Friday, 15 January 2021

Lovers by lamplight

Not long ago I posted three translations of poems about lamps, each from a different book of the Anthology. The oil-lamp is an erotic motif first and foremost because every bedroom has one, whether or not there are lovers around to profit from the light it sheds. In one poem (5.190) Meleager wonders whether he will arrive at his girl's place to find her

    ...chasing sleep, | Sobbing her woes, the lamp alone to hear,

-- though he thinks it more likely he will catch her 'with another man again'.

Here are my versions of two such lamp poems, from the Anthology's fifth book, where the erotic epigrams live. Neither of these is in my World's Classics selection.



Lamp, you were there when Heraclea swore

That she would come, and still she is not here.

She swore by you; so if you are a god,

Frustrate that lying woman. Every time

She entertains a caller, douse your flame,

And steal the lamplight from their indoor game.



Bosom to bosom, breast that leaned on breast,

Lips clasped to lips of sweet Antigone;

Flesh reaching out to flesh. I say no more

Of what our confidant, the oil-lamp, saw.

Friday, 1 January 2021

Three by 'Anacreon'

These poems are part of a substantial sequence in the dedicatory Book 6 of the Anthology (AP 6.134-45) credited to Anacreon, one of the nine poets of the Greek lyric canon. Anacreon was active in the late 6th and early 5th century BC, long before epigram became a literary genre; but since epigram began as inscriptions and these poems are at least notionally inscriptional, who knows. Romantically I would like to entertain the possibility that they are his.

Anacreon's legendarily exuberant persona inspires numerous poems in the Anthology; you can read a draft article by Katherine Gutzwiller about Anacreontic echoes and impersonations in its other books.

My version of 6.135 is quite loose; the rhyming last two lines unpack just three words in the Greek, μνᾶμα ποδῶν ἀρετᾶς. I wanted to capture something of the epic flavour of Anacreon's phrasing here. What might have been more baldly rendered as 'excellence of feet' (ποδῶν ἀρετᾶς) recalls Homer's Iliad (20.411), ποδῶν ἀρετὴν ναφαίνων, of a young son of Priam who glories in his fleetness of foot but finds it cannot save him from Achilles' spear. Liddell and Scott explain pous as meaning 'foot' particularly in its aspect as that with which one runs, which I took as an excuse for 'drumming feet'.



Our Heliconias, she who holds the wand,

Xanthippe with her, Glauce too, come down

From mountain pasture for the choral dance,

Bring Dionysus ivy for his crown,

A bunch of grapes, a tubby billy-goat.



Phidolas’ horse from Corinth’s open plain

Stands here as offering to Kronos’ son,

A lasting witness to the mighty pace

Of drumming feet with which he won the race.



This dress was fashioned by Prēxidice,

Designed by Dyseris: two of a kind

Who share a genius for industry.

Friday, 18 December 2020

On process, or lack thereof

 A couple of weeks ago I had the great luck to attend an undergraduate seminar with a brilliant guest speaker, Josephine Balmer, who made the first modern British translation of Sappho (1984, revised 1992) and has taken up several other, often neglected classical poets since. In preparation for the seminar we read an interview she'd done with Professor Lorna Harwick, one of the longest established and most serious voices in UK classical reception studies. You can find it here.

Something she said about the difference (for her) between translations and versions struck a chord with me:

People will ask me, ‘What do you think is the difference in your work between a translation and an original poem or a transgression,’ and to be honest I’ve reached the stage where I just don’t know. I have to be honest about that. I mean when I start a piece of work, I don’t know whether it’s going to be a translation or an original poem that has a basis in a text or whether it’s going to be a poem that subverts the original text. It just actually comes out of some kind of creative process that I don’t really understand. x I have in the past tried to explain it and I realise that I haven’t really got the vocabulary in which to do so.

My experience with the Greek Anthology for the World's Classics was pretty similar: I'd not intended to put it into verse, it just started turning into one somewhere in Book 1, and I still don't understand why. What I've produced is, for sure, a translation -- I know that much -- but my own process remains pretty opaque to me.

In case it's of interest, here's a poem I translated recently (i.e., it's not in the book), but with the detritus left in that tends to accumulate as I play with phrasing and ordering. Macedonius was a hupatos under Justinian in the sixth century, and his epigrams were included in the Cycle of Agathias.



Your name is Parmenis, for Constancy;

A fitting name, I thought when first I heard,

But you have made a lie of it, and now

I hate you more than death. You shun the man

Who cares for you, and set your sights instead

Upon the man who does not — just until

He takes his turn at falling, so that you

Can shun him, too. Your kiss is like a hook,

Spurring to madness, and I took the bait;

And now from rosy lips I hang and wait.

I took your bait of madness; now I hang

So in turn

He falls for you, and then can take his turn

For when a man


You shun the one

Who loves you, and pursue 

For when a man

Is smitten, you avoid him; 

Has fallen for you, then you run away;

And if he does not love, 

Friday, 4 December 2020

The World's Classics translation on Google Books and Amazon UK

For the skint, bits of my new translation can be read for free on Google Books. Presently these are Books 1 (Christian epigrams), 8 (Gregory of Nazianzus), 13 (mixed metres) and 14 (riddles and sudoku).

