28 July 2017

Writing The Book On Love

















"The thread
runs thin.
The need
runs hard.
Hard."
  - "Fate And Necessity" by Alkman, from Lyra Graeca, Vol. I, # 142.

"Not Aphrodite, no.  But like a child,
Wild, Love comes down,
Almost as though walking on flowers -
But should not touch them,
Should not,
No."
 - "Not Aphrodite, No" by Alkman from Lyra Graeca, Vol. I, #6

     excerpted from Pure Pagan: Seven Centuries of Greek Poems and Fragments, translated by Burton Raffel, New York, The Modern Library: 2005

Most of us were taught in school that Ovid's Art Of Love, published near the beginning of the Common Era,  was the first major treatment of humankind's favorite subject but that, like some other pieces of received wisdom, turns out not to be  the case.  Six centuries before Ovid (43BCE-17CE) began composing his love manuals, a pagan poet on the Greek peninsula whose love poetry was much admired and featured at public celebrations. 

I.  Alcman, or Alkman,  was a lyric poet who lived during the 7th century BCE.  That he was a native of Sparta was something the ancients found hard to believe and so did scholars for most of the intervening centuries. His light touch and amorous nature did not harmonize readily with the dominant image of the  battle-hardened warrior although, as you can see from the verses printed above, for Alcman, love was a serious business.
Contained in the Suda, a 10th century Byyzantine lexicon, is this description  of Alcman, a man "of an extremely amorous disposition and the inventor of love poems."     His longest and most famous poem is the Partheneion, a choral song intended to be sung by young girls as a rite of passage into womanhood.  (Only fragments of his works have survived; three stanzas describing the initiation of a girl named Agido, are contained in a papyrus cataloged as Louvre e 3320.)  From Aristotle we learn that Alcman died of a disease caused by pediculosis, a contamination of the skin by lice that caused lesions, an ignominious death but  not uncommon at the time.
Alcman's poetry was, and should be still,  appreciated for its grace and simplicity; it doubtless benefitted from technological advances then taking place in the Greek language.  Its clean-cut syllables and  efficient graphing of sound  celebrated by the Canadian classicist Anne Carson in  Eros the Bittersweet,made it a supple vehicle for conveying emotion.

"When my love decides to go and then is gone,
I can still taste him, bitter in the throat; I still
feel the weight of his body as he fights sleep.
I do not fight it: on the contrary, I live there,
and what you see in me that you think is grief
is the refusal to wake, that is to say, is pleasure:
qui donne du Plaisir en a, and so it
when he couldn't sleep in that long still night
you sensed it and woke to show him how
to unfasten each and every button, then it us
promised you, even when he goes -
   - excerpt from "The Right To Pleasure" by Jessica Fisher, from Frail-Craft, New Haven, Yale University Press: 2007


II. Jessica Fisher (b. 1974) is an American poet who teaches at Williams College in western Massachusetts but her connection to the ancient Greeks, particularly to Alcman, is more than fanciful.  In her first collection Frail-Craft (2007) the poems resemble choral songs from an unknown Greek tragedy: pure, absolute, unbowed by the violence of the world, asserting the right to pleasure.

When the subject is love, especially eros as opposed to agape, the millennia just melt away.  Time collapses in the face of fervor. 

For further reading:
1. Philippe Brunet, La Naissance de la littérature dans la Grèce ancienne, Paris, Le Livre de Poche:
2. Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet, Champaign, Dalkey Archive Press: 1998.

Image:
Anonymous artist, Women In The Orchard (titled ascribed), no date, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, MA.

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