- Thalia Delighting in Song: Essays on Ancient Greek Poetry by Emmet I. Robbins
Emmet Robbins’s essays on ancient Greek poetry, published in the brief period of twenty-four years between 1975 and 1999 in a wide array of sources, are here collected in one volume, edited by his friend and former [End Page 440] student, Bonnie MacLachlan. With a detailed and richly informative preface by the editor and a lyrical foreword by another of Robbins’s friends and former students at Toronto, Anne Carson, this volume is clearly a labour of love on the part of all those who helped to bring Robbins’s work together, and it is a gift to all of us with an interest in Greek poetry. Like the muse Thalia, Robbins delighted in Greek song and brilliantly conveyed that delight to his readers, never allowing it to be eclipsed by the expansive knowledge of myth and metrics, papyrology and philology, that so deeply informs his work. He was a master of his craft, an art in itself, and we lost him far too soon.
The volume contains analyses of and reflections on the poetry of Homer, Alcman, Stesichorus, Simonides, Bacchylides, and more, all of it keenly insightful, but pride of place goes to Pindar and especially to Sappho, the one legendary for his difficulty of language and thought, the other for the exquisite lightness of her touch and the searing eroticism of her love poetry. “‘Every Time I Look at You …’: Sappho Thirty-One”: the chapter heading is full of promise and no disappointment is in store. “Who’s Dying in Sappho Fr. 94?”: again, a promise gratifyingly fulfilled. “Sappho, Aphrodite, and the Muses”: rich material here and nothing missed; in the cletic hymn opening with the call to Aphrodite to come: “Hither to me from Crete …”: “Again we sense the intimacy and the confidence that the goddess will respond to a summons.” And the deeply felt darkness of the too often misunderstood Sappho 44: Hector coming home, and Troy doomed. In Sappho’s song of the “Wedding of Hector and Andromache,” Hector is coming home to Troy with his beautiful bride, and the city is filled with joy and hope, music and incense, flowers and song. But Sappho’s audience knew the Iliad and there Hector comes home dead, his wife facing slavery, the child of their marriage murder, and their city doomed to destruction. The fleeting joy of life, in Robbins’s reading, infuses Sappho’s poetry: “Sappho, seeing beauty, senses her mortality acutely”—and yet this depth of feeling is conveyed in “[a] triumph of careful, balanced, logical construction.”
At various points in his work we see Robbins’s fascination with the figure of Cheiron the teacher (a point on which the editor is particularly eloquent), and what Cheiron taught Achilles was the use of hands—to heal and to kill. Achilles’ hands, Robbins says, “dominate the last quarter” of the Iliad, Achilles’ man-slaying hands, famously kissed by Priam, begging for the body of his son slain by those hands. And before this we see Achilles laying his hands on the body of Patroclus, now beyond the help of those once-healing hands. Apollo, who champions Achilles, also heals and kills, and will ultimately kill Achilles (and thereby heal him).
This abiding concern with mortality—on the part of the poets and of Robbins himself—is on full display in the comparison of Heracles’ death and Siegfried’s, informed by the lines of T.S. Eliot: “The only hope, or else [End Page 441] despair / Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—/ To be redeemed from fire by fire.” “Eliot’s lines,” for Robbins, “are as applicable to Heracles’ death as to Siegfried’s, in this sense at least: the fires of the hero’s funeral pyre bring redemption from the fires of human passion.”
It is a bitter irony that Sappho’s unflinchingly honest and characteristically succinct response to the ravages of age: allà tí ken poeíēn? (“but what is...