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Mimnermus of Colophon (or Smyrna) ( c. 630 BC)

Mimnermus of Colophon (or Smyrna) ( c. 630 BC)

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the first poets

survives in part thanks to this collection, begins with the line “I lie tortured

by desire,” which Stobaeus files under the heading, “Concerning the Vulgar

Aphrodite Who Is the Reason for Procreation and About Desire for the

Pleasures of the Flesh.” Stobaeus Junior must often have turned for solace

and arousal to the cautionary poems in this section. There are other chapters: “That Marrying Is Not Good,” contrasted with “That Marriage is

Most Fair.” Good husbandry and metaphysics also feature in this book of

counsel and consolation.1 Stobaeus is the source of eight pieces of

Archilochus, six of Simonides of Cos, five of Semonides of Amorgos, four

of Phocylides, two each of Tyrtaeus, Solon and Sappho, one of Hipponax,

Xenophanes, Callinus and Anacreon, and seven of Mimnermus.

In the Middle Ages, Stobaeus’ anthology “was transmitted in two separate parts of two books each (Eclogae and Florilegium).”2 The texts are much

corrupted, copied from centuries of copying, and then recopied for centuries. The distortions are not quite so rapid as Chinese Whispers, but they

may be as extreme, especially in terms of the original forms. In the absence

of authoritative manuscripts, educated conjecture is the only judge. All the

same, Stobaeus’ book is a necropolis in which we can glimpse some very

important, very faded ghosts, including that of Mimnermus of Colophon,

from the second half of the seventh century bc.3

He was not, it is believed, a prolific poet. His entire oeuvre may have been

accommodated on a single papyrus scroll at the great library in Alexandria.

The title Nanno may have covered the elegies, both erotic and those intended for the soberer moments of the symposium, and the Smyrneis was a

long, historical elegy. He was perhaps an auletes, or oboe-player, himself.4

For Callimachus, Mimnermus was an innovator, one of the first to compose love elegies. The Alexandrian poet-librarian celebrates his Ionian forebear in the prologue to Aetia, passages of which survive, including the

mysterious broken lines which Trypanis translates, “. . . and not the Large

Woman taught that Mimnermus is a delightful poet . . .” Mimnermus and

the much later poet Philetas of Cos seemed to license Callimachus to concentrate upon the shorter poem, to dignify it in such a way as to make it possible for a poet not to feel compelled to embark upon the extended work, the

epic or historical narrative. It may be, too, that Callimachus found in Mimnermus an instance of that allusiveness to earlier poems that appeals to

settled and to colonial literary cultures; the act of reading one text is enhanced if that text is itself reading and redeploying recognisable elements

from a dozen earlier texts. This seems to be the spirit in which Mimnermus is

glancingly mentioned in the shards of Callimachus’ Iambus 203 that survive.

He may have taken pleasure in some of the Mimnermean conceits,

which are themselves rooted in myth and legend. For example, he knew that



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the sun travelled back in a cup of sorts from when it set in the west to when

it rose again in the east, and alluded to this in fragment 12, “telling how he is

borne over the water in a winged, golden vessel, made by Hephaistus,

from the Hesperides to the land of the Aethiopians, where his horses and

chariot await him.”5 The conceit taken up by Stesichorus is that Heracles

could travel back in the cup or on the couch when it returned empty to its

starting point.

It is tempting to draw analogies between Callimachus’ take on Mimnermus and Modernist practice. Pindar, too, may have found suggestions in

Mimnermus’ shorter narratives, and among the Latin poets Propertius declared that in love Mimnermus is of greater worth than Homer.6 He is one

of those poets whose reputations we must take on trust because so little of

his work remains in textual form, though it helped to shape the imaginations of others. Trypanis dubs him “the first hedonist in Western literature.” In his verse he explored both sexual and intertextual pleasures, and

like no other poet reflected on the horror of growing old, the horror consisting not in the death of sexual desire but in the end of sexual desirability:

