Tag Archives: Ancient Greek

Sappho Fragment 16

Sappho Fragment 16 (translation is my own):

Some men say that the best thing on this black earth is
a column of horses, others say it is an army of foot
soldiers, and still others say it is a fleet of ships.
But I say that the Best thing on this black
earth is to love someone. It is wholly easy to make this
idea understandable to everyone. For Helen, surpassing
all others in beauty, chose for herself the best man—
he who destroyed all the Majesty of Troy—and she made that
choice without consideration of her child or her beloved parents,
but she was swayed by Love and carried this love far away.
It always seems like a female trait to turn away or to
be light in one’s thoughts. And so now you do not
remember Anaktoria, or so it seems; she whose lovely steps and
whose bright radiance in her face you would like to behold
more than the armies or the hoplites of Lydia. We know that it
is not possible for men on this earth to be completely happy;
We must, however, pray to hold onto our shared memories rather
than to completely forget those experiences.

I have immersed myself in this beautiful and, at times, maddening Ancient Greek fragment for the last two days. I used the longer version of the Ancient Greek text with the last few lines, in particular, reconstructed. I realize this isn’t the standard version with which most are familiar. I see in this poem a stark contrast between male and female, which begins in the first three lines with a primael. Men choose war—cavalries, armies and ships, but women choose love. The best example of this is Helen—she chooses Love in the form of Paris, because, to her,  he is the best (aristov).

As the poem concludes, Sappho turns to Anaktoria who left her (some speculate to marry). Sappho, unlike Helen, doesn’t have a choice. But as memory fades the one option for her is to remember their shared experiences. Her beloved, no longer present, can quickly become a case of “out of sight, out of mind”; the poet must make a conscience choice to remember their time together. But as her memories fade and her lover is no longer present, she can just as easily choose to let her go.

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Arcs of Compressed Voltage: George Steiner on Heraclitus

Polymath George Steiner in his text entitled The Poetry of Thought: From Hellenism to Celan, ambitiously seeks to explore the tension between philosophy and language that has occupied western thinkers for millennia.  The author begins his essay with his thoughts on Heraclitus, the Presocratic philosopher whose fragmentary writing is notoriously enigmatic.  The Presocratics, and Heraclitus in particular, fascinated me so much as a graduate student that I chose them as the topic for one of my specialized exams for my Master’s degree.  After reading Steiner’s first chapter I immediately, and enthusiastically, dug up my old Heraclitus texts which I am chagrined to say I have not looked at for many years.  I offer a translation here of a few of my favorite fragments:

Fragment 2:
τοῦ λόγου δὲ ἐόντος ξυνοῦ ζώουσιν οἱ πολλοὶ ὡς ἰδίαν ἔχοντες φρόνησιν.

With the logos being common, many men live having their own personal purpose.

Fragment 7:
εἰ πάντα τὰ ὄντα καπνὸς γένοιτο, ῥῖνες ἂν διαγνοῖεν.

If all things would become smoke, then noses would discern them.

Fragment 12:
ποταμοῖσι τοῖσιν αὐτοῖσιν ἐμϐαίνουσιν ἕτερα καὶ ἕτερα ὕδατα ἐπιρρεῖ.

Different things step into the same waters and different waters are flowing upon the surface.

Fragment 17:
οὐ γὰρ φρονέουσι τοιαῦτα πολλοί ὁκοίοις ἐγκυ­ρεῦσιν, οὐδὲ μαθόντες γινώσκουσιν, ἑωυτοῖσι δὲ δοκέουσι.

Many men do not think about the things, nor do they know the things they learn. But they think they do.

Fragment 31:
πυρὸς τροπαὶ πρῶτον θάλασσα, θαλάσσης δὲ τὸ μὲν ἥμισυ γῆ, τὸ δὲ ἥμισυ πρηστήρ.

The transformations of fire are first the sea, half of the sea is earth, half of the sea is a hurricane.

Fragment 43:
ὕϐριν χρὴ σϐεννύναι μᾶλλον ἢ πυρκαϊήν.

It is necessary to extinguish hubris more than a fire.

Fragment 64:
τὰ δὲ πὰντα οἰακίζει κεραυνός.

The thunderbolt steers all things.

