A grumpy scribe finds solace in the Greek play he is copying – and two words in particular that will survive when the rest have been lost…
Scribes are the unsung heroes of the survival of any classical work; without them there would be no written papyrus texts and codices, and hence no fragments of drama or poetry. We know that scribes often worked from ‘scriptoriums’, maybe booths or workshops in city marketplaces where customers might request a work to be copied for their private libraries.
But what did the scribes themselves feel about the work they copied – and sometimes saved -for posterity? In the following poem, from my new collection The Paths of Survival, a grumpy and rather troubled scribe from second century CE Alexandria feels he is wasting his time as he copies Aeschylus’ Myrmidons – a difficult and by now increasingly obscure text – for a socially mobile client. He knows that they will almost certainly never read the play but instead be looking to impress their friends and neighbours with their highbrow taste (while the knowledge that his customer comes from Oxyrhynchus alerts us to the fact that, far in the future, the scribe’s hard-copied text will turn up in tatters, excavated from the rubbish tips of the ancient city). And yet, as he proceeds with his work, he finds echoes of his own sorrow in Aeschylus’ tragic play – and two words that will survive when the rest have been lost…
It barely matters if I blot or blotch –
these days no one asks for Aeschylus.
As light fades I head for the streets –
a cheap tavern or the house of whores –
to scrub off this stain of guilt and remorse,
flaws that cling like yesterday’s rotten fish.
On mornings after, I retake my seat,
propping up each eyelid with stylus tip,
making errors I can later edit…
And then, today, a buyer for my script:
some pompous provincial bureaucrat
up from Oxyrhynchus with hard cash,
back-handers he’s been itching to shift.
He claims he wants High Art, Myrmidons
(though he couldn’t tell drama from dog shit –
all he cares is how it looks on the shelf).
For him I etch these words of love and grief.
I think of my wife, dead after a few weeks;
there’d been a baby, some complication,
the pockmarked physician couldn’t tell which.
I came back one night and she was gone.
Into darkness… The skin I, too, must live in.
Mistakes uncorrected, holding the blame.
The only words left now to mask the pain.
(A longer version of this poem first appeared in Arion (24.2: Fall, 2016))