Friday, June 21, 2024

Cry woe, you glades


Still thinking about the landscape of Sicily (above) which we saw on our holiday at Easter, I have been re-reading the Idylls of Theocritus, along with translations of other bucolic poems and fragments collected in the Loeb volume Theocritus, Moschus, Bion. Theocritus and Moschus were from Sicily and Bion also wrote in the Dorian dialect but originally came from Phlossa, near Smyrna. I thought I would focus here on the Lament for Bion which has always been published with work by Moschus but cannot be by him - the author is unknown. Here, translated by Neil Hopkinson, is the first stanza, in which the whole landscape weeps for Bion.

Cry woe, you glades and you Dorian waters; you rivers, weep for the lovely Bion. Lament now, you plants that grow; moan now, you groves; you flowers, breathe your last, your clusters withered; you roses and anemones, bloom red now in mourning; you hyacinth, make your letters speak and take on your leaves more cries of woe: the fine singer is dead. 

Begin, Sicilian Muses, begin your grieving song.

The reference to the hyacinth's letters here is interesting for anyone who likes the idea of finding writing in nature. Its leaves had marks that resembled the letters AI. Myths related these to Ajax or the exclamation "aiai" (alas!). In one of these stories Apollo, lamenting the death of Hyacinthus, creates a flower from his blood and inscribes its leaves with the word "alas". The plant referred to here is not actually the modern hyacinth, scholars haven't identified it (maybe they could trying using AI? - sorry!!)

One thing that strikes you in reading the Lament for Bion and other pastoral poems is the way they focus on sounds. In the Idylls of Theocritus, 'song is such an integral part of the countryside that in essence it becomes its metonymy' (Ippokratis Kantzios in a book chapter, 'Theocritus Idylls 11 and 6: The Limitations of the Natural Landscape'). 

In the pastoral world, it is not only the cowherds and shepherds who constantly engage in singing competitions and pipe-playing. It is also the cicadas, frogs, linnets, finches, trees swaying in the wind, the falling water of the cascades, even the pebbles, when struck against one’s boots. The pastoral world, as imagined by Theocritus, is inconceivable without its melodious component.
In the Lament for Bion, nightingales 'lament among the dense foliage' and their song is picked up by 'the Sicilian streams of Arethusa'). They perch on branches with swallows and sing dirges to each other. The swans of Strymon also sing a lamenting dirge - Strymon was the river in Thrace that carried the head of Orpheus, still singing (a strange image I still recall from reading Russell Hoban's novel The Medusa Frequency many years ago). Bion was an oxherd and his cows also lament the loss of his music, unable to graze, while the mountains around them are silent. Meles in Smyrna, the 'most musical of rivers', grieves again because it was said that Homer, like Bion was born nearby. 'They say that from your lamenting waters you made moan for your fine son, and the whole sea was filled with the sound of your voice.' Mythical figures who cried at their loss are invoked by the poet: a Siren on the seashore, Aedon on the crags, Chelidon on the high hills and Cerylus on the green waves.

Bion himself is best known for The Lament for Adonis, a poem referred to by Ovid and Catallus and a source of the long tradition of classical elegy which would eventually lead via Milton to Shelley's poem on the death of Keats, read out in Hyde Park by Mick Jagger in memory of Brian Jones: "Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep / He hath awakened from the dream of life..." The Lament for Bion ends by imagining him in Hades where Persephone resides, able to play for her a sweet country tune. 'She too is Sicilian who used to play on the shores of Etna, and she knows the Dorian mode.' And perhaps the goddess will even restore Bion to the hills, as she once gave Eurydice back to Orpheus. 


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