. . . Old age then arrives and with it

Pain, and transformation to repulsive, foul,

And the heart galled by malignancies:

He takes no joy in the brightness of the sun

Now, and boys revile him, women loathe:

This is what God devised for long survivors.7

How short are the days of youth, how long the years of unfulfilment. The

fruit ripens and as suddenly is rotten. There are two ends in view, a long and

horrible old age, or death, and death is preferable. Yet to die poor, to die

childless, to die sick . . . One is not far from the anxieties and regrets of

Hesiod in some of the verse, though there is a noble elevation in Mimnermus which the callused Boeotian poet does not possess.

Much of the sensual particularity is gone from the fragments that remain, as though they have been washed and tidied. But he is not entirely

bleached out: “One might object that there is a grotesqueness in the description of erotic sweat which is out of place in a reflective elegy of the

seventh century.”8 For a poet steeped in Homer, as his excellent modern editor Archibald Allen knows Mimnermus to be, this seems a censorious view

to take. Lovers do sweat, it is part of the experience and even of the pleasure of love, and until poetry moves off from the body into the language of

amorous conceit, it is not unwholesome that the literal smell and texture of

love should find its way into the verbal celebration of the act. David Mulroy

translates fragment 5,




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the first poets

Sweat drenches my skin and I start to tremble

when I see adolescence in bloom,

pleasant and fair as it is, since I wish it were more,

but precious youth is like

a fleeting dream and hideous age, its destroyer,

hovers overhead from the first;

hateful, worthless, it stupefies the man it envelops,

blurring his eyes and mind.9

There is a textual problem here. The first six lines of this poem appear as a

poem in themselves in the Theognidean Anthology (poems gathered under

Theognis’ name as a flag of convenience for transmission). Lines four to

eight are preserved in Stobaeus with Mimnermus’ name attached. Editors

bring the two texts together into one satisfactory poem, arguably greater

than the sum of its parts and either a restoration or a suggestive fabrication.

Allen’s take on Mimnermus’ Eros may have something to do with Stobaeus. He preserved most of the fragments that survive,10 and it is he, after

all, who got rid of the sweat and left us lamenting harsh old age without the

occasion of lovely youth. This may be why we are inclined to see Mimnermus as rather deodorised, like Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra passed

through the filter of Dryden’s couplets and turned into the marmoreal attitudes of All for Love: on a different scale, of course, but the effect may be

similar. There are no remaining fragments where we see or touch the delectable auletes Nanno (was she delectable?), and the homosexual overtones are

unspecific, unsweaty.

We must remember that Stobaeus made his selection according to certain educational and generic criteria. Our very sense of early elegy is conditioned by the works that survive, and the works that survive did so largely

through anthologies with a pedagogic mission. We have a selective sense of

elegy for this reason: we cannot know what the anthologists left out, where

what seems a poem is actually a fragment, where what seems fragmentary is

actually a poem, or where the attributions are wilful or suspect. In short, the

anthology is a treacherous fossil ground because in the end the vertebrae

that survive do not necessarily fit together into a credible skeleton. If all we

had of the English eighteenth century was Palgrave’s saccharine selection,

or the sole record of Tudor verse was Tottel’s amazing but narrowly based

Miscellany, published in 1557 and the most popular book of its day, our take

on our own past would be quite different and partial.

Strabo and Athenaeus preserve a few more fragments of Mimnermus,

lines and phrases from what must have been complex narrative verse, quite

different from the material in Stobaeus. Had the sources he drew on discarded Mimnermus the narrative poet and mythographer, or did he regard



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that kind of poetry as inappropriate for his son’s education? Anthologies

neglected occasional verse, too, whenever the occasion had vanished from

view. Archilochus is said to have composed elegies on men who died at sea,

but Stobaeus chiefly preserved the moralising passages. He also sometimes

altered verses to make the sense more general.

