Is the past a different country?

Is the past a different country?

Or is it more familiar territory than we may, at first, want to admit?

Do we hold much in common with the ancients? Are there aspects of the human condition that remain unchanging, hard-coded into homo sapiens, elements that transcend time and place and culture?

We like to think of ourselves as modern, advanced, endowed with a sophistication and understanding beyond that of our ancestors. (My father used to wryly note, for example, that every generation believed it had discovered sex.)

We are wrong, of course, as famously noted in Ecclesiastes: “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”

Once in a while we are reminded of this connection with the past, how the ideas and words of those long dead can still speak to us across the centuries.

In his Sunday Washington Post Poet’s Corner, Robert Pinsky notes that modern love poetry is still influenced by the 7th century Greek poet Sappho.

Pinsky quotes Mary Maxwell’s graceful modern translation of a previously unknown Sappho poem. I found these verses stunningly timeless:

I was lithesome once, but time and age have taken my body in their grasp,

and from glossy blackness my hair has been turned by them to brittle white.

No one can question how the world has changed since the time of Sappho’s or Homer’s Greece, or Shakespeare’s England, (or Li Po’s Imperial China for that matter). Technology rules; human life spans are longer; the Internet and air travel make the world a smaller place; slavery is gone; women and children are no longer regarded as property.

Yet on matters prosaic and profound these writers still speak to the human heart.

Literature captures the eternal: the longing and desire of separated lovers; the bittersweet regrets of late middle age (caught by Sappho so perfectly); the love of parents for their children; our ambivalence about war; and our curiosity about the deeper existential questions of meaning and purpose.

The much touted scientific wonders of our age–genetic engineering, space travel, miracle drugs–can not alter our common humanity. Which is why Sappho’s lines feel as if they could have been written…today.

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders

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