The Paths of Survival

– the poetry of history –

Palladas: The Other Half Speaks Out I

Palladas picThese versions of Palladas were commissioned for ‘Palladas: The New Papyrus’, an international conference held at  University College, London on 4th-5th September 2014. This centred on the discovery of a new codex containing around 60 new epigrams (possibly!) by the fourth (or maybe fifth?) century AD Alexandrian poet. These have recently been published with an exhaustive commentary by Professor Kevin Wilkinson of  the University of Toronto.

After reading the poems, I decided that my versions could only answer the ill-tempered misogyny for which Palladas is famed. Hence my title, The Other Half Speaks Out. I also decided to work both on some of the older epigrams, long collected in the Greek Anthology, as well as some of the new, mostly very fragmentary poems from the papyrus.

My first version was of Palladas 9.773, a famous epigram, often taken to refer to the triumph of Christianity over paganism. Here the poet imagines a statue of the Greek love god Eros, melted down into a frying pan, presumably now superfluous to requirements in a predominantly Christian world. A literal translation of this is as follows:
A bronze-smith, melting down Eros, fashioned a frying pan – not unreasonably, since that too burns.
But as I began to work on the poem, it occurred to me that the juxtaposition of love, frying pans – and burning – might have extra resonances for women readers. This was my new version:

From Fat to Frying Pan
First he burned with words, kisses;
Promising a life together, a few kids.
And then it was: where’s my breakfast?
Or, I don’t like my eggs done like this.
Time, like an alchemist or blacksmith,
Has hammered out love, our own Eros,
Shrunk it down, from fat to frying pan.
Never mind: now it is my turn to burn
The best bacon. To waste his good eggs.

My next new version was after 11.287, one of Palladas’ most difficult poems for a woman translator (and/or reader) to approach. In fact, when I Googled it for a text, the first heading that came up was ‘Patriarchal Male Fantasy’. The literal translation shows why:
Cursed with an ugly wife, when he lights the evening candles, he still sees only gloom
In my version, the woman, that wife, responds to her particular charmer of a husband:

Holding a Candle
When I hear his step on the stair,
See the flicker of the evening light
On his yellow teeth or thinning hair
As he peers into that gloomy night,
I turn my face to the peeling wall.
I dream of the lips of my first love
While he snores on or snuffles off.
 He couldn’t even hold a candle.

My final version of an ‘old’ poem, was 11.306. Literally translated, this reads:
Even if, after Alexandria, you leave for Antioch, and, after Syria, you then arrive in Italy, no powerful man will marry you; for ever in hope, you will hop from city to city.
This put me in mind straightaway of another, much more modern Alexandrian poet, C.P. Cavafy, and, in particular, his famous poem, ‘The City’. I therefore decided to filter my response to Palladas  through the prism of Cavafy, using the latter modern poet’s trademark direct reported speech form.  But I also added a coda, a response from the woman quoted:

 All the Same
You might say: ‘Time to look for another spot,
Kiss goodbye to Alexandria, head for Antioch
Or Italy – to find a man who is rich and powerful
(Or both).’ But just as you are unmarriageable
In this one city, so you will always be alone
As you hop from bed to bed, time zone to time zone.
Yes, I’m the woman who’s had her fair ration –
From A to A, I have run the full gamut of men:
The losers, the liars, the cheats without shame.
Here’s a flash: world over, they’re all the same.

With thanks to the conference organisers – Professor Edith Hall of Kings College, London and Professor Chris Carey and Dr Maria Kanellou of University College, London – for their generous hospitality.

Next time: versions of Palladas’ new poems


The First Eastern European Immigrant

As Article 50 is triggered, let us remember just how long European immigrants have been in Britain…


Colchester inscriptionNigel Farage might have been concerned about Romanians moving in next door but, as an inscription from Roman Colchester reveals, eastern European immigrants have been part of the British landscape since the first century A.D.

In 1928 workmen building new garages on the site of the main Roman cemetery in the town uncovered the fragmented funeral stele of Longinus Sdapezematygus, an auxiliaryman from Sardica, the modern Bulgarian city of Sofia. Remarkably the figure’s missing head – possibly hacked off during the revolt of Boudicca in 60/1 – was then discovered over seventy years later in 1996 during a dig by the Colchester Archaeology Group. One of the earliest Roman tombs in Britain, Longinus must have died between the invasion of Claudius in A.D. 43, who established Colchester (Camulodonum) as his initial legionary capital, but before the legion withdrew in 49.

