Friday 16 February 2024

Headlam welcomes his poet

Headlam's intro is of interest. His title page dedicates his translation to his slightly older contemporary and fellow Cambridge classicist, Hugh Vibart MacNaghten, just as (he goes on to say) Meleager had offered his Garland to his own 'friend' Diocles (MacNaghten, a big name at Eton, never married). And he begins with a sweet verse encomium:

With whatsoever skill is ours
we Meleager praise,
the amorous nature, fond of flowers,
the master of sweet phrase:

We Meleager praise, that well
of unkind Love's despite
could tell in song, in song could tell
of kindly Love's delight

Foreign of race are we, that own
too harsh a voice to sing,
music of more entrancing tone,
to praise him, borrowing.

And yet no stranger he, nor dead,
for him among all men
the Muses have established
a deathless denizen.
The last stanza is a shout-out a famous self-epitaph (one of several) in which Meleager declares his cosmopolitanism, AP 7.417. Here are the relevant lines of my own translation of it:

And what surprise, good friend who passes by,
If MELEAGER is a Syrian?
For we are citizens of all the world;
It is one nation,
and the same expanse
Gives birth to all of us...
I recall how bittersweet it was to translate from Meleager for the World's Classics as my own nation turned its back on community with its neighbours. More on Headlam's introductory matter another time.

Friday 2 February 2024

Headlam's Meleager phase

The tail end of 2023 was a time when obscure old translations of Meleager fell into my lap. I've blogged recently about ur-Imagist Richard Aldington's version, and had been all set up to move onto Frederick Adam Wright (don't worry, we'll get there) when a casual mention in his preface sent me off on a tangent -- to Walter Headlam.

If you're not a classicist, take it from me that this is a famous name. Walter Headlam (1866-1908) was among the foremost British classical scholars of the 1890s and 1900s, a specialist in Greek verse and an expert composer of it as well. His university chums included M. R. James (Ghost Stories of an Antiquary) and was on close terms with the elderly John Addington Symonds (Studies of the Greek Poets). He merits his own Wikipedia page which I recommend you read.

Headlam's Fifty Poems of Meleager, with a Translation (1890) is a rare book. He made most of the versions in his student years and the rest soon afterwards. In a memoir written to introduce his posthumous edition of Walter's letters and poems (1910), his brother Cecil recalls the post-graduation trip that made a palaeographer of him:

I accompanied him in the autumn of 1889 when he visited Florence with this object in view. Work upon a new subject amidst new surroundings is always curiously more fatiguing than work of an apparently similar amount in a familiar place. I well remember how Walter used to work to the pitch of exhaustion at his manuscripts in the libraries, whilst I amused myself in the picture-galleries and in the lovely environs of the town. His spare moments he occupied in translating Meleager and writing amusing verses for his friends.

Among the collected letters are the following, written in 1905 to Gilbert Murray and asking him to look over the proofs of A Book of Greek Verse (1907), the work for which Headlam is now best remembered:

...I hope I am not trespassing on any preserves of yours; there’s no Euripides, but some choruses of Aeschylus and Sophocles, and what I think will be liked, the Φαρμακεύτριαι and Θαλύσια of Theocritus, and a number of epigrams—better, I hope, than some of Meleager’s which I turned off in my inexperienced youth and published, but soon withdrew because I thought them cheap and poor. You might strike out the worser of the variants...

Ten such variants made it into A Book of Greek Verse in modified form.

One can of course find Fifty Poems of Meleager online now, and I'll say a little about it in subsequent posts.

Friday 19 January 2024

Two versions by Aldington: Meleager AP 12.49 and 12.114

On Aldington's poetic career, see He was a writer of influence. All I have read of him is his Meleager, of which I will say: this was a man who loved his exclamation marks.

Here for instance is his version of 12.49:

Be drunk, unhappy lover, and let Bromius, giver of forgetfulness, lull your burning love!

Be drunk, fill your cup with wine and drive hateful grief from your heart!

Contrast the Loeb, which we should remember was already out there in Aldington's day:

Drink strong wine, thou unhappy lover, and Bacchus, the giver of forgetulness, shall send to sleep the flame of your love for the lad. Drink, and draining the cup full of the vine-juice drive out abhorred pain from thy heart.

