Prose from Poetry Magazine

Slop and Gossip

by Garry Wills
Greek Lyric Poetry: A New Translation, tr. by Sherod Santos. W.W. Norton. $24.95.

The First Poets: Lives of the Ancient Greek Poets, by Michael Schmidt. Alfred A. Knopf. $30.00.

English literature lives on translation, it is fed by translations, every new exuberance, every new heave is stimulated by translations, every allegedly great age is an age of translations, beginning with Geoffrey Chaucer.
—Ezra Pound

Is ours a great age by Pound’s test? Not in the sense that he gave to the Renaissance or the Enlightenment in England. He could not claim the great effects he ascribes to translation in general. Translation in those ages had the focus that Samuel Johnson identified in his Lives of the Poets: “The affluence and comprehension of our language is very illustriously displayed in our poetical translations of the ancient writers, a work which the French seem to relinquish in despair” (emphasis added). The classics, or modern works based on them, were the prized literary imports. Admittedly, we still have translations from the classics these days, but they are no longer vital to the culture. They do not matter as they once did. This is not the fault of the translators. They lack the shared cultural language, imagery, and feeling of great things at stake that made past translations from antiquity resound throughout the culture. Homer had a hold on Pope’s audience before he ever began translating him; and Pope’s translation had resources no longer available to us precisely because the subject had a prior history for him and for his fellows.

The sixteenth-century translations of Seneca’s plays left their mark on all of Elizabethan drama. Ovid ran through English poems like a blood tracer. Chapman and Pope and Dryden made Homer and Virgil central figures of their time. Horace and Juvenal set the pace for satirists because Rochester and Dryden, like their Roman forebears, lived in courtly societies, where even naughtiness was expressed in dainty forms. Those cultural chimings no longer happen. They had already begun to fade in the nineteenth century, try as some did to keep them ringing—Browning, for instance, emitting “the eagle-bark of Aeschylus” in his Agamemnon, or domesticating Euripides’s Alcestis and Heracles. Shelley labored out a Cyclops and Swinburne fumed up his fantasia on tragic myths, Atalanta in Calydon. They had to work too hard at it, and the lines of connection simply lapsed by the twentieth century.

Why are the classics no longer central to our life? That question cannot be answered by anything as simple as the fact that Latin and Greek are no longer widely taught. That is the result of the situation, not the cause of it. The classics are no longer crucial because we do not experience a continuity with their world. Chapman could translate Homer in ways that went straight to people’s own concerns because he and his contemporaries still believed in cosmic heroes with stellar destinies like that of Elizabeth I. Pope could later translate Homer because he lived in a country with an aristocratic officer corps under royal guidance. When Christopher Logue tries to make Homer modern, his poetry rises out of the trenches of World War I, or rains down from the bombers of World War II. His poetry is powerful, but it will not change the culture. The link with Homer is broken when men fight for elected presidents or demagogues. The only Homeric fighters in World War II were the Japanese, under their Emperor’s gods. We are islanded off from antiquity by accelerating forces—by secularism, by science, by democracy, by technology.

This does not mean that translation is not affecting our culture—it is just classical translation that is fading. We might call this vertical translation, reaching back and down in time to find our identity. But horizontal translation is having a very real effect on us—translation from contemporary authors in other countries, a result of and a stimulus to our multiculturalism. The translations that matter now are from Japanese and Latin American novelists, from Russian and Eastern European and Caribbean poets, from modern Greek and Italian authors. On the last score, Cavafy and Seferis address modern concerns more than do Pindar or Theocritus; Montale and Pavese are more relevant than Catullus or Propertius.

