His memories in a trunk

Reflections on literature, language(s), and music

Archive for the category “Greek”

/Portrait of Jennie/ and Euripides, fr. 833

I recently saw for the first time Portrait of Jennie (1948), directed by William Dieterle and produced by David O. Selznick. In the main rôles are Joseph Cotten and Jennifer Jones, with an essential supporting performance by Ethel Barrymore. I don’t know if I’ll write about it further, but I’m still thinking over the film, which I found both haunting and comforting. (Has anyone compared it with Vertigo, I wonder?) I’m already looking forward to watching it again. (See The Nitrate Diva here for some reflections on the film that will make you want to watch it, too.)

The film opens with a kind of spoken philosophical proem, and includes onscreen quotations by Euripides and Keats, the latter the well-known “Beauty is truth, truth beauty…” The former quotation is far less known. On the screen, only the author is named, no source, but a little searching reveals that it is a fragmentarily surviving set of lines from the playwright’s Phrixus. (On Phrixus, whose actions will be necessary for the later Golden Fleece tale, in Greek mythology, see here.) These lines — now known as Euripides, fr. 833 — survive thanks to their having been quoted by the great topical anthologist Stobaeus (5th cent. CE), whom we have to thank also for many other lines that would otherwise be lost.

So here is the fragment in Greek from Stobaeus, Anth. 4.52b.38, and my own translation.

Εὐριπίδου Φρίξῳ (fr. 833)

Τίς δ’ οἶδεν εἰ ζῆν τοῦθ’ ὃ κέκληται θανεῖν,
τὸ ζῆν δὲ θνῄσκειν ἐστί; πλὴν ὅμως βροτῶν
νοσοῦσιν οἱ βλέποντες, οἱ δ’ ὀλωλότες
οὐδὲν νοσοῦσιν, οὐδὲ κέκτηνται κακά.

My translation:

Who knows if life is that called death,
If living is dying? But in any case, mortals
That live suffer, while those who’ve died
Neither suffer nor own any ills.

There are no real difficulties in the text, but for budding Greek readers, here are a couple of notes:

  • βλέπω here, to live (ellip. for βλέπω φάος to see light)
  • ὀλωλότες perf ptcp mpl ὄλλυμι : ὄλωλα to have perished, to be dead, ruined

There are similar ideas about death in Epicurus‘ famous Letter to Menoeceus. Note these lines (Greek from D.A. Russell, An Anthology of Greek Prose, pp. 142-144; Eng. tr. is my own):

Συνέθιζε δὲ ἐν τῷ νομίζειν μηδὲν πρὸς ἡμᾶς εἶναι τὸν θάνατον· ἐπεὶ πᾶν ἀγαθὸν καὶ κακὸν ἐν αἰσθήσει, στέρησις δέ ἐστιν αἰσθήσεως ὁ θανατός. ὅθεν γνῶσις ὀρθὴ τοῦ μηθὲν εἶναι πρὸς ἡμᾶς τὸν θάνατον ἀπολαυστὸν ποιεῖ τὸ τῆς ζωῆς θνητόν, οὐκ ἄπειρον προστιθεῖσα χρόνον ἀλλὰ τὸν τῆς ἀθανασίας ἀφελομένη πόθον. οὐθεν γάρ ἐστιν ἐν τῷ ζῆν δεινὸν τῷ κατειληφότι γνησίως τὸ μηδὲν ὑπάρχειν ἐν τῷ μὴ ζῆν δεινόν. ὥστε μάταιος ὁ λέγων δεδιέναι τὸν θάνατον οὐχ ὅτι λυπήσει παρών, ἀλλ᾽ ὅτι λυπεῖ μέλλων· ὃ γὰρ παρὸν οὐκ ἐνοχλεῖ, προσδοκώμενον κενῶς λυπεῖ, τὸ φρικωδέστατον οὖν τῶν κακῶν ὁ θάνατος οὐθὲν πρὸς ἡμᾶς, ἐπειδήπερ ὅταν μὲν ἡμεῖς ὦμεν, ὁ θάνατος οὐ πάρεστιν, ὅταν δὲ ὁ θάνατος παρῇ, τὀθ᾽ ἡμεῖς οὐκ ἐσμέν. οὔτε οὖν πρὸς τοὺς ζῶντάς ἐστιν οὔτε πρὸς τοὺς τετελευτηκότας, ἐπειδήπερ περὶ οὓς μὲν οὐκ ἔστιν, οἳ δ᾽ οὐκέτι εἰσίν.