Longinus (3)In his funerary sculpture, Longinus is depicted on his horse with his cavalry chain mail tunic and small round shield, brandishing his spear while a defeated British tribesman cowers beneath his horse’s hooves. The damaged text of the tomb’s inscription translates literally as follows: Longinus, son of Sdapezematygus, duplicarius, of the 1st cavalry squadron of Thracians from the district of Sardica, aged 40, with 15 years service, lies here. His heirs erected this under his will.

Here we learn that Longinus, presumably his adopted Latin name, was a dulpicarius, a ‘double pay’ junior officer, such as a standard bearer or centurion’s deputy; by birth he is from Thrace, a region which covered northern Greece, Turkey and a large part of Bulgaria.

In the following poem, Longinus’s brief inscription has become a fourteen-line sonnet which incorporates other source material about early Roman Britain such as the prized British Agassian hunting dogs described by many ancient sources, as well as the island’s reputation for good quality wool – and oysters. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many classical writers also had much to say about the new province’s disappointing weather.

A Thracian Auxiliaryman at Colchester

They never managed to pronounce my name;
as I’m tall, I was always just ‘Longinus’
though my father was Sdapezematygus,
a Thracian, from Sofia. Can’t complain:
I was on double time. The days were dank
but the oysters were good. I bought a cloak
plus a new hunting bitch, Agassia,
with squat little legs, sharp teeth and soft paws
(the wife and kids back home would have loved her).
Fifteen years I served with the cavalry
across the east – Syria, Scythia –
at forty it ends here. Remember me:
I was part of the advance, one of the first.
Your ancestor. My bones still feed this earth.

A New Fragment – And a New Translation: Sappho, The Cologne Fragment

220px-Tithonos_Eos_Louvre_G438_detailWhen a hitherto unknown Sappho papyrus was discovered at the University of Cologne in 2004 – and later published by Martin West in 2005 – there was huge media interest in the ‘new’ Sappho poem. However, as Sappho scholars soon recognised, most of this ‘new’ work was actually another piece of the puzzle from an existing piece of papyrus from Oxyrhynchus, fragment 58. With tattered, disputed text, scholars have had to become inured to the fact that not just their interpretation but their very content might constantly be shifting.

This means, of course, that the text we appear to have now is not the same one I translated for Sappho: Poems and Fragments thirty years ago. Nevertheless, when I was working on my, then much more incomplete poem, I felt a strong affinity to the fragment from the start; it became the one exception to my rule of not filling in the gaps, although I dutifully added a page note to the effect that ‘most of this translation is conjecture’.

Such conjecture was, of course, aided by the poem’s reference to the myth of Tithonus and Eös, the immortal Dawn who gave her lover eternal life but forgot to give him eternal youth until he was transformed into a shrivelled cicada:

…already old age is wrinkling my skin
and my hair is turning from black
to grey; my knees begin to tremble
and my legs no longer carry me…
oh, but once, once we were like young deer
…what can I do?…

                                    …it is not possible
to return to my youth; for even
Eös, the dawn, whose arms are roses,
who brings light to the end of the earth –
found that old age embraced Tithonus,
her immortal lover…
                                      …I know I must die
yet I love the intensity of life
and this, and desire, keep me here in
the brightness and beauty of the sun
[and not with Hades…]

When West’s new, more complete, text appeared in 2005, it was very gratifying to discover that, by coincidence, my conjectures followed this quite closely. If translation is an activity that occupies the realms of inspiration and creativity, as well as the pages of the dictionary, then it was also cheering to find that it embraced serendipity as well. For this reason, when I was recently asked by Peggy Reynolds to provide a version of the West’s new text for Poet in the City’s ‘Sappho…Fragments’ event at the Bloomsbury Theatre London on October 31st, so entwined were the two texts in my mind, they proved harder to disentangle than I might have thought.

In the end, to distinguish this new version from my earlier reconstruction, I decided to use rather more formal, less conversational semantics in English. But despite all efforts, I found it hard to keep to the six couplets of West’s reconstruction without writing prose lines. And so the text was transmuted into an almost-sonnet of fourteen lines. Nevertheless, thirty years – and two millennia later – it still felt as if Sappho was at my shoulder as I wrote:

The gifts of the Muses are violet-threaded,
rare: follow their path, my daughters, pursue
the lyre’s clear-voiced, enthralling song.
Once I, too, was in tender bud. Now old age
is wrinkling my skin and my hair is turning
from black to grey; my heart is weighted,
knees buckle where I danced like a deer.