We still, of course, have translations of the classical authors, some of them more accurate than ever, and based on better texts than were available in the past—Robert Fagles’s and Robert Fitzgerald’s highly competent work, for instance. But this work, good as it is in its way, has not changed the larger literature. It cannot express a living connection with the past. It comes in from the outside. Greek drama in English is now an exotic exercise—Pound’s Trachiniae, Robert Lowell’s Prometheus, Anthony Burgess’s Oedipus, the Bacchae of Wole Soyinka or C.K. Williams, the Oresteia of Robert Fagles or Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney’s Antigone, Douglass Parker’s Lysistrata. Even at their best, these versions remain eccentric in the literal sense, not integral to our culture. But the originals were entirely integral to their world, based on long traditions and carefully-wrought formal characteristics, officially endorsed, addressing and understood by the whole community—and something like them was still central to the classically oriented cultures of the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. Contrast that with recurrent efforts to mount modern war protest by putting on Aristophanes’s Lysistrata or Euripides’s Trojan Women. These exercises do not rock the establishment. Yet the originals came from the very heart of the establishment, from civic festivals with civic prizes, competitions presided over by priests and begun with sacrifices. They did not speak from or to a protesting fringe. They were volcanic eruptions at their culture’s very core.

Some people, again taking a tip from Pound, think that there may be a way of crossing the great divide between antiquity and our time. Grant that Homer and the dramatists are at the center of their civilization. Did antiquity have no outsiders? The early Greek lyric poets of the seventh and sixth centuries BCE have been promoted to this role. They are supposed to have broken with the heroic code of Homer, the communal solidarity of Hesiod. They created the poetic “I,” the subjective stance, the inner protest. Archilochus and Alcman (650 BCE), like Sappho and Alcaeus (590 BCE), became brilliant deviants in the eyes of famous scholars like Bruno Snell. Even the fact that these poets came down to us in fragmentary form promoted their “marginal” image, as Pound and H.D., Hugh Kenner and Guy Davenport created an aesthetic of brokenness and silences around these partial texts. Some feminists claimed that Sappho’s tattered verse-shreds had been rent and savaged by patriarchal oppressors. “Subversion” had found its martyred forebears.

Archilochus used to be considered the Villon of the past, low-born, foul-mouthed, but sublime in his verse. That picture suffered a series of blows when archaeologists found out from inscriptions that he was an aristocrat, friend of the powerful, heir to the founding family of Thasos, and devoutly celebrated by the community. That throws a different light on the supposed rebellions of his poetry.

In the same way, Sappho has been adopted by some lesbians as their spokesperson against phallic repression. But she, too, was an aristocrat, trusted by the aristocratic parents who sent their daughters to her for training in the cult of beauty. Her band (thiasos) was an entirely acceptable part of the “mainline” culture of Lesbos, no different from the training of boys in their homosexual atmosphere. There was nothing marginal or rebellious about her status. She seems to have had competitors in her public role. Sappho’s girls would go on to marry and be admired for the qualities she developed in them—and especially for the discipline that made them able to sing and dance to choral music, connected with religious cult, the trademark of aristocratic society in her time.


But we find these and other ancient poets still being treated as “subversive” or rebels—most recently, in Michael Schmidt’s The First Poets and in Sherod Santos’s Greek Lyric Poetry: A New Translation. Santos says he was first drawn to Sappho and then widened his interest out from her poems. He ominously tells us at the outset that he hopes to replicate “the stripped-down naturalness of expression that is a hallmark of these poems.” Nothing could be less true of poems based on rhetorical types—the propemptikon, the prosphonetikonen, the priamel, the paraklaulsithyron, the adynata, the threnos, and so on—and worked out with all the rhetorical devices of a complex linguistic heritage (chiasmus, polyptoton, hyperbaton, hypallage, and so on). This is not a poetry “stripped down” but one built up. The metrical complexity and wit of the poems show a long development and widespread skill in the performance and reception of such highly polished artifacts in a hieratic society.

