Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Saturday, May 1, 2010

Leonidas of Tarentum

(I haven't rendered the notes visible here -- should anyone wish to see them, they are in the original Word document.)

Leonidas of Tarentum lived on the coast of Italy’s boot heel (in his day Magna Graecia, now Apulia or Puglia) during the third century B.C.E. Travelers in his day and our own may pass through on their way to Brindisi to take a ferry to Greece. Horace describes the region in glowing terms, with first-rate honey, olives, and wine and mild weather, an excellent place to be buried, and to Propertius the area suggested a pastoral Eden. Scholars have sought to specify his dates through several apparent historical references in the poems. Style, however, not time or theme, is the present focus.

During the modern era, his work has found few admirers. Lord Chesterfield went so far as to tell his son, “I recommend the Greek epigrammatists to your supreme contempt.” "[They are] the worst company in the world.” Wilamowitz couldn’t stand Leonidas. St. Beuve sounds almost apologetic when he says the poet epitomizes the Anthology and is “du moins” “la plus honorable et la plus digne” of its authors. He has been called facile and tedious, offering “little to admire.”

If Leonidas is little-appreciated now, he enjoyed great popularity in antiquity. His work is represented second only to Meleager in Cephalas’ tenth century Anthology. For centuries he was the most-imitated of Greek poets. Generations wrote in hommage to his verses, more or less closely imitating his words, seeking only to polish his wit or to sidestep a rough consonant he may have overlooked. What alteration in taste produced this gap between his ancient and modern reputation?

The Greek Anthology has survived into this present age primarily through translated selections: Kenneth Rexroth, Dudley Fitts, and Norman Douglas each produced volumes worth reading. In particular, many pieces on death and love retain their power and pathos even in renderings that are no more than adequate. Reading a poet translator’s choice bits in this way, the reader has little sense of the overall form of the collection. Just as in the case of much Western appreciation of Asian lyric, an extremely highly conventionalized form is read as spontaneous and direct. The metrical scheme is fixed; the topoi recur again and again; and the themes are so intertextual that succeeding poems of the Anthology sometimes read like a series of rewrites. One poet after another seeks to perfect the verse’s music while polishing such tropes as “you are the flower among flowers” or “like the sun, the stars of other women vanish when you appear.”

While this sort of craft-conscious, highly stylized art in which excellence is built on imitation of masters may remind us of Elizabethan sonneteers, individual inspiration has been fetishized in the practice of high art since the Romantic Age. Innovation is equated with value, though conventionalized work has hardly vanished. It survives in virtually all the oral and popular forms from Child ballads to situation comedies and even “reality” shows. People continue to enjoy the old formulae (which are, often, given yet another turn) and, in fact, enjoy their own competence as they evaluate every new performance against a remembered background of many others.

Some critics found particular fault with Leonidas because he sometimes used ornate and artificial “Alexandrian” literary devices while characterizing the lives of humble working people. He speaks of his own penury and respectfully describes fishermen, peasants, and carpenters in a sophisticated form reminiscent of pastoralism. Indeed, this subject matter was a part of Leonidas’ reputation in antiquity. In his description of the contents of the anthology he assembled, Meleagar speaks of the “luxuriant ivy-clusters of Leonidas,” and likely means to invoke the commonness of ivy, almost similar to Whitman’s use of grass.

(V, 188)
I do no wrong to Eros. (I call my sweet good-nature’s witness
Kypris.) I’ve been attacked from an evil bow.
that would have me burnt to ashes. Fire on top of fire he sends my way
and won’t let up the arrow-slinging.
Now I, a mortal, must seek to pay him back, this wicked flying daimon.
Will I be blamed for fighting in self-defense?

(V, 206)
Melo and Satyra, aging fast,
daughters of Antigenides,
they gladly do the Muses’ work.
Melo for Pimpleian Muses dedicates a flute
(on which the lips can dance) and case,
while Eros’ lover, Satyra, will give this drinker’s friend
she joined with wax, this pipe,
sweet whistler that she played till dawn,
till light made her glad
to see the door still shut.

(VI, 221)
The winter night was filled with driving hail
when, fleeing storm and freezing mountainsides,
a single lion, looking rather lame,
walked in to where the goatherds pass the night.
Afraid not for the goats but for themselves,
the goatherds sat and called on Savior Zeus.
The night-beast, waiting out the storm, attacked
no man, no goat, and later he walked out.
For Pan of mountain leaks they put this sketch
of what had passed on this thick oak.

(VI, 226)
Here’s the little place where Kleito lived, the plot
where he grew food. A few grapevines are round the back,
and here’s some brush where he would gather wood. It’s here
that Kleito kept on going right through eighty years.

(VI, 298)
A wallet, and a goat-skin coat made stiff
with age, a walking stick, an oil flask
(uncleaned), a dog-skin purse wuite innocent
of coins, the cap from his impious head:
these things were stripped from Sokhares in death
and hung up on a tamarisk by Need.

(VI, 300)
Lathrian goddess, take the wanderer’s gift!
From Leonid the poor (who starves at times), accept it!
Take excellent olives and fat barley cakes
and this green fig, fresh-plucked
from fine wine stock these five perfect grapes – take them!
My mistress, take these last few drops of wine,
but if, as you’ve saved me from disease,
you lift me up from goddamned
poverty – you’ll get a goat in thanks.

(VI, 302)
Leave this hut, oh darkling mice, and know
that Leonidas’ sad flour bin holds naught.
The damned old man gets by on bread and salt.
His line has long been known for living poor.
Why dig in that far corner, greedy mouse?
You won’t find even supper crumbs to taste.
No, run to other homes, there’s nothing here.
You’ll g=have to dine away to get a feed.

