Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Sunday, January 1, 2017

Alkaios’ Happy Hour

These are new versions of a few poems and fragments of Alkaios, the Archaic poet. For the most part, I have not sought to mimic his meters, but only to maintain some rhythmic energy. Several editors have differently numbered Alkaios’ texts. The numbers in parentheses following translations refer to the ordering in J. M. Edmonds’ old Lyra Graeca, available on archive.org.

The works of Alkaios, who surely knew Sappho more than two and a half millennia ago in Mytilene, have been, like hers, largely lost. In antiquity the two were considered among the greatest of poets, and the Alexandrians counted both among the canon of nine. Sensation alone would perhaps have kept Sappho’s name familiar, if not always her words, but few readers know anything of her elder contemporary.

Alkaios was deeply involved in his island’s politics and was exiled for years as a result of his aristocratic opposition to the ascendancy of the “popular” party under a succession of tyrants. Many of his surviving poems are politically partisan poems, [1] but he also left hymns, war poems, and a few tattered remnants of what was once a book of love poems. [2] He wrote also a book of drinking songs, a genre popular in ancient China and the Latin Middle Ages as well as in Greece though quite neglected today even, I suspect, at fraternity parties.

The place of drinking songs in human culture is not difficult to explain. Though Camus thought the proper response of a human who realizes his identity with Sisyphus can only be revolt, many people have found intoxication a serviceable alternative. The implications of the surviving texts from Alkaios, whom one might reasonably assume to be socially if not politically normative, is that alcohol is an effective anodyne for mortal ills, appropriate for virtually any occasion.

According to Alkaios wine might, along with a blazing hearth and a good cushion, ameliorate the rigors of winter.

Zeus nods, the heavens open up
and all the streams are frozen hard.
[two lines missing]
Put down the storm, build up the fire,
and pour a good big bowl of wine,
so honey-sweet! Then pile soft pillows
on either side your brow.

Here sky-god Zeus is associated with the rigors of winter, implying as well all the rigors of life. The loving list of cozy sensual comforts promises instant if temporary pleasure, and the emphasis is on a generous serving of alcohol.

Yet summer heat provides an equally compelling reason to drink. Alkaios reworks a description in Hesiod’s Works and Days:

Wet your throat with wine -- the dog-star's here again
and hard days, too. In this heat all people drink.
Cicadas sing from under leaves, and from their wings
the shrill song pours when heat-fire flashes
and spreads across the earth. Everything is dry.
* * * * *
But the artichoke blooms. And the women do as they like,
while the men grow thin and wasted in brain and limb by
that scorcher,
the dog-star.

The sound image of the cicadas suggests the punishing temperature, further emphasized by the mention of artichokes with their desert-like toughness and sharp bract-ends. The peculiar gender contrast that follows perhaps signified more the lassitude of the persona than any actual claim of sexually confident women, equivalent to declaring, “Let them do whatever they please. I’m not moving.”

Alkaios is ready to rush the cocktail hour.

Let’s drink! Don’t wait for dark! A finger’s all
that’s left of day. So from the shelf get down,
my dear, the biggest cups, for wine that frees
from care was given us by Zeus’s son
and Semele’s. Pour cups brimful and mixed
quite strong, and one cup quick pursue the last.

Here the persona’s depth of feeling is signaled by the multiple intensitive terms: “biggest cups,” cups filled “brimful,” “quite strong,” and rapidly refilled with no end in sight.

The justification for drinking is explicitly the inevitable woes of life which leave a tender human sufficiently battered to appreciate a pharmacological insulation from suffering.

One mustn’t give over one’s heart to one’s pain.
Rejecting Bakkhos no one can move on.
So surely all that one can do
is order wine and then drink deep.

Pour perfume on my head that’s been through much
and on my greying chest. Oh, he who suffers --
let him drink! Olympians send woe
to everyone.

But then for Alkaios, any excuse will do.

Let’s drink! The star is coming round again!

If Alkaios repackages clichés, they are clichés none the less powerful for their familiarity, clichés that have become established through their resonance to generations of people who have found life to be so full of suffering as to be all but unbearable. With sufficient attention one may hear this millennia-old voice calling out a refrain that might be seconded by millions of moderns who have never heard his name.

“here, let’s have a drink”

Greetings! Have a drink

Come here! Let’s drink!

1. One bit yet extant (42) declares in effect of his political foe: “Now that Myrsilos is dead, let’s go get really drunk!”

2. Quintilian reversed the modern reflex by judging on moral grounds and finding the political poems to be excellent and the love poems dubious at best.

3. l. 581 ff. though, significantly, unlike the aristocratic Alkaios, Hesiod depicts the busy farmer pausing in his harvest to enjoy some wine with his frugal meal of curds.

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