Living upon art, living upon love

Only Lesbos, a dream-like island in the Aegean Sea, endowed with its heights of Leucas, overlooking its splendid Gulf of Kallonis, with its little rivers Kalami and Krioneri, the torrent Xalantra and its large Milopotamos, with enchanting places like Methymna, Thermi, Antissa and the celebrated Mytilene, could give birth in the village of Eresos to the most romantic poetess of all the times; there was born Sappho in early 600 B.C., on this island famous for the beauty of its women, perhaps the prettiest of the whole Ancient Greeek world.

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She was naturally endowed with a particular ability of seeing what many others could not see, she was extremely acute in noticing details and nuances that everyone would have instead overlooked, she was extraordinary gifted in reading situations and people and to transform feelings and emotions into verses, actually often even in a few impressive lines, like very few other artists I can think of, or perhaps just one…

Everything in Sappho’s poetry is most definitely personal, deep, and insightful. Every single word is carefully chosen and weighted in order to convey a clear reflection of her inner soul immersed into an aura of refined art and polished beauty. Altogether a gift for which she herself thanked the Muses:

Theirs is all the merit, if clever
I can claim myself in something,
because their own art they gave me as a gift

Sappho was definitely the expression of the ancient Greek temperament and pragmatism, though influenced by Ionian tones and oriental sensibility:

To die is awful: this is
what the Gods actually think.
Or else they would be mortal too.

I love the way she stated quite firmly and clearly her life’s priorities:

Some say the fairest thing on the black earth

is a host of horsemen,
Some say a host of infantry,
others say a fleet of ships
but for me
It is my beloved one.

And additionally:

Beauty I have served,
could there had been
anything else
greater than that?

Thus undoubtedly her supreme goals in life were love and art. Love with its lust, illusions, bliss and disappointments to be combined with her art in pursuing beauty; and this continuous osmotic process became Sappho’s raison d’etre. Living is feeling and feeling is living. Art and love: a continuous transfusion of her life into her verses and a magic blend of lines and rhymes into her life:

She honoured you like a goddess
And delighted in your choral dance.
Now she is pre-eminent among the ladies of Lydia
As the rose-rayed moon after the sinking of the Sun
Surpasses all the stars and spreads it’s light upon the sea
And the flowers of the fields
To beautify the spreading dew, freshen roses
Soft chervil and the flowering maillots …..

Restless, she remembers gentle Atthis -
Perhaps her subtle judgement is burdened
By your fate …..

And more straightforward and effectively:

Love shook my heart
Like the mountain wind
Falls upon trees of oak ….

Or like in this wonderful statement of devotion; this declaration of love, that certainly needs no comment at all:

Awed by her brightness
Stars near the beautiful moon
Cover their own shining faces
When she lights earth
With her silver brilliance
Of love ….

Furthermore Sappho wrote about love not simply and solely by portraying the idyllic moments of contemplation and rhyming, but also the most ardent and passionate feelings and instincts that only desire can originate:

Once again, desire -
That looser of limbs and bitterly sweet -
Makes me to tremble
You are irresistible ….

And again:

I wish this night would never end
I wish this could become two nights in a row

Only another character outstands for her plainly affirmed choice, and for her firm devotion to love and art: the singer Floria Tosca – protagonist of the celebrated Puccini’s Opera. How desperately, and yet delicately, she sings when, in one of the most touching arias ever, she complains about her sad, terrible destiny after an entire life she had dedicated only to art and love. Nothing else vile and earthy had ever appealed her at all, and this notwithstanding her fate has not been just with her – but alas! We all know that unluckily life is not supposed to be necessarily fair:

Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore,
Non feci mai male ad anima viva!
Con man furtiva
Quante miserie conobbi, aiutai.
Sempre con fe’ sincera
La mia preghiera
Ai santi Tabernacoli salì,
Sempre con fe’ sincera
Diedi fiori agli altar.
Nell’ora del dolore perché Signore,
Perché me ne remuneri così?
Diedi gioielli
Della Madonna al manto,
E diedi il canto agli astri, al ciel,
Che ne ridean più belli.
Nell’ora del dolor
Perché Signore,
Perché me ne remuneri così?

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Even when Sappho got older (in those days a woman in her fifties was already aged) she never regretted or felt any remorse for a life devoted to art and love, if not lamenting the forces that were inevitably abandoning her:

Age seizes my skin and turns my hair
From black to white:
My knees no longer bear me
And I am unable to dance again
Like a fawn.
What could I do? I am not ageless:
My youth is gone.
Red-robed Dawn, immortal goddess,
Carried Tithanus to earth’s end
Yet age seized him
Despite the gift from his immortal lover ….
I love delicate softness:
For me, love has brought the brightness
And the beauty of the sun ….