George Steiner’s discussion of Heraclitus is equally as poetic and philosophical as that of the Presocratic whose work he is attempting to analyze. In Poetry of Thought he says about Heraclitus’s prominent place in the history of philosophy and language:

Together with Pindar, rules Heidegger, Heraclitus commands an idiom which exhibits the matchless ‘nobility of the beginning.’ Meaning at dawn.

Philologists, philosophers, historians of archaic Hellas, have labored to define, to circumscribe this auroral force. Heraclitus’s dicta are arcs of compressed voltage setting alight the space between words and things. His metaphoric concision suggests immediacies of existential encounter, primacies of experience largely unrecapturable to rationalities and sequential logic after Aristotle.

Steiner continues his own fiery, mesmerizing language to discuss Heraclitus:

Heraclitus ‘works in original manner with the raw material of human speech, where “original” signifies both the initial and the singular.’ (Clemence Ramnoux one of the most insightful commentators). He quarries language before it weakens into imagery, into eroded abstraction. His abstractions are radically sensory and concrete, but not in the opportunistic mode of allegory. They enact, they perform thought where it is still, as it were, incandescent—the trope of fire is unavoidable. Where it follows on a shock of discovery, of naked confrontation with its own dynamism, at once limitless and bounded. Heraclitus does not narrate. To him things are with an evidence and enigma of total presence like that of lightning (his own simile).

“Auroral,” “voltage,”  “setting alight,”  “incandescent,”  “lightning.”  No one does Heraclitus like Steiner.  Steiner’s discussion of Lucretius in the next section of his text is equally as fascinating. More to come…

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My Pilgrimage from Dante to Catullus to Sappho

The fifth chapter of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage  describes Miriam attending a Dante lecture. As I was reading  Interim I remembered that I had bought a copy of Vita Nuova translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti that was reissued by the NYRB poets series in 2011.  And from Dante I was led to Catullus and then to Sappho.  I am sure that entire dissertations have been written about this topic, but here are my scattered thoughts anyway.

When reading Dante’s Vita Nuova, a comparison between the Italian poet and Catullus immediately comes to mind.  Some of the similarities are so basic and superficial that they can be considered coincidences.  Both poets, for instance, humbly call their collections a “little book” (libello in Italian and libellus in Latin.)  The poetry of both men is deeply personal and autobiographical, although specific details such as dates for events are difficult to glean from their writings.   The Italian and the Roman, both of whom were upper class, wealthy citizens, each fall in love with a woman that is inaccessible and married to another man—Beatrice is for Dante what Clodia (Lesbia) is for Catullus.  And finally, both men are the novi poetae of their respective generations, breaking free from the traditional conventions of their craft (Catullus rejects epic in favor of short, personal poetry; Dante writes in Italian instead of Latin.)

Beginning from the age of nine, Dante writes about each of his encounters with his beloved Beatrice.  On one such occasion, a gathering to celebrate a wedding (some believe it is Beatrice’s own wedding), he sees her with a group of other young women and he is struck dumb by the sight of her.  The loss of all of his senses  is described in a sonnet that was written about this chance meeting with her:

Even as the others mock, thou mockest me;
Not dreaming, noble lady, whence it is
That I am taken with strange semblances,
Seeing thy face which is so fair to see:
For else, compassion would not suffer thee
To grieve my heart with such harsh scoffs as these.
Lo! Love, when thou art present, sits at ease,
And bears his mastership so mightily,
That all my troubled senses he thrusts out,
Sorely tormenting some, and slaying some,
Till none but he is left and has free range
To gaze on thee. This makes my face to change
Into another’s; while I stand all dumb,
And hear my senses clamour in their rout.

The last five lines are similar enough to Catullus Poem #51 to suspect a case of intertextuality. Many scholars have speculated that this poem captures Catullus’ first encounter with Clodia who is sitting with another man at a party while the poet looks on (translation is my own):

This situation steals away all of my senses,
I who am so wretched; For as soon as I looked at you, Lesbia,
nothing else exists for me. But my tongue swells up,
a thin flame simmers beneath my limbs,
my ears are ringing, and darkness covers
both of my eyes.

