A student once called me “vaguely pagan,” which I did NOT appreciate.
While I’ve shared several epigrams from Book 1 of the Greek Anthology here, today I give to you an epigram from Book 10–and, unlike the others, this one comes from a pagan, not a Christian, poet.
The poet in question is Palladas, a pagan gramamarian of the fourth century from whom we have around 150 epigrams extant in the Anthology.
The poem I’d like to look at today is 10.72, a breathtakingly beautiful epigram on the vanity of life to which I was directed by E.R. Dodds’s Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety, a book I hope to write more on in the future.
The concise couplet is in many ways–if we look backward–the crystallization of centuries of reflection on the “theater of life,” the trope that “all the world’s a stage” in which all “have their exits and their entrances”; accordingly, this life should be handled and held lightly, with the knowledge that it is ephemeral, fleeting, in some sense insubstantial, even unreal.
At the same time–if we look forward–the anticipation of Hamlet (I have tipped my hand in already quoting Shakespeare) and all of existentialism. It thereby illustrates William Faulkner’s famous dictum that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
But why share this poem? Isn’t it somehow “antichristian”? In a word, no. The questions the poem raises are found in Job and in Ecclesiastes, for instance. More broadly, the tragedy, the apparent incomprehensibility, of our lives in this world is something with which we all must reckon. Is it not the scrap that sticks in Boethius’s craw in The Consolation of Philosophy and almost makes him choke?
But what of that? Two things, at least. First, it is therapeutic to realize that others have had this thought, this apprehension, that all is absurd. Ask yourself: Have you really never wondered this? And has it not caused you to tremble? When you enter what Douglas Adams calls “the long dark teatime of the soul,” it is at least worth knowing that you aren’t drinking alone–and pass the scones, please.
Second, the thought is, or can be, or ought to be, directive. What does it do in the case of Boethius? It takes his mind outward and upward. Ultimately, it takes him beyond philosophy to theology, to eternity–to grace and to God.
That was a long preface. So, at long last, here is the poem.
Well, one other item first–a comment on the matter of form. Palladas’s epigram consists of one elegiac couplet. I have rendered the poem in three lines of iambic pentameter in an ABA pattern. Palladas shows remarkable economy of expression, and I was not able to match it in English. But I hope that the unorthodox form has the effect of bringing the reader, expecting a second “B” line to match the first, up short–as life itself often does.
I give the Greek text according to the Loeb edition; the Loeb translation; and my own verse translation.
The Greek text:
Σκηνὴ πᾶς ὁ βίος καὶ παίγνιον· ἢ μάθε παίζειν,
τὴν σπουδὴν μεταθείς, ἢ φέρε τὰς ὀδύνας.
The Loeb translation:
All life is a stage and a play: either learn to play laying your gravity aside, or bear with life’s pains.Trans. W.R. Paton
All life’s a play, a joke–so learn to play
Along, forsaking furrowed brow, or else
By fortune’s blows be battered day by day.
|↑1||I am persuaded by the main outlines of Joel Relihan’s reading of the Consolation.|
|↑2||Palladas anticipates the wonderful epigrammatist J.V. Cunningham in this respect, one of whose collections, The Exclusions of a Rhyme, has just been reprinted by Wiseblood Books.|