Monday, August 1, 2022

What You Leave Behind

Virtually nothing is known about the Greek poet Praxilla, who, it is conjectured, lived in the middle of the Fifth Century, B. C.  Of her poetry, only scattered fragments survive: a few lines quoted here and there in Greek prose works written by others.  But a single fragment may be enough to ensure poetic immortality.  And we shall help, in our small way, to preserve that immortality today.

One of Praxilla's fragments:

I lose the sunlight, lovely above all else;
Bright stars I loved the next, and the moon's face,
Ripe gourds, and fruit of apple-tree and pear.

Praxilla (translated by T. F. Higham), in T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra (editors), The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation (Oxford University Press 1938), page 465.

The fragment is believed to be from Praxilla's "Hymn to Adonis." (Ibid, p. 725.)  The words are spoken by Adonis in the underworld, after his death.  As it happens, the context in which the lines appear led to Praxilla being mocked, but, at the same time (and in a wonderful turnabout), preserved the fragment.  The lines are found in this passage by Zenobius, from his prose work Proverbs:

"Sillier than Praxilla's Adonis: -- This saying is used of fools.  Praxilla of Sicyon, according to Polemon, was a lyric poetess.  This Praxilla, in her Hymns, makes Adonis, when asked by the people in Hades what was the most beautiful thing he had left behind above, reply as follows: 

'The fairest thing I leave is the sunlight, and fairest after that the shining stars and the face of the moon, aye and ripe cucumbers and apples and pears.'

For none but a simpleton would put cucumbers and the like on a par with the sun and the moon."

Zenobius and Praxilla (translated by J. M. Edmonds), in J. M. Edmonds (editor), Lyra Graeca: Being the Remains of All the Greek Lyric Poets from Eumelus to Timotheus, Excepting Pindar, Volume III (Heinemann 1927), pages 73-75.

T. F. Higham disagrees with the assessment that Praxilla's lines are "silly": "the Greeks, according to Zenobius, thought [the lines] very ridiculous.  But regrets which couple gourds and the sun are not inappropriate to the year-god Adonis."  (T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra (editors), The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation, page 725.)  I completely concur with Higham's conclusion, although I would not rely solely upon his technical explanation relating to Adonis' status as a "year-god": the lines are lovely, and make perfect sense -- whether they be spoken by Adonis, or by any of us.

Frederick Whitehead (1853-1938), "Hayfield" (1918)

A few years after coming across Praxilla's lines, I was surprised and delighted to discover this:


Sunlight strews leaf-shadows on the kitchen floor.
Is it the beech tree or the basil plant or both?
Praxilla was not 'feeble-minded' to have Adonis
Answer that questionnaire in the underworld:
'Sunlight's the most beautiful thing I leave behind,
Then the shimmering stars and the moon's face,
Also ripe cucumbers and apples and pears.'
She is helping me unpack these plastic bags.
I subsist on fragments and improvisations.
Lysippus made a bronze statue of Praxilla
Who 'said nothing worthwhile in her poetry'
And set her groceries alongside the sun and moon.

Michael Longley, Snow Water (Jonathan Cape 2004) (italics in original text).  Longley's reference to Lysippus' bronze statue of Praxilla has its source in this excerpt from Tatian's Against the Greeks (First Century, A. D.): "Praxilla was portrayed in bronze by Lysippus, although she spoke nonsense in her poetry."  (Translated by J. M. Edmonds in Lyra Graeca, Volume III, page 73.)

Longley is exactly right: the Greeks who mocked Praxilla's lines had it all wrong.  But that's how it goes: poetry is not, and has never been, everyone's cup of tea.  This is not a moral failure on their part, nor is it the end of the world: it is simply a fact.  But Edward Thomas articulates what they are missing: "[Poetry] is the utterance of the human spirit when it is in touch with a world to which the affairs of 'this world' are parochial.  Hence the strangeness and thrill and painful delight of poetry at all times, and the deep response to it of youth and of love; and because love is wild, strange, and full of astonishment, is one reason why poetry deals so much in love, and why all poetry is in a sense love poetry."  (Edward Thomas, Feminine Influence on the Poets (Martin Secker 1910), pages 86-87.)

Frederick Whitehead, "Cottage in Landscape" (1920)

The sparrows and chickadees are a year-round presence on my walks, and I've realized that I've been taking them for granted.  Imagine the generations of sparrows and chickadees with whom we have shared our time in the World.  They have always been with us: lovely, charming, and antic.  

But this summer (why did it take so long?) I've been noticing how companionable they can be.  Shy, but amiable, they may flit beside you for a bit as you walk along, cocking their heads as they briefly perch on a branch beside the path, having a look at you as you pass: dark eyes inquiring, it would seem.  I am anthropomorphizing, aren't I?  As "foolish" as Praxilla?  (But not as eloquent, needless to say.) 

     Equal Mistress

The tiny daisies are
Not anything
Less dear than the great star
Riding in the west afar
To their Mistress Spring.

Jupiter, the Pleiades
To her equal
With celandine and cress,
Stone-crop, freckled pagles
And birdseye small.

Since in her heart of love
No rank is there,
Nor degree aught, hers is
The most willing service
And free of care.

Violets, stars, birds
Wait on her smile, all
Too soon shall August come
Sheaves, fruit, be carried home,
And the leaves fall.

Ivor Gurney, Selected Poems (edited by George Walter) (J. M. Dent 1996).

Frederick Whitehead, "Middlebere Farm, Poole Harbour" (1929)

The things we leave behind.  Flowers and stars, sparrows and chickadees, gourds and cucumbers, apples and pears, the sun and the moon.  Praxilla was no fool.  

                 Aboard a Boat, Listening to Insects

As though delighting, as though grieving, each with its own song --
an idler, listening, finds his ears washed completely clean.
As the boat draws away from grassy banks, they grow more distant,
till the many varied voices become one single voice.

Ōkubo Shibutsu (1767-1837) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson (editor), Kanshi: The Poetry of Ishikawa Jōzan and Other Edo-Period Poets (North Point Press 1990), page 92.

Frederick Whitehead, "Avebury" (1925)