Amazon UK has most of the introduction, which Google doesn't; and a fair bit of the rest, with enough pages missed out here and there that you'll get annoyed and buy the book (they wish).

I hope you enjoy exploring it.

Friday, 20 November 2020

Two walking-sticks

These poems by Hellenistic poets both begin with a rare-ish word for walking-stick, leading me to think they may be in conscious dialogue. Leonidas is third century BC; Phanias, maybe second? All we really know is that he is early enough to make it into the Garland of Meleager, in the first century BC.

6.293 (on YouTube)


His walking-stick, and yes, those little shoes —

These spoils of victory adorn your shrine,

Cyprian queen, taken from Sōchares,

The Cynic; and his grubby oil-flask too,

And tattered wallet that had gone to holes

But used to bulge with wisdom. Nevermore:

For Rhodōn, young and handsome, set them high

Amid the garlands of your vestibule

To mark how he was victor in the chase,

Snaring the elder who had seemed so wise.

As Francis Cairns points out in Hellenistic Epigram: Context of Encounter, the ‘little shoes’ subtly establish that the lifelong Cynic fell hard for Rhodōn: after a symposium he processed in kōmos to stand outside the young man’s door and serenade him, making a scene and publicly acknowledging his helplessness against Aphrodite’s power. The rest of Sōchares’ gear is the stereotypical uniform of the Cynic philosopher who professes indifference to society’s comforts and pretences. Often in epigram these Cynic gurus have trouble sticking to their principles, if they even try.

Leonidas wrote a kind of companion epigram, 6.298, in which he presents an alternate outcome: that Sōchares persists in his austerity till he starves to death. As events unfold in 8.294, though, the philosopher's mask of virtue has fallen aside. Sōchares' antics in party-slippers are the talk of the town. Tauta ta blautia; 'those little shoes'. 

6.294 (on YouTube)


The walking-stick that kept him on his feet;

The leather tawse and giant fennel-stalk

That lay beside it, and that used to smite

The brows of infants, and the pizzle too,

That flexed so readily and sang so sweet;

The slipper with a single rigid sole;

The skull-cap, from a head devoid of hair.

Gifts for lord Hermes. Callōn set them here,

The keepsakes of a teacher in a school.

His limbs are fettered now by grizzled toil.

A pizzle is a dried bull's penis. They had a long history as a flogging instrument, though now they mostly become dog chews. Naturally there is a Wikipedia page.

Friday, 6 November 2020

Three books, three lamps

The lamp is the lover's frequent night-time accomplice in epigram. It lights the way to the chamber of the beloved, reveals their beauty, and bears witness to the consummation of desire. Maria Kanellou studies the motif systematically and sensitively.

The following epigrams, two by Meleager and one by 'Pompey the Younger' (whom I would like to be Octavian's rival, the son of Pompey the Great), are from books five, six, and seven. Though the lamp is primarily an erotic motif, it can cross between epigram's sub-genres to become dedicatory and funerary. 6.162 is new for the blog, the others are in the book.



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.

6.162 (on YouTube)


To you, friend Cypris, Meleager leaves

His favourite lamp, the playmate in his games,

Accomplice to your night-long revelries.



She bloomed so finely, was desired by all; 

She gathered by herself the lily-blooms

Of all the Graces. LAÏS looks no more

Upon the Sun driving its golden team

Across the sky. She sleeps the destined sleep.

The young men nightly vying at her door,

The lovers’ scratches, the confiding lamp:

All these she has renounced and put aside.

Friday, 23 October 2020

A fawnskin for Dionysus, a dog for Pan

6.172 (on YouTube)


Woman of Cnidus, Porphyris, now leaves

Her double thyrsus that is like a spear,

Garlands and anklet, wearing which she raved

And footloose wandered Dionysus’ way,

An ivied fawnskin pinned across her breast.

For your own self, before your temple porch,

She sets aloft these her insigia,

Emblems of beauty and insanity.

I am particularly pleased with my version of 6.176 because I am soppy about dogs, and badly missing one dog in particular. Macedonius was a 'Consul' (Greek hupatos) at Byzantium under Justinian in the early sixth century AD; he is one of the poets whose epigrams came into the Anthology through the Cycle of his younger contemporary, Agathias. 

6.176 (on YouTube)


This dog, and leather wallet, and this spear

With crooked barbs I hereby dedicate

To Pan and to the spirits of the trees.

But I will bring my dog back to the fold,

Alive, unharmed, that I may have my friend

To share my scraps and keep me company.

'This spear' is sigunos, a word not found in LSJ. Aristotle notes it as a Cypriot word, and I reckon Macedonius found in in Aristotle. He must have chosen it to suggest a setting on Cyprus:

So that the same word may obviously be at once strange and ordinary, though not in reference to the same people; sigunos, for instance, is an ordinary word in Cyprus, and a strange word with us.’ Poetics 3.21, tr. Ingram Bywater