Yet what else can I do but complain?
To be human is to grow old. They say
Eös, the rosy-fingered dawn, whispered,
of love to Tithonus, whirled him away
to the very edge of the world, beguiled
by his youth and beauty. Yet still he aged,
still he withered, despite his immortal wife.

The Articulation of Grief III: How Personal Should Personal Poetry Be?

dolbyBowlIn this third extract from Piecing Together the Fragments, published last week by OUP, I will be looking at the thorny issue of just how private and personal poetry should be – and how, through translation, this dilemma can be addressed, if not resolved. As in my previous extract, this passage comes from my discussion of my 2004 volume, Chasing Catullus, and examines questions raised by a series of poems written after the death of my niece from cancer.

Throughout these poetic appropriations [in Chasing Catullus],  I felt increasingly uneasy, not just at the exposure of such deeply personal experiences but at the unavoidable issue of the validity of turning such private trauma into literature.

Considering these issues, both personal and professional, I came across a passage from the Republic (398a) in which Plato explains that, while poets would be welcomed if they visited his Utopian city, they would not be allowed to live there: ‘If a man, it seems, who was capable by his cunning of assuming every kind of shape and imitating all things, should arrive in our city, looking to exhibit his work, we should worship him as a holy and wondrous being, but would tell him that we have no man of such a kind in our city, nor is it lawful for any such one to be there. And, having anointed him with myrrh and crowned him with garlands, we would send him away to another city’.

This extract provided a foundation text for a new poem, ‘Cancel the Invite’, elaborating on Plato’s original, stretching it, transgressing it, transforming prose in to poetry. In this last transformation, I was influenced by James Harpur’s 1996 poem ‘The Flight of the Sparrow’, which I had long admired, and which preformed similar metamorphoses on Bede’s image of the brevity of life as a sparrow flying through a mead hall on a dark  night. I also overlaid my text with echoes of T.S. Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’ from Four Quartets, which I had been reading at the time of my niece’s funeral, and which formed another layer of intertextuality, another palimpsest. For instance, lines 21 ff of Eliot’s poem are deliberately recalled in its opening lines. In this way, ‘Cancel the Invite’ provided a dialogue with its preceding poems, questioning whether such personal material should be used as poetic subject-matter, and articulating my own conflict about the issue:

 If you came, if you came this way to our city,
 taking the old road, the salt road, up from the harbour,
 and it’s early days, mid-morning, late September,
 sky an upturned limpet’s shell, flesh-scooped, chalk blue –
  or later, maybe, at dusk in depths of winter,
the sky a pebble dropping to a shore-line pool…
And if you came, if you should slip through our gates
while our guards are down, dealing out their final hands –
Proteus back from exile to walk our boarded streets,
beggar, broken king, virgin trembling on the brink
(for we know you can change face – and heart – at will);
 and if you reached, by chance, our marbled market halls
to find some unclaimed spot, set out your same old wares
we’ve all seen, we’ve all heard too many times before
(and besides, could buy cheaper in any local stores)
then we’d welcome you as a stranger, as a guest,
wash your dusty feet, throw fresh garlands round your neck,
commend your art, revere your turncoat trickster’s skill,
and then, because poets are forbidden here by law –
for we need doctors, surgeons, men to find the cure –
we’d show you, so politely, to the waiting door.

Poems such as these not only translate but interact with their source text, re-enacting as well as voicing otherwise unapproachable or uncomfortable emotions such as grief or guilt. Here, translation becomes a part of the transformed poem’s metaphoric landscape or perhaps, as Charles Tomlinson expresses it, quoting Georges Braque’s Cahiers D’Art: ‘“no longer concerned with metaphor but metamorphoses”.’ As Tomlinson continues, such metamorphosis transforms its object ‘into a less predictable, a more variously multi-faceted image’. I also wanted to see how far the line between translation and poetry would stretch, to use translation in new and different ways, to take it as far as it would possibly go as a creative art form in itself, until translation and original poem became indivisible from the other. As I noted in my preface to the volume, my aim in the collection had been: ‘not only to blur the distinction between original and translation, but to make it unimportant, until the reader – or even the writer – cannot distinguish between the two.’

51BWqT1tOsLYou can find more details and a sample chapter of Piecing Together the Fragments on the OUP website here. Or order it on Amazon here. There is also a small article about it in the current OUP Classical Studies catalogue which you can find here.