This formality is not something Santos is interested in or capable of dealing with. Even when we have longer fragments or complete poems, he prefers to deal with excerpts from them. By tearing “bleeding chunks” out of poems already fragmented, he does not have to deal in larger structures, running themes, or connected myths. He follows a trend that has created an impression that the early Greek poets specialized in fleeting moods or stranded aphorisms—which is the farthermost thing from the truth. He bypasses the longest fragment in early Greek poetry, Alcman’s “Partheneion,” and deals with shorter fragments only in part. Sappho, Santos’s first love among these poets, gets no translation of her one complete poem (the hymn to Aphrodite). Instead, he wrenches a few lines from that poem to say that Aphrodite “showed up breathless at my bedroom door”—hardly a sign of divine power. The Greek, by contrast, describes the goddess arriving “with an easy smile from your deathless face.”

Santos tries only two long fragments of Sappho—one of them the priamel on “what is most beautiful” (kalliston). The tricky changes of logic and rhetoric in this fragment are flattened out to make room for decorative touches. Departing from his own creed of simplicity, Santos changes the simple “ships” into a “classical” cliché—“a fleet of warships churning the wine-dark waters white.” “Beautiful Helen” in the original becomes “the far-famed,/milk-skinned Helen.” The other long fragment translated is Sappho’s hypothetical swoon in a loved one’s presence. Longinus, who preserves the fragment, praises the almost clinical selection of self-observed symptoms in this poem. It moves from observing an imagined person conversing with the loved one to Sappho’s inability to do that—for reasons listed as on a physician’s chart. Santos breaks the intent list to turn attention back to the loved one in a romantic cliché, “the aureole around you there.” Where Sappho writes “a thin fire runs at once under my skin,” Santos deflects us from the intense self-observation to introduce a foreign agent for one phenomenon: “It’s as if someone with flint and stone had sparked / a fire that kindled the flesh along my arms.” It’s as if!

For the rest, he deals mainly in snippets. Tiny bits are taken from the high baroque structures of Pindar (there is no Bacchylides). Santos is not alone in preferring to deal with disjecta membra from the complex world he is working with. This cult of the fragmentary has led to an absurd printing of half-lines and even half-words as if they were poems. Anne Carson, for instance, published 350 mainly blank pages of Sapphic “poems” like this one, filling all of page fifty-nine:


for Gyrinno


Guy Davenport does Archilochus the same dubious service, printing “poems” like number 228: “[wa]x-soft.” It is true that even single words retrieved from mummy-wrappings can have scholarly significance, to show what words or names or dialect forms were extant in early centuries. Sometimes a word (or part of one) can stir up hot debate. A prurient thrill ran through the scholarly world when olisb- (“dild[o?]”) appeared (partly) on an unattributed fragment in Sappho’s (Aeolic) dialect. Was Sappho the den mother of the vibratored? But every one of the extant five letters of the incomplete word is unclear, the context is indeterminate, and other parts of the badly damaged papyrus may be more appropriate to the other Aeolic poet from Lesbos, Alcaeus. But apart from such scholarly debate, celebrating the fragmentary undermines the ideal of formal complexity and finish that all the early poets held.


Santos is no better on Archilochus than on Sappho. One of the poet’s two most famous remains is the “shield-throwing” verse imitated by Horace and others. In literal prose this says:

Some Saian [i.e., barbarian] preens himself with my shield. I left it in a bush—it without blame for the act, I without wanting to. Myself I saved, my shield does not matter—the damn thing. I can easily get as good.

That used to be taken as a way of cocking a snook at the high command on the part of “Private Archilochus” (though his very name means “Military Leader”). But the poem expresses an aristocrat’s scorn for the barbaric foe (as a British imperial officer would say “some Hottentot”) who fetishizes a mere thing. The poet also scorns magical notions when he says the shield was blameless. Sherod Santos turns the lines this way:

Some half-cocked Thracian swaggers about
raising up before his men my blazoned shield,
the one I abandoned near a blackthorn tree.
So? It’s not my head he’s ragging them with,
and any old shield can replace that one.
The Shield

Santos dignifies the Saian as a leader (“his men”), and makes room for “vivid” details (“blackthorn tree”) by dropping all mention of the shield’s blamelessness. There is no bridge back to Archilochus’s culture here.

