Mimnermus on love, pleasure, age and death

Translated by Steven Willett




Note: Mimnermus was an elegiac poet from Colophon or Smyrna in Ionia active 630~600BC. Both Solon and Plutarch criticized his hedonism and selfindulgence. Plutarch specifically referred to Fragment 1 as "the utterances of intemperate people." The aulos player above is the type who would perform while Mimnermus recited an elegy.


Fragment 1

What is life, what delight without golden Aphrodite?

   May I die, when these can touch me no more,

secret love and soothing gifts and the bed,

   such are the flowers of youth seized

by men and women: but when advances bitter

   old age, turning a man both ugly and base,

foul worries grind him down incessantly,

   and gazing at sunlight gives no delight,

but he’s hateful to boys, and repulsive to women;

   such grievous old age god has made.

Fragment 2

But we, as leaves grown by the flower-rich season

   of spring, then suddenly rise from sunbeams,

have like them a bare span for the flowers of youth

   we enjoy, knowing from the gods neither evil

nor good; but two black Death Spirits stand by us,

   one holding the end of painful old age

and the other death; and brief is our youth’s

   harvest, no more than sun sweeps earth.

But when this end of youth passes us by,

   to die at once is better than mere life

for many evils fill the heart: a man's homestead

   is eaten away, and grievous poverty his;

another, longing for children whom he most

   desires, descends the earth to Hades;

another has life-wasting disease; there's no man

   to whom Zeus fails to give evil wealth.

Fragment 5

At once an unspeakable sweat streams over my body,

   and I’m shaken seeing the flower of comrades

both delightful and fair—would it might last longer.

   But it remains time poor, just as a dream

is precious youth; for an excruciating and ugly

   old age hangs suddenly over the head,

both hateful and dishonored; it makes a man unknown,

   harms eyes and wits with shedding stupor.

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8 Responses to Mimnermus on love, pleasure, age and death

  1. Fourth and Long says:

    Death is not an evil, because it frees us from all evils, and while it takes away good things, it takes away also the desire for them. Old age is the supreme evil, because it deprives us of all pleasures, leaving us only the appetite for them, and it brings with it all sufferings. Nevertheless, we fear death, and we desire old age.
    – Giacomo Leopardi

  2. Eric Newhill says:

    As one who must confess that he has been driven crazy by Aphrodite as still often craves what she she offers – and who is seeing the old man down the road becoming larger – I still say the best love to have is the love of life – life eternal. The hedonists were very shallow and stupid people; albeit more fun to hang with than puritans.
    Our western culture has the balanced perspective of the lacked the tantric arts (see Kama sutra, etc.).

  3. Steven Willett says:

    Fourth and Long: Consider the following from Leopardi.
    Tutto è male. Cioè tutto quello che è, è male; che ciascuna cosa esista è un male; ciascuna cosa esiste per fin di male; l’esistenza è un male e ordinata al male; il fine dell’universo è il male; l’ordine e lo stato, le leggi, l’andamento naturale dell’universo non sono altro che male, né diretti ad altro che al male.
    Non v’è altro bene che il non essere; non v’ha altro di buono che quel che non è; le cose che non son cose: tutte le cose sono cattive. Il tutto esistente; il complesso dei tanti mondi che esistono; l’universo; non è che un neo, un bruscolo in metafisica. L’esistenza, per sua natura ed essenza propria e generale, è un’imperfezione, un’irregolarità, una mostruosità. […]

  4. Fourth and Long says:

    Steven Willet:
    Thanks very much for that. His personal existence early became an utter horror. Terrible spinal deformity to which was added parental callousness. I’m guessing from his Zibaldone but I’ll do a search.

  5. Mr. Willet,
    More modern but similar.
    Drink, my beloved; drink from this
    wide silver cup; drink as the
    Maenads in the pine-crowned orgy
    of Iacchus! Drink, drink! And as
    our bodies meet tear the garland
    from my brow and the thin veil
    from my breasts.
    Those who are about to die fear only
    chastity and an empty wine cup.
    From “The Love of Myrrhine and Konallis”; Richard Aldington; Pascal Covici, Publisher; Chicago 1926

  6. Clueless Joe says:

    I’ve always found it quite interesting that Mimnermus is one of the earliest Greek archaic poets and not someone from the Hellenistic or the “Roman decadence” era.
    The topical mindset “It’s better never to have been born, and if born, to die as soon as possible” is really ancient among the Greeks.
    Tibullus, Thukydides, Mimnermus, all great choices and among my favourites. I’m looking forward to the next texts, eagerly wondering which authors will come next.
    For what it’s worth, I happened to read Juvenal a couple of weeks ago; it’s quite impressive to see how vast parts of his satires could be lifted exactly as they are and would fully apply to our current times.

  7. Steven Willett says:

    Dear Fourth and Long, the passage is from Zibaldone p. 4174 in the three-volume Mondadori Editore I Meridiani 1997~99. The Zibaldone has been a crucial partner in my translations of Leopardi. I’m currently working on All’Italia. You might find my version of La Ginestra of interest in Arion Journal of Humanities and the Classics.

  8. Kilo 4/11 says:

    I think, after reading the above Leopardi excerpt beginning “Tutto è male”, I may just read I Promessi Sposi after all.

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