Catullus 51 is the Roman poet’s translation of Sappho #31 in which poem she is similarly frozen while beholding her lover. Some scholars have speculated that Sappho sees the object of her desire at a wedding, which is an interesting parallel with the setting of Dante’s sonnet (translation is my own):

When I look at you, even for a short time,
I am no longer able to speak.

But my tongue breaks,
and at once a small fire assails me under my skin
my eyes do not see and my ears are ringing.

I am contemplating another reread of Dante’s Divine Comedy and I have Dorothy Richardson to thank for rekindling my interest in the Italian poet and bringing me back to some of my favorite poems from Catullus and Sappho.

For the extra curious here are links to the original languages: Catullus, Sappho, Dante

And here is an abstract of an excellent article about Dante’s influence in Pilgrimage: https://www.research.manchester.ac.uk/portal/en/publications/dantes-pilgrimage-in-dorothy-richardson(6bff1f93-85f3-4b23-99a1-05ddfef79ef4).html

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Filed under Classics, Italian Literature, New York Review of Books Poetry, Poetry

An Addendum to my Personal Canon

When I recently wrote a list of the books that have had the greatest impact on my life, I naturally included several ancient authors.  Each work on the list is something I have translated myself and I was thinking about those texts in the original Latin or Ancient Greek.  But I have had many inquires about my favorite translations of these texts, so here is my addendum.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, but these are the old chestnuts that I return to time and again:

Homer, Iliad: The Robert Fagles translation is still my favorite (the intro. to this text written by Bernard Knox is worth the price of the book alone).  For those who want something more daring, Chapman’s translation of Homer is also something I have really enjoyed.  And for those who want something really daring, Christopher Logue’s interpretation of the Iliad, entitled War Music, is stunning (regular readers of my blog will know that I flipped my lid over this and wrote four different posts about it.)

Presocratic Philosophers: Since these authors are in fragments, the best book I have found that includes both interpretations as well as translations is The Presocratic Philosophers by G.S. Kirk, J.E. Raven and M. Schofield.

Aeschylus, Agamemnon: Once again, I have to go with the Robert Fagles translation of this which is a Penguin Edition.  This edition also includes translations of the Libation Bearers and the Eumenides.

Euripides, Trojan Women, Medea: The Oxford World’s Classics editions translated by James Morwood are my staple translations for all of Euripides. The Trojan Women and Medea are in separate volumes.  The edition with Medea also includes Hippolytus, Electra and Helen.  The edition with Trojan Women also includes translations of Hecuba and Andromache.

Sopocles, Oedipus, Antigone: The Penguin edition is my favorite which is translated by Robert Fagles and includes all three of the Theban plays. (Can you tell that I am partial to the translations of Fagles?)

Plato, Symposium: The Tom Griffith translation by the University of California Press is still my favored edition and also includes engravings by Peter Forster.

Aristotle, Poetics: I still go back to the first translation of this I’ve ever read by Leon Golden published in 1968 by Florida State University Press.  It also includes an excellent running commentary.

Catullus, Carmina: Although the English is a bit Archaic since it was originally published in 1913, I still love the Loeb translation edited and revised by G.P. Gould.  This edition also includes the poems of Tibullus which I also highly recommend.  Tom, whose erudite writing about classic literature can be found at Wuthering Expectations, recommended the Horace Gregory translation published in 1952 which I am thoroughly enjoying!  I have been reading the translations from Gregory this semester as I translate the Latin text with my students and it has been a most enjoyable experience.  Sometimes a different translation, even an older one, gives us fresh eyes.

Vergil, Aeneid: I’ve always loved the Robert Fitzgerald translation of the Aeneid which is the Vintage Classics edition, that is, until Robert Fagles published his. I also am excited to read the new translation of it that will be published by the University of Chicago Press in the fall of 2017.  Word on the street is that David Ferry’s new translation is fabulous.  Stayed tuned for my official opinion.

Seneca, everything he wrote, especially The Trojan Women: I love the dual language edition by Elaine Fantham which has been out-of-print for quite a while.  The introduction and the commentary are extraordinary.  There is also a new translation of all of Seneca’s plays that was just published by The University of Chicago Press.  Elaine Fantham was part of the team of editors and translators on this project before she passed away and I am very eager to devote my full attention to these new translations.  Stay tuned for my thoughts!

