I can recall precisely where I was when Daphnis and Chloe opened in my hands like a flower: sitting on my father’s couch, my back to the window and the sun all around. Suddenly I felt the force of a wholly new, an important idea, something I had never considered quite that way before. I closed the book and, somewhat ridiculously, looked at its cover. My Penguin edition of Daphnis and Chloe was blurbed by Goethe: ‘One would do well to read it every year, to be instructed by it again and again, and to receive anew the impression of its great beauty.’
The age of this story makes my living response all the more remarkable. Its author, Longus, flourished somewhere around the second century ad. The story takes place maybe 700 years earlier. Classicists are expected to be impressed, even awed, by the works of classical literature. But to be touched by writing so old is not a common experience, at least for me.
I had read Homer’s Iliad, and the writing at times would sweep me away – on the open sea with gale-force winds and crushing walls of waves, until swimming, struggling out of the frothing surf to reach the shore, I would rise crusted with salt but lifted with joy to plant my feet on solid ground. Virgil’s Aeneid, on the other hand: hardcore. A diamond style. One of my favourite lines of Cicero is the first in a wheedling, oleaginous letter to a potential biographer: ‘I am on fire with an insane lust that you will immortalize my deeds in your writing.’ I also like the slightly nobler: ‘There is nothing so demented that it has not been said by some philosopher.’ The multifaceted poetry of Catullus amazed me, and I even translated some of his more illustrious gems. But none of these legendary writers inspired the love that Longus did.
The author is a bit of a mystery. We know literally nothing about him and even his name is a misspelling. Because Daphnis and Chloe is set on Lesbos, with beau
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