The Death of Sophocles by Anna Akhmatova

Then the king learnt that Sophocles was dead

(Legend)

To Sophocles’ house that night an eagle flew down from the sky,

And sombrely rang from the garden the cicadas’ choir.

At that hour the genius was passing into immortality,

Skirting, at the walls of his native town, the night-fires

Of the enemy. And this was when the king had a strange dream:

Dionysus himself ordered the raising of the siege,

That no noise disturb the Athenians in burying him

With fitting ceremony and with elergies.

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova)

(1961)

from Седьмая книга (The Seventh Book)

translation by D. M. Thomas


Fun facts: Sophocles (Σοφοκλῆς) c. 497/6 – winter 406/5 BC) is one of three ancient Greek tragedians whose plays have survived. His first plays were written later than those of Aeschylus, and earlier than or contemporary with those of Euripides. Sophocles wrote over 120 plays during the course of his life, but only seven have survived in a complete form: Ajax, Antigone, The Women of Trachis, Oedipus Rex, Electra, Philoctetes and Oedipus at Colonus.

The most famous tragedies of Sophocles feature Oedipus and also Antigone: they are generally known as the Theban plays, although each play was actually a part of a different tetralogy, the other members of which are now lost. Sophocles influenced the development of drama, most importantly by adding a third actor, thereby reducing the importance of the chorus in the presentation of the plot. He also developed his characters to a greater extent than earlier playwrights such as Aeschylus.

Sophocles died at the age of ninety or ninety-one in the winter of 406/5 BC, having seen within his lifetime both the Greek triumph in the Persian Wars and the bloodletting of the Peloponnesian War. As with many famous men in classical antiquity, his death inspired a number of apocryphal stories. The most famous is the suggestion that he died from the strain of trying to recite a long sentence from his Antigone without pausing to take a breath. Another account suggests he choked while eating grapes at the Anthesteria festival in Athens. A third holds that he died of happiness after winning his final victory at the City Dionysia. A few months later, a comic poet, in a play titled The Muses, wrote this eulogy: “Blessed is Sophocles, who had a long life, was a man both happy and talented, and the writer of many good tragedies; and he ended his life well without suffering any misfortune.” According to some accounts, however, his own sons tried to have him declared incompetent near the end of his life; he is said to have refuted their charge in court by reading from his as yet unproduced Oedipus at Colonus. One of his sons, Iophon, and a grandson, also called Sophocles, also became playwrights.

Several ancient sources mention Sophocles’ homosexuality or bisexuality. Athenaios reported that Sophocles loved boys like Euripides loved women. The poet Ion of Chios relates an anecdote involving Sophocles seducing a serving boy at a symposium, and Athenaios one in which Sophocles is tricked by a hustler.

Regarding LGBT history under Stalin it makes interesting reading regarding the recriminalisation of homosexuality by him, associating it with fascism and accusating men of being pederasts thus conflating homosexuality with pedophilia. Especially as he tolerated the activities of Beria. Long after Stalin’s death in 1953, a 1964 Soviet sex manual instructed citizens that: “With all the tricks at their disposal, homosexuals seek out and win the confidence of youngsters. Then they proceed to act. Do not under any circumstances allow them to touch you. Such people should be immediately reported to the administrative organs so that they can be removed from society” despite liberalisation reforms under Khrushchev.

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No Through Road by R. S. Thomas

All in vain. I will cease now

My long absorption with the plough,

With the tame and the wild creatures

and man united with the earth.

I have failed after many seasons

In the mind’s precincts do not apply.

 

But where to turn? Earth endures

After the passing, necessary shame

Of winter, and the old lie

Of green places beckons me still

From the new world, ugly and evil,

That men pry for in truth’s name.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from Song at the Year’s Turning (1955)

Борис Пастернак [Boris Pasternak] by Anna Akhmatova

He who compared himself to the eye of a horse,

Peers, looks, sees, recognizes,

And instantly puddles shine, ice

Pines away, like a melting of diamonds.

 

Backyards drowse in lilac haze. Branch-

Line platforms, logs, clouds, leaves…

The engine’s whistle, watermelon’s crunch,

A timid hand in a fragrant kid glove. He’s

 

Ringing, thundering, grinding, up to his breast

In breakers… and suddenly is quiet… This means

He is tiptoeing over pine needles, feaful lest

He should startle space awake from its light sleep.

 

It means he counts the grains in the empty ears,

And it means he has come back

From another funeral, back to Darya’s

Gorge, the tombstone, cursed and black.

 

And burns again, the Moscow tedium,

In the distance death’s sleigh-bell rings…

Who has got lost two steps from home,

Where the snow is waist-deep, an end to everything?

 

Because he compared smoke with Laocoön,

Made songs out of graveyard thistles,

Because he filled the world with a sound no-one

Has heard before, in a new space of mirrored

 

Verses, he has been rewarded with a form

Of eternal childhood, with the stars’ vigilant love,

The whole earth has been passed down to him,

And he has shared it with everyone.

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova)

(19 January 1936)

from Тростник (Reed) / Из шести книг (From the Sixth Book)

translation by D. M. Thomas

No Through Road by R. S. Thomas

All in vain. I will cease now

My long absorption with the plough,

With the tame and the wild creatures

And man united with the earth.

I have failed after many seasons

To bring truth to birth,

And nature’s simple equations

In the mind’s precincts do not apply.

 

But where to turn? Earth endures

After the passing, necessary shame

Of winter, and the old lie

Of green places beckons me still

From the new world, ugly and evil,

That men pry for in truth’s name.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from Song At The Year’s Turning (1955)

When A Man Dies by Anna Akhmatova

When a man dies

His portraits change.

His eyes look at you

Differently and his lips smile

A different smile. I noticed this

Returning from a poet’s funeral.

Since then I have seen it verified

Often and my theory is true.

 

– by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova), 1940

– from Тростник (Reed) / Из шести книг (From the Sixth Book)

– translation by D. M. Thomas

‘Why Is Our Century Worse Than Any Other? …’ by Anna Akhmatova

Why is our century worse than any other?

Is it that in the stupor of fear and grief

It has plunged its fingers in the blackest ulcer,

Yet cannot bring relief?

 

Westward the sun is dropping,

And the roofs of towns are shining in its light.

Already death is chalking doors with crosses

And calling the ravens and the ravens are in flight.

 

– by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova) (1919)

– from Подорожник (Plantain/Wayside Grass, 1921) translation by D. M. Thomas

The Journey by R. S. Thomas

And if you go up that way, you will meet with a man,

Leading a horse, whose eyes declare:

There is no God. Take no notice.

There will be other roads and other men

With the same creed, whose lips yet utter

Friendlier greeting, men who have learned

To pack a little of the sun’s light

In their cold eyes, whose hands are waiting

For your hand. But do not linger.

A smile is payment; the road runs on

With many turnings towards the tall

Tree to which the believer is nailed.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from Poetry for Supper (1958)