What we would give to see even an ankle or wrist of Nanno, or her lips

on the aulos accompanying the poet. She is erased. The love poems and elegies on short-lived pleasures were collected under the title, possibly an

Alexandrian addition, of Nanno. The Hellenistic poets Hermesianax and

Posidippus allude to it, but they are not dependable witnesses, being fanciful in their readings of other work. All the same, Allen plausibly declares:

“It is hardly likely . . . that she is wholly fictional, a late classical or Alexandrian invention.”11 Stobaeus omitted her among other specifics and made

Mimnermus’ celebration of “the urgent, insurgent now” airy and abstractfeeling, merely poetic. There was a real flesh-and-blood woman, graceful

and talented, at the end of his expressed desire, the Alexandrian editors insist. He had a complementary affection, as Solon did, for lads.

Apart from Nanno, his other book was called Smyrneis, a narrative about

the founding of Colophon, Smyrna’s mother city. There were also poems

that told of the war between the people of Smyrna and the Lydians. Smyrna

was built on a gulf that bore its name, at the end of a deep harbour. The

Hermus River, with its long valley, ran to the north and east of Smyrna, and

fifty miles east along the Hermus was the strong Lydian city of Sardis.

Smyrna stood between Sardis and its nearest exit to the sea. The usurping

Lydian shepherd-king Gyges attacked Smyrna around 680 bc, in the early

years of his reign. His grandson Alyattes finally captured and razed it to the

ground around 600 bc. Mimnermus was dead by then.

Given Mimnermus’ debt to Homer, it is hard to think of him as an abstracting poet. The impact of Homer on those his work touched is, first of

all, prosodic; second, it affects the way detail is perceived and recorded in

language and determines elements of diction and description. Forms and

phrases in Mimnermus grow out of Homer; there are echoes of a very

close and direct nature.

Alexandrian tradition assigns Mimnermus to Colophon, one of the

twelve cities of lonia (the Dodecapolis), where many other poets, including

Polymnestos, Phoenix, Antimachus, Hermesianax (who tells of Nanno),

Nicandor and Xenophanes, the sage and poet, were born, as well as some

great early musicians. It even laid claim to Homer, but then much of Ionia

did. In political and social terms, early Colophon was an unusually attractive

city. It was said to have been founded by Andraimon, from Pylos, the city

which Neleus, son of Tyro and the sea god Poseidon, founded. Heracles

killed Neleus when he refused to offer the sullied hero purification. He




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the first poets

killed, too, all of Neleus’ sons except for Nestor. After Andraimon’s time

there was a further influx of Ionian Greeks. Though the Pyleans arrived by

sea, the archaic city was built eight miles inland on a gradient, with an emphatic citadel. Colophon ruled the fertile, broad plain to the east and southeast, embraced by a river called the Caystros. The families of Colophon

possessed wide estates where they bred horses. Aristotle declares that the

oligarchy that ruled Colophon was unusual in that the ruling class outnumbered the poorer folk. They were a vigorous people, more free-spirited than

their contemporaries at nearby Ephesus.

In the eighth century a number of political exiles from Colophon took

over and settled in Smyrna, an Aeolic town. M. L. West is keen to adjust the

record. He calls the poet “Mimnermus of Smyrna.” “His name may commemorate the Smyrnaeans’ famous resistance to . . . Gyges at the river Hermus sometime before 660 bc, which would imply his birth at that time.” (It

certainly would.) Archibald Allen agrees with West that Smyrna has a claim

to the poet. It is an issue that can never be resolved.

Allen says the poet was born around 670 bc. From the evidence of fragment 9 he deduces the Smyrna connection, but the fragment can be taken

to belong to a narrative, perhaps part of a missing Jason story. Like some of

Mimnermus’ poetry, this passage has a Homeric, not a confessional, ring to

it. This is West’s translation:

Aipy we left, and Neleus’ city, Pylos,

and came by ship to Asia’s lovely coast.