Learn to think of death as nothing for us, since everything good or bad is so in perception, and death is the privation of perception. From this a proper thinking about death as nothing for us makes life’s liability to death enjoyable, not because it has added limitless time to life, but because it has taken away the longing for deathlessness, for there is nothing frightful in living for one who has really grasped the fact that there is nothing frightful in not living. So it is pointless to tell people to fear death, not because it will cause distress when it comes, but because it causes distress when it is yet to come, for anything that is not bothersome when it is present, causes distress for no reason when it is only expected. The most terrible of evils, then, death, is nothing for us, since, when we are, death is not present, and when death is present, then we are not. It has nothing to do, then, with the living, nor with those who have died, since for the former it does not exist, and the latter themselves no longer exist.

This is all well and good, but there is nothing here about the pain for the living caused by the absence of the dead.

To return to the film, I’ll close with this clip from near its beginning, at the end of which is Jennie’s song:

Where I come from, nobody knows
And where I am going, everything goes
The wind blows,
The sea flows
Nobody knows
And where I am going, nobody knows

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When knowing Greek literature saves you

Bust of Euripides. Source.

Bust of Euripides. Source.

I recently read Plutarch’s Life of Nicias, Athenian general during the Peloponnesian War, and at the end of it come a few fascinating lines that show how knowing Greek literature, and knowing it by heart, may turn out to be a savior, so long as you happen to be at the mercy of others who also value it! A win for the humanities!

Here is the passage (29.2-3), my translation adapted from Bernadotte Perrin’s (LCL, Plutarch, Lives, 3, pp. 308-309), with the Greek below.

2 … Some [captives] were also saved for the sake of Euripides. For the Sicilians, it seems, more than any other Hellenes outside the home land, craved his poetry [mousa]: learning by heart the little samples and morsels that visitors brought them from time to time, they would happily share them with one another. 3 In the present case, at any rate, they say that many [Athenians] who reached home in safety kindly greeted Euripides and told him, some that they had been set free from slavery for thoroughly teaching what they remembered of his works, and some that when they were roaming about after the final battle they would get food and drink for singing some of his songs [melos]. It is not surprise, then, that they say [the Sicilians], when the Caunians’ ship was pursued by pirates and about to put in at the harbor [of Syracuse], at first did not allow them and kept them out, but when they asked if they knew any songs [asma] of Euripides, and [the Caunians] declared that they did, they allowed them entry and brought the ship in.

2 … ἔνιοι δὲ καὶ δι᾽ Εὐριπίδην ἐσώθησαν. μάλιστα γάρ, ὡς ἔοικε, τῶν ἐκτὸς Ἑλλήνων ἐπόθησαν αὐτοῦ τὴν μοῦσαν οἱ περὶ Σικελίαν: καὶ μικρὰ τῶν ἀφικνουμένων ἑκάστοτε δείγματα καὶ γεύματα κομιζόντων ἐκμανθάνοντες ἀγαπητῶς μετεδίδοσαν ἀλλήλοις. 3 τότε γοῦν φασι τῶν σωθέντων οἴκαδε συχνοὺς ἀσπάσασθαι τὸν Εὐριπίδην φιλοφρόνως, καὶ διηγεῖσθαι τοὺς μέν, ὅτι δουλεύοντες ἀφείθησαν ἐκδιδάξαντες ὅσα τῶν ἐκείνου ποιημάτων ἐμέμνηντο, τοὺς δ᾽, ὅτι πλανώμενοι μετὰ τὴν μάχην τροφῆς καὶ ὕδατος μετέλαβον τῶν μελῶν ᾁσαντες. οὐ δεῖ δὴ θαυμάζειν ὅτι τοὺς Καυνίους φασὶ πλοίου προσφερομένου τοῖς λιμέσιν ὑπὸ λῃστρίδων διωκομένου μὴ δέχεσθαι τὸ πρῶτον, ἀλλ᾽ ἀπείργειν, εἶτα μέντοι διαπυνθανομένους εἰ γινώσκουσιν ᾁσματα τῶν Εὐριπίδου, φησάντων ἐκείνων, οὕτω παρεῖναι καὶ καταγαγεῖν τὸ πλοῖον.

