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On Seven Greeks: Archilochos, Sappho, Alkman, Anakreon, Herakleitos, Diogenes, Herondas edited by Guy Davenport, New Directions, 241 pages, $16.95.
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In volume, at least, the American age of translation from classical poetry has already far surpassed the Elizabethan and Augustan ages. The tide of verse really began to flow with Lattimore's Iliad and the Chicago Complete Greek Tragedies in the 1950s; yet even now, at least two Iliads, three Odysseys, three Aeneids, and uncounted Greek dramas later, we still look in vain for any informed survey of this staggering literary phenomenon, let alone of its impact on American education, American taste, and American poetry itself.
Anyone who undertook such a survey would probably have to begin by recognizing the single most profound difference between our twentieth-century verse translators and their Elizabethan and Augustan predecessors. In those ages most of the reading public knew and loved the Greek and Latin classics in the original tongues. What they asked about the latest translation of, say, a Roman satire was not whether it rendered the Latin words literally but whether it was itself an English poem worthy to rank with the original: how had the translator matched this stroke of Latin wit, or that sudden shift of rhythm, or that epigrammatic formulation, in such a way that his English verses, also, should haunt the memory like a tune? So, where Juvenal had written Omnia novit/ Graeculus esuriens; in caelum insseris ibit ("The hungry Greekling knows it all; he'll go to Heaven if you tell him to"), Samuel Johnson wrote with quite equal pungency:
By such skills London: A Poem, matching Juvenal in all the qualities that make a living satire, became a classic in its turn.
Our contemporary verse translators lie under no such constraints. They can be confident that almost none of their readers knows the classical poetry in the original, and that even those who chance to do so can no longer understand the economy of its language or the music of its verse-forms (for the classicists are now kept far too busy saving their necks by churning out secondary literature to pause over such imponderables). And what, on the whole, they give us correspondingly lacks the qualifies that have always made the classical poems worth reading: it is essentially prose chopped up into any line-lengths that will suit the page, and containing scarcely a phrase that is likely to haunt the memory—except perhaps because of some particularly awful ineptitude or cacophony. "It is not poetry, but prose nm mad." And yet this sort of stuff is marketed in massive quantities to the public (and above all to the young and defenseless public, the high-school and college students) as if it were identical to the poetry of Homer or Sophocles or Virgil; and is so taught, and so received. "Lattimore, Chapter Six" has become a fairly common way of citing the farewell of Hector and Andromache in the sixth book of the Iliad, even in quite august institutions of learning. The merchant translators of our time may well remind one of the War-God in Aeschylus, who receives living bodies and pays for them in ashes. Yet at least the War-God's clients knew that ashes were what they were getting. Do we? And have we really considered the creeping insensitivity to poetry itself that must result if we don't?
In this grim cultural context, Guy Davenport's translations offer hope as well as sheer delight. The book under review brings together seven Greek authors whom he has translated separately at various times over the last thirty years. Five of them are poets, dating from the seventh to the third centuries B.C.; the other two are philosophers, of the early fifth and the fourth centuries respectively, who expressed their highly unusual visions of our world in a prose that, for poignancy, economy, and wit, would put many a professed poet to shame. Davenports introduction manages to pack into twenty-two pages a totally convincing apology for the study of the Greeks, and particularly—but not exclusively—the archaic Greeks. In his prose, just as in his verse translations, he shows a marvelous gift for making exactly the right connections in the fewest words possible. Archilochos, for example, "sometimes spoke with the vocabulary of a paratrooper sergeant," and Sappho sang of love "with Euclidean terseness and authority."
The first four authors in the book are archaic poets of the kind conventionally called "lyric," all of them famous masters in their day: Archilochos, Sappho, Alkman, and Anakreon. To translate them truly—that is, not just to slop roughly equivalent English words on the page in a pretty pattern, but to reawaken the song—is about as difficult a task as a translator can set himself. The chief difficulty is that Time has shattered all their work into sherds and splinters (just as he has shattered all ancient Greek lyric, except for parts of Pindar and Bacchylides). A second, and much less obvious, problem arises from the ambiguity residing in the term "lyric poet." Where an archaic Greek is concerned, do not envisage some pale scribbler driving his quill behind the closed shutters of Rome or Recanati; envisage rather a maker and setter of songs for parties (parties made up of highly civilized women, or rowdy seafarers, or bisexual courtiers in a despot's palace on an Aegean island), or else a choirmaster/choreographer, as Alkman was, devising and directing performances by men and women to delight the gods of Sparta. All these poems, in short, were created to interact with life, with life in many moods and many rhythms, and a good translator must let us feel this.
