Mother’s Day 2020 AD

Τίμα τὸν πατέρα σου καὶ τὴν μητέρα  
Ἵνα εὖ σοι γένηται καὶ ἔσῃ μακροχρόνιος ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς

It’s May, year of our Lord 2020, and we are in strange times. I haven’t seen my mother in a long time, so I made a short video for her, which I will share with you here. It commemorates my late sister, whom you have met before. In truth, this video made itself. I have so many songs and poems rumbling around in my mind and sometimes they coalesce of their own accord.

The Song of Seikilos

Here you will hear my take on the Song of Seikilos, played on a Levantine Oud. the oldest extant composition with musical notation. In ancient times, around the first century AD, a Greek man named Seikilos inscribed a marble pillar, or stele, with lyrics and accompanying notation:


As long as you live, shine
Let nothing grieve you
Life is only for a little while
And time demands his end

Like many other artefacts of the ancient world, we receive it fragmentary, broken and incomplete. In our own day, the mutilators and destroyers are busy at work just as they were in the past. But Logos finds ways. We owe the preservation of this stele to the Greek War of Liberation.

On the stele we find the lyrics, along with a haunting melody that opens with the interval of a fifth over the word “oson”. The object is an epitaph, so we can assume that it was made to honour a loved one. What a tribute it is, all these millennia later. There is a tantalisingly incomplete word at the end, which we can read in two ways. It might be ΕΥΤΕΡΠΟΥ (of Euterpes, perhaps a surname). It may also be a feminine ΕΥΤΕΡΠΗ. This feminine form could refer to the man’s wife, or to the muse Euterpe, who brings delight.

A further possibility, way out there on the fringe of probability, is that the man’s wife was named for the muse, so the dedication is twofold. This is, of course, my favourite of the possibilities and it’s the one to which I am wedded. Euterpe the muse is depicted in the picture at the head of this post.

The Song of Wandering Aengus

William Butler Yeats is one of the greatest poets of all time. As an Irishman, he embodies, in a way, the uneasy relationship between the English language and the Irish nation. You can find an extensive treatment of his influence on literature and the twentieth century here. In this post you will hear me recite one of his poems, The Song of Wandering Aengus:

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

It’s a poem I committed to memory many years ago, before I was capable of understanding anything about it. At the time it just sounded pretty. In a curious vindication of my interpretation, Yeats himself had this to say about this numinous lyric:

The poem was suggested to me by a Greek folk song; but the folk belief of Greece is very like that of Ireland, and I certainly thought, when I wrote it, of Ireland, and of the spirits that are in Ireland.

Happy Mother’s Day, ma. Coffee in Constantinople, soon.

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