Cicero, De Senectute, Pro Caelio: The Penguin Editions of both of these translations are excellent. Cicero: Selected Works, translated by Michael Grant includes De SenectuteCicero: Selected Political Speeches includes the Pro Caelio. These are the editions that I use to teach Cicero in my classes.

Ovid, Metamorphoses, Heroides: For the Metamorphoses I have always loved Rolfe Humphries’s translation that was originally published by The University of Indiana Press in 1960.  The translation by Allen Mandelbaum published in 1995 is also excellent.  Finally, the A.S. Kline translation is also very good and is available online here: http://ovid.lib.virginia.edu/trans/Ovhome.htm

The Loeb edition of the Heroides, translated in 1914 by Grant Showerman and revised by G.P. Gould, is still my favorite. This edition also includes the Amores which I very highly recommend.  Maybe I also should have included the Amores on my personal canon?

Propertius, Elegies: (Many read Catullus and Ovid and unfortunately bypass Propertius.  But his poems are just as good and important.)  Once again, I have to go with the trustworthy Loeb edition translation by G.P. Gould.

Lucan The Civil War: (A very underappreciated epic from the Latin Silver Age)  And yet again, I have to go with the Loeb edition of Lucan translated by J.D. Duff and originally published in 1928.

I realize that there are quite a few Loeb editions on the list, but the dual text and the older translations have always appealed to me.  Please leave further suggested translations for any of these authors in the comments!

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Hero-Shaming: Aidos and Nemesis in Logue’s War Music

Nemesis and Tyche

Nemesis and Tyche

Fat-shaming, slut-shaming, body-shaming, teen-shaming, pet-shaming.  In the blogging and book world I have even seen list-shaming recently.  There has been an explosion of attempts in the 21st century to shame one another into appropriate behavior via social media.  But what do these online exchanges really accomplish?  Have they really made us a more moral and ethical society?  Or is all of this shaming a badly veiled form of bullying and harassment?

It seems that we have come a very long way from the Homeric concept of shame, aidos, which was a quality a man or woman possessed that was a motivation for him or her to follow what was considered the correct behavior.  Aidos is the feeling of shame, humility or modesty that is specifically related to three aspects of Homeric society: situations involving sexuality, the entertainment of guests, and standing one’s ground in battle.  This last category especially pertains to the heroes in the Iliad Aidos, or shame, is what keeps a Homeric hero on the battlefield despite the horrors of warfare.  If a man flees from the battlefield due to fear or cowardice he feels great aidos, shame, in front of his fellow warriors.  James Redfield in his pivotal book “Nature and Culture in the Iliad” sums up aidos and its impact on the Homeric hero: “Combat is the crucial social act, for in combat the survival of the collectivity is at stake.  The aidos felt in battle is an experience of the collectivity; a man stands his ground because he shrinks from betraying his fellows.”

The exemplar of a hero with the most acute sense of aidos in The Iliad is Hector.  He goes into fierce battles brought on by his brother because to hide away from war would cause him great aidos. In Book VI of The Iliad, Hector returns home in the midst of fighting the Greeks in order to speak with his wife Andromache and see his infant son Astyanax.  In this beautiful yet deeply sad exchange between husband and wife, Andromache begs Hector not to go back into battle and she appeals to his sense of pity to persuade him.  She argues that when Hector dies she will be a lonely widow and their son will be a fatherless orphan.  Hector greatly pities his beloved wife as he contemplates with horror the aftermath of Troy’s destruction when she will be carried off as a slave to serve in a Greek man’s home.  But not even the thought of his wife as a captive will keep him from rejoining the battle.  What does keep him fighting and risking his life is his sense of aidos; he will die of shame, he says, if he does not return to battle and has to face the men or women of Troy who will think him a coward who shrinks from battle.  As with the concept of kleos, Homeric aidos is deeply rooted within community, something that is dependent on one’s society.

Paris is a flawed Homeric hero, the antithesis to his brother Prince Hector.  When Paris is saved from battle by the goddess Aphrodite, he feels no aidos at leaving the battlefield.  He is happy to sit in his rooms and drink in Helen’s beauty.  Paris’s sense of aidos is never fully developed and his lack of aidos makes him impervious to any nemesis he might incur.

