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Ode to the Cicada

We pronounce thee happy, Cicada,
For on the tops of the trees,
Drinking a little dew,
Like any king thou singest,
For thine are they all,
Whatever thou seest in the fields,
And whatever the woods bear.
Thou art the friend of the husbandmen,
In no respect injuring any one;
And thou art honored among men,
Sweet prophet of summer.
The Muses love thee,
And Phoebus himself loves thee,
And has given thee a shrill song;
Age does not wrack thee,
Thou skillful, earthborn, song-loving,
Unsuffering, bloodless one;
Almost thou art like the gods.


Song-poem copied here as it is quoted in The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, vol. V “Excursions and Poems” (original copyright of Thoreau’s text dates back to 1865; Houghton, Mifflin & Co. held the copyright from 1893, in its The Riverside Press, Cambridge edition, from 1906).

Anacreon (Anakreon), c.582 – c.485 BC, was a Greek lyric poet. (Incidentally, I have read somewhere that it was he who invented the lyre, a smallish hand-held stringed instrument to accompany spoken or sung text.) He was “a great poet, admired by all antiquity” (Guy Davenport, in his “Anakreon: Complete Poems” originally published in 1984 in Conjunctions, the literary journal of Bard College; appearing also in 1984 in jstor.org; in the article, Davenport introduces and translates Anacreon’s existing verses).

There is a concise summary of Anacreon’s long life (which must have been most interesting, not to mention, challenging) at briefpoems.wordpress.com/tag/anacreon/ .

Here’s the thing: the “ode” read above was not written by Anacreon. In the 19th century the discovery was made that the lyric oeuvre attributed to Anacreon, first printed in Paris in 1554 and translated into English in the 17th century, was in fact a collection of imitations written by various lyricists in homage to the poet, in the centuries following his death. Although Anacreon himself had been a prolific poet, only the smallest splinters of his original work survive. Davenport, 20th century writer, translator, artist: “…fragments are all that survive of a poet whose fame and stature arise from a collection of poems he did not write.”

The collection of about 60 poems, now called the Anacreontea, i.e., “attributed pseudepigraphically to Anacreon” reflect “the light hearted elegance of much of Anacreon’s genuine works although they were not written in the same Ionic Greek dialect that Anacreon used . . . and display literary references and styles more common to the time of their actual composition” (en.wikipedia.org).

Phoebus is another name for Apollo, the ancient Greek god of (among other things) music, poetic inspiration, prophecy, and the sun. The word phoebus itself means sunray.

The Cicada or harvest-fly is “a stout-bodied insect with large membranous wings; male has drum-like organs for producing a high-pitched drone . . . its distinctive song is heard during July and August” (thefreedictionary.com).

“noun ( pl. -men) archaic
a person who cultivates the land; a farmer.
ORIGIN Middle English (originally in northern English use denoting the holder of a husbandland, i.e., manorial tenancy): from husband in the obsolete sense [farmer] + man” (New Oxford American Dictionary)

Whether or not Thoreau was familiar with the distinction between Anacreon and the Anacreontea, he didn’t let it hinder him in enjoying “Anacreon’s ode” to the Cicada as a creation of Anacreon himself. (By the way, though Anacreon did not usually title his poems, it seems that many of the later minstrels might often have done so; but I’ve not sourced this detail for this particular poem . . . hence the parentheses around the title.)

In Thoreau’s volume, in an aside on Entomology (in “Natural History of Massachusetts”):
Entomology extends the limits of being in a new direction, so that I walk in nature with a sense of greater space and freedom. It suggests besides, that the universe is not rough-hewn, but perfect in its details. Nature will bear the closest inspection; she invites us to lay our eye level with the smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain. She has no interstices; every part is full of life. I explore, too, with pleasure, the sources of the myriad sounds which crowd the summer noon, and which seem the very grain and stuff of which eternity is made. Who does not remember the shrill roll-call of the harvest-fly? There were ears for these sounds in Greece long ago, as Anacreon’s ode will show. (op. cit. 107-8)