Santos begins another fragment of Archilochus with these lines:

Nothing can surprise me now, nothing can astonish
or alarm me now the god of gods has galled the midday
into night and trimmed the light of the westering sun.
—From Eclipse

This is a familiar topos, “the impossibles” (adynata), used here to say, “If that old man can marry off such an ugly daughter, then nothing is impossible.” The point of any adynata list is that all creation is turned upside down—in the second and third lines above, that night and day have reversed places. A literal translation is that Zeus “has exchanged night for day, eclipsing the sun.” To use the “vivid” verb “gall” and make the sunlight weakly “trimmed” instead of blotted out is to misread the topsy-turvy device.

In another fragment, Archilochus treats political trouble as a storm blowing up, urging resistance on his fellows. The last preserved line of the fragment says, “From the unexpected fear comes on.” Santos destroys this public aspect of the poetry with a single word, “my,” reverting to the old view of these poets as inventors of subjectivity: “and around my heart/a fear that rises from the unforeseen.”

The Greek Anthology

Santos does better in the long later section of his book given over to epigrams from The Greek Anthology, since here he often deals with complete poems (however slight), where personal, even whimsical, themes are admitted. But even in this section he can miss the point. Take his translations of “Plato”—a Hellenistic construct he thinks is the ancient philosopher himself. Santos gets into one “Platoic” love couplet a nice chiasmus (the AbbA figure, “Alive/morning star/evening star/dead”):

Alive, you shone among us like the morning star;
now, like the evening star, your mantle lights the dead.
Aster (II)

But the chiasmus is not only not in the original, but is out of place here. Since the ancients thought of the morning and evening star as the same, the identity of the loved one, among the living or the dead, is the point (no “like” is used), driven home by parallel (not chiastic) description. Santos unbalances the parallel by putting “mantle” in the one case, but not the other—and, besides, how does a star throw a mantle of light?

These things said, Santos can create a deft quiet music in his lines. But I do not know how he reconciles his ideal of the plain-and-natural with all the odd words he uses—talus, dibble (noun), caprocked, hornbeam, judder (noun), aciculate (adjective), vireos, mattered (adjective), scrag (verb), gurry (noun). He can use enjambment to give a finely slipping feel, from line to line, as in Alcman’s poem to Astymeloisa:

With a glance that loosens
the body, that dissolves
the body like sleep
or death, that releases

the body’s yearnings,
she answers me only
by lifting up above
her head a garland of rose

and melilot, a star-fall
through the late night air,
a haloed shoot, a goose’s
down, that comes to pass

in the moistened after-
scent that follows her.
A Song for Astymeloisa

I think this poem, all one sentence, the most beautiful in the book—and it stays, for Santos, remarkably close to the (admittedly damaged) original. He uses the same sliding enjambments in what is called the “midnight song” popularly attributed to Sappho, though principal Sappho scholars like Wilamowitz, Lobel, and Page deny that it is hers for reasons of meter and dialect:

Midnight. The moon
has set, and the Pleiades.
The hours pass
and pass, yet still I lie alone.

Though I have said that Santos is better at the epigrams, he does not really grasp their tight and interlocking order. The poems of the Anthology—many of them dedications, descriptions, conventional love motifs—are so light that they could drift off like dandelion puffs if they were not anchored in the Rubik’s-Cube intricacy of the elegiac meter and the verbal reversabilities of an inflected language. The problem with translating from the Anthology is that we lack most of the formal devices that are essential to its epigrams, and what few we have (rhyme, regular meter, formal stanza types) are renounced by poets who feel that these formalities no longer speak to a modern sensibility—which brings us back to my original point, the gap between our culture and the classical world. Santos therefore tends to drift into the cute or the eerie. He is at his eerie best in a poem by the sixth-century Byzantine poet, Paul the Silentiary (Imperial Gentleman of the Bedchamber):