I am disappointed that Logue did not recreate the scene in Book VI between Hector and Andromache because it is one of my favorite parts of the Iliad.  Logue does, however,  in his account of Iliad Books 3 and 4, approach the subject of Hector’s sense of aidos when the Prince volunteers himself to the Trojans who are trying to decide which man will fight Menelaus one on one.  The Trojans say about Hector’s offer:

Hector has fought and fought, has given blood and now—
Breathtaking grace,—offers his life and his armour to end
The hostilities he did not cause.

In this simply stated line, Logue alludes to one of Hector’s primary motivations for fighting a war against men who have not personally wronged him: his sense of aidos.  But the Trojans decide that it should be Paris who fights Menelaus since he started this mess in the first place.  Logue primarily deals with the Homeric idea of aidos through the character of Paris as an example of how a hero ought not to behave.  In Logue’s account, which is faithful to the Homeric plot, Aphrodite swoops in and saves Paris just before Menelaus is able to slaughter him.  When Paris reappears back in their palatial bedroom, Helen attempts to persuade Paris to go back out onto the battlefield and fight for her.  She is trying to appeal to Paris’s sense of aidos which is futile become he completely lacks this Homeric quality.  He is a defective Homeric hero:

Your death will be the best for everyone
Troy will reopen.  I shall sail for Greece.
And you will not survive your cowardice.

And later in Logue’s account of Iliad Books 7-9,  when the Greeks are beaten back to their ships and suffer horrible loses, the heroes appeal to one another’s sense of aidos to keep them on the battlefield.  The Greek men shout to one another:

Stand still and fight.
Feel shame in one another’s eyes.
I curse you, God.  You are a liar, God.
Troy will be yours by dark—immortal lies!
Home!
Home!
There’s no such place!
You can’t launch burning ships.
More men survive if no one runs.

In typical, short burst, hard hitting sentences Logue perfectly captures the Homeric ideal of aidos.  Logue’s last line of this quote in particular is reminiscent of Iliad V.531 and XV.563 when the Greeks and Trojans, in the midst of battle, are shouting to each other that when men feel aidos, more of them are likely to be saved in combat than perish.  So the Greek heroes’ need for kleos (fame) is what made them follow Agamemnon and Menelaus across the Aegean in the first place, but aidos is what keeps them from fleeing in horror every time they take their places on the battlefield.

The Greek concept of Nemesis, “righteous indignation  or “retribution” is closely related to aidos.  If a man acts improperly then he will incur the nemesis of his community;  it is aidos that keeps a man from behaving badly and attracting nemesis.  Redfield says about this Homeric concept:  “But nemesis is provoked by any act which is both improper and unexpected, ranging from failures of tact to cowardice and  betrayal.”  The outlandish behavior of the suitors, for instance, evokes nemesis in those who witness their bad manners.  Paris’s lack of aidos when he is carried off the battlefield is something that brings out nemesis in Hector who tries to persuade Paris to do the right thing.

I have found Logue’s insertion of nemesis into his poem especially interesting.  As Helen appears on the wall at Troy and looks down at the assembled armies, there is a hush over the warriors as they stare at her in awe.  And one after the other says about her:

Ou nem’me’sis…
Ou nem’me’sis…

There is some behavior that, while not ideal, is still within the acceptable social norm.  Such behavior is considered ou nemesis (ou meaning “no,” “not”).  Running from mortal danger (except on the battlefield), for instance, is ou nemesis.  I thought for a long time about Logue’s use of this phrase in relation to Helen and I believe it is his way of explaining the unfortunate circumstances under which Helen arrived in Troy.  Logue points out that it was Aphrodite that gave Helen to Paris, so Helen herself really can’t be shamed for causing this war that was not entirely her fault.  Thus, her situation is ou nemesis, even from a Greek fighter’s standpoint.  It’s also interesting to note that if it were not for her, then these heroes would not have this prime opportunity for kleos (fame).  So, another reason for ou nemesis.

In my next Logue post I will turn my attention to what, exactly, happens on the battlefield.  What makes a fighter or a man excellent?  How is honor related to a hero’s excellence?

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