(VI, 309)
This loud wood rattle, this silent ball,
Philokles gives Hermes these things.
The bone-dice he once loved, his top,
he renders up his childhood’s toys.

(VII, 35)
Pleasing to foreigners, much loved by Greeks
was Pindar
who worked
for the sweet-singing

(VII, 67)
Hades’ awful deacon, sailing Acheron,
over the water on a dark boat, receive me,
though your nightmare barge is groaning full of dead.
I’m the dog Diogenes.
An oil-bag and a wallet, all I bring,
One old coat, the obol sea-fare needed here.
All of the things I had gathered in life to Hades
I came holding. I left nothing under the sun.

(VII, 264)
Fair wind to sailors! But if in the blast
you follow my lead and find haven in Hades,
blame no cruel depth, blame just yourself,
if you started your trip from my grave.

(VII, 295)
Theris, the old, old man who lived by catching fish,
who knew more ways of waves than any bird,
who poked the sea-floor, dragged nets, and took home fish –
he never sailed a ship with many oars;
Arcturus didn’t bring him death in war;
no storm pushed his strong old frame too far.
He died in his hut, went out like a light,
quenched by the simple weight of many years.
His sons made no marker, nor his partner from bed,
but the band of his fellow catchers of fish.

(VII, 452)
Think of Eubolos the Sober, you who go by,
and drink! For everyone’s end will be Hades.

(VII, 455)
Maronis the wine-lover, drainer of bottles,
here lies the old hag, and shown on her tomb –
a Greek drinking cup (the meaning is clear).
Down under she moans, but not for her children
and not for the man whom she left in great debt.
Her one cause to moan – that the grave-cup is dry.

(VII, 472)
Measureless time, o man, before you saw the light,
and measureless will be your time in death.
The time you spend in life between these two?
A point or smaller yet if that can be.
Short life for you and suffering, for learn:
life isn't sweet -- it's wretched worse than death.
Men -- sacks of bones -- they try to lift themselves
to airy heights where clouds float free.
Man, see how mad! At your thread's furthest end --
a worm sits on a coat that's seen no loom
and works it down to dried fig leaves and sticks,
more hateful than a withered spider's corpse.
Ask your heart at dawn what power's your, my man,
and live a life that's simple. Always know
however long you walk about in life,
you're made from stalks of straw. You can't escape.

(VII, 657)
Herdsmen roaming hills around this ridge,
tending goats and sheep with fine thick wool
pause to help Kleitagoras, for Earth,
for underground Persephone (I’ll not ask much).
I’d like the sheep to bleat for me, the shepherd
on a rock to pipe soft notes as his beasts feed.
In early spring a native of these parts
should crown my grave with meadow blooms
and sprinkle the spot with a ewe’s rich milk
(one with many lambs). Let him then lift her udder
to wet the tomb’s top.
We among the dea
Have payment to return to those who do us good.

(VII, 660)
Stranger, Orthon of Syracuse would speak to you:
“Never go out drunk on wintry nights.
That’s how I met my fate. And now I lie
In foreign earth, not in my fair home.

(VII, 715)
I’m dead far from my Italy, far from Tarentum
my home. This fact is bitter worse than death itself.
A life without livelihood comes to the wanderer,
but I had the Muses’ love and now I taste honey
rather than gall. The name Leonidas has never sunk low. –
my gifts from the Muses proclaim it forever.

(VII, 731
“I’m already propped up like a leaf on a pole,
now death calls me to Hades.
Gorgos, get smart! How can you be glad
you can sit still in sunlight a while?”
Speaking simply the old man pushed off from life
and went to join the many.

(VII, 740)
I’m the stone on Kretho’s grave. I show
his name. These days he’s dust beneath the earth,
the man who once was rich as Gyges, once
had many cows and herds of goats,
who once – but why talk on? All envied him.
Oh god! His share is now so little land.

(IX, 24)
The stars dim out and the wonderful moon-circle, too
when the fiery sun with its whirling axles rides across the sky,
and Homer brings to nothing the herds of singers of hymns,
he who holds the Muses’ brightest torch.

(X, 1)
The right time’s come for sailing. The swallow already
babbles chirps; the soft-running West Wind is here;
the meadow’s in blossom; the sea’s fallen silent
(its waves no more thrown up by violent winds).
Take up the anchors and let loose the cables –
cast off, my seamen, set out all your sails!
I lay these things on you as Priapos the harbor god
So you, my man, may sail for far-off goods.

(XVI, 230)
Lone traveler, don’t drink that dirty draft
from the warm, steep mountain torrent cutting through.
Just up a little way at that high point
where cows feed, over by the shepherd’s pine,
you’ll find a fine stream murmuring through rock
with water colder than the northland snow.

(XVI, 236)
The watchful Priapos stands on the wall;
he’s set to guard Deinomenes’ greens.
“But look at me, thief, see how I’m aroused!
You wonder if I lust for greens?
for these!”

(XVI, 306)
(on a statue of Anakreon)
See Anakreon the tosspot, twisted on the stone
And note the old man’s dull but greedy eyes.
He drags his costly robe around his feet.
Of his two boots, just like a sot he’s lost
The one (the other hides a claw-like foot).
He sings of longed-for Bathyllos or Megisteus
And hold up in his hand his lovesick lyre.
Protect him, father Dionysos – it’s not right
that Bakkhos’ servant fall by Bakkhos’ hand.


  1. Have you ever heard of a poem about Leonidas which begins:
    Victory looked close at hand but betrayal by a son of Greece sealed Leonidas fate,

    I'm a teacher, and a student wrote a great poem, but I'm just wondering........


  2. This is a different Leonidas -- the king who led the Spartans at Thermopylae.