Poems by Conrad Aiken and Robert Frost

Aurora e Titone, by Francesco de Mura

Aurora e Titone, by Francesco de Mura

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In Greek myth, Tithonus was a Trojan prince, the brother of King Priam.  According to a poem of the early seventh century BC, the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite (lines 218-238,) Tithonus’ youthful good looks attracted the attentions of Eos, the goddess of the dawn.  Aphrodite had condemned Eos to lust after mortal men.  Eos abducted Tithonus and kept him in her mysterious land in the east.  She lavished him with gifts.  Eos went so far in her generosity to Tithonus as to ask Zeus to make Tithonus immortal.  That may have been going too far, or not far enough- Eos neglected to ask Zeus to stop Tithonus’ aging.  So he grew old, lost all ability to move his limbs, and took to babbling incessantly.  Eos locked him up in a golden chamber when this happened.  The hymn’s detail about Tithonus’ babbling may be reflected in later traditions that represent him as a great singer.  The fifth-century BC writer Hellanicus of Lesbos says that Eos took pity on him and turned him into a cicada, a creature whom the ancients suspected might be immortal.  In the poem below, Aiken follows the modern tradition of representing Tithonus as a grasshopper rather than a cicada.

Arachne transformed, from a 1703 edition of the Metamorphoses of Ovid illustrated by Johann Wilhelm Bauer

Arachne transformed, from a 1703 edition of the Metamorphoses of Ovid illustrated by Johann Wilhelm Bauer

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According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Arachne was a maiden from Lydia in Asia Minor who challenged the goddess Minerva (the Greeks would have said the goddess was Athena) to a weaving contest.  When Arachne won this contest, the goddess responded with such fury that Arachne hanged herself.  Taking pity on her victim, Minerva revived the girl in the form of a spider.  Ovid represents Arachne as an innocent, though she has been thought of in other ways at other times. The story of Arachne’s encounter with Tithonus appears to be Aiken’s own invention.  Aiken also takes some further liberties with the story, as you will see. 

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