An epistolary request for reading suggestions

I’ve been reading through parts of the correspondence of Fronto (c. 100-170), and among his letters are some to Emperor-Philosopher Marcus Aurelius (or, Richard Harris for those whose concerns with Roman history do not reach far beyond Gladiator), and in one such letter,[1] he requests of his teacher:

Mitte mihi aliquid quod tibi disertissimum videatur, quod legam, vel tuum aut Catonis aut Ciceronis aut Sallustii aut Gracchi aut poetae alicuius, χρῄζω γὰρ ἀναπαύλης, et maxime hoc genus, quae me lectio extollat et diffundat ἐκ τῶν καταλειφυιῶν φροντίδων; etiam si qua Lucretii aut Ennii excerpta habes εὐφωνότατα, ἁδρά et sicubi ἤθους ἐμφάσεις.

An English rendering:

Send me something to read that seems most eloquent to you, either something of yours, Cato’s, Cicero’s, Sallust’s, Gracchus’, or some poet’s, for I need a break, and especially that kind the reading of which gives me a lift and cheers me up from confining cares. Also, if you have some bits from Lucretius or Ennius that sound the best, are extraordinary, and anywhere show their character, send those.

Fronto’s letters are littered with Greek phrases, as we see even in this short excerpt, and in the English translation, I’ve put the Greek phrases in bold.

[1] Epistulae, IV.1 (ed. M. van den Hout, Teubner, 1988, 105). Find more of Fronto’s letters here:

  • Latin text here
  • another text (Lat. and Fr.) here
  • LCL edition, with an older text and an Eng. tr. here from archive.org

Xenophon on a barley-beer in Armenia

A preface. A few days ago I chanced upon an example of one of those infestations of the internet, a graphic with a quote attributed to some famous person. This one, due to the subject matter, caught my attention, and I thought it worth investigating a little further. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “People are often misquoted on the internet.” The bearded and tall-hatted president is also made to say, “The problem with quotes on the internet is that you can’t be sure of their accuracy.” Of these two humorous attributions, the former puts the facts more truly. As for the second, while the internet has provided a breeding ground for misattribution and garbled words even when the attribution is seemingly correct, it also provides, thanks to full-text searchability in various languages, the means to check any attribution for those with interest and energy to do so. That said, if we think someone else’s words so much worth sharing, if those words are in a citeable place, why not clearly indicate what the place is along with the words themselves? This is not pedantic overactivity: text editions, and often translations made on their basis, include easy ways — book, chapter, and section numbers, etc. — to point out the source of a text, and anyone quoting them thus sees them, and they do well to take the extra few seconds and extra few keystrokes to throw them in along with any quotation. (Of course, some proffered quotations do not even go so far as to indicate the work from which the quote might come, only the speaker.) So there is a series of concentric circles, the center being the quote itself, next perhaps the section number, then the chapter, then the book (in the older sense, e.g. the Odyssey having 24 books, Augustine’s Confessions 13), then the work with its unique title (as in De re rustica, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Toxophilus, A Canticle for Leibowitz), and the more precise we are when text-pointing, the better.

Back to the quote-graphic I mentioned. It will be found here. (The date 500 BC(E) in the title there is wrong, given the author’s lifetime: c. 430-c.350 BCE.) The words are said to be Xenophon‘s, and from his well-known work, which used to be youthful fodder of many a student of ancient Greek, the Anabasis. Unlike many such quote-graphics, this one thankfully does give an accurate citation (§ 4.5, and subsections 26-27, to be more precise), so its creator deserves our gratitude. A look at the work in question reveals the quote, but the surrounding sections are of equal interest so here they are in full, below the map, in Greek and English.