There is not much that Davenport or anybody else can do with the tiniest surviving splinters, although a surprising number even of these can challenge our imagination to construct the missing context for them, and so to build a new poem of our own: just what was the word "soda" doing in a poem of Sappho's (Fragment I97)? Or who was "drinking Eros" in Anakreon's Fragment 110, and why, and what did it taste like? It is, of course, in the fragments more than half a dozen Greek words long that Davenports full genius for the translation of life as well as of poetry appears. Here he meets the resources of Greek with all the resources our language owns in rhythm, meter, rhyme, assonance, and verbal wit, and by playing off earlier English poetry. His version of Anakreon's Fragment 73, "Show me the way to go home./I'm drunk and l need to go to bed," is a fine example of his allusive technique: a minute change in a modem music-hall song has not just captured most of Anakreon's literal meaning but has sent the rhythm and ambience of his poem winging straight to a modem reader's heart. A more sophisticated example is the translation of Anakreon's Fragment 53, an uncharacteristically melancholy poem on aging and dying which seems exactly suited to the meter and manner of A Shropshire Lad into which Davenport renders it (except for a neat metrical somersault in the last line):
Davenports translation of Herakleitos seems to me the least satisfying of any in this book. Herakleitos was probably the most utterly original observer of the nature of things in Western history (analogies must be sought among the Buddhist sages), but he tended to deliver his observations in what, essentially, were riddles: their diction and syntax are the simplest imaginable, while their overtones are intimate. "Nature loves to hide" (Fragment 17, in Davenports translation); "Character is fate" (Fragment 69); "Wisdom alone is whole, and is both walling and unwilling to be named Zeus" (Fragment 119). Such loaded simplicity leaves a translator no honest option but to render the Greek as literally as possible, and one can think of at least three English translations that offer a competent rendering of all the fragments in that way. The problem with Davenports is that rather too often he inexplicably distorts or even abandons Herakleitos' text. Herakleitos wrote (and every scientist and scholar since must have understood his meaning perfectly), "Men dig up and search through much earth to find little gold" (Fragment 4). Davenport unbalances the thought by dropping the "little: Herakleitos wrote, "Time is a little boy playing checkers" (Fragment 24). Davenport turns this into "History is a child building a sand-castle by the sea; apparently because some commentators on the fragment have adduced the passage in Homer (Iliad 15:362) where Apollo is compared to a child building a sand-caste and tearing it down. This, frankly, seems wanton: at a single blow, Herakleitos is robbed of one stunning image and Homer of another.
Herakleitos may have died about 480 B.C.; the next of our seven Greeks, Diogenes the Dog, founder of the Cynic school of philosophy, lived from 404 to 323. In between, something happened about which this book is almost wholly silent, the so-called Classical Miracle. By Diogenes' birth the temples, statues, and porticos of Peri-clean Athens were firmly in place. Tragedy and comedy had reached heights that they were not to reach again in the next fifteen centuries, and history, oratory., ethics, metaphysics, and, not least, grammar were emerging sciences. The fascination of Diogenes is that he ridiculed all these achievements with something of the same wit and irony with which that equally spectacular eccentric, Samuel Butler, ridiculed the civilization of Victorian England. Diogenes' eccentricity, however, extended from his opinions into his lifestyle. He might well be the patron saint of all homeless persons, and not just because he chose to live in a barrel (actually in its Hellenic equivalent, a large storage-jar, or pithos): "The porches and streets of Athens were built for me as a place to live"; "I learned from the mice how to get along: no rent, no taxes, no grocery bill"; "Before begging it is useful to practice on statues." He saw straight through the boredoms and pretensions of emerging academe: "Grammarians without any character at all lecture us on that of Odysseus"; "At Khrysippos' lecture I saw the blank space coming up on the scroll, and said to the audience: Cheer up, fellows, land is in sight!" Nor was the Dog taken in by pompous talk about Athenian democracy: "I am Athens' one free man"; "I am kosmopolites, a citizen of the world."
By translating the sayings attributed to Diogenes, Davenport has restored to life a sage whom we perpetually need. He also reminds us of a side of the Greeks' genius that is often neglected by students of their epic and tragedy: their world-class talent, which actually rose to ever greater heights as their civilization passed its prime, for the bon mot and the funny story. Here I may quote just one sample, from a book of professor-jokes compiled near the end of classical antiquity and attributed to Hierokles the Neoplatonist:
Infinite riches of this kind still await their Davenport.
We end, however, as we began, with Davenports supreme talent for the liberation of poets from the realm of the dead. Poor Herondas! He was only trying to be funny in his modest Hellenistic way, but when papyri began to restore his work to us about a century ago, he fell into the hands of some of the greatest philologists and metrists of the time. It was no contest: the poet's antique cockleshell foundered almost instantly under the assault of those Cambridge ironclads, humming with all the most up-to-date sensing devices and bristling with the scholarly equivalents of Side-winder missiles and Exocets. It is worth contemplating the opening lines of the most widely disseminated translation of Herondas, which resulted from these men's labors and is, incredibly, still in print:
Und so weiter! Davenport has carried out the long-delayed salvage job simply by taking the Mimes of Herondas seriously and affectionately for what they almost certainly were: entertainments comparable in tone to music-hall skits, but composed in casual, laid-back verse and designed to be mimed in streets or squares by a busker with a hamper full of disguises. In his introduction, his stage directions and end notes, and above all the style of his translation, he has made a living performance possible once more, after twenty-two centuries of silence. May some actor accept the challenge.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 14 November 1995, on page 69
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