It looks to me as if Aldington has leaned on the Loeb, but then, who among us has not? His version is more concise than Paton's, but he gets there by ditching important details. Only the truly desperate resort to unwatered wine, and nothing makes a man more desperate than heartsickness over a lovely boy.

His version of 12.114 also loses a significant detail, this time the fact that the poem concerns a lovely girl:

Hail to you, Morning Star, O messenger of Dawn!

May the Star of Evening come swiftly and bring back the sweet joy you stole away!

 Compare again Paton:

Star of Morning, hail, thou herald of dawn; and mayest thou quickly come again, as the Star of Eve, bringing again in secret her whom [Gr. hēn] thou takest away.

Aldington's versions give us not a boy, not a girl, but whatever romantic object may most please.

Friday 5 January 2024

Aldington's omissions

 'Two lines have been omitted from XII.33 and XII.41' (Aldington, p.3-4).

Omitting a whole poem a simple business, or ought to be: one simply does not translate it. Aldington declares three such poems as 'obscene' (p.3) and therefore not publishable in English in his day: they are 5.208, 11.223 and 12.86.

The book 11 poem is pretty rude, and, though Aldington doesn't say so, it definitely isn't by Meleager: it's about Favorinus, the eunuch sophist of the early second century AD. Here are the Loeb versions of the other two:

I do not have a boy-mad heart. What pleasure is there, Loves, in mounting a man, if he wants to take something without giving anything? For one hand washes the other. Let a lovely wife remain for me; begone, all you men with your masculine pincers.

It is Cypris, a woman, who casts at us the fire of passion for women, but Love himself rules over desire for males. Whither shall I incline, to the boy or to his mother? I tell you for sure that even Cypris herself will say, 'The bold brat wins.'

And that's a thing worth noting, isn't it: there are Loeb versions. When Paton made the Loeb he put quite a few of its saucier poems into Latin rather than English, but these by Meleager had not been among them. These poems had been available for decades now in plain English to anyone who went into a decent bookshop. Perhaps what was obscene to Aldington is simply that these poems are explicit about some men liking boys and others liking girls -- they flag up the issue too directly.

Anyway, let us look now at those two poems where two lines (each) have been left out. Here they are, with their prosaic Loeb counterparts. Both are at p.23 in Aldington's slim volume:

Heraclitus was once beautiful, but his youth has gone. Do not let that make you insolently proud, Polyxenes; Nemesis is swift.

Heracleitus was fair, when there was a Heracleitus, but now that his prime is past, a screen of hide declares war on those who would scale the fortress. But, son of Polyxenus, seeing this, be not insolently haughty. It is not only on the cheeks that Nemesis grows.

Theron is no longer beautiful and Appollodotus whose eyes were once bright is now a burned out torch.

I do not count Theron fair any longer, nor Apollodotus, once gleaming like fire, but now already a burnt-out torch. I care for the love of women. Let it be for goat-mounting herds to press in their arms hairy minions.

Aldington prefers a Meleager who keeps quiet about body hair.

Friday 22 December 2023

Aldington's Myiscus


He is lovely; sweet and dear to me is the name of Myiscus; what reason have I for not loving him? | For he is beautiful, by Aphrodite, all beautiful; and if he is cruel -- Love mingles bitter with the sweet.

So runs Aldington's version (p.34) of Meleager AP 12.154. He stays close to the Greek. Compare Paton's Loeb:

Sweet is the boy, and even the name of Myiscus is sweet to me and full of charm. What excuse have I for not loving ? For he is beautiful, by Cypris, entirely beautiful ; and if he gives me pain, why, it is the way of Love to mix bitterness with honey. 

 The big difference lies in the heading he has assigned: 'A GIRL SPEAKS'. What motivates it? Headings of this kind frame the reader's experience of the translated poem, and at many points in the history of epigram's modern exegesis they have helped steer readers away from disallowed truths around gender and sexuality in the Greek original. Their frequent allies are categorisation, creative ambiguity, and avoidance or outright alteration of pronouns -- any number of translators have thereby turned pretty boys into pretty girls.