For the Greek text and a (somewhat different) translation, see Carleton L. Brownson, Xenophon, Anabasis, Books IV-VII, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann, 1922), available at https://archive.org/details/xenophon04xenogoog and at the Perseus Project at http://tinyurl.com/loyzqux. The translation presented here has been adapted from Brownson’s. I have changed some of the wording and sentence structure and generally brought the translation more in line with the Greek text as given below. (For those that appreciate finer typography than is typically present on a webpage, here is a PDF of the Greek and my translation revised from Brownson: xenophon_beer_barley_armenia.)

P.S. I gave a talk on alcoholic beverages in Syriac literature some time ago, and the paper based on that lecture is available here. Found there are also a few references to alcoholic beverages elsewhere in the near / middle east besides Syriac.

https://i1.wp.com/www.gutenberg.org/files/26390/26390-h/images/map1.jpg

The route of the Greeks in the Anabasis

Xenophon, Anabasis 4.5.25-34

Greek text
[25] αἱ δ᾽ οἰκίαι ἦσαν κατάγειοι, τὸ μὲν στόμα ὥσπερ φρέατος, κάτω δ᾽ εὐρεῖαι: αἱ δὲ εἴσοδοι τοῖς μὲν ὑποζυγίοις ὀρυκταί, οἱ δὲ ἄνθρωποι κατέβαινον ἐπὶ κλίμακος. ἐν δὲ ταῖς οἰκίαις ἦσαν αἶγες, οἶες, βόες, ὄρνιθες, καὶ τὰ ἔκγονα τούτων: τὰ δὲ κτήνη πάντα χιλῷ ἔνδον ἐτρέφοντο. [26] ἦσαν δὲ καὶ πυροὶ καὶ κριθαὶ καὶ ὄσπρια καὶ οἶνος κρίθινος ἐν κρατῆρσιν. ἐνῆσαν δὲ καὶ αὐταὶ αἱ κριθαὶ ἰσοχειλεῖς, καὶ κάλαμοι ἐνέκειντο, οἱ μὲν μείζους οἱ δὲ ἐλάττους, γόνατα οὐκ ἔχοντες: [27] τούτους ἔδει ὁπότε τις διψῴη λαβόντα εἰς τὸ στόμα μύζειν. καὶ πάνυ ἄκρατος ἦν, εἰ μή τις ὕδωρ ἐπιχέοι: καὶ πάνυ ἡδὺ συμμαθόντι τὸ πῶμα ἦν.

[28] ὁ δὲ Ξενοφῶν τὸν ἄρχοντα τῆς κώμης ταύτης σύνδειπνον ἐποιήσατο καὶ θαρρεῖν αὐτὸν ἐκέλευε λέγων ὅτι οὔτε τῶν τέκνων στερήσοιτο τήν τε οἰκίαν αὐτοῦ ἀντεμπλήσαντες τῶν ἐπιτηδείων ἀπίασιν, ἢν ἀγαθόν τι τῷ στρατεύματι ἐξηγησάμενος φαίνηται ἔστ᾽ ἂν ἐν ἄλλῳ ἔθνει γένωνται. [29] ὁ δὲ ταῦτα ὑπισχνεῖτο, καὶ φιλοφρονούμενος οἶνον ἔφρασεν ἔνθα ἦν κατορωρυγμένος. ταύτην μὲν τὴν νύκτα διασκηνήσαντες οὕτως ἐκοιμήθησαν ἐν πᾶσιν ἀφθόνοις πάντες οἱ στρατιῶται, ἐν φυλακῇ ἔχοντες τὸν κώμαρχον καὶ τὰ τέκνα αὐτοῦ ὁμοῦ ἐν ὀφθαλμοῖς. [30] τῇ δ᾽ ἐπιούσῃ ἡμέρᾳ Ξενοφῶν λαβὼν τὸν κώμαρχον πρὸς Χειρίσοφον ἐπορεύετο: ὅπου δὲ παρίοι κώμην, ἐτρέπετο πρὸς τοὺς ἐν ταῖς κώμαις καὶ κατελάμβανε πανταχοῦ εὐωχουμένους καὶ εὐθυμουμένους, καὶ οὐδαμόθεν ἀφίεσαν πρὶν παραθεῖναι αὐτοῖς ἄριστον: [31] οὐκ ἦν δ᾽ ὅπου οὐ παρετίθεσαν ἐπὶ τὴν αὐτὴν τράπεζαν κρέα ἄρνεια, ἐρίφεια, χοίρεια, μόσχεια, ὀρνίθεια, σὺν πολλοῖς ἄρτοις τοῖς μὲν πυρίνοις τοῖς δὲ κριθίνοις. [32] ὁπότε δέ τις φιλοφρονούμενός τῳ βούλοιτο προπιεῖν, εἷλκεν ἐπὶ τὸν κρατῆρα, ἔνθεν ἐπικύψαντα ἔδει ῥοφοῦντα πίνειν ὥσπερ βοῦν. καὶ τῷ κωμάρχῳ ἐδίδοσαν λαμβάνειν ὅ τι βούλοιτο. ὁ δὲ ἄλλο μὲν οὐδὲν ἐδέχετο, ὅπου δέ τινα τῶν συγγενῶν ἴδοι, πρὸς ἑαυτὸν ἀεὶ ἐλάμβανεν.

