His memories in a trunk

Reflections on literature, language(s), and music

Archive for the tag “Greek”

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.

Advertisements

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.

Post Navigation