It’s All Greek To Me

The Guardian

Charlotte Higgins writes about her new book.

It’s a very exciting week for me: my latest book, It’s All Greek To Me, is published tomorrow, and today the Guardian has printed an extract.

The book is a product of a long love affair with the literature of
ancient Greece. Writing it was one of the most joyous and enriching
projects I have ever had the good fortune to undertake.

What underpins the book is my profound belief that the great writers of
Greece – such as Homer and Herodotus, Plato and Aristotle, Sophocles
and Sappho – are not worthy-but-dull, forbidding authors of dusty,
unreadable tomes. These authors have left us vivid, exciting,
provocative, often devastating, often hilarious reads. They should be
as widely enjoyed as Jane Austen or Charles Dickens – and it saddens me
that they are not.

The storytelling of Homer – whose humanity,
whose deep understanding of love and loss is utterly unmistakable – is
unmatched, for my money, in later literature. Plato’s Republic (more
often discussed than read cover-to-cover) is one of the most
terrifying, challenging and bold thought experiments ever to have been
dreamed up – and you certainly don’t need to be a professional
philosopher to be gripped by it. The dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles and
Euripides still lay down a ridiculously high standard for playwrights
today – which is why directors and actors keep returning to them. Oedipus the King
opens at the National Theatre in a couple of weeks – aside from being
an almost perfect play in terms of the relentless logic of its
structure, it is also the world’s first detective story, one in which
the detective and the perpetrator, horrifyingly, turn out to be the
same person.

I was just now reading our Books site‘s excellent poem of the week,
and I was thinking about which poem of Sappho I would put in that slot,
and why. Well, I’ll finish this post with another little chunk of the
book: a few words about Sappho’s fragment two.

“… Of her wonderful poems of love and longing, many are unambiguously homoerotic;
some are wedding songs. Part of their appeal is their very fragmentary
quality: these beautiful lines and half-lines are like finely decorated
potsherds, separated for ever from their fellows – they act as a
poignant metaphor, perhaps, of the study of the ancient world itself,
the way we try to make a world from beautiful scraps and bits. In fact
there is a (part) poem of hers which was actually discovered written on
a potsherd; fragment two, as it is known:

down from the mountain top
and out of Crete,
come to me here
in your sacred precinct, to your grove
of apple trees,
and your altars
smoking with incense,

where cold water flows babbling
through the branches,
the whole place
shadowed with roses,
sleep adrift down
from silvery leaves
an enchantment

horses grazing in a meadow
abloom with spring flowers
and where the breezes blow sweetly,

here, Cypris,
delicately in golden cups
pour nectar
mixed for our festivities.

[Translation: Stanley Lombardo]

It is an invocation, a summoning of the goddess Aphrodite, named here for
Cyprus, the island off which she was born from the foam of the sea.
It’s astonishingly powerful, this evocation of place, this apple grove
in which the love-goddess’s sanctuary lies. It’s synaesthesic, almost,
every sense is stimulated: there’s the heady scent of the incense; the
sight of the stream (in the background) with the shading apple trees in
front; the icy coldness to the touch of the water; the drowsy sound of
the breeze through the leaves; beyond, the glimpse of the horses
grazing in the flower-filled meadows. To read this poem is to be there,
lying in the deep grass of the grove, gently heading for sleep …”

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