We settled at fair Colophon with rude

aggression, bringers of harsh insolence;

and there we crossed the river Asteïs

and took Aeolian Smyrna by God’s will.

Mimnermus used elegy with energy and when necessary he used it instrumentally, writing polemic which must have been of use against the Lydian

foe. He rallies his fellow citizens by invoking the heroism of an earlier

Smyrnaean against the Lydians. A formal hymn, perhaps to Achilles, may

have preceded the poem about the battle of the Smyrnaean army against

the Lydians. If we are to believe Pausanias, the poet mentioned two generations of Muses, the first the children of Uranus and the second of Zeus, the

older arts having, as it were, older tutelary spirits, the younger ones younger.

The origin of the word “elegy” is obscure: it may have meant, Trypanis

suggests, “dirge metre,” and yet it is first found in war songs, the ancient

war songs of Callinus of Ephesus (with his invocation of Smyrna) and Tyrtaeus of Aphidna, both near contemporaries of Mimnermus. Their writing

was direct and emphatic. Elegiacs diversified: in time they became associated particularly with love poetry. It is important to read Mimnermus not



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only in the light of his contemporaries but also alongside the elegists he

affected, Theognis, Xenophanes and Simonides, for example. His more

amorous poetry, like theirs, was composed for recitation in the private symposium.12 Unlike open-air Homer and storm-tossed Archilochus, Mimnermus writes poetry with a roof over its head.

The statesman and poet Solon of Athens, that city’s first recorded author

and one of the Seven Sages, valued Mimnermus as a near contemporary

and a celebrator of pleasures. In one poem he took issue with him about

how far old age can be tolerated, rebuking him as an editor might, and making an adjustment to an errored line. He quotes Mimnermus’ line first.

“O let death catch me up when I am sixty.”

If you take my advice, you’ll scrap that line.

Allow me this time to be wiser than you:

Alter it, Ligyastades. Instead

Sing, “O let death catch me up when I’m eighty.”

Solon’s fragment 20 belongs to a rare genre, one in which dialogue takes

place between poets, places and periods. Solon virtually names the earlier

poet when he quotes him. West says that “Ligyastades” could mean “melodious singer.” He also comments that the poem appears to have been written to a living man. If so, Mimnermus was well advanced in years and Solon

a little peremptory, unless he was adjusting the poem in order to allow

the old poet twenty further years of life and—as Mimnermus would see


For Alcaeus, it is wine and love, for Mimnermus it is love first and foremost that we live for and praise.13 Wine lets us briefly off the hook of old

age, and while Solon urges Mimnermus to be lenient with himself, the old

man has only to regard his paunch and wrinkles to know the game is up. We

read Mimnermus if we read him at all, the phrases that remain, as an elegist

of pleasure, celebrating and lamenting in equal degrees. But, as Bowra says,

there was more to him than that: “Despite his professed cult of youth and

pleasure, Mimnermus has a wide concept of human worth. It is the balance

between action and relaxation, between effort and pleasure, which is central

to his outlook, and this is why he is truly representative of the Ionian

Greeks, who had dangerous enemies on their frontiers . . .”14 Though we

live for pleasure, being young, we fight for it as well, and we celebrate the

warrior who moves in the sudden light of the sun, wielding his spear and

with a heart intact, unharmed by the missiles of his foes.15 When he has

made a free space for himself and his kind, he can take pleasure there.



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Semonides of Amorgos (630 BC)

Phocylides says this: what’s the use of blue blood

In people whose talk and opinions lack all grace?1

Hesiod wrote in hexameters, like Homer, but the strains that he

drew from that noble prosody were quite unlike the notes that

Homer struck. His verse has a homespun dignity; the reader

harvests good advice in digestible maxims and proverbs. So

much advice, in fact, that the poems’ larger forms are lost sight of. Works

and Days sings, but in a gruff monody that reaches towards peasant candour. The dirt on his sandals is from fields rather than streets.

