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Greek Lyric Poetry , translated by M.L. West

Greek Lyric Poetry (94) by West, M L [Paperback (2008)] - West


[Nota bene: I have combined the reviews of three books into one and used the same review for each. So if you have read one, you have read all three.]



Meleager brings you his lamp, O Venus,

For it knows how he celebrates you in the dark. 



The Greek Anthology is an unusual text with roots in an anthology of epigrams first compiled by Meleager of Gadara in the 1st century BCE and supplemented over the centuries by various editors/compilers until it contained over 4,000 poems of various length and type including epitaphs and prayers.(*) The poems date between the 7th century BCE through the 6th century CE. It is the richest source we have of ancient Greek lyric poetry, as opposed to their more familiar epics, didactic poetry and poetic dramas. The Greek Anthology has a very complicated textual history, not the least reason for which is the fact that many of the sentiments expressed by poems in the collection, particularly of a sexual nature, were not of the sort that soothed Christian spirits. So the text suffered some serious violations at the hands of medieval monks and self-righteous Victorians, among others. 


An additional complication is that there are dozens and dozens of translations of selections of poems from the Anthology, and that all these translators have very different ideas of how to render the poems into English. So, one is faced with the problem of deciding which selections and translators one should read. To read the entire anthology would be quite a task, though it is available in English in a five volume bilingual edition by W.R. Paton in the Harvard Loeb series (and therefore in some of the stiffest English imaginable). 


After casting about for guidance here and there and then sampling some of the texts, I settled on  M.L. West's Greek Lyric Poetry, Burton Raffel's Pure Pagan: Seven Centuries of Greek Poems and Fragments, and  Kenneth Rexroth's Poems from the Greek Anthology, at least to begin. These books are very different from each other, nor do they all restrict their selection to the Greek Anthology.(**) But all three give us an interesting glimpse into ancient Greek lyric poetry.


Raffel's Pure Pagan (2004) is a slim volume of selections of "less well known poems and poets" from the 7th century BCE to the 1st century CE, and Raffel has chosen to give the poems a modern face. Though he writes that he neither "embroiders" the work nor puts "words into their mouths," his line breaks, stanza shapes and tendency towards linguistic spareness are modern. Consider, as an extreme example, what he does with the following fragment of Alkaios (also anglicized via Latin as Alcaeus; born c. 620 BCE)



All right,

Plant trees.

But first




West, who translates all extant lyric poems dating prior to 450 BCE (excepting the extensive works of Pindar and Bacchylides) in his Greek Lyric Poetry (1993), renders this fragment soberly as


Let the vine be the first fruit-tree you plant: others can wait their turn.


Rather a difference there.(***) 


Rexroth, whose fine translations of classic Chinese and Japanese poetry I much appreciate and have reviewed elsewhere, makes his selection only from the Greek Anthology, a book, he assures us in his introduction, that accompanied him everywhere for decades.(4*) An accomplished poet himself, Rexroth states that the classical Greeks and Chinese made him the poet he was. His primary goal in this collection was to create beautiful English poems that were faithful to the meaning of the originals; the complicated metric structure of the elegiac couplets was left aside. Unlike the other two, Rexroth's selection favored the Hellenistic poets over those of the archaic and classical periods.


Though West has the advantage of completeness over both Raffel and Rexroth, within the indicated limits, this advantage is also a drawback. For reading fragment after fragment after fragment results in the same sense of exasperated frustration one feels when one reads the remnants of the works of the pre-Socratic philosophers. Because they have the luxury of choice, the other two translators can select fragments that mimic some kind of wholeness. Though Raffel provides some background material and some notes of explanation (Rexroth let's them "stand on their own"), West's introduction and notes are notably more informative.


As usual, no perfect choice can be made here, so I purchased the lot. Let's turn the stage over to the poets now.


By Sappho (born between 632 and 612 and died around 570 BCE) - translated by M.L. West


   Rich-throned immortal Aphrodite,
    scheming daughter of Zeus, I pray you,
with pain and sickness, Queen, crush not my heart,


   but come, if ever in the past you
    heard my voice from afar and hearkened,
and left your father’s halls and came, with gold


   chariot yoked; and pretty sparrows
    brought you swiftly across the dark earth
fluttering wings from heaven through the air.


   Soon they were here, and you, Blessed Goddess,
    smiling with your immortal features,
asked why I’d called, what was the matter now,


   what was my heart insanely craving:
  “Who is it this time I must cozen

to love you, Sappho? Who’s unfair to you?


   “For though she flee, soon she’ll be chasing;
    though she refuse gifts, she’ll be giving;
though she love not, she’ll love despite herself.”


   Yes, come once more, from sore obsession 
    free me; all that my heart desires
fulfilled, fulfill—help me to victory!


There are other women poets in the Anthology. One of them wrote a favorite of Rexroth:


By Anyte (early 3rd century BCE) - translated by Kenneth Rexroth


The children have put purple 

Reins on you, he goat, and a 

Bridle in your bearded mouth.

And they play at horse races

Round a temple where a god

Gazes on their childish joy.


By Anacreon (582 BC – 485 BCE) - translated by M.L. West


He used to wear a rough cloak, pinched in at the waist,

and wooden baubles in his ears, and round his ribs

   a hairless cowhide, the unwashed


covering off a cheap shield; and he used to go

with baker-women and with rent-boys on the make,

   seeking a phony livelihood.


His neck was often in the stocks or on the rack,

his back flogged with a rawhide whip, his hair and beard

   plucked out, the “poor wretch” Artemon.


And now he wears gold ear-rings, rides about in traps,

“Koisyra’s son”, and holds an ivory sunshade up,

   as ladylike as anything. 


By Krates (I don't know which Krates this is) - translated by Kenneth Rexroth


Time’s fingers bend us slowly 
With dubious craftsmanship, 
That at last spoils all it forms.


And, finally, a lament common to every time and every place:


By Menecrates (born c. 340 BCE) - translated by Burton Raffel


We all pray for it

Before it comes,

Then blame it

When it arrives.

Old age is a debt

We like to be owed,

Not one we like to collect.



(*) To speak of "it" is misleading. What we have now is a folding together of a number of medieval manuscripts, primary among which are the Planudean Anthology and the Palatine Anthology. The Planudean text is named after the monk Maximus Planudes, who took serious liberties with the Byzantine manuscript which came into his hands. The Palatine Anthology is believed to be the only extant, though partial copy of that Byzantine manuscript, compiled around 1,000 CE by Constantinus Cephalas.


(**) For example, both Raffel and West chose some poems from the three volume Lyra Graeca, but those books are themselves based partially on the Greek Anthology and partially on fragments found elsewhere. I'm not obsessive enough to care if a particular poem comes from the Greek Anthology or not...


(***) West's version gives a fair rendering of the rhythm of the Greek original, whereas Raffel makes no efforts in that direction at all.


(4*) More precisely, he added a handful of poems from the Latin originally intended for a similar volume of Roman poetry, a project he discarded.