For more information on Hazel Dolby’s wonderful calligraphy and artefacts  click here  

Articulating Grief II: Cavafy’s Things

cp-cavafyIn C.P. Cavafy’s 1919 poem ‘The Afternoon Sun’, the Greek Alexandrian poet revisits by chance a shabby room which he had once shared with a lover. As in so much of Cavafy’s verse, the poem recreates the past with an erotic intensity, imbuing everyday items – a chair, a jug, and, of course, a bed – with a sense of yearning. The poem had always been a favourite of mine but recently it took on a new significance; my husband and I had decided to buy a new dining table and so arranged for a local charity to collect the old one we had used for over twenty years to sell in their high street shop. Sometime later a cafe opened up next door to the shop and, on visiting it, we recognised our old table among its eclectic collection of furniture  at once.This, in itself, reminded me of the ‘worn-out old things’ in ‘The Afternoon Sun’. But the poem’s closing lines, in which Cavafy recalls his final meeting with his lover, also had a new, more personal resonance; my mother had died very suddenly and, by chance, Cavafy’s parting  also closely echoed the last time I had seen her. I had found it impossible to write about my grief in any way but, through a new version of Cavafy’s Greek text, I found myself able to articulate it for the first time. Now my father and I sit at our old table for coffee every Tuesday morning, and remember.

                                    Cavafy’s Things
            (after The Afternoon Sun and i.m. Darlene Balmer)

We knew it at once: the faded grooves
touched by the afternoon sun.
The crack where we’d left it too long
 in the window, splitting the wood in two.
The candle wax we’d scrubbed but not removed.

 Ah,  yes, this table, it was our family.

 We’d seen it last in the collection van,
shrouded by its upturned chairs.
Now here it was in the newly-opened café
(had it been an office for commercial affairs?
Or maybe a solicitors? No, the bakers…),
lined round in pine, tarnished, second-hand;
a resting-place for dust-blanched builders
slumped over strong tea, the full English,
as dark and heady as funeral incense.

They must be around somewhere,
those worn-out old things…

 On the other side, the place where she laughed
every birthday, all those festive lunches;
in the centre, the faint circle of a wine glass
set down to carry in warmed plates or dishes,
indelible now, an ever-bleeding blemish.

 That afternoon, at 4 o’clock, we said goodbye
for one week only….. I thought I’d see her.
And then that week became forever.

This poem was first published in Agenda, Vol 47,2, Spring 2013. For more information click here

Classical Versioning and the Articulation of Grief

DP114272In this second taster extract from ‘Piecing Together the Fragments’, I examine the writing of my first collection, Chasing Catullus, published by Bloodaxe Books in 2004, a work which employed classical texts and versioning as a means of approaching family bereavement and grief. It is also a memorial to my niece Rachel as this week sees the seventeenth anniversary of her death. She would have been twenty-five next month.

                 Speaking Through A Text: Ovid’s Many-Headed Hydra
At the same time as exploring new ways of approaching translation and versioning, I was also grasping for a way to deal with personal grief. Just after I finished Classical Women Poets and had began to work on Catullus: Poems of Love and Hate, my sister’s then six-year-old daughter was diagnosed with aggressive stomach cancer, a period which ended tragically with my niece’s death in August 1996. I had recorded these experiences in a notebook as a means of exorcism but had put these writings aside, too painful even for myself to read. But gradually through the dark fog of bereavement, I began to write again in the only way I found that I could: through the prism of classical literature – and its translation. Similarly, it is interesting that classical scholar Thomas Van Nortwick has recorded how his study of Greek literature, particularly Homer, helped him to come to terms with the early death of a beloved nephew. As he asks himself: ‘What can Greek literature teach me about the role of gifts in the life of a spirit?’

