):

“On my spear is my kneaded bread, on my spear is the Ismarian wine, and I drink leaning on my spear.”

There is apparently much scholarly debate on the particular use of “en” which I have translated as “on.” It is an unusual use of that particular preposition, though I think it probably is meant to have multiple shades of meaning.

As a mercenary, he’s always on call for a battle. He seems to portray himself as a rough and rugged soldier type here who’s always out and about. Hence, he’s never without his spear. He’s not going to dinner parties or feasts; he’s out with the soldiers.

An interesting detail is that Ismarian wine is the sort of wine that Odysseus used to intoxicate the Cyclops in the Odyssey. Ismarian wine was notoriously strong, though Odysseus probably had a special vintage (as my commentary points out). I don’t know if there is any further significance to it, except that perhaps Archilocus got it during campaigns against Thrace, because Ismarian wine came from the coast of Thrace. The idea of Ismarian wine persisted in literature, through Virgil, Ovid, and Propertius.

At the same time, he seems to suggest that he earns his keep by means of his spear. His spear earns him his next meal and the wine he drinks. It seems reasonable to suppose that perhaps he meant it to have multiple meanings by using the preposition in an unconventional way, at least as far as we can tell now.

There is some scholarly debate over the preposition he uses, since it appears to be an unconventional use of the word “en,” but the meaning is clear enough.

Another interesting poem by Archilocus is a slightly longer one:

“But go on with your cup go down the decks of the swift ship
Go and knock off the lids of the hollow jars
drink the red wine down to the dregs
For we won’t be able to stay sober on this watch.”

Proof that human beings have been making alcohol jokes for as long as literature has existed. Some of the violent imagery here is interesting: namely the words he uses to tell his friend to knock off the lids of the jars and gulp down the wine.

This is kind of an interesting taste of lyric because it doesn’t really seem very refined or proper, like you might expect. It’s rough and sometimes kind of violent, at least, in the case of Archilocus. It captures a moment of his life, perhaps, being a soldier who had to keep watch late into the night and suggesting that the only way to tolerate the watch is to get drunk.

I plan to translate at least one or two poems from each poet in this book I ordered, and post them on my blog until I’ve got every author accounted for. It will help keep me motivated to keep reading and working on lyric, and also help me process them more deeply than I would by simply reading through them.


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