Yet those who learned from him were urban commentators and then

satirists. They are not dignified as Hesiod was or elevated like Homer, they

are men speaking to men. For Bowra, Semonides “turned the Hesiodic

maxim into neat, unpretentious satire, using not the stately hexameter but

an iambic line closer to the rhythm of actual conversation. The tone is unaffectedly lowly . . .”2 This judgement tends to aestheticise a poet with less

finish and more sourness, judging from the poems and fragments that survive, than his advocates allow. What are we to make of the curious fragment

in which he says, “and I drove through the back door,” in which the “back

door” is the anus?3 Is there also, perhaps, the occasional semantic allusion


The Byzantine encyclopaedia the Suda reports that he was the first poet

to write in iambics. He is said to have composed two books of elegies in

that form. The Greek iambic is not directly equivalent to the English iamb.

If we scan the traditional hexameter like this:

—uu —uu —uu —uu —uu —u

the pentameter would look like this:

—uu —uu —uu —uu —

The flow is checked not by the counterpointing of syntax which moves the

cæsura around the line or even at times introduces two caesuras into a single

line. Its flow is broken regularly in the prosodic disposition itself, the two

long syllables in the middle of the line forcing a speech pause. It is a form

less versatile than the hexameter not only because it is not susceptible to

such a variety of variables, but also because it cannot “sing,” being always

grounded in mid-line.



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Semonides in his iambic verse paraphrases Hesiod. Early commentators,

Clement of Alexandria, for example, and Porphyry, set passages of Hesiod

parallel to ones from Semonides: there can be no doubt about the derivation. His most famous work, “Iambus on Women,” at 118 lines the longest

surviving non-hexameter poem5 from before the fifth century bc,6 is built

more or less directly on the foundation of Hesiod’s famous catalogue of

misogyny: woman is an almost unmitigated plague which men encounter

and endure as best they can.7 Woman is an evil thing, kakon, in Theogony (lines

570 and 600) and in Works and Days (lines 88–89). In Semonides woman is

associated with the word kakon no fewer than seven times.

He plays too with lines of Homer. One famous poem begins, “That man

of Chios said something, something so beautiful: ‘The generations of

leaves are like those of men.’”8 It repeats the carpe diem argument, yet the effects Semonides achieves are neither heroic nor bucolic. Hesiod’s hexameters may stand behind the iambic tradition, where song cools to speech, but

it is Archilochus who first defines the iambic style, and then Semonides and

Hipponax who take it a little too far, towards self-parody. The energies of

iambic poetry are taken over by the dramatists. One of the dramatists,

Aristophanes, had rather a jaundiced view of Semonides, portraying him as

a miserable old miser in his play Peace: “now he’s old and shrivelled, he

would even set sail on a wickerwork mat if there was profit in it.”9

Bowra quotes the passage from “Iambus on Women” in which he likens

one type of woman to the changing sea, and comments, “This is not very exalted, but it is lively and genuine and makes its point with derision.” It lowers

the tone of Hesiod, he adds. Is this right, or does it bring the rural sensibility

to town, creating a new tone in the verse, a tone we do not hear in the more

individuated passions and rancours of pugnacious Archilochus? Hesiod’s

disagreeable women were rural creatures, their animal nature expressed

among animals. Animals were not absent from Amorgos, but they did not

necessarily follow the poet into the house when he was finished for the day.

What for Hesiod was an immediate and natural point of comparison for Semonides has become something of a conceit, or, when he comes to make

his comparisons in detail, an allegorical figure. “The high Homeric laughter

has turned sour,” Bowra says, “and the poetry of contempt and denunciation, so manifest in Archilochus, has found a place in less unusual circles.”10

