Theognis is a lyric poet of the Greek archaic era, a good few centuries before the florescence of Greek culture and philosophy, the Golden age of Athens and the great city states. Nothing is known of him outside what can be garnered from his poetry. It isn’t quite agreed even where he was from – he is known as Theognis of Megara, but there are two Megaras, one in Greece proper, and the other a Greek colony in Sicily. We do know that he was an aristocrat who regretted the commercialisation of life in the period he lives in, that he was a passionate but generally cynical man who was not shy about advertising his woes, and that a great deal of these woes sprung from his relationship with a young, unfaithful lover (a boy, naturally) to whom he addresses many of his lines.
He is a poet of many moods, ranging from nostalgia and regret to avuncular advice to sulky self-pity (which was not viewed as negatively in ancient Greece as it is in modern society). We can’t say for sure why he says some of the things he’s saying – is he really so negative as he appears, or is he expressing his mood after a really bad day? Enough of his poetry survived, however, for us to recognise that he has a marked predilection for metaphor, so we needn’t take every piece of his advice too literally, which must have been a relief for contemporary readers of this little gem:
For man the best thing is never to be born,
Never to look upon the sun’s hot rays
Next best, to speed at once through Hades’ gates
And lie beneath a piled up heap of earth.
(Transl. Dorothea Wender, Penguin Books)
One senses through the imagery some kind of burning shame here, and the desire not just to die, but to hide oneself from the world and to bury one’s face in shame. Perhaps when he wrote this, Theognis had just suffered a great public indignity – something to do with that wandering lover of his, perhaps? Dorothea Wender tells us that Theognis, despite his fondness for metaphor, used plain language… but this didn’t stop the American translator Sherod Santos producing his own more florid translation:
Best of all is never to be born, never to see the blood-orange sun swelter the hills and high meadows.
But once you’re born then best of all is to hurry on through the gates of hell and, once inside, lie down under a caprocked gash of mouldering earth.
(Sherod Santos, Greek Lyric Poetry, Norton)
This was actually the first translation I read of Theognis, and it is still my favourite, however accurate it might or might not be. The language heightens that sense of burning shame and wounded feeling whilst also being redolent of the sensuality that may have brought on this shame in the first place…
Below is my own 21st Century pastiche, a ‘best of all’ for the working man (or woman). Readers are of course invited to submit their own versions.
Best of all is never to get out of bed
Never to let the cruel sunlight peek through the curtains.
Next best, to speed downstairs and make a cuppa
And lie beneath a pile of warm duvets.