Tuesday, August 10, 2010

How To Live, Part One: "Honor To Those Who In The Life They Lead Define And Guard A Thermopylae"

I fear that the poems in my ongoing "Life Explained" series are a bit on the gloomy side.  Fortunately, there is another group of short and to-the-point poems out there:  poems on How To Live.  But do not be alarmed!  We are not about to embark upon some sort of Panglossian self-help program.

However, over the centuries, poets have seen fit to offer us advice on how best to negotiate the perils that await us.  This advice is worth considering, especially in light of the oftentimes harrowing prospects offered up by our "Life Explained" poets.  Let's begin with C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933):


Honor to those who in the life they lead
define and guard a Thermopylae.
Never betraying what is right,
consistent and just in all they do
but showing pity also, and compassion;
generous when they are rich, and when they are poor,
still generous in small ways,
still helping as much as they can;
always speaking the truth,
yet without hating those who lie.

And even more honor is due to them
when they foresee (as many do foresee)
that in the end Ephialtis will make his appearance,
that the Medes will break through after all.

C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard) (Princeton University Press 1992).

                Massimo d'Azeglio, "The Battle of Thermopylae" (1823)

Ephialtis (an alternate spelling is "Ephialtes") was the Greek traitor who showed the Persians (i.e., "the Medes") a path through the mountains that led to the rear of the Greek position at Thermopylae.  Herodotus writes:

Now, as the [Persian] King was in a great strait, and knew not how he should deal with the emergency, Ephialtes, the son of Eurydemus, a man of Malis, came to him and was admitted to a conference.  Stirred by the hope of receiving a rich reward at the King's hands, he had come to tell him of the pathway which led across the mountain to Thermopylae; by which disclosure he brought destruction on the band of Greeks who had there withstood the barbarians.  This Ephialtes afterwards, from fear of the Lacedaemonians, fled into Thessaly; and during his exile, in an assembly of the Amphictyons held at Pylae, a price was set upon his head by the Pylagorae.

Herodotus, The Histories, Book VII, Chapter 213 (translated by George Rawlinson) (1862).

                Jacques-Louis David, "Leonidas at Thermopylae" (1814)


Fred said...

The last stanza reminds me of something I read about the Norse tradition: the highest places in Valhalla are reserved for those who fight on and die, even though they know the battle is already lost.

"And even more honor is due to them
when they foresee (as many do foresee)
that in the end Ephialtis will make his appearance,
that the Medes will break through after all."

Dwight said...

Thanks for the post. I was going to use that poem when I made it to a Book 7 discussion of The Histories. You beat me to the punch! (well, it doesn't help that I'm going so slow)

Another of Cavafy's poems I see echoed in Herodotus is "Waiting for the Barbarians", in part a lament on not pulling together until the threat is at the doorstep (if even then) and having the threat bring out the best in men. Herodotus seems to have an underlying theme of that lament.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: Thank you very much for visiting, and for your comment. I was unaware of the Norse tradition of which you speak (yet another large gap in my education), so I appreciate your pointing it out. It makes sense that the Spartans and the Vikings might think about these things in the same way, doesn't it?

Again, thank you.

Stephen Pentz said...

Dwight: Thank you for visiting and commenting again. Your series of posts on Herodotus is wonderful. I also enjoyed your discussion of Kapuscinski's "Travels with Herodotus": I have been meaning to read that book, and you have inspired me to pick up a copy.

I agree that "Waiting for the Barbarians" is another poem that has echoes of Herodotus. It has been a while since I've dived into Cavafy's poetry -- I wouldn't be surprised if there are other poems by him that explore this territory.

Thanks again, Dwight.

Fred said...


Yes, that does give them a psychological advantage if potential attackers know that surrender is unlikely and that their own fighters will die even if the battle has been decided.

Stephen Pentz said...

Fred: Yes, that would have an intimidating effect! Thanks for visiting again.