Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Elegies by Theognis.

A symposiast sings "O pedon kalliste",
the beginning of a Theognidian verse (5th Century B.C.).
Theognis was a complete chance-read for me - I ordered Hesiod's Theogony and Works and Days and Theognis' Elegies were at the end of the edition, and this was my first introduction to him. He is somewhat of a mystery - he is known as Theognis of Megara, but which 'Megara' is uncertain, some say Megara of Greece, others Megara of Sicily. He was writing in about the 6th Century B.C, but quite when exactly is unsure too. The translator of my edition (Penguin, 1973) Dorothea Wender believes he was from Megara of Greece, quite possibly an aristocrat, and he had a friend, Kurnos, to whom some of these poems are dedicated to.

The poems themselves are very varied, all with different tones and apparent different motivations. Some are political, some are about love, some clearly are rebuking Kurnos - it is very difficult for me to be more specific without writing about each and every stanza, keeping in mind this is presented almost as one long poem, though it does lack some continuity. Instead I'll simply share some of my favourite quotes:
"Muses and Graces, daughters of Zeus, who came
To Cadmus' wedding, once, you sang these words:
'The beautiful is good, and if a thing's
Not beautiful, it isn't good. This was
The song that came from your immortal lips."
"Don't even share your thoughts with all your friends;
Of all their number, few deserve your trust."
"Don't pray for outstanding wealth or excellence,
Kurnos; the one great thing for man is Luck."
"Never, in anger, castigate a man
For poverty, which wastes and kills the heart.
Zeus tilts his balance this way and then that,
One moment you're a rich man, next you're not."
"The loveliest thing is justice, and the best
Is health; the happiest thing: to win one's love."
"Ah Poverty, you slut! Why do you stay?
Why love me when I hate you? Please betray
Me for another man, and be his wife;
Why must you always share my wretched life?"
"That man's a fool who keeps constant watch
Over my thoughts, and quite neglects his own." 
"Experts test gold and silver in the fire;
Wine is the test to show the mind of man;
Even a wise man, clever till now,
When he gets drunk, brings shame upon himself." 
"Besides the pinch-bowl, many are loyal friends,
But important matters, they are few." 
There are many more verses I liked besides these; the collection is has some wisdom and there is much warmth, but too there is anger, suspicion, and even bitterness at times. Not all of it is good, not all enjoyable, but reading it I think is very worthwhile. There is also an interesting verse on the idea of natural selection which I must mention: Theognis wrote,
You want to buy an ass? a horse?
You'll pick a thoroughbred, of course,
For quality is in the blood.
But when a man goes out to stud -
He won't refuse a commoner
If lots of money goes with her.
And vulgar oafs with brutish ways
Can marry noble girls, these days.
Good faith means nothing now, it's clear,
Hard cash is all that's honoured here,
While gentle blood unites with base -
The drachma's ruining our race.
You wonder, lad, that I disparage
The present state of civil marriage.
This is  something Charles Darwin had picked up on: writing in The Descent of Man (1871),
The Grecian poet, Theognis...saw how important selection, if carefully applied, would be for the improvement of mankind. He saw likewise that wealth often checks the proper action of sexual selection. 
Nietzsche also wrote on this in his On Theognis of Megara: not one I've read, but I shall add it to the ever-growing to-be-read pile!


  1. Do you know if Theognis actually used rhyme in Greek?

    1. I checked the intro of my edition - "All the poems of Theognis are in the elegaic metre... The metre is basically dactylic; the first line of the couplet is hexameter, the second pentameter." :)


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