Finally, I love to believe that Sappho from the heights of her poetry and with the wisdom of all her experience wishes us all what she considers the most important accomplishment on earth:

May you sleep safe on the chest
of your tender life-companion…

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Emotions and feelings in Virgil

Virgil, a rather complex personality, described by both his contemporaries and scholars as a quiet, silent and absorbed soul, not interested in any present glory or actual success. His poetry is absolutely uplifting as he could transform into beautiful verses anything he could rhyme about and enrich his poems with incredibly deep and detailed analysis of psychological aspects of both characters and situations. He could thus achieve the minutia of each portrayal of events and personages with such an elegance and style very difficult to find in Latin literature and perhaps even in modern times.

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None of his characters is definitely positive or negative: he was able to depict the inner side of each of them and could find and describe even contradictory aspects of a personality, which is what normally constitutes and characterises the multi-facets nature of human beings. Like king Mezentius, a rather shady character of Aeneid, who shows feelings like paternal love and sympathy and remorse when he finds out that his son Lausus has been slain by Aeneas, and also already foresees his own end:

At Lausum socii exanimem super arma ferebant
flentes, ingentem atque ingenti volnere victum.
Agnovit longe gemitum praesaga mali mens:
canitiem multo deformat pulvere et ambas
ad caelum tendit palmas et corpore inhaeret.
`Tantane me tenuit vivendi, nate, voluptas,
ut pro me hostili paterer succedere dextrae,
quem genui? Tuane haec genitor per volnera servor,
morte tua vivens? Heu, nunc misero mihi demum
exitium infelix, nunc alte volnus adactum!
Idem ego, nate, tuum maculavi crimine nomen,
pulsus ob invidiam solio sceptrisque paternis.
Debueram patriae poenas odiisque meorum:
omnis per mortis animam sontem ipse dedissem!
Nunc vivo neque adhuc homines lucemque relinquo.
Sed linquam.’

O’er his broad shield still gush’d the yawning wound,
And drew a bloody trail along the ground.
Far off he heard their cries, far off divin’d
The dire event, with a foreboding mind.
With dust he sprinkled first his hoary head;
Then both his lifted hands to heav’n he spread;
Last, the dear corpse embracing, thus he said:
“What joys, alas! could this frail being give,
That I have been so covetous to live?
To see my son, and such a son, resign
His life, a ransom for preserving mine!
And am I then preserv’d, and art thou lost?
How much too dear has that redemption cost!
‘T is now my bitter banishment I feel:
This is a wound too deep for time to heal.
My guilt thy growing virtues did defame;
My blackness blotted thy unblemish’d name.
Chas’d from a throne, abandon’d, and exil’d
For foul misdeeds, were punishments too mild:
I ow’d my people these, and, from their hate,
With less resentment could have borne my fate.
And yet I live, and yet sustain the sight
Of hated men, and of more hated light:
But will not long.

The king’s spirit is now abated by the pain of his wounds and the grief of his recent loss as he speaks tender words of wisdom even to Rhaebus, his horse, before charging his final assault:

Simul hoc dicens attollit in aegrum
se femur et, quamvis dolor alto volnere tardet,
haud deiectus equum duci iubet. Hoc decus illi,
hoc solamen erat; bellis hoc victor abibat
omnibus. Adloquitur maerentem et talibus infit:
`Rhaebe, diu, res siqua diu mortalibus ulla est,
viximus. Aut hodie victor spolia illa cruenti
et caput Aeneae referes Lausique dolorum
ultor eris mecum aut, aperit si nulla viam vis,
occumbes pariter; neque enim, fortissime, credo,
iussa aliena pati et dominos dignabere Teucros.’
Dixit et exceptus tergo consueta locavit
membra manusque ambas iaculis oneravit acutis,
aere caput fulgens cristaque hirsutus equina.
Sic cursum in medios rapidus dedit: aestuat ingens
uno in corde pudor mixtoque insania luctu,
et furiis agitatus amor et conscia virtus.


