Friday 18 August 2023

Ancient Poems about Loneliness and the Moon

Two ancient poems: both are about sleeplessness, erotic loneliness and lunar movements. The first poem is sometimes attributed to Sappho (Voigt 168B) and sometimes regarded as a fragment of a folk song:

δέδυκε μὲν ἀ σελάννα
καὶ Πληΐαδες· μέσαι δὲ
νύκτες, παρὰ δ᾿ ἔρχετ᾿ ὤρα,
ἔγω δὲ μόνα κατεύδω.

(‘The moon and Pleiades
sink down, it is the middle
of the night, time passes,
and I sleep alone.
The second is the final poem in the anthology Nineteen Old Poems (古詩十九首), preserved in the Wen Xuan (文選, c. 520-530 AD), though it likely dates further back to the Han dynasty:

(‘The white moon shines brightly, illuming the weaves of my bed-curtains.
Sorrowful, I cannot sleep; taking my clothes, I rise up and walk.
The guest’s journey is said to be a good one, but it is not as happy as the return home.
Alone and indecisive I leave the house, to whom can I relate my sadness?
I look forward, but return to my room; falling tears moisten my robes.

The narrator of the Greek poem is a woman, indicated by the gender of the adjective μόνα ('alone'). In the Chinese poem, the speaker could be a man or a woman.

My translations.