Meleager is one of the few surviving voices in Greek literature from the early first century b.c.e. This century, so rich for Roman literature, was perhaps the scantiest of all the classical period for Greek literature. Our sense of dearth is intensified by the kind of literature that survived. Ancient Greek literature at no time produced seriously realistic writing, and when the mythical core vanished, the remains took the form of history, philosophy, or artificial styles such as New Comedy, Romance, and Epigram. Ironically, in this unsettled century, when the details of daily life would have been so fascinating, the chief creative writer transmitted some 130 epigrams consisting chiefly of picturesque variations on standard themes and topics of earlier epigrammatic love poets. The incongruity is made all the keener by the fact that Meleager’s home until manhood was Gadara in Syria, the town in which Jesus was to cast devils into swine. The juxtaposition is startling.
Meleager’s work might be taken for somewhat less the hothouse orchid if his earlier efforts were preserved. His earliest writings were satirical dialogues in prose, modeled on the writings of Menippus, the famous Cynic philosopher and teacher at Gadara. Something of their character may be sensed from the later dialogues of Lucian. The subject of one is reported as a comparison of pease porridge with lentil soup. These were lost, however, and Meleager’s literary heritage now consists of the epigrams found in the great collection known as The Greek Anthology (c. 90-80 b.c.e.). His epigrams and those of others he imitated may be found in this volume.
The last of Meleager’s literary productions was one of the early entries of that anthology: His Stephanos (usually translated as Garland, also c. 90-80 b.c.e.) is a collection of epigrams of some fifty poets, himself included, with a famous verse preface that compares each poet to that flower that most suggests his poetic character. Later anthologists included Garland in larger gatherings; the final collection (apart from the additions derived from Planudes) was made in the tenth century. The poetically significant sections of that collection are the love poems, dedicatory inscriptions, epitaphs, and declamatory, moralizing, convivial, and satiric epigrams. Only about twenty of Meleager’s epigrams, however, are to be found outside the love poems.
There is a tendency in the anthology, even within the major sections, to arrange poems on the same theme in a sequence. This tendency provides the most important clue for the appreciation of Meleager. The innocent reader on first encounter is likely to ascribe to Meleager both a hectic variety of erotic liaisons and a continuous intensity of emotion reflected in the extravagant language, both of which in fact distract the reader from the true poetic center of most of the epigrams. The poems are best approached as exercises in various types, attempts at overbidding previous treatments of a topic—overbidding in wit, imagery, and rhetoric. To illustrate, here is an epigram by the earlier poet Asclepiades: Let this that is left of my soul, whatever it be, let this at least, ye Loves, have rest for heaven’s sake. Or else no longer shoot me with arrows but with thunderbolts, and make me utterly into ashes and cinders. Yea! yea! strike me, ye Loves; for withered away as I am by distress, I would have from you, If I may aught, this little gift.
Meleager takes up the notion of the incinerated lover and exploits it in various ways. For example: I am down; set thy foot on my neck, fierce demon. I know thee, yea by the gods, yea heavy art thou to bear: I know, too, thy fiery arrows. But if thou set thy torch to my heart, thou shalt no longer burn it; already it is all ash. If I perish, Cleobulus (for cast, nigh all of me, into the flame of lads’ love, I lie, a burnt remnant, in the ashes), I pray thee make the urn drunk with wine ere thou lay it in earth, writing thereon, “Love’s gift to...
(The entire section is 1,680 words.)