These new poems form a diary sequence, comprising Chasing Catullus’s second, central section, which follows, both directly or obliquely, the course of my niece’s illness, its most private or difficult events articulated through the voices of classical myth and literary reference, the vocabulary through which I could begin to the unsayable. As Sullivan notes of Pound’s various literary ventriloquisms: ‘[he] realized that what he wanted to express could only be expressed in that particular way.’ In addition, Elizabeth Dodd has argued that American women poets such as H.D., Elizabeth Bishop and Louise Glück, have worked in a form of ‘personal classicism’, a means to become a woman poet in a male, literary world but at the same time to avoid the confessional tone of Anne Sexton or Sylvia Plath…

…The sequence also made use of embedded quotes from classical texts – the quotes Stephen Harrison has termed ‘appropriated’ – in order to articulate a dialogue between source text and original poem. For example, the poem, ‘Cutting the Hydra’, a proverbial expression in classical Greek for attempting an impossible task, addresses a surgeon’s initially confident but, tragically, ultimately unsuccessful attempt to remove my niece’s tumour. Here, the poem’s first stanza is based on Ovid’s account of Hercules’s slaying of the monstrous many-headed serpent, the Hydra (Metamorphoses 9. 67-78). As Hercules’ heroic confidence is deflated, its second stanza returns to my own narrative voice, referencing the later myth of Hercules, killed by his wife Deianira, who gave him a shirt dipped in the Hydra’s poisonous blood:

Cutting the Hydra

He said: “It’s child’s play, the cradle work of Junior days,
labours I’ve performed since I was little more than boy;
so if you think we can be beaten by some snake in grass,
remember, of this seething coil, you are one small part:
true, it breeds on its own death; hack away a head, any
of its many hundred necks, and two improved grow back,
fed on evil, foul branches of the serpent’s tree
but I’m its master – and what I master I destroy.”

Afterwards he couldn’t even look us in the face.
I saw him going home to his own Deianira,
tucking into cutlets, mash, one more gin with bitters,
white coat deflated on its peg, buff suit skinned and shed.

As we have seen, for Pound, such adopted selves were masks or personae, a means of speaking through another text. And in these poems, too, as in many others in the sequence, appropriating these different, classical selves allowed me to communicate the horror of the situation without directly narrating it, providing ‘the profound place to hide’ that Charles Rowan Beye has seen in the field; a slippage of self-construction and self-image, affording a means to be of myself and yet out of the self. As I noted in a 2006 paper for the ‘Self and Identity in Translation’ conference at the University of East Anglia, I needed a form that would allow me to practise deception, if not self-deception, a self-protective mechanism which could shield me from the horror of the experience described. All in all, the reality was too painful, too shocking, and ultimately too private, to be portrayed any other way except through the shifting filter of classical literature, weeding out what was or wasn’t acceptable, what might or might not be palatable, not just for the writer but for the reader too.
                                                                                                                                      Josephine Balmer

You can find more details on Piecing Together the Fragments on the OUP website here. Or pre order it on Amazon here. T51BWqT1tOsLhere is also a small article about it in the current OUP Classical Studies catalogue which you can find here.

Next time: a discussion of the issues surrounding the use of personal experience in art – and how speaking through classical texts might help us to resolve them.

Translation and the Rehabilitation of Forgotten Ancient Poetry


My new book on translation and poetry, Piecing Together the Fragments: Translating Classical Verse, Creating Contemporary Poetry, will be published by Oxford University Press in September. Here is the first short taster, an extract from the section on my 1996 volume Classical Women Poets (published by Bloodaxe Books). This explores how, in conjunction with classical scholarship, translation can reanimate and rehabilitate lost fragments by forgotten ancient poets, here by Hedyle, a woman poet from Athens:


A Snatch of Sea Air: Hedyle’s ‘Scylla’
Hedyle, the only extant woman poet from Athens, was harder to track down, despite the city’s far more mainstream literary tradition. As Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz has noted of classical Athens: ‘there were times and places more hospitable to women writers.’ Similarly, when collecting poets for her 1983 anthology, ‘Women Poets of the World’, Joanna Bankier discovered that women writers seem to flourish in ‘decentralised cultures’ but vanished under ‘a strong centralised power’ where poetry became a prestigious activity. Thought to date from the third century BC, a snatch of Hedyle’s mythological poem, ‘Scylla’, had originally been quoted by Athenaeus (7.297A) around AD 200.

But so obscure was the piece that Jane Synder’s indispensible ‘The Woman and the Lyre’ made only passing reference to it, although Diane Rayor included a literal translation in her 1991 anthology, ‘Sappho’s Lyre’, in which one Glaucus presents love gifts of ‘cockleshells from the Erythraian reef’ and ‘still unfledged halcyon chicks’ to a sea-nymph, Scylla. Through Rayor’s excellent referencing, I tracked down an edited text in ‘Supplementum Hellenisticum’. This points to a fascinating re-imagining of the myth of Homer’s six-headed sea-monster, Scylla, here seen in her youth as a beautiful girl, loved unrequitedly by the merman, Glaucus.