In Hesiod there is no contempt for any livestock, and his comparisons are

briefer, more glancing and emblematic. “Among people there is no understanding; we abide,” says Semonides, “like livestock, subject to each day’s

weather, not knowing how the god” (singular) “will sort and order things.”11

Bowra speaks of Semonides having “rather a plebeian look, and [he] can

hardly have had any social pretensions.”12 This is contradicted by others,

who regard him as of better stock (like Hipponax, a twisted branch hacked




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from a noble tree). The poems themselves seem to go against Bowra’s

conclusions, too. The poet was not like that lowest of men, the potter, who

provided the magnificent crockery but never drank from or ate off it. The

symposium poet, a symposiast himself, was part of the class that the poems

addressed. And with Semonides we are in the world of symposia, men reclining with wine, a performer entertaining them not with epic narrative but

with lyric song, broad humour, elements of folklore, flattering them with

their own prejudices tricked out in the efficient and memorable language

of verse.

The surviving poems are in Ionic dialect and are indebted to popular fables; there is always a moral tone, even in the brisk narrative fragments, but

the tone is not earnest or monitory: it invites complicity. A man’s voice

speaks, and it speaks to rather than at other men. It can be an ingratiating

voice that invites assent, that provokes amusement and laughter, the poet as

entertainer but not on a stage—entertaining us intimately, the way an

English Augustan poet might have addressed his friends in a coffee house.

Semonides composed his poems in what must have been a new community, or a newly founded one. If we are to believe the Suda, he was born in

Samos (his father a well-placed Samian called Crines), and led a party to

Amorgos, where he founded a colony. Amorgos, the easternmost of the Cyclades, belongs to the eparchy of Naxos. It is a narrow island, eighteen kilometres long and slanting up from the south-west to the north-east. Today it

is sparsely inhabited, with between 1,600 and 1,700 people. In Semonides’

day it would have been a little more populous. It has three mountain peaks.

One of them (Krikelas, the highest) lost its forest in the nineteenth century

in a three-week fire and has never been the same since. When the poet arrived there from Samos, it was wooded. Landing on the north of the island,

he would not immediately have seen the cliffs that hold down the sea along

the rough south coast.

In antiquity, there were three cities to go with the three peaks, all on the

northern coast. The Suda credits Semonides with establishing all three, but

in fact it is likely that he was involved in the founding of only one, Minoa,

the others having been founded by settlers from Naxos. Amorgos is best

known not for Semonides or its vintage, but for the fact that in the Lamian

wars the Athenian fleet was decisively trounced in its waters, a defeat from

which Athens never quite recovered.

Semonides is an heir, even an echo, of Archilochus: David Mulroy calls

him “a poor man’s Archilochus.” Despite the fact that both poets left home

to help found new colonies, both were soldiers and perhaps adventurers,

Semonides is on a smaller scale than his forebear, his voice higher-pitched,

his angers and passions less extreme. Lesky indicates that Semonides,

though he was the near contemporary of Archilochus, was neither as ac-



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complished nor as versatile.13 All the same, to be Archilochus’ successor

means something very specific. Archilochus, Bowra says, “put the self into

poetry.”14 The self the poet invests is not of a kind with the first person in

Renaissance and later European poetry; he is a singularly rancorous fellow,

for whom art has a use beyond the didactic, the informative. It is a weapon

to harm foes, to make things happen. Some of its consequences are fatal.

Archilochus used verse so efficiently to defame his enemies that they destroyed themselves, and their destruction goes on ever after since each generation experiences the poems anew. Lucian declares Semonides, along with

Archilochus and Hipponax, master of abusive verse. There is an eternity of

sorts in the abuse.

As in the case of Mimnermus, Stobaeus is again a chief source for Semonides’ surviving verse.15 Why did Stobaeus, a responsible father of the

fifth century ad, include a protracted piece of abuse of women in an anthology intended for the instruction of his son? Semonides’ poem is not notably funny, its construction is not subtle, the animal types the poet deploys

in degrading his subject, rooted in folklore, not original. It has to be assumed that Stobaeus took the poem seriously, as actually characterising

women: aversion therapy for Stobaeus Junior. Was this the poet’s own intention, was he a committed woman-hater, or was he dealing out stereotypes and commonplaces simply to amuse fellow (male) symposiasts? The

attack is vivid, relentless, unforgiving. The worst recurrent sin of women

seems to be eating. Such a theme in the feasting context of the symposium

cannot wholly have lacked irony. What may seem less ironic to modern

readers is the violence of male response, which is clearly indicated and, because it is not ironised in the text, is repugnant.