[33] ἐπεὶ δ᾽ ἦλθον πρὸς Χειρίσοφον, κατελάμβανον κἀκείνους σκηνοῦντας ἐστεφανωμένους τοῦ ξηροῦ χιλοῦ στεφάνοις, καὶ διακονοῦντας Ἀρμενίους παῖδας σὺν ταῖς βαρβαρικαῖς στολαῖς: τοῖς παισὶν ἐδείκνυσαν ὥσπερ ἐνεοῖς ὅ τι δέοι ποιεῖν.
[34] ἐπεὶ δ᾽ ἀλλήλους ἐφιλοφρονήσαντο Χειρίσοφος καὶ Ξενοφῶν, κοινῇ δὴ ἀνηρώτων τὸν κώμαρχον διὰ τοῦ περσίζοντος ἑρμηνέως τίς εἴη ἡ χώρα. ὁ δ᾽ ἔλεγεν ὅτι Ἀρμενία.

English translation

[25] The houses here were underground, with an opening like that of a well, but spacious below, and while entrances had been dug for the beasts of burden, people went down by a ladder. In the houses were goats, sheep, cattle, chickens, and their young, and all the animals ate their fodder there in the houses. [26] There was also wheat, barley, beans, and barleywine in large bowls. These barley-corns were in the drink up to the brim, straws were in it, some larger and some smaller, without joints. [27] When someone was thirsty, they had to take these straws into their mouths and suck. It was quite pure unless it was diluted with water, yet quite pleasant when one was used to it.

[28] Xenophon made the chief of this village his dinner-guest and commanded him not to worry, telling him that he would not be deprived of his children, and that before they went away they would fill his house with provisions as compensation, if he should turn out to have directed the army well until they should reach another tribe. [29] He promised to do this and kindly told them where there was some wine buried. That night  all [Xenophon’s] soldiers, thus billeted, went to bed in plenty, with the village-chief under guard and his children all together within sight. [30]On the next day Xenophon took the village chief and set out [to visit] Cheirisophus. Whenever he passed a village, he would stop [to see about] those in the villages, and everywhere on arrival he found them to be sumptuously entertained and happy. The [people] did let them go from any place without setting lunch before them, [31] and there was nowhere where they did not set before them on the same table lamb, kid, pork, veal, and chicken, together with lots of bread, some wheat and some barley. [32] And whenever someone wanted kindly to drink to another’s health, they would take him to the bowl, and they had drink like an ox, having bent over and gulped it down. To the village-chief they offered the privilege of taking whatever he wanted. He accepted nothing, but whenever he saw one of his kinsmen, he would always take hold of him.

[33] When they got to Cheirisophus, on arrival they also found [those soldiers] billeted and crowned with wreaths of hay, and Armenian boys in their strange, foreign dress, serving them, and they were showing the boys what to do [by signs], as if they were deaf and dumb. [34] When Cheirisophus and Xenophon had greeted each other, they together asked the village-chief, through their Persian-speaking interpreter, what this land was. He replied that it was Armenia.

