Tag Archives: Sherod Santos

Shall I come, Sweet Love

A paraclausithyron is a poetic genre that originates in Ancient Greek, meaning ‘lament by a closed door.’ A lover, or suitor speaks aloud by the door of a woman who has refused him entry. Here is a salty example from Asclepiades of the Hellenistic Greek period.

The night is long, and it is winter weather, and night sets when the Pleiads are half-way up the sky. I pass and repass her door, drenched by the rain, smitten by desire of her, the deceiver. It is not love that Cypris smote me with, but a tormenting arrow red-hot from the fire.

(http://www.attalus.org/poetry/asclepiades.html)

Cypris, is another name for the Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of love, who was supposed by some to have originated in Cyprus, thus named so. Sherod Santos did away with the Goddess in his translation, and turned the second half of the poem into a question, starting ‘So how have I come / wet and whimpering / as a beaten dog […]? (I would heartily recommend Santos’s Greek Lyric Poetry to anyone – it was one of the books that ignited my interest in poetry about a decade ago; but one must accept his translations as creative, not strictly literal.) A question this brought to my mind was ‘what on earth did those infamously strict Greek fathers think of these lovelorn poets lurking outside their daughter’s doors’?

In this commentary on a paraclausithyron of Ovid, W. Turpin, part-answers the question for me, though it refers to Roman rather than Greek life: the lover is not outside a bedroom door, or even a front door, but the great wooden doors of the great courtyard through which a visitor would have to pass to reach the ‘front doors’ of the house. Thus a ‘paraclausithyron’ is not only a lament by the door, but effectively to the door – no-one else can hear it. In the poem Turpin is discussing, Ovid changes this a little by having the lover address the doorkeeper, a slave actually chained to his post on the inside of the doors, and responsible for letting people in, or not. In contrast to the short, bitter Asclepiades poem, Ovid’s is wry, rambling and somewhat deprecatory. Thus there is the predictable, and, to the modern reader, distasteful comparison of the slave’s actual chains and the lover’s slavery to love. And the lover makes several, part-humorous arguments to the doorkeeper to let him in the door. He leaves a garland of flowers for the girl, as literary convention demands, then, after a few final snipes at the door keeper, bids him farewell and departs.

 And, flowery wreath, which from my brows sadly I disengage, lie there upon this heartless threshold through the night. When on the morrow my mistress shall descry thee trailing there, tell her the hours that, sick at heart, I wasted at her door. Farewell, porter; in spite of all, I say to thee, farewell.

(Transl. J. Lewis May 1930, available here: http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/ovid/lboo/lboo12.htm)

Farewell then, Ovid, and onto the 16th Century English poet and songwriter, Thomas Campion. In the sense that the speaker is at his love’s door, Campion’s poem can also be classed a paraclausithyron; but unlike Asclepiades’ and Ovid’s protagonist, the speaker addresses not the door, or doorkeeper, but the woman behind the door. Perhaps Campion, classically-minded though he was, wont to set his poems in an Arcadian idyll rather than England, had English houses in mind when he wrote this, although he too seems blithely unconcerned by the thought of the girl’s father.

 

Shall I come, sweet love, to thee,

When the evening beams are set?

Shall I not excluded be?

Will you find no feigned let?

Let me not, for pity, more

Tell the long hours at your door?

 

Who can tell what thief or foe,

In the covert of the night,

For his prey will work my woe,

Or through wicked foul despite?

So may I die unredressed,

Ere my long love be possessed.

 

But to let such dangers pass,

Which a lover’s thoughts disdain,

‘Tis enough in such a place

To attend love’s joys in vain.

Do not mock me in they bed,

While these cold nights freeze me dead.

 

(This version as printed in the NYRB English Renaissance Poetry, ed. John Williams)
In its humour, the poem sits between the two poets above: he is not as bitter and mournful as Asclepiades, but he does not deprecate the tradition of paraclausithyron as Ovid does. He is significantly more charming than either, and, unlike in the classical poems, there is a sense that he actually believes he might be let in, at least until the last stanza. The poem comes off more as an earnest attempt at a seduction, of sorts, even if in the end he settles for the conventional lover’s consolation of mere proximity to his love. And even if, yes, this seduction comes off as rather odd to our contemporary sensibility, relying as it does on emotional blackmail and shameless appeals to the woman’s pity.

There is a heavy element of carpe diem in the poem – in the suggestion that death is ever present and thus the lover must possess his love whilst he may. A generation or two later, Andrew Marvell would write his most famous poem with this motif in mind, contrasting the pleasures of love and the approaching horrors of death with comic aplomb. Marvell was also more explicit – or reductive – about what ‘possession’ of one’s love might actually entail – ‘tearing our pleasures with rough strife’, as he puts it; but Campion’s poem has the decorum of the drawing room to think of, where such coarse language might send the ladies of the house out blushing. Campion’s poem was, after all, a song too, to be played for a small audience in a domestic setting.

The music is quite as charming as the poem– here for example in the countertenor of Alfred Deller.

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‘Best of all…’

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.

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