Wednesday, 11 April 2018

The Fragments of Moschus and Bion of Smyrna.

A Pastoral by John Reinhard Weguelin (1905).

Last week I read Greek Pastoral Poetry published by Penguin (1974) which included The Poems and Fragments of Bion of Smyrna and The Poems of Moschus (as well as The Idylls and The Epigrams by Theocritus).

Bion of Smyrna (Βίων ὁ Σμυρναῖος) was a poet born in Smyrna in Turkey (now İzmir) towards the end of Greek rule established by Alexander the Great in 340 B.C. Not much is known about Bion other than he appeared to be at his most prolific around 100 B.C. There are some seventeen fragments that remain by Bion, the longer ones being hiss Lament for Adonis, Myrson and Lycidas, and Cleodamus and Myrson, the rest being short verses and, in some cases, just a few lines.

The Lament for Adonis begins,
I weep for Adonis, cry 'Fair Adonis is dead';
'Fair Adonis is dead,' the Loves echo my grief.
Sleep no more, Cypris, shrouded in purple,
awake to this grief, and put on mourning,
beat your breast and tell all mankind:
'Fair Adonis is dead.'
He goes on to describe the death and the sadness of Aphrodite (referred to as both Cypris and Cytherea) and writes with great despair and sadness; it's a very moving piece. The next poem, Myrson and Lycidas is incomplete - it begins with Myrson asking Lycidas to sing him a song about Achilles at Scyros. He agrees, but all we have of the text is this:
One day long ago, a black day for Oenone,
the herdsman snatched Helen and took her to Ida.
The whole of Achaea was summoned to arms:
not a man of Mycenae, or Elis or Sparta
would hide in his home from the dread call of war.
There was one, one alive, stowed away among women -
Achilles, who learnt how to spin, not to fight,
how to practice the arts of Lycomedes' girls,
how to live like a woman. He became quite a she.
In his dress, in his looks he was every inch female;
he rouged his white cheeks till they blushed dark as flowers,
he walked like a girl, wore his hair in a bow.
Yet his heart was a man's; he bore male desires;
and each day he would sit besides Deidameia
from dawn until dusk. He would kiss her white hand;
he would hold up her weaving and praise its rare grace;
at meals he would choose no companion but her.
Every move was a step on the path to her bed.
'All the others,' he'd say, 'sleep together like sisters,
but still you and I, virgins both, go each our own way.
We are friends, we are women, we share our good looks,
yet we sleep quite alone, each in separate beds.
It is cruel Nysa's plotting that keeps us apart...
Following this, the third longest poem of the collection - Cleodamus and Myrson, in which Cleodamus asks Myrson which his favourite season is, to which Myrson replies (and this is now my favourite quote on spring),
I'll tell you, Cleodamus. It isn't summer,
when I'm always burnt by the heat of the sun,
nor it is autumn, the time of disease.
I can't stand winter - all that frost and snow.
No, give me the springtime all year round,
free from excess of heat or of cold.
In spring all is love-making, everything blossoms,
the nights are as long and as fresh as the days...
The following fragments are very short, just tantalising echoes from over two millenniums ago. Two of my favourites are IX and XV:
IX 
Evening star, golden light of Aphrodite,
dear Hesperus, sacred crown of blue night,
as fainter than the moon, so brighter than all the stars;
tonight, friend, you must light my way
as I go to serenade my shepherd love -
you, not the moon, who was new last night
and will dim too soon. It's not for robbery
or highway hold-ups I ask you
to light my path tonight: but for love.
And the course of true love is most worthy of light.
XV 
Enough little drops of water, they say.
can dig a channel in a stone.
After reading Bion of Smyrna, I went on to read another minor Greek pastoral poet: Moschus, who was born in Syracuse and preceded Bion by some 50 years. There are only seven surviving poems, some just a single verse, including The Lament for Bion (which is now known to have been written by someone else), The Fugitive Love, and my favourite - Europa. It begins,
Europa once dreamed a true dream, sent by Cypris.
It was almost dawn, the night three parts gone,
when relaxing sleep steals down, honey-sweet,
to rest on our lids, gently seal up our eyes,
the hour when true dreams are all shephered forth...
And Moschus continues, describing in this poem the abduction of Europa by Zeus from Tyre to Crete.

What I loved about these poems was that one can see the influence on another one of my favourite works, Ovid's Metamorphoses. Bion, in my mind, shone, and I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting the myth of Europa in Moschus. It's funny how one can miss a book and the experience of reading it, and it was good to be reminded of Ovid and enjoy these two new-to-me poets, Bion and Moschus. Would that more of their works had have survived...

2 comments:

  1. and it is rather haunting, how these fingerlike snippets from the past have threaded their way into the present world... and they indicate that human emotions haven't changed much...

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    Replies
    1. Beautifully put, and I completely agree :)

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