Casting language into the atmosphere

While perusing the latest National Geographic this morning, I came across a notable photograph. Here it is from the website:

These two students, surrounded around and above by open air and light, project their voices out into this openness, their lungs, breath, throat, and mouth muscles, all eye- and brain-directed, catapult words of another language, a language becoming their own, right into the universe, not the least part of which is their own ears.

Two things struck me when I saw the photograph. First, I was reminded of the possibly legendary rhetorico-athletic exercises that Demosthenes supposedly practiced to overcome his natural difficulties in speaking:

…τὴν μὲν ἀσάφειαν καὶ τραυλότητα τῆς γλώττης ἐκβιάζεσθαι καὶ διαρθροῦν εἰς τὸ στόμα ψήφους λαμβάνοντα καὶ ῥήσεις ἅμα λέγοντα, τὴν δὲ φωνὴν ἐν τοῖς δρόμοις γυμνάζεσθαι καὶ ταῖς πρὸς τὰ σιμὰ προσβάσεσι διαλεγόμενον καὶ λόγους τινὰς ἢ στίχους ἅμα τῷ πνεύματι πυκνουμένῳ προφερόμενον· εἶναι δ᾽ αὐτῷ μέγα κάτοπτρον οἴκοι, καὶ πρὸς τοῦτο τὰς μελέτας ἐξ ἐναντίας ἱστάμενον περαίνειν.

He used to correct and drive away his mumbling and his speech disorder by putting pebbles in his mouth and then reciting speeches. He used to exercise his voice by discoursing while running or going up steep places, and by reciting sentences or verses at a single breath. Moreover, he had in his house a large mirror, and in front of this he used to stand and go through his speech-exercises. (Plutarch, Life of Demosthenes 11.1-2; translation adapted from that of Bernadotte Perrin)

Secondly, I was visually reminded of how important, not to mention fun, it is to read aloud, with care to the text’s meaning and even forcefully, both as regular practice in languages you know well, even your own, and also for languages you’re learning; in the second case, it is naturally needful to have some standard against which to compare your fledgling pronunciation and fluency of sound, granted the variety of voice that may occur even across the spectrum of one language. This vocal shadow-boxing, whether in your native language or another, really can be enlivening and helpful in knitting together eyes, brain, and ears.

Rather than writing anything more, I’m off to do some reading aloud.

Prometheus and Aeneas on relating pain

Pretty early in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound (lines 197-198), the titular character, having been asked by the Chorus to give the reasons for his tight incarceration in adamantine chains on a crag at the edge of the world —

Χθονὸς μὲν εἰς τηλουρὸν ἥκομεν πέδον,
Σκύθην ἐς οἶμον, ἄβροτον εἰς ἐρημίαν.

as Might (Κράτος), Zeus’ yes-man and messenger, puts it in the play’s first two lines— responds

ἀλγεινὰ μέν μοι καὶ λέγειν ἐστὶν τάδε,
ἄλγος δὲ σιγᾶν, πανταχῆι δὲ δύσποτμα.

Here’s my English version of the lines. (I cheated a little by stretching the two Greek lines into three in English.)

It’s painful to me these things to tell,
Yet a pain, too, in silence to dwell:
All around are things ill-starred!

These lines require almost no commentary, thanks to their reality known by everyone at some time or other. We might, though, compare Aeneas’ seemingly different remarks before he gets on with the tale of Troy and the Greeks in response to Dido’s request for it (Aeneid II.3-12); for him, bitterness is only explicit, at least, in the telling, not in keeping silent about it.

Infandum, regina, iubes renovare dolorem,
Troianas ut opes et lamentabile regnum
eruerint Danai, quaeque ipse miserrima vidi
et quorum pars magna fui. quis talia fando
Myrmidonum Dolopumve aut duri miles Ulixi
temperet a lacrimis? et iam nux umida caelo
praecipitat suadentque cadentia sidera somnos.
sed si tantus amor casus cognoscere nostros
et breviter Troiae supremum audire laborem,
quamquam animus meminisse horret luctuque refugit, incipiam.