From the overlook of his skied estate,
we watched the old copper of a predawn
sea diluted by the tin of sunlight.
And when, at last, our vaulted windows shone,

misted over by the clearwater breath
of a feathering cloud, it was obvious
that the house no longer cared to bathe
in any other light but that till dusk.
A High House in Constantinople

Who are the “we” and “his” to say that the house wants to stay with the copper-tin light “till dusk”? In the clever four lines of the original, the house says that the dawn, struck by the house’s beauty, wants to avoid ever moving on toward dusk. There is nothing about using copper and tin to make a bronze sea, or about feathered breath on the house’s windows (Santos overworks “featheries” throughout).

Actually, Santos creates a nicely haunting picture, despite the confusion of voices—and who is to say that a poet cannot write whatever he wants, under whatever prompting? I have no quarrel with that. I scruple only at calling the result a translation. (His book’s subtitle is “A New Translation.”) It might be objected that Dryden and others “took many liberties” with the works they dealt with. But there was a presumption of familiarity with the original, or with its type and reputation, in those days, so that the variations were recognized commentaries on the original, with an intent to make its meaning clearer to those who already had some sense of it. That is what is gone now. We are not exploring some remote corner of our own house. We must approach the classics as we approach the foreign cultures of our contemporaries. We are dealing with an “other.” To get a sense of it, of its distance from us, we have to make an effort to assess the meaning in its alien setting. For this, accurate prose translation is often more helpful than any verse, unless a scholar with poetic ability is doing the translation—someone like Anne Pippin Burnett in the versions she included in her studies of Archilochus, Alcaeus, Sappho, and Bacchyhlides. Other “translations” are original poems of greater or less merit, which should not pretend to a special attention because of their supposed models.

The scholarship needed here is archaeological in the broad (Foucault) sense, critical in ferreting out what can be known of the buried past. That is what should be supplied in a book like Michael Schmidt’s The First Poets, but it is the last thing we get from him. He professes to give us biographies of all the Greek non-dramatic poets from Homer to Theocritus—just as he offered biographies of all the non-dramatic British poets from Richard Rolle to Les Murray in his 1999 Lives of the Poets. But what can it mean to write a biography of Homer? How do you write the life of an accumulative oral process? Schmidt does it by recounting all the ancient myths about Homer the man. It is his basic method for the later, not quite so legendary poets. The result is an omnium-gatherum of whatever was said about these poets—which is most of it nonsense. We are seriously asked questions like: “Were there two Sapphos, the poet and the courtesan, living on Lesbos at about the same time, whose lives have been conflated?” It is a silly matter, but it fills the pages. Few people will be improved by the claim that “her father may have been called Scamander, Scamandronymos, Simon, Eumenus, Eerigyius, Ecrytus, Semus, Camon, or Etarchus.” We are asked, on no evidence, whether Sappho “came to politics later, on the arm of a man perhaps?” The feminists get their hearing, one, Leslie Kurke, arguing that

we might read the more intimate and personal quality of Sappho’s poetry as a phenomenon of the marginalization and containment to the private sphere of women as a group in ancient Greek culture. Thus the poet spoke intimately to other women, with whom she shared the experiences of seclusion, disempowerment, and separation.

Schmidt voices a doubt about this, but offers no solid argument for rejecting it—which is typical of his treatment throughout. What is the use of asking questions if no scholarly method is to be used in answering them? The more alien the classical past becomes, the less good do mounds of unsifted gossip do us.
Originally Published: October 30, 2005


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This prose originally appeared in the October 2005 issue of Poetry magazine

October 2005




Garry Wills is the author of numerous books, including Lincoln at Gettysburg, which received the Pulitzer Prize. He is Professor of History Emeritus at Northwestern University.

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