Hedyle’s approach appears to contrast starkly with Ovid’s version centuries later in his ‘Metamorphoses’, where Glaucus turns to the Homeric sorceress Circe for help but, falling in love with him herself, Circe jealously transforms her rival Scylla into a monster (13.904ff,14.66ff). But where Ovid’s Glaucus is overcome by sexual passion, wooing Scylla only with an account of his own troubles, Hedyle’s protagonist is tender and hesitant, furthering his suit with lover’s gifts. Meanwhile, in an engaging modern reimagining by Vicki Feaver for Michael Hofmann and James Lasdun’s influential 1994 project, ‘After Ovid: New Metamorphoses’, Scylla is a hapless bystander to Circe, who articulates her own revenge: ‘Because he wouldn’t enter me/I made her unenterable – Scylla/the nymph who fled from the god…/I wanted.’

If such texts were hard to come by, textual commentaries were practically non-existent, apart from Diane Rayor’s brief but helpful notes to her translation, in which she commented on the suitability of Glaucus’s sea-themed gifts. But, as I began to work on the piece, I found further artifice in Hedyle’s list; not just the sea imagery of corals and shells – also associated with Aphrodite, the goddess of love – but the kingfisher chicks, given by lovers in antiquity as symbols of undying love, after the myth of Alcyone who threw herself into the sea when her husband Ceyx was drowned (in the Scylla myth the rejected Glaucus also drowns himself). Kingfishers had other associations, too, namely the Greek-derived phrase ‘halcyon days’, the fourteen winter days when the birds built their nests in the calm before the storm. I incorporated this reading in to my version, stretching Hedyle’s sparse five and a half lines into two stanzas.

In the Greek, it is unclear who is the subject of the fragment’s opening lines. In my version, I transformed these into a first-person speech by Glaucus in order to foreground his lover’s emotion. This could then be contrasted to and distanced from the poet’s authorial voice which ends the extract. To me, the piece seemed a strange and beautiful fragment, concentrated, like the work of many of the women poets, around absence and loss. As I noted in my introductory comments in ‘Classical Women Poets’, in a few, brief tantalising lines, ‘Hedyle weaves a complex and ironic association of faith and betrayal, hope and disappointment, love and grief’:


‘I brought you shells, Scylla, from clear coral reefs
and kingfisher chicks still learning how to fly –
those halcyon days to come. All these I gave
without faith, without hope.’

                                             At Glaucus’s grief
Sirens wept, his fellow dwellers of the deep;
and they swam in sorrow from their rocky shore
by simmering Etna….

You can find more details on Piecing Together the Fragments on the OUP website here. Or pre order it on Amazon here. There is also a small article about it in the current OUP Classical Studies catalogue which you can find here.

Next time: an exploration of the ways in which classical works and their translation can provide a voice through which a poet might say the unsayable.

A Saturnalia Prank


The Roman festival of Saturnalia began on 17th December, a day on which jokes were played and gifts were given, and is thought to be the origin of our own custom of Christmas gift-giving and merry-making. In the following poem (Catullus 14), first published in Bloodaxe Books’ Catullus: Poems of Love and Hate, the first century BC Roman poet Catullus receives a joke-present of a collection of bad poetry from his friend, the renowned lawyer, Licinius Calvus. Here, Catullus pretends to assume, as a wilful tease, that the verse must have been sent to Calvus as payment by one of his disreputable criminal clients; in particular, the poem mentions Vatinius, a notorious associate of Julius Caesar whom Calvus had unsuccessfully prosecuted in 54 BC (according to Seneca, during Calvus’s speech Vatinius had leapt up and protested: ‘Should I be condemned because he is so eloquent?’). Poetic jokes often seemed to have flown between Catullus and Calvus and in this poem, Catullus vows to repay Calvus’s ‘gift’ in full by sending him some worse poetry back – the doggerel versifiers Catullus singles out for mention, Caesius, Aquinus and Suffenus, are not otherwise known although Suffenus reappears in another of Catullus’s poems (22) as a writer so deluded that he buys the finest paper and high quality writing materials on which to write his execrable verse