With that he rais’d from ground
His fainting limbs, that stagger’d with his wound;
Yet, with a mind resolv’d, and unappall’d
With pains or perils, for his courser call’d
Well-mouth’d, well-manag’d, whom himself did dress
With daily care, and mounted with success;
His aid in arms, his ornament in peace.
Soothing his courage with a gentle stroke,
The steed seem’d sensible, while thus he spoke:
“O Rhoebus, we have liv’d too long for me-
If life and long were terms that could agree!
This day thou either shalt bring back the head
And bloody trophies of the Trojan dead;
This day thou either shalt revenge my woe,
For murther’d Lausus, on his cruel foe;
Or, if inexorable fate deny
Our conquest, with thy conquer’d master die:
For, after such a lord, rest secure,
Thou wilt no foreign reins, or Trojan load endure.”
He said; and straight th’ officious courser kneels,
To take his wonted weight. His hands he fills
With pointed jav’lins; on his head he lac’d
His glitt’ring helm, which terribly was grac’d
With waving horsehair, nodding from afar;
Then spurr’d his thund’ring steed amidst the war.

Virgil is mainly known for his epic poem Aeneid that emulates both Iliad and Odyssey: Aeneas running away from Troy travels as Odysseus looking for a new place to settle down and to found a new country (Rome) by defeating the Latin indigenous leaded by Turnus King of the Rutuli – a typical Homeric Iliad character. Therefore by chanting the Roman origins and representing the highest example of Latin Epos the poem gained him fame and a tranquil life during Augustus Empire within Mecenate intellectual and literary circle. Naturally somehow he had to recognise this “gift” by using – fortunately with some discretion – also apologetic themes and encomiastic tones towards the Empire within his opus that soon was considered and became a regime poem. As when Aeneas meets his father in the otherworld and the old king explains to him his extraordinary mission: to found Rome which will be renowned for its warfare ability and its political expansion, leaving to the old Greek civilisation the heights of fine arts and sciences:

excudent alii spirantia mollius aera
credo equidem, uiuos ducent de marmore uultus,
orabunt causas melius, caelique meatus
describent radio et surgentia sidera dicent:
tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento
hae tibi erunt artes, pacisque imponere morem,
parcere subiectis et debellare superbos.

Let others better mold the running mass
Of metals, and inform the breathing brass,
And soften into flesh a marble face;
Plead better at the bar; describe the skies,
And when the stars descend, and when they rise.
But, Rome, ‘t is thine alone, with awful sway,
To rule mankind, and make the world obey,
Disposing peace and war by thy own majestic way;
To tame the proud, the fetter’d slave to free:
These are imperial arts, and worthy thee.

However, within and beside his epic production, there are personages and lines that I personally find particularly meaningful and rich of insightful messages like the words pronounced by Dido, the Queen of Carthage, showing her sublime sweetness and kind-heart for Aeneas and his people – in just one line:

Non ignara mali, miseris succurrere disco.

[I’m not unwonted to bad times and occurrences, thus I’ve learnt to aid those in distress.]

I truly think that Virgil was able to find as Hugo von Hofmannstal’s Lord Philipp Chandos was as well trying to:

“…unter all den ärmlichen und plumpen Gegeständen einer bäurishen Lebensweise nach jenem einem sucht, dessen unscheibare Form, dessen von niemand beachtetes Daliegen oder –lehnen, dessen stumme Wesenheit zur Quelle jenes rätselhaften, wortlosen, schrankenlosen Entzückens warden kann”.

[…among all those poor and clumsy objects of country life, only the one that with his non evident shape, whose unwilling tossing or placing, whose mute essence is able to spring that mysterious, silent, boundless exaltation]

As I think few others can be more suggestive and romantic than these lines from Virgil’s first ecloga, which sound so modern, so Lakist or Leopardian:

Hic tamen hanc mecum poteras requiescere noctem
fronde super viridi. sunt nobis mitia poma,
castaneae molles et pressi copia lactis,
et iam summa procul villarum culmina fumant
maioresque cadunt altis de montibus umbrae.

[Please stay and rest with me tonight
on the green leaves, I’ve got ripe apples
sweet chestnuts and plenty of cheese,
See already in the distance the smoky cottages’ chimneys,
and taller the shadows are coming down from the mounts.]

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I am today more than ever certain that it takes very little to a true poet to create an atmosphere. Maybe a true artist’s secret is, as Hugo von Hofmannstal brilliantly pointed out:

“Oder als könnten wir in ein neues, ahnungsvolles Verhältnis zum ganzen Dasein treten, wenn wir anfingen, mit dem Herzen zu denken

[We could get into a new, meaningful relationship with the entire universe if we started thinking with our heart]

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