The phrase “hanging by a thread” usually denotes that a situation is perilously close to disaster, or may change in an instant. The saying is attributed to the tale of the Sword of Damocles. John F. Kennedy once used it in a speech before the UN on the threat of nuclear war: “Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles hanging by the slenderest of threads.”
To understand its original meaning, you must know the story. The parable begins with King Dionysius, the tyrant of Syracuse (now Sicily). He liked to surround himself with courtiers who continually flattered him. One of the professionals who lounged around during feasts and told the king everything he wanted to hear was Damocles.
During an opulent feast, Damocles mentioned how blissful life would be if he were king. Dionysius told Damocles if he wanted to see what it was like to be king, then he was welcome to come sit at his throne. Naturally Damocles accepted and the king ensured Damocles was lavished with the best food, drink, and finery during the feast. The servant reveled in the moment, thinking how a king’s life was nothing short of wonderful when he noticed that Dionysius had hung a sword pointing directly above Damocles head, suspended in the air by a single strand of horse hair.
In a great fright, Damocles begged the king to allow him to leave the throne and return to his subservient place as a courtier. The point the king made was clearly understood. What appears to be an enviable life of luxury, wealth, and power is, in fact, fraught with fear; dangerously teetering on the edge of death.
The ancient moral often lost to common usage is simple: A life of extravagance and power is not all it’s cracked up to be.
An unrelated, yet amusing tale of King Dionysius has to do with the poetry he wrote. From the collection, Bibliotheca Historica a story is told of how, during court, Dionysius would read his poems aloud to the rapturous applause and praise of his courtiers.
Unable to satisfy his need for praise, he also wanted to receive accolades from the arts community. Dionysius sent for the well-known poet and philosopher Philoxenus to listen to some of the king’s poems in court and give his opinion. After dinner, Philoxenus shared his thoughts and they were anything but flattering. Infuriated by the insults, Dionysius sent Philoxenus to a prison cut from rock, known as The Quarries.
Because of the tireless pleas by the literary circle to free Philoxenus, the king eventually decided to release the poet. But first, he had to dine with the king. After an elegant feast, King Dionysius read a few verses of poetry he had recently composed. While the courtiers lavished the king with compliments on his unparalleled talent, Philoxenus sat quiet. Certain the prison experience had broken the poet’s spirit, the king knew Philoxenus would be grateful for the mercy shown him, enough to give a proper response with a few words of praise.
Once the crowd settled down, the king asked how he liked the poem. The moment hanging by a thread, Philoxenus stood, turned to the guards and said, “Take me back to The Quarries.”
Try It: Sword of Damocles Poetry
Consider a story, a movie, a song, or poem when an era, or any representation of opulence and power, upon closer examination, proved itself more trouble than it was worth. Was there a wistful admiration of the luxury and power? What lesson was learned? Write a poem about it.
Thanks to everyone who participated in last week’s poetry prompt. We enjoyed this heartfelt poem from Yvonne:
Photo by Flair Candy, Creative Commons via Flickr.
How to Write a Poem uses images like the buzz, the switch, the wave—from the Billy Collins poem “Introduction to Poetry”—to guide writers into new ways of writing poems. Excellent teaching tool. Anthology and prompts included.
“How to Write a Poem is a classroom must-have.”
—Callie Feyen, English Teacher, Maryland