Yet the violence inheres in the traditional elements that Semonides

builds upon. Folk-tales and folk wisdom have a place in the work: “a fragment of a poem by Semonides,” says Lesky, “comes from a story of the

dung beetle who punished the arrogance of the eagle.”16 Such uncertain

fragments are like shards of pottery with sufficient detail left for us almost

to infer the story that they illustrate. Some critics find a philosophical note

in the poems. There are ideas, but grasped more with feeling than with

thought. Man is portrayed as exiled or outcast, though where he is exiled

from (certainly not, in Semonides’ case, an idealised Samos) or why (is it just

in the nature of things?) Semonides does not explore. The image of an exile

without a homeland has a metaphysical feel about it. It may mean little

more (or less) than that any creature alive in time will always be sailing away:

away from youth, from moments of love and happiness, but also from pain

and terror. The journey ends not in a happy homeland but in death. The

best a man can do is to pluck and retain pleasure when it is offered. Where

Archilochus says “what the hell” and gets on with it, however, Semonides




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does not accept, even grudgingly, what fate provides. His voice rises in pitch

and volume. Those notes of it we still hear, at least: the Suda credits him

with a History of Samos which, with any other elegy he wrote, has perished.

The “Iambus on Women,” rooted in folklore and Hesiod, in turn was a

source for Phocylides of Miletus, the sixth-century bc poet, writing in elegiacs and hexameters. He may have borrowed passages from Semonides to

flesh out his precepts and moral tags. He managed to insinuate his own

name into the verses that survive. “Phocylides says this” is his refrain. The

“Iambos” retained readers down the ages. It began its widest English currency when Joseph Addison, writing in The Spectator for 30 October 1711,

displayed it to his polite readership with a slightly naughty twinkle in his eye.

He starts by reflecting on how early art is simple, but as it progresses, “and

the more we come downward towards our own times,” this simplicity becomes concealed “in artifices and refinements, polished insensibly out of

her original plainness, and at length entirely lost under form and ceremony.” Nowhere is this decline into refinement more clear than in “the accounts of men and women as they are given us by the most ancient writers,”

which, says Addison, make one think that one is “reading the history of another species.” For modern readers, the language of the early eighteenth

century seems to rise from the lips of another species: we are closer to Semonides (we tend to think) than to Addison. Or are we merely more at

home with Semonides’ coarseness?

Among the early classics, Addison, as we would expect, feels most at

home with satire, and his valuation of Semonides is consequently high. So

high, indeed, that he gives his readers a prose version of the “Iambus.” “Semonides, a poet famous in his generation, is I think author of the oldest

satire that is now extant; and, as some say, of the first that was ever written.”

Decorousness is a later invention: Addison is intrigued by the indecorous

choice of simile in the Greek: “the ancients, provided there was a likeness

in their similitudes, did not much trouble themselves about the decency of

the comparison.” More didactic than his original, he warns his polite readers: “The subject of this satire is Woman. He describes the sex in their several characters, which he derives to them from a fanciful supposition upon

the doctrine of pre-existence. He tells us, that the gods formed the souls of

women out of those seeds and principles which compose several kinds of

animals and elements; and that their good or bad dispositions arise in them

according as such and such seeds and principles predominate in their constitutions.” Addison certainly takes the whole performance seriously, much

as Stobaeus must have done. “I have translated the author very faithfully,

and if not word for word (which our language would not bear) at least so as

to comprehend every one of his sentiments, without adding any of my

own.”17 He may be attributing rather more intention to the original than it

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Mimnermus of Colophon (or Smyrna) ( c. 630 BC)

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