review: a selection of pre-classical Greek poetry from "World Poetry"
As I mentioned in my earlier post on World Poetry , this book presents poetry chronology, further divided by culture. The first division is poets of Bronze and Iron Ages, which the book dates from 2200-250 BCE. That’s long period of time. The editors say they chose the poems for their ability to “surprise and delight the common reader.”
The next section deals with poetry of pre-classical Greece. The editors chose two selections from Hesiod’s writings: specifically, a description of winter from Works and Days (c. 700) and a passage dealing with the assassination of Uranus and the birth of Aphrodite from Theogony . The first is a straightforward translation by classist Richmond Lattimore (1906-1984). The second is translated by Charles Doria, of whom I know little, but his translation is earthier. For example, before killing him, Cronos castrates his father, Uranus. Doria tells the reader:
In his right hand he held the great sickle with jagged teeth
he chopped off his father’s balls
he threw them to the wind behind him
they threw away a bloody track in the air
( World Poetry p. 37)
These are followed by a passage from the Iliad and another from the Odyssey. The passage from the Iliad is taken from Book XXI. The Trojan prince Hector has just killed the Greek hero Patroclus, Achilles's best friend, and Achilles is out to slaughter as many Trojans as he can in return. He throws so many corpses into the River Scamander that it becomes clogged. Scamander, the river god, gets testy and tells Achilles to turn it down a notch.
—and you shall have your way…presently.
When every living Trojan squats inside his city’s wall.
When I have done with Hector, Hector with me, to death.
( World Poetry p. 38)
Scamander replies by overflowing his banks, tossing the corpses of the slain Trojans up on land, and tries to drown Achilles:
Aoi!—but that Greek could run!—and put and kept
A spearthrow’s lead between him and the quick,
Suck, quick, curve of the oncoming water.
Arms outstretched as if to haul himself along the air.
Achilles was a quick man, yes, but the gods are quicker than men .
( World Poetry p. 39)
The passage is, well, funny. Achilles is running away from a river that he insulted. Not too many funny passages in the Iliad where just about everybody dies but not before he makes a speech about dying.
The passage from the Odyssey is much shorter. It describes the beginning of the Odysseus’s descent into the underworld.
The last selection, by the ever-prolific anonymous, is about the infant Hermes and is cute. It also has to do with the stealing of Apollo’s cattle.
I have to admit that the editor chose some great examples of pre-classical Greek poetry. The stories of Achilles and Scamander and the cattle thief are particularly good, but none of these is a dud. What would have made them even more interesting reading is if the editors had furnished background. Why is Achilles so hot to kill Trojans? They never mention Patroclus. But these are all good stories.
Thanks for reading.
World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse from Antiquity to Our Time 1998
Eds: Katherine Washburn, John S. Major, and Clifton Fadiman
Last World Poetry post: Some selections of Hebrew language poetry
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