τόδ’ αὖ]τε κῦμα τὼ π[ρ]οτέρ[ω …
στείχει,] παρέξει δ’ ἄ[μμι πόνον π]όλυν
ἄντλην ἐπ]εί κε νᾶ[ος ἔμβαι
[ ……………………………. ]
φαρξώμεθ’ ὠς ὤκιστα[
ἐς δ’ ἔχυρον λίμενα δρό[μωμεν·
Here comes a wave again [larger]
than the last ; it will cause us much trouble
to bail it out whenever it enters the ship.
Let’s protect the sides as fast as possible
and make a run for safe harbor.
Alcaeus P. 107.1-8
Throw a synchronic dart almost anywhere on today’s map of the world and you’ll probably hit a spot where internecine killing is in various degrees of ascendancy: in Afghanistan, Peru, Pakistan, Palestine, Congo, Somalia – to mention only a few of the salient players in the news right now. Diachronic dart throwing would overwhelm us with examples.
A such things go, a small and insignificant one sub specie aeternitatis was the political turmoil that roiled the city of Mitylene on the island of Lesbos in the late seventh and early sixth centuries B.C. Mitylene is perhaps even more famous – or infamous – for the draconian terms that Athens imposed on its population and almost carried out some two centuries later, in 428 B.C. (Thucydides has left us his version of the breath-taking debates on this matter among the Athenians [3.37-48]).
Alcaeus (c. 640-570 B.C.), a contemporary and fellow inhabitant of Lesbos with Sappho, contributed to the revolutionary cause not least in the poetry he wrote about these squalid political and military events. It is a truism that ancient Greek (and therefore Western) literature begins with war poetry, in the form of the Iliad, but at the same time it must be noted that the Iliad is perhaps to war what Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea is to a piece on marlin in Field and Stream: it is a literary vehicle for carrying on about a lot of other things that don’t necessarily have much bearing on war, or fishing. Where the Iliad internationalizes and universalizes the experience of war and its tangents as they affect societies and individuals, the political poetry of Alcaeus has an almost personal and domestic flavor.
Yet Alcaeus, like all Greek poets, could not escape Homer. His lexicon and his diction often recall Homeric phraseology, as in his use of nautical imagery. The ancient Greeks inhabited a land with a coastline of enormous length, and since the sea was a primary means of communication at least since Minoan-Mycenaean times (mid-second millennium B.C.), it was never far from their consciousness. This is most immediately evident in ancient Greek poetry, and, not surprisingly, at an early stage this facet of nature had worked itself into their verse as emblem and comment on aspects of human affairs. In Homer, in particular, the sea is everywhere. Hence it is everywhere in archaic lyric (e.g., Alcaeus), in Athenian tragedy, in Hellenistic pastoral and learned verse, in Latin poetry with its incalculable debt to Greek forebears.
The epigraph to this column contains perhaps the most famous early formulation in Western poetry of what has come to be called the “ship of state,” an extended image whose figurative language has made itself palatable even to our own tongue. Actually, this language has become so common that it risks joining other overloaded linguistic wrecks and sinking into the swelling sea of dead metaphor where its analogical power will dissolve into an ambient murkiness. Phrases like “helmsman of state,” “sea of social problems,” “cataclysmic change,” “ocean of troubles,” “political storms” and so forth are now hardly felt to be the potent metaphors they once were before plunging into desuetude as mind-turning tropes.
What has all this to do with nasty local wars?
Wars generate not only carnage and desolation, but also create their own literature: in our country we need think only of the last half century or more, in which World War II and the Vietnam War and even Iraq have given rise to a voluminous literature. Indeed, war, being a prominent human enterprise, certainly figures prominently in Western literature as a whole (Homer’s Iliad, Aescylus’ Agamemnon, Vergil’s Aeneid, Shakesepare’s historical plays, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front). My point here then is to try, for a change, to see the glass half full rather than half empty, and attempt to salvage the possibility that something positive should emerge from war. Thinking as I do about the hideous temporal and topical ubiquity of war on this planet I would like to permit myself to derive some small delight from the small linguistic legacy that a small and obscure revolution in Mitylene so long ago caused Alcaeus to bequeath to us. Could it happen again?