I’m often fascinated by languages, particularly Greek, so when I ran across this poem, I knew I had to share it.
I write this letter to you on my knees
In the night, O people of a thousand Thermopylaes,
And every word I write,
If it be worthy somehow in your sight—
Sons of Solon, daughters of Pericles—
Will blaze with light.
Regard this letter
As token payment long since overdue
From your eternal debtor—
An echo burning through
The silence and the death piled thick on you
By fire and sword, by famine and by fetter—
An echo of the trumpet Plato blew
Across the darkness that men knew
Not by an honorable foe,
In equal combat, blow for blow,
Under a decent sky,
Beneath the impartial sun,
Were you undone
And left to die.
But by each slippery ruse
The wolf and buzzard use;
Stalked by that obscene pack
In stealthy and abominable attack
Struck down at last when, faint with hunger,
You could no longer
Stand and strike back
And when you fell, you fell like some great star,
Not broken by defeat or pale surrender,
But falling in dreadful splendour,
Forever falling and falling,
And earth and heaven and the towers of time,
both near and far,
Were shaken with the shouts of terror calling,
And the blood-red wheels of war,
Bright and brawling,
Across the firmament streaked a livid scar.
So you went down; yet, in your dying, cast
A shadow across the craters of the moon as vast
As the Archangel’s trumpet blast
A shadow upon the hearts of men as well,
To stretch our souls from heaven down to hell!
This we declare:
By all men in extremity everywhere,
By earth and water, by fire and air,
We solemnly swear:
Homer is not dead,
The loins that bred
Ulysses will again
Beget such men
(The spirit of Bozzaris, of Byron,
The Mavrocordato breed
This is our creed:
Fascist and Hun
Cleansed from the land of Demosthenes
Will once more in amazement stare upon
This, then, is all;
I have said everything:
The wormwood, the gall,
The courage, the suffering;
Nothing can be
As big as agony,
And agony is king, and can speak
Only in Greek.
– An Open Letter to the Unconquerable Greeks,
I find Greek amazing because it’s a language of ambition. It seeks to encompass weighty concepts in simple words, and easily enjoys extremes of passion which contemporary languages are hard pressed to muster. Auslander refers to it above, illustrating that the courage and suffering of the second world war can only be fully realized by such an ambitious language. It has words like κοσμος (kosmos), which seek to encompass everything, and makes fine distinctions, such as with εροσ (eros), αγαπε (agape), and πιλε (phile) each of which refers to a specific kind of love. Love is one of many words which, in English, has practically lost its meaning due to overuse. We love hot dogs, or a television show, or our partner and, linguistically crippled, have no way to draw a distinction between the kinds of love and intimacy which we mean. The character of Greek is expressed in its literature, showing a people of highs and lows, of great ambitious phrases and the finest of distinctions. It’s no wonder at all why Greek was the language of science, literature, and philosophy for centuries.
So if you really mean it, say it in Greek.
Auslander, Joseph. “An open letter to the unconquerable Greeks.” Grass of Parnassus. Ed. W. F. Langford. Toronto: Longmans, Green & Company, 1946.
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