De-gaying epigram is easiest when the Greek name of a male beloved rings ambiguously in modern ears, as 'Myiscus' does not. Any reader is going to know that he is masculine. Fallbacks in such a case can include rearrangement and recategorisation of poems, a game Aldington does not play; or occasionally refocalisation, in which paratext plays a vital role. That would be the easy thing to think about Aldington's 12.154 if we met it in some other context --  but literary epigrams are invariably encountered in some kind of sequence, and Aldington has already given us several Myiscus poems that are openly homoerotic. Here are a couple:

By Eros, Tyre brings forth beautiful lads, but Myiscus outshines the others as the bright sun outshines the stars. (AP 12.59, p.25)

One beauty is all I know, my keen eye sees Myiscus only; I am blind to all the rest. | He seems to me everything. Do the eyes see thus to flatter the heart? (AP 12.106, p.30)

So why does he title his final Myiscus poem 'A GIRL SPEAKS'? Is it that in this poem Myiscus gains a little agency, the power to say no? Once again, I am left wondering.

Friday 1 December 2023

Meleager resexed

This week we begin digging into the versions of Meleager made by Richard Aldington a little over a century ago (1920). The following epigram by Meleager is placed among the erotic poems of Book 5. Its position there is not an infallible guide to its content: when Cephalas divided heterosexual from homosexual amours, he occasionally made mistakes. But I don't doubt that it belongs where he placed it. The motif of the lamp is characteristic of epigrams about faithless partners in opposite-sex liaisons.

I give Aldington's version first, then mine:


You, holy Night, and you, Lamp, were the only witnesses of the oaths we took; she swore that she would love me and I that I would never leave her; you witnessed our common testimony.

Now she says that the oaths were written in water and you, Lamp, see her in the arms of others!


You holy Night, you lamp: no celebrants
But you we chose, to witness to our vows.
His was to love me always, mine to leave
Him never; and the two of you were there.
But now he says those oaths are borne away
On water, void: and, lamp, you see him now
Enfolded by another — and by more.

The faithless lover of Meleager's original is unambiguously a 'he', and Aldington must have known that. Even if he weren't classically educated, which he was, he will have had recourse to the Loeb: quite apart from its facing-text translation, Paton's was the most up-to-date version of the Greek text. The gender of the first-person speaker is no more explicit in the Greek than is the gender of the 'others' with whom the betrayer now consorts, but the scenario is clear enough.

Why then 'she'? At this point we are off into storytelling. Did Aldington not feel comfortable writing/translating from a female character's point of view? He liked women well enough. Did he think it might make the poem read as homosexual? Maybe it's better not to dig too deeply.

Friday 24 November 2023

Meleager in the small press

I've started getting interested again in early twentieth century translations of Meleager of Gadara, after finding out earlier in the year that T. E. 'of Arabia' Laurence nearly took a run at him. Our university library and archive have a couple of rarities tucked away and I'm looking at one right now, Richard Aldington's The Poems of Meleager of Gadara (1920).

Aldington published with the Egoist Press, born from the wreckage of the Egoist magazine (1914-19) and best known for a constellation of literary Modernists: the end papers of his two-and-sixpence Meleager advertise Joyce, Wyndham Lewis (founder of Vorticism), Eliot, and Pound, and end by trailing a forthcoming something-or-other titled Ulysses. Aldington himself was a poet of no mean reputation (Images, 3s6d net). But the Egoist also had an established list of translations and Aldington was especially active on that front, with versions of Anyte (bundled with Edward Storer's Sappho), Latin Renaissance poets, and finally, Meleager. These little volumes sat alongside versions of Euripidean choruses by H.D., and of Posidippus and Asclepiades by Storer.

We know that the Imagists especially prized Greek epigram for its lapidary concision, spare phrasing, and striking...well, images. I must look up Storer's versions; he was an interesting fellow. Aldington's in the meantime strike me as worth blogging. He admits to some self-censorship at the outset and declares his regret at the necessity in a not-yet-modernised England:

... V.208, XI.223 and XII.86 are obscene. Two lines have been omitted from XII.33 and XII.41. This translation is, therefore as complete as can possibly be expected, since nine of the fourteen omitted are probably not by Meleager at all, and the others could only be printed in an enlightened country. I have reason to believe that this is by far the most complete translation issued in English. Those who know French and wish to see how a Greek peot ought to be translated, should read M. Pierre Louÿs' translation of a hundred poems of Meleager.

Hmmm, Louÿs... another rabbit-hole. Looking to the Loeb, Paton did fudge the closing line of 12.33, but not the far worse 12.41 ('goat-mounting herds'). And it would not have occurred to me that 12.86 was obscene at all; Paton translates it fully. Plenty to think about in coming weeks.