Catullus’s Saturnalia Gift

If I didn’t love you, sweet teasing Calvus,
far more than my own eyes, then for today’s gift
I’d hate you with the hate of Vatinius;
for what have I said or done to deserve it
that you’re killing me now with all these poets?
May the gods frown down on whichever client
settled accounts with this roll of miscreants
(unless, as I suspect, it’s that school-master
Sulla, writing off debts by setting these texts,
then I bear no hate, have no complaint to make:
at least your hard work receives due recompense).
God, here’s as cursed a verse as one might expect –
a book, I know, you sent to your Catullus
to finish him off, to floor and to bore us
on Saturnalia, our day for pleasure.
No, not so fast, you can’t escape, my false friend,
for if this long night of torment ever ends
I’m off to the bookshops to buy Caesius,
Aquinus and Suffenus, all poison pens,
to pay you back in full for your own torture.
Until then, goodbye, farewell, it’s time to quit:
let those bad feet limp away, lines and couplets,
disease of the age, unreadable poets.

(translated by Josephine Balmer)

Translating Fragments III: Aeschylus’s Myrmidons

As my last two blogs in this series have shown, the translation of ancient fragments has long been problematic. Should they be elongated to provide a contextual framework? Or should they be left incomplete, a mysterious shard from a long-vanished world? Aeschylus fragment 134 is particularly challenging. It is attributed to the tragedian’s lost masterpiece, Myrmidons, which dramatised the Greek hero Achilles’s withdrawal from the Trojan War after a disagreement with his war-leader Agamemnon, with tragic consequences; Achilles’s lover and fellow warrior, Patroclus, fights in his place only to be slain by the Trojan prince Hector. The damaged text of the two-line fragment appears to read as follows: ‘…[our] gilded horse-cockerel [mastheads], crafted by careful labour, are dripping [like wax?]…’

Even shortly after Aeschylus’s death, the comic playwright Aristophanes was quoting the fragment as an example of Aeschylus’s incomprehensible verse – and in fact this is how the fragment survived. In particular, Aristophanes joked about the hippalektruon or‘horse-cockerel’ referred to by the fragment, a beast from Greek mythology with a horse’s head and cock’s tail. This, as Aristophanes has Aeschylus himself explain in Frogs (l. 934), apparently refers to the wooden masthead of a Greek warship, presumably burnt when the Trojans took advantage of Achilles’ absence from the battlefield – as the subsequent reference to the verb stazei or ‘drip’seems to attest.

Clearly, even to the ancients, these were difficult and impenetrable lines. My version, originally published in the Transitions issue of Modern Poetry in Translationbut now updated here, looks to a radical way of approaching the fragment’s translation, by embedding the piece within the poetic narrative of a longer piece. In the form of Seamus Heaney’s ‘sonnet and a half’, this offers a means to enact not just the fragment’s literal meaning but also the complexity of its reception, even within the ancient world. Through a monolgue by a fictional historical character, a third century BC Alexandrian boatman who shares his name, Charon, with the ferryman of the dead in Hades, the poem describes a crucial moment in the transmission – and loss – of the text. Here the Alexandrians, eager to built up texts for their new Library by decreeing that all works found on boats in their harbour would be borrowed for copying, decide to retain the original of Aeschylus’s work, breaking all their previous promises. In this way, the confusion (and also wonder) of the fictional characters reflects our own. In addition, the alluring opaqueness of the fragment can be preserved, alongside its integrity, as well as a narrative context for modern readers.

Charon’s Roll

(Alexandria, c.230 BC) 

The lads tease me, call me Charon. I row
out to anchored ships at night, take my tax
as ferryman, not of pennies but texts,
as our Law decrees, seizing plays, poems
for transcribing in our new Musaeum,
swearing to return all works I ‘borrow’.

 Last week I took some rolls of Aeschylus
to Callimachus, our famed Librarian:
gilded horse-cockerels, we read, perplexed,
crafted mastheads, now melting, drip by drip,
in the corrosive fires of burning ships…
We joked how they must drink, these Athenians.

 Callimachus did not laugh. It was fate
he said: here were the Greek prows at Troy, torched
as Achilles sulked. Myrmidons. Lines thought
so prized now that he would not give them back.
We all groaned, aghast. Yet more horse-cocks.

And then I glanced at Callimachus’s face
caught in a shifting taper as he talked –
like a city put to flame, molten wax
about to twist the world into new shapes.


Translating Fragments II: Erinna’s Distaff

As we have seen with Sappho, translating tiny, one word fragments can present one of the most demanding tasks for classical poetry translators. But longer pieces also have their challenges. For centuries, all that was known about Erinna’s fourth-century BC epic poem, The Distaff, was that it was three-hundred lines long and, according to one commentator, ‘more powerful than those of so many others’. A few of the poet’s epigrams, laments for Erinna’s childhood friend, Baucis, had survived in the Greek Anthology, alongside a couple of short, two-line extracts of her poetry quoted in later commentators.

