SMALL AND IMPORTANT
There are certain wisps of love that survive all tests of time and interpretation. One I return to again and again, especially whenever I feel a bit lost in the wash, is a little epigram by the infamous epigrammist Marcus Valerius Martialis, otherwise known as Martial. He wrote all sorts of wildly filthy ditties to entertain the wealthy in Rome in the 1st Century AD, and has often been criticised down the ages for selling his soul to flatter the worst of the Roman Emperors. He didn’t have much choice, though: Martial was a talented, cynical, loudmouth drunk from what is now northern Spain; he wasn’t noble, he had no money, and he had to sing for his supper – literally. He had to pander to the cool crowd, or he’d have been out on the street.
But now and again, he unmasks himself in what is left to us of his work, and this, Epigram #34, a simple elegy to a tiny waif, always breaks and mends my heart at once:
To you my parents, I send on
This little girl Erotion.
The slave I loved, that by your side
Her ghost need not be terrified
Of the pitch darkness underground
Or the great jaws of Hades hound.
This winter she would have completed
Her sixth year had she not been cheated
By just six days. Lisping my name,
May she continue the sweet game
Of childhood happily down there
In two such good, old spirits’ care.
Lie lightly on her, turf and dew:
She put so little weight on you.
This small jewel of love, between a son and his parents, between a man and a child only randomly connected in some long-forgotten villa two thousand years ago, reminds me that this is the best of what we might mark of ourselves on eternity, and reminds me most of all never to be ashamed to write about love myself. I’m very, very lucky that I can.