Pyramus and Thisbe by Gregorio Pagani
Before Romeo and Juliet there was Pyramus and Thisbe. These two star-crossed lovers lived (according to Ovid’s metamorphoses) in the ancient city of Babylon. Unable to marry due to their warring families they decided to run away together, arranging to meet in a secluded spot outside the city. Thisbe arrived first, but while she was waiting for Pyramus a lion stalked into view. Frightened Thisbe ran into a nearby cave to hide leaving the lion only her discarded cloak to maul. Later when Pyramus arrived, Thisbe was still hiding in the cave and all he found was her cloak ripped apart and bloody from the lion’s teeth. Distraught and convinced that Thisbe was dead he stabbed himself with his dagger.
Leaving the cave Thisbe found her lover dying his last breath. Equally distraught she too took up the dagger and killed herself.
Giorgio de Chirico, Ariadne, 1913
Ariadne was the daughter of King Minos. When the Athenian hero Theseus came to fight the minotaur Ariadne instantly fell in love with him and gave him a ball of thread, advising him to use it to find his way out of the labyrinth. Victorious, Theseus left Crete with Ariadne only to later abandon her on the island of Naxos while she slept. The story has it that Ariadne awoke on the beach to see the sails of Theseus’ ship disappearing from the horizon.
Chirico was greatly inspired by the character of Ariadne and he made a whole series of painting using her as a theme early on in his career. The image above is typical of the dark brooding quality these paintings had, perhaps evoking the sense of loss and abandonment in Ariadne’s story. Chirico would return to painting Aridane in his later years producing hundreds of images based on his earlier interpretations.
Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
John Keats (1795-1821)
Keats was inspired to write this poem after reading George Chapman’s translations of Homer; the Illiad and the Odyssey.
Andromeda, by Perseus saved and wed,
Hankered each day to see the Gorgon’s head:
Till o’er a fount he held it, bade her lean,
And mirrored in the wave was safely seen
That death she lived by.
Let not thine eyes know
Any forbidden thing itself, although
It once should save as well as kill: but be
Its shadow upon life enough for thee. (C 3:557)
Aspecta Medusa by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Rossetti wrote this poem to accompany a painting of Medusa he’d been commissioned to undertake, the scene he would paint described in the first stanza.
Can you command the goddess to sing?
Barry B. Powell reads the first 100 lines of The Iliad by Homer in the original Greek. Powell is Halls-Bascom Professor of Classics Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and author of a new free verse translation of The Iliad.