And then in 1928, as if by a miracle, Italian archaeologists excavating at Oxyrhynchus discovered a tattered piece of papyrus which contained a new, 54 line fragment of Erinna’s epic. To everyone’s great surprise it transpired that this work, too, like Erinna’s extant epigrams, was another lament for her friend Baucis. However, in places the text was so damaged that scholars could not always agree how it should read, with Maurice Bowra (1936), Martin West (1977) and Hugh Lloyd-Jones (1983) all publishing their own editions. In the end, after studying all their commentaries and various reconstructed texts, I had to make a large chart for myself, shaded with different colours for all the different suggested emendations to the original; the problem here, as so often with classical texts, was not how but what to translate.

For instance, the first 10 lines or so of the fragment appeared as a disconnected string of seemingly unnconnected words: ‘girls… brides… tortoise… moon… tortoise… leaves…into the waves…’ Here, the reference to the ‘tortoise’, in particular, was puzzling. However, in an essay accompanying his version of the text, Maurice Bowra argued convincingly that this was a reference to an ancient children’s game, known from a description in Pollux, and rather like our own ‘What’s the Time Mr Wolf?’. There were symbolic associations too; as Marilyn Arthur pointed out in a 1980 article, in Greek mythology, the tortoise was often connected with death, while its ‘straddling’ walk was linked with female sexuality. In addition, its shell was used for the lyre and so symbolized poetry itself. Finally, in 1969 Averil and Alan Cameron argued that the poem’s seemingly obscure title reflects these themes, linking together the tortoise game, as well as the other weaving games the girls played, with death – the thread of life spun by the Fates. In this way, the poem’s poignant themes of lost childhood, of women’s friendship and sexuality, of marriage as a dangerous separation from the childhood home, associated ultimately with death, were themselves threaded together.

I now had a starting point for translating the subject of the Distaff. Overall, my aim was to produce a poem in English, which would be in direct contrast to most of the other previous translations of the Distaff. For instance, Jane McIntosh Snyder’s version in 1989 and Diane Rayor’s in 1991, had both retained the very fragmented nature of Greek text. Yet through the invaluable contributions of contemporary research, a much clearer idea was emerging of how Erinna’s now broken lines might once have fitted together. In this way – or so I hoped – they could be reconstructed for general poetry readers without offending scholarly sensibilities.

But I also needed to consider what form its English version might take. I had already decided to use syllabics for Erinna’s hexameters. Then, as I began to work on the Greek text, it seemed that, by chance, the damaged nature of the surviving poem very neatly echoed its theme – so much so that almost the last word of its most legible section in the Greek text is druptei from the verb druptein ‘to tear’. From this I found the form of my new poem; as I noted in my 1996 volume Classical Women Poets, in which the translation first appeared, it now represented ‘a series of fragmented memories falling across the page; of torn lines, broken conversations and dangling voices, a physical metaphor for the fragmentation of the entire work’:

… the rising moon …

                         … falling leaves …

                                             … waves spinning on a mottled shore …

                                         …and those game, Baucis, remember?
Two white horses, four frenzied feet – and one Tortoise
to your hare: ‘Caught you,’ I cried, ‘You’re Mrs Tortoise now.’
But when your turn came at last to catch the catcher
you raced on far beyond us, out from the great shell
of our smoke-filled yard…

                  … Baucis, these tears are your embers
and my memorial, traces glowing in my heart,
now all that we once shared has turned to ash …

                                                                        … as girls
we played weddings with our dolls, brides in our soft beds,
or sometimes I was ‘mother’ allotting dawn wool
to the women, calling for you to help spin out
the thread …

                       …and our terror (remember?) of Mormo
the monster – big ears, long tongue, forever flapping,
her frenzy on all fours, those changing shapes – a trap
for girls who had lost their way …

                                           … But when you set sail
for a man’s bed, Baucis, you let it slip away,
forgot the lessons you had learnt from your ‘mother’
in those far-off days – no, never forgot; that thief
Desire stole all memory away…

                                                          … My lost friend,
here is my lament: I can’t bear that dark death-bed,
can’t bring myself to step outside my door, won’t look
on your stone face, won’t cry or cut my hair for shame …

But Baucis this crimson grief
                                                          is tearing me in two …

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