May 27, 2002
Memorial Day Poem

This is from A. E. Housman, Last Poems:

Here dead we lie because we did not choose
    To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
    But young men think it is, and we were young.

The first two lines are a close rendering of Simonides' epitaph on the Spartan dead at Thermopylae. The last two are Housman's own addition, though the thought is very pagan and very Greek.

Added 11:30 PM:

Housman was not only an excellent poet in an already old-fashioned style, he was also one of the greatest Latin scholars of the last century or two. He was known for the brilliance of his textual criticism and the cruel elegance of his invective, in book reviews and elsewhere. Most of his wit only makes sense to specialists, but here are two examples from book reviews (the first is quoted from memory, so details may be a little off):

"All of his arguments are two-edged, but both edges are quite blunt."

"Books such as the one under review are little better than interruptions to our studies."

Simonides was one of the greatest Greek poets, though little of his work survives -- just enough to show us what we're missing. He was particularly known for his elegies, epitaphs, and threnodies -- all the gloomier genres -- which were simple but moving. His epitaphs were written for the actual monuments, not just as literary exercises. I probably should not have called Housman's version close. A literal translation of what Simonides wrote would be something like this:

Stranger, tell the Lacedaemonians that we lie here, obedient to their words.

Lacedaemon is the country, Sparta the city, so 'Lacedaemonians' is essentially another name for Spartans. The epitaph appeals to the passerby to deliver the message because these men died and were buried far from Sparta: with no post offices or telephones in the ancient world, epitaphs for those who died away from home were usually in the form "If you are ever in the town of X, tell Y the son of Z that his son is buried here, far from home". The only way to send the message was to have it 'hitchhike' with someone who happened to be headed in the right direction. Different authorities quote different versions, and it is not known whether Simonides wrote 'words' or 'customs'. However, whether he said that the Spartans were "obedient to the words" (= commands) of their kings or "obedient to the customs" of their country, it means that they were willing to follow orders without question even when there was no chance of survival. The word I have translated "obedient to" also means "persuaded by" -- a nice example of small-d democracy in the very structure of the Greek language.

Long before Housman, Cicero had translated the epitaph into Latin verse:

Dic, hospes, Spartae, nos te hic vidisse iacentes
    dum sanctis patriae legibus obsequimur.

This is rather loose, as he adds some bits to the meaning:

Stranger, tell Sparta that you saw us lying here,
    as we obey the sacred laws of our fatherland.

Housman's little poem achieves an impressive degree of Simonidean simplicity. Every word but two is monosyllabic, and even the exceptions hardly count, since 'nothing' was originally 'no thing' and 'because' originally (I think) 'by cause'. It's odd that a professional Latinist should write such a thoroughly unLatin poem: just about every word is pure Anglo-Saxon. The movie Go Tell The Spartans takes its title from Simonides' epitaph, either directly or (perhaps through Cicero) indirectly.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at May 27, 2002 03:42 PM