Pure Pagan: Seven Centuries of Greek Poems and Fragments (Modern Library Classics)
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“For there is indeed something we can call the spirit of ancient Greece–a carefully tuned voice that speaks out of the grave with astonishing clarity and grace , a distinctive voice that, taken as a whole, is like no other voice that has ever sung on this earth.”
–BURTON RAFFEL, from his Preface
For centuries, the poetry of Homer, Aristophanes, Sophocles, Sappho, and Archilochus has served as one of our primary means of connecting with the wholly vanished world of ancient Greece. But the works of numerous other great and prolific poets–Alkaios, Meleager, and Simonides, to name a few–are rarely translated into English , and are largely unknown to modern readers. In Pure Pagan, award-winning translator Burton Raffel brings these and many other wise and witty ancient Greek writers to an English-speaking audience for the first time, in full poetic flower. Their humorous and philosophical ruminations create a vivid portrait of everyday life in ancient Greece –and they are phenomenally lovely as well.
In short, sharp bursts of song, these two-thousand-year-old poems speak about the timeless matters of everyday life:
Wine (Wine is the medicine / To call for, the best medicine / To drink deep, deep)
History (Not us: no. / It began with our fathers, / I’ve heard).
Movers and shakers (If a man shakes loose stones / To make a wall with / Stones may fall on his head / Instead)
Old age (Old age is a debt we like to be owed / Not one we like to collect)
Frankness (Speak / As you please / And hear what can never / Please).
There are also wonderful epigrams (Take what you have while you have it: you’ll lose it soon enough. / A single summer turns a kid into a shaggy goat) and epitaphs (Here I lie, beneath this stone, the famous woman who untied her belt for only one man).
The entrancing beauty, humor, and piercing clarity of these poems will draw readers into the Greeks’ journeys to foreign lands, their bacchanalian parties and ferocious battles, as well as into the more intimate settings of their kitchens and bedrooms. The poetry of Pure Pagan reveals the ancient Greeks’ dreams, their sense of humor, sorrows, triumphs, and their most deeply held values, fleshing out our understanding of and appreciation for this fascinating civilization and its artistic legacy.
From the Hardcover edition.
from Myth, from the deep past, when things were with him out of measure all his life. He has come to a city where (as Yeats translated) “body is not bruised to pleasure soul.” Antigone describes what she can see to her blind father: the Athenian Acropolis where this play is being performed. They did things with style, their style. When Oedipus at Kolonos was first performed, the poet had been three years dead (at age ninety-one). The air was full of a sense of honor, a sentiment we recognize, at
words have an equivalent in English. In a poem of Theocritus a goat is eating something. Look up what he’s eating in a Greek-English dictionary. The definition is “a plant eaten by a goat in Theocritus.” In a beautiful hymn to Aphrodite we aren’t certain whether the goddess is sitting on an intricately carved throne or wearing an elaborately embroidered dress. Philological problems can be solved; the problems of distant sentiments remain. Pathos, humor, sarcasm, appetence, grief, satire: these
God, if I were only a kingfisher, Purple like the sea, flying never afraid Out over the waves Forever. SET SEVEN COUCHES Set seven couches And seven tables And cover them with poppy cakes, And linseed cakes, And sesame cakes, In and among the wooden bowls. TANTALUS Tantalus, Evil placed in the middle of Good, Sat under a hanging rock, ready to fall, And thought he saw, And saw Nothing. THE PEAKS ARE ASLEEP The peaks are asleep And gulleys And ravines are asleep And creeping things Out of the
bring You this As a gift. THEODORIDAS AN EPITAPH This is a drowned man’s tomb. Sail on, stranger, For when we went down the other ships sailed on. EUPHORION Euphorion the exquisite poet Lies under these harbor stones. Offer that knowing singer a peach or an apple, or even berries, For when he lived he loved all of them. FINDING LIST ALKAIOS “Agriculture”: Lyra Graeca, vol. I, p. 422, #167. “Bacchus”: Lyra Graeca, vol. I, p. 416, #158. “Courage”: Lyra Graeca, vol. I, p. 406, #137A and B.
me largely irrelevant. And even presented in simple, arbitrary, alphabetical order, with invented titles (ancient poems almost never bore titles) that are also grouped alphabetically, this seems to me a poetic corpus that can be left to define itself. My decision to translate only less well known poems and poets is both deliberate and not in any sense a seeking after novelty. Rather, it is a conscious attempt to avoid duplicating the truly splendid translations of people like Dudley Fitts, Guy