This essay will offer a more antique example of what many authors demonstrate in Structure & Surprise— that, although critical and pedagogical attention to structures rather than forms in poetry, and to turns especially, may be relatively recent, the practice of poetic turns is ubiquitous, so much so as to be considered an essential part of the art. Unsurprising, then, to discover that poets have used turns in their writing and have benefited from their effects for a very long time. Arguably no turn is more stark and noticeable than the ironic turn, when an outlook or tone that has been carefully developed and, for the moment, sounds whole-hearted— only to be suddenly undercut, as the poem’s initial, apparent aim is reversed or abandoned. Christopher Bakken in his essay in Structure & Surprise distinguishes this pairing of statement and counter-statement, or tone and anti-tone, as “structural irony,” as opposed to “verbal irony”: “The irony emerges when we perceive the contrast between these two utterances, when we perceive the imbalance between them.” As the poem below by the seventh- or possibly sixth-century BC Greek poet Theognis of Megara suggests, turns are present (to surprise or dramatize or antagonize or do other things) in some of the very earliest poems in our lyrical tradition.
It is a humbling thing academically when we cannot even safely situate a poet within a century. The scholar M. L. West places Theognis in the “last decades of the seventh century,” although he acknowledges that early editors placed his dates in the middle of the sixth century, or later. In some cases, poems that allude to later events such as the Persian War may be attributed to Theognis but in fact were composed by a later imitator, a trend that reflects the original poet’s popularity in the classical era. (Isocrates and Plato praise him; Nietzsche and Darwin were fans, too.) It also led to a formidably named collection of short poems commonly known as the “Anonymous Theognidea.” This anthology consists of nearly 1400 lines of verses in elegiac meter, which different editors have divided into poems of varying lengths. This includes a final 150 lines that David Mulroy describes as “tepidly erotic,” surely one of the great damning adverbs ever to characterize erotic poetry. West has identified a core of 300 lines as more certainly by Theognis. Some verses express an aristocrat’s displeasure at the rise of democracy and a skepticism of commoners. He hailed from Megara, a city on the isthmus between Athens and Corinth. Megara was thus prone to feel consequences from those larger cities’ political turbulence. (He is also sometimes associated with a different Megara, in Sicily.) About Megara’s rising democratic party, Theognis writes, “They used to wear old goatskins on their flanks, and lived / outside the town like deer.” When writing from a point of poetic defiance, he declares, “not one of the fools can match my style.” (These and other passages are from West’s versions, unless stated otherwise.) In such poems he sounds like, for most modern western ears, a rather severe, haughty, out-of-touch poet, especially when he is writing of political concerns; expressing bitterness about losing his lands and going into exile; and imagining in verse his revenge. Fortunately these are not his best or best-known poems, as helpful as they are as providing historical and social context.
Theognis is most interesting as a lyrical poet when he writes in more intimate, socially welcoming contexts. For example, he composes drinking songs to his friends, much like his slightly better known contemporary Alcaeus, and sometimes roasts these friends in a setting that suggests a merry symposium. Today, the events that gave rise to this poetry might be televised on Comedy Central. He wrote love poems, too, although their speakers often sound like more weary or wary older men, who have experienced the wounds that Eros can give. This tone overlaps with the mode that is most familiar in Theognis’s poetry, that of advice-giving. Some of these poems resemble general moral maxims, while the more memorable ones feature a more personalized voice and are frequently addressed to one Cyrnus, or Polypaïdes (that is, son of Polypas). At his driest he can sound little better than Polonius (“Be sensible, and do not stoop to shameful deeds,” or “walk the middle of the road, like me,” or “All honor, Cyrnus, is contained in honesty, / and every honest man’s a man of worth”), but usually the relationship displayed in these particular poems, between an older man and his younger, less experienced, sometimes distracted or ungrateful friend or lover, instead calls to mind Socrates and Alcibiades, or the brooding, sometimes jealous speaker of Shakespeare’s sonnets addressed to the Fair Youth.
Theognis’s intensities are most apparent when he speaks to Cyrnus about matters of friendship, love, and friendly sympathy, or the complexities or limitations of these things. Sometimes he sounds avuncular and cautionary: “Bitter and sweet is love, desirable and cruel / to young men, Cyrnus, till it be fulfilled,” he writes, echoing for us the ambivalent “sweetbitter” sentiments of that most famous of ancient Greek poets, Sappho. He also warns his protégé of friendship’s often fragile foundations: “Cyrnus, it is difficult to trick one’s enemy, / but easy for a friend to cheat a friend.” All of us feel pain, he says in another epigram, “but troubles not one’s own are soon forgot.” And if friends often prove unworthy of our good deeds, then of course Theognis is prepared to treat enemies with perfect mercilessness. Doing a good turn to a villain is wasted labor, he explains. “You might as well sow the grey sea with corn.” One of my favorite poems of this sort is likely not by Theognis, but it imitates superbly the sharp directness associated with him, often aimed at even his friends. “You were my best friend, but you’ve fallen short. / No fault of mine: it’s your own attitude that’s wrong.”
