According to the notable Sir Thomas More,
‘utopia’ is like nowhere else before,
since ‘ou’ means not and ‘topos’ place,
utopia doesn’t exist in time or space.
But Sir Thomas More’s use of Greek,
is something about which I feel compelled to speak,
because if one revisits the ancient Greek stage,
one discovers what was called the ‘Golden Age’.
Like many things Greek, this idea came
from another place with a different name.
The Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh,
talks of a place that is utterly blessed,
where death doesn’t exist, and peace abounds,
where love and harmony are sure to be found,
no sickness, no old age, no grief to bear,
and honey sweet birdsong adrift in the air.
The earliest Greek as far as we can see,
was Hesiod of the eighth century BC,
who in a long poem called Works and Days,
named the gold, silver, bronze and iron age.
The golden ones, says he, were close to divine,
safe from work and hunger and the ravages of time,
they feasted all day, praised the gods with a song,
till they fell fast asleep, having done no one wrong.
‘Golden’ for Hesiod stands for permanency,
and like gold denotes highest quality.
Changed into guardians, golden ones still exist,
guiding the conscience of some in our midst.
No prizes for guessing to which era we’re from,
we are the race of iron — base, hard and strong,
we have lost our connection with the divine,
we toil, suffer and grieve, and argue all the time.
Many centuries later, and another poet rode
a similar horse, in his second Olympian Ode.
His name was Pindar, in 476 BC,
same theme but with a touch of added mystery.
For Pindar talks not of a golden age lost,
a race long forgotten at great moral cost,
but an actual place that exists in the far west,
a place known simply as the ‘Isles of the Blessed’.
For Pindar, this place is paradise on earth,
golden flowers and trees, good people and mirth,
joyful and peaceful, a life without tears,
a place ruled by Kronos without any fears.
You get there by living three good lives,
no lying, no cheating, no multiple wives!
And if found exemplary the third time round,
in that sun-kissed topos you are sure to be found.
Alas after Pindar, Sparta and Athens did war,
with horrors unlike anything seen before,
society was crumbling, too many had died,
plague sufferers especially lucky to survive.
The golden age seemed lost in the ruin and rubble,
until the comic poets emerged and fixed the muddle.
They revived the golden age – took it to an entirely new level
and said everything in the spirit of Dionysian revel.
So Cratinus laughs about life without slavery,
when masters make their own dinner and tea,
and since work in the golden age is forbidden,
dinner conjures itself at a person’s biddin’.
Tables self-set, wine jumps into the cup,
beetroots and cakes simply offer themselves up,
fish can’t be eaten until cooked on both sides,
so it flips itself over and bastes its own behind!
But the award for comedy goes to Telecleides,
who made everyone howl and fall to their knees,
claiming food in the golden age was to be found everywhere,
with cakes and loaves flying through the air,
and fighting one another to be first consumed,
a perpetual feast must of course be presumed,
food fried itself and soup rivers flowed,
flying meat balls, rissoles, pasties and dough.
If there was a thinker who took it more seriously,
it was Plato of course, in the fifth century BC.
Plato talks of the golden age of Kronos,
when all men were good, and Kronos was the boss.
Men sprang from the earth, and food did too,
as far as cultivation, there was nothing to do,
no need for clothes, for bed or a couch,
the weather was always perfect for a slouch.
Enter Socrates: did they make use of their time?
Did the ‘golden’ philosophise or waste it in rhyme?
Did they learn wisdom from conversing with creatures?
And make good use of opportunities to read works like Nietzsche’s?
If they did this, then their happiness was,
a thousand fold greater than ours because
we can’t talk to animals and that is a pity,
since animals have great wisdom to offer a city.
The weird thing about Kronos’ people is this:
no sex, no procreation, not even a kiss.
Since these people sprang fully grown from the earth,
there was nothing equivalent to conventional birth,
weirder still, this race didn’t shrivel and grow old,
but grew backwards to infancy, so we are told,
and finally they just went back into the ground,
like bulbs returning to an earthen mound!
But we can’t end it there, with our dear old friend Plato,
there is one more to mention – one you probably won’t know,
his name was Babrius, second century AD,
strange name you might think (blame his family tree).
He says the golden ones were a race of the just,
they did only good. No deception! No lust!
Good for them was a consistently made choice,
and the stones, trees and animals also had voice!
The pine-tree spoke, as did the leaves of the laurel,
nice things only – nothing harmful, no quarrels.
Fish also could speak and sparrows too,
living in harmony everyone knew what to do,
earth gave up its goods both heartily and easily,
and mortals and gods lived side by side in society.
Just imagine that! Having a meal with a god,
then turning and chatting with your ever faithful dog.
My point is this – I’ve gone on long enough.
I don’t mean to be rude, or flippant or rough,
It’s just that well, I know I’ve got cheek,
but I just cannot help questioning Sir Thomas More’s Greek.
‘Utopia’ for the Greeks was both a time and a place,
not a nothing , an impossibility or a ‘not-place’,
it was an ideal, a concept, an important idea,
a notion about which we should have no fear.
We too need a golden age, a land far beyond,
we need poets, imagination, wine and good song,
we need to dream, to imagine, to think and consider,
we need to laugh, philosophise and cook our own dinner!
We need to reflect on how life could be good,
(somewhere we can do without Coles for our food).
We need to think about turning a new page
and for Hesiod’s sake, call it the new Golden Age!
Header image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Claude_Lorrain_027.jpg
Author’s note: This poem was originally submitted to Issue 73 of Griffith Review entitled ‘Hey, Utopia!’. Unfortunately, the aim of publishing a piece in that literary magazine proved to be an unattainable ideal!