While the overall organization of Meleager’s epigram collection has been brilliantly analyzed by Kathryn Gutzwiller (1998), individual poems still suffer from overly literal interpretation. In particular, scholars insist on reading Meleager AP 12.53, in which a ship is asked to carry news of the poet to his beloved Phanion, as a description of a real event in the poet’s life. The lines in question (AP 12.53.1-6) are as follows: “Richly loaded sea-faring ships that sail down the Hellespont, if by any chance you see Phanion on the beach at Cos, gazing at the blue sea, give her this message…that desire carries me there not as a sailor, but making the voyage on foot” (με κομÎ¯ζει / á¼µμερος οá½ ναÏταν, ποσσá½¶ δá½² πεζοπÏŒρον).
Most commentators read these lines as autobiography: Meleager “stands on the shore of the Hellespont” wishing to send a message to Phanion on Cos (Gow and Page 1965.642); “the poet is a practical ancient traveller, preferring to journey as much as possible by land” (Clack 1992.80). In contrast, I argue that this epigram is a self-reflexive fiction celebrating Meleager’s own poetic skill. Constructed around erotic motifs borrowed from Sappho, and cleverly playing with the propemptikon mode, the poem anticipates not its poet’s subsequent arrival, but the delivery of the poem itself: when Meleager announces that he is “making the voyage on foot” (ποσσá½¶ δá½² πεζοπÏŒρον), he puns on the idea of metrical feet.
Meleager was clearly familiar with Sappho’s corpus, alluding to her both in his poetry (e.g. AP 5.212; AP 12.132b) and in the introduction to his edition of the Garland (AP 4.1). AP 12.53 is particularly rich in as yet unrecognized Sapphic references. Sappho fr. 96 models a pair of separated lovers standing on distant shores; fr. 5, a wish for fair sailing for Sappho’s brother, functions similarly as a propemptikon; and fr. 16 suggests the syntactical juxtaposition of ships and literal foot-travel (16.1-3: “some say an army of …foot-soldiers, others of ships”).
Sappho also informs the figurative turn that follows, as Meleager alludes to his desire being communicated to Phanion across the sea “on foot”, i.e. in verse. Ships transporting papyrus rolls of poetry appear in Posidippus 122 (Austin/Bastianini), where the poems referred to are written texts of Sappho:“the shining eloquent columns of Sappho’s lovely song will survive…as long as ships sail from the Nile over the sea” (Rosenmeyer 1998.131). Behind Posidippus stands another intertext: an epigram by Nossis (AP 7.718), who asks a stranger sailing to Mytilene to announce upon arrival that she, like Sappho, is a poet loved by the Muses. This epigram most likely served as an envoi to a book of Nossis’ poems (Wilamowitz 1913.299). Thus poems stand in for their famous authors, travelling overseas where their authors cannot.
A metaphorical explanation fits the Hellenistic aesthetic and explains the curious hapax “richly loaded” (εá½”φορτοι) in line 1: the ships carry Meleager’s poem (or poetry book), the concrete expression of his desire, and a rich gift for Phanion. Finally, Meleager’s apostrophe to the boat, as well as his pun on metrical feet, will be taken up later by appreciative Roman poets: Catullus (4: “ille phaselus..”) and Ovid (Tristia 1.1.16; Amores 1.1.4), respectively.