That anonymous poem’s frankly spoken disappointment brings us to our main poem by Theognis. It seems to be in its elevated speech and formal mode of praise an opposite sort of poem. Clearly it begins on a different note, a note that is carried throughout much of the poem— all of it, in fact, save for the devastating last two lines. Here it is, in Andrew M. Miller’s translation:
This short, surprisingly accusatory poem is all about showing how much I’ve done for you and, more threateningly, what I could do for you, or will withhold doing for you. In Miller’s rendering, the opening words—“To you I have given”—distill the relational drama and drama of obligation that become painfully clear only in the poem’s conclusion. Much of the poem is a traditional poet’s boast of his ability to praise the recipient, and of the various advantages to that praise. Horace’s Ode 3.30 is perhaps the most famous classical example of this artistic vaunt, and it is worth remembering that Theognis precedes Horace by roughly half a millennium. To consider the opening metaphor a little further, Theognis’s poetic praises become wings for Cyrnus, the recipient, and the fortunate protégé’s flight soon equates with social access: Cyrnus’s person flies, as it were, to every dinner and prominent social event, even as his name circulates on other party-goers’ lips and in the songs accompanying the festivities, and all of this awareness derives from the speaker’s fashioning this young man with the wings of his poems’ praises. Now the poem raises the stakes: even when Cyrnus dies and descends to Hades, even there his fame will be undiminished, so efficacious is Theognis’s poetry as an ensurer of reputation against oblivion. (Think here of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55.) Next the poem imagines for the recipient a kind of apotheosis, as the Underworld scene gives way to the image of Cyrnus again traversing all of Greece, this time carried by the Muses themselves. As symbols of Theognis’s own poetic inspiration, they resemble the wings given to Cyrnus earlier in the poem, a means of poetic transport. The speaker offers the promise of his memory enduring as long as the world itself endures, “so long as earth and sun exist.”
So far, this poem sounds so complimentary, so flattering even, insofar as flattery is here tempered by a clear confidence on the part of the praising poet. The last two lines suddenly change everything: “From you, however, I get scant respect; / Instead, you cheat me with words as if I were a little child.” Ah, the sharp turn of that however! Suddenly all of the preceding claims and promises that seem to favor and esteem Cyrnus transform into a withering How dare you? After all I have done for you, writes Theognis, after all I may yet do for you, or to you or your reputation, good or bad, for such is the power of my verse, you have the audacity to treat me so disrespectfully? That last line is the key accusation, and a killer ending: you are lying to me, Cyrnus. You’re treating me like the child, but you’re acting more like a thoughtless, petulant child. This poem’s power resides most of all in the feelings that readers are left with in those last two lines. Theognis captures quite a volatile mix of emotions— fiercely angry with the force of indictment and even menace, on one hand, and on the other hand deeply wounded, betrayed, aware of how deeply unpleasant it is to confront one who is disappointing you and mistreating you. It’s also easy to hear in that last statement the cold, comfortless satisfaction of the gotcha! moment. The opening lines probably have Cyrnus smiling, receiving Theognis’s praises as if he were rather clueless of present circumstances. But oh, Theognis’s speaker knows everything, and the munitions of those final two lines obliterate the recipient’s imagined smile, charming posture, and gracious acceptance of the prior lines.
Theognis’ marvelous little poem invites a couple of comparisons: Sappho writes in this vein, and typically with even greater economy, as in the fragment that begins, “You have done me wrong, Mika,” or in that short poem that Willis Barnstone in his version calls “Weathercocks”: “I am conscious / how often / those whom I treated kindly / especially injure me now.” And there is Catullus’ poem 11 addressed to Furius and Aurelius, whose first four stanzas resemble the geographical breadth and lyrical elevation of Theognis’s opening praise (of Cyrnus and indirectly of himself). Catullus imagines many possible extreme journeys – to India, to Arabia or Parthia, to the Britons – only to have the poem’s reach collapse upon a simple message for this pair to deliver to the speaker’s girl: “Farewell and long life with her adulterers,” goes the message bitterly and dismissively, in Guy Lee’s rendering. The poem becomes coarser, as it imagines the unfaithful lover hugging three hundred men at once, “Rupturing all’s groins,” and then, in a remarkable turnaround, the poem ends on a wounded, tender note. The attacked lady should no longer expect the speaker’s love, which because of her behavior “has fallen like a flower / On the meadow’s margin after a passing / Ploughshare has touched it.” Catullus knew something about poetic turns as well, though it seems to me that Theognis in his poem similarly melds a fierce anger with deep hurt, and does so, unlike Catullus, in the very same lines. We hear that final accusation in at least two ways. For this reason, this poem by Theognis, so exemplary of the power of poetic turns, deserves an audience at least as great as the more familiar poems by Sappho and Catullus enjoy
Brett Foster is the author of two poetry collections, The Garbage Eater (Triquarterly Books/Northwestern University Press, 2011), and Fall Run Road, which was awarded Finishing Line Press’s 2011 Open Chapbook Prize, and has just been released. A new collection is currently under review. His writing has appeared in AGNI, Boston Review, Cellpoems, The Common, IMAGE, Kenyon Review, The New Criterion, Pleiades, Poetry Daily, Raritan, Shenadoah, Southwest Review, and Yale Review. A teacher of Renaissance literature and creative writing at Wheaton College, in 2014-15 he will be a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Azusa Pacific University.