A fresh rendering:

Unspeakable, O queen, is the sorrow you bid me renew,
How the Danaeans overthrew the Trojans, their wealth
And wept-for kingdom: things most unhappy that I myself saw
And was a great part of. In telling them, which even of the Myrmidons
Or Dolopians, or Ulysses’ hard soldiers,
Might hold back from tears? Now, too, the moist night from heaven
Goes forth and the falling stars urge sleep,
Yet if there’s such a desire to know our calamities
And briefly to hear the final throes of Troy,
Although my mind shutters to relate them and runs back in grief, I shall begin.

Aeneas, too, was most probably burdened in the silence of his memories, even though he doesn’t say so, but in any case, for Vergil the thrust of Aeneas’ pain is in telling his doleful memories, not merely in having them in his head. More realistically, I think, not to say more concisely, Aeschylus shows that pain is present in silence and in speech, in memory and in making known. Good literature, not least poetry, reminds us of those experiences and emotions common to humanity, including the nasty ones, though the circumstances be as multifarious as you can imagine. Any dourness we know, we know well whether we say it or hold it, but it’s surely worth highlighting that the two Greek lines quoted above from Prometheus are not the end of his part there: he goes on to tell the story, opting for the pain of telling over the pain of tacitness. But whether we speak our pain or stay mute, we can take some small solace in the expressed trials of others, even the trials of a god.

On epigrams

I love gargantuan books, especially after I’ve finished reading them. It’s a unique feeling to look up on the bookshelf and see several inches of the wood occupied by a single title, whether in one or more volumes, and to remember from that sight, taking up so much of one’s vision with its many-paged mass, the myriad characters, spans of years involved, lands visited and perhaps fled, verbose and colorful description of at first seemingly irrelevant matter, &c. But there’s also a pleasure in reading-material that doesn’t take so many months (or years) to first taste — although it may take that long to really digest. I mean here short stories, plays, shorter novels, and poetry, of course, but more specifically I have in mind here the literary form of the epigram.

Epigrams take various forms in various languages, and are sometimes poetic (for example, in Greek and Latin), sometimes not. They are a convenient way for authors to give meaningful statements without full essays or treatises, although, of course, subsequent readers may be thereby inspired (or irritated!) to pen their own interpretation of the theme, in which case the little epigram will have engendered a larger progeny. While they are not the exclusive members of the club, epigrams are the quintessentially quotable bits of an author, being ready-made for such separate employment divorced from their original context (which may be more or less disjointed to begin with).

The word epigram itself is Greek — the word first meant “inscription” — and we have a huge collection of epigrams in that language in the later collection known as the Greek Anthology. (That is not to say that Greek is the earliest language in which epigrams were uttered.) These are in meter and are often somewhat longer than that which we we typically consider to be epigrams nowadays. Latin, too, has verse epigrams, notably those of Catullus and Martial, both of whom are as much a delight to read today as they always have been and always will be by appreciators of language and observers of society.

The epigram in later European literary history is not without some shining examples. I have lately been especially enjoying Nietzsche’s in Jenseits von Gut und Böse (“Sprüche und Zwischenspiele,” the fourth part = §§63-185), Wilde’s (see here for the privately printed Oscariana), and Ambrose Bierce’s printed at the end of the eighth volume of his Collected Works.

It’s worth noting, too, that the lyrics of some modern music — say, from the mid-1960s — might well be classified as at least partly epigrammatic. Examples that leap to the forefront of my mind now are “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” (if you’ve not yet heard the forceful and charging version from Before the Flood, do yourself a favor and get it in addition to the one on Bringing It All Back Home) and (maybe?) “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

Epigrams can sound very ex cathedra, and I suppose they are; not really more so than any opinionated piece of writing, that is writing that expresses some view on a subject, but epigrams are more poignantly punchy in that they’re so brief compared to a twenty- or thirty-page treatise and generally very clear in meaning (but Nietzsche’s not always so). Anybody who has a problem with the assumed authority of this or that epigrammarian is free, of course, to write his or her own epigrams in response!

Finally, epigrams composed in languages other than one’s own are veritably useful when learning the language(s) in question: they’re fodder for both cultural and linguistic enquiry, and a good exercise for the memory, not to mention suitable for addition to one’s arsenal of conversation for cocktail parties and other settings.

Any favorite epigrams or collections thereof? Please say so in the comments!

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