The world’s saddest poem

Hiking along (see below) I was reflecting on the rant about Ares and Athena by Enoch Root in the Cryptonomicon, of which more later perhaps.

It got me thinking about Greek religion, and when I thought of Aphrodite for some reason a poem from the Greek Anthology popped unbidden into my head and suddenly reduced me to tears. I nominate it for the saddest poem ever written, but if you know a competitor send it to me.

In form, it is a fairly standard dedication of an offering at a temple. A mirror — an expensive item in the days before glass — would have been a natural offering to Aphrodite. The poem is attributed to Plato, and he puts the dedication in the mouth of Lais, a famous courtesan. No doubt it’s even more potent in the original.

A probably more accurate (and obviouslly more complete) translation is here (XXIII), but it doesn’t move me as much as the one I remembered, from a translator whose name I have forgotten in an edition I must have lost twenty years ago.

No doubt the version below isn’t perfectly faithful even to that translation, but I’m prepared to bet it’s close.

I, Lais,

dedicate this mirror to Aphrodite.

For it will not show me as I was,

and I will not look upon myself as I am.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

One thought on “The world’s saddest poem”

  1. The Poetry of Sadness

    Mark Kleiman has a nomination, from ancient Greece, for “the saddest poem ever written.” There are likely a lot of contenders for this title, and even a quick survey would reveal the emotion’s many different varieties (and do wonders …

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