17 November, 2018 • • 38.5ClassicsLiteraturePoetryTranslation

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The Profit in Asphodel

Nicolas Liney

Hesiod, tr. A. E. Stallings
Works and Days
Penguin
2018
112 pp
£7.99

 

 

 

There was a popular story in antiquity that imagined a showdown between the two greatest archaic poets of Greece: Homer and Hesiod. In what can only be described as a monumental rap battle, the two poets hurled a barrage of mellifluous hexameter verse and cryptic riddles at each other until, all passions spent, Hesiod emerged as winner. This might come as a slight surprise to us, steeped in the overwhelming purchase the alleged author of the Iliad and Odyssey holds on western literature. For the ancients, too, “sublime Homer” reigned supreme. Hesiod, on the other hand—strange, misanthropic and cantankerous—often hovers as an afterthought in both classical and contemporary writers, far from the fireworks of the heroic world and its fierce emotional pull.

But Hesiod is important, a poetic and cultural trove. Out of the poems we can loosely define as his corpus, we are most familiar with the Theogony, the poet’s alleged burst of divine inspiration that prised open the mechanics of the universe, outlining the complex genealogies of Titans, Olympians and other dramatis personae of classical mythologyWorks and Days is more abstruse: it is a classical didactic poem avant la lettre, but shares more in common with Eastern texts—the “wisdom literature” of Hittites, Sumerians and Akkadians—which provide advice on all sorts of matters, from the financial to the existential. To these works Hesiod owes his accounts of the Golden Age, his animal fables, his proverbial maxims. This lineage is important, especially for understanding that “classics” is anything but a European construction. A. E. Stallings’s new verse translation of Works and Days for Penguin is a splendid development upon a recent flurry of Hesiod translation and poetic response, but remains curiously reticent on these matters. Her broad introduction flirts with questions of authenticity and dating, and connections with Homer; generic matters are restricted, however, to passing reference.

Only a small part of Works and Days is dedicated to “work” as such. Hesiod offers a bewildering farrago of popular cultural wisdom, fables, allegories and adages, a confluence of quirk and cosmic (or as the formidable Martin West put it a “mishmash of barely related information”), from the origins of the gods to how to set a dinner table correctly. These pieces whorl, splinter and fragment, threatening to derail the poem’s purported purpose: Hesiod is engaged in a dispute—a “nugget of irritation”—with his profligate brother Perses (“wastrel”) over their paternal inheritance, and is accusing him of collusion with the “bribe-eating” or “gift-guzzling” (dorophagoi) judges of their village in rural Boeotia. He encourages each, in turn, to live righteously, in accordance with dike (justice). For Stallings, this “nugget of irritation” is the skeleton upon which the poem hangs.

However, this wildly variegated tapestry of material presents a problem both to the reader, and to the translator: in the face of such confluence and discord, how to present a unified work? Hesiod’s self-presentation and reference to his dullard sibling is helpful here—this autobiographical intrusion into early Greek hexameter is unprecedented—but it is notoriously inconsistent. Fact rewrites, revokes and reverts fact: at times, Hesiod paints his brother as improperly enriched, at others, desparately impoverished. He is both a perjurer and an idler. Passages and stories don’t link up, or barely pretend to. Already in the nineteenth century, German classicists such as Georg Freidrich Schoemann and Adolf Kirchhoff were perturbed by these inconsistencies, which we would now file under “the unreliability of the narrator”, or “Borges”.

Of recent translations, Peter Fallon’s Deeds and Their Days (2017) admirably attempts to address this issue by breaking Hesiod’s intractable narrative into a sonnet sequence, a sensitive approach that contains the poem’s inherent paradox and contradiction in short, musical patterns.  Stallings wants none of this. In her translation notes, she confesses that “I was won over by what Auden might call ‘a tone of voice, a personal speech’ […] Hesiod talks about himself, and we, or I anyway, believe him”. Stallings, who studied classics at Oxford, is first and foremost a poet, a practitioner of rhyme and rhythm: three collections of exceptional verse intersperse classical allusion with contemporary issues. Finding Hesiod’s voice, in all its complexity, is primarily a poetic question.

Stallings unwinds her translation in a steady stream of not-strictly-heroic couplets, a surprisingly apt form, reminiscent of what Martin West would call the “parallel members that characterize Semitic and Egyptian poetry”, and highly responsive to Hesiod’s shows of anaphora—indifference to repetition—chiasmus and rhyme. Her translation leans heavily upon Robert Frost (who famously defined poetry as “what gets lost in translation”) as her acknowledged poetic model, a way of combining the vernacular with archaism and quaint figure of speech, as well as biblical, fist-pounding prophesising. Once stated, Frost’s presence is indelible, whispering beneath odd words and turns of phrase (“troublous passion”, “wend to Justice”, “unsapped by time”), and these echoes prick our ears to the wider poetic resonances of Stallings’s language, such as her rendering of Hesiod’s description of the demise of the Bronze Race:

                                                            They fell

At one another’s hands to draughty Hell,

Nameless, for all their fearsomeness, undone

By death, snatched from the bright light of the sun.

Frost, yes, but also T.S. Eliot’s crowd flowing over London Bridge in The Waste Land (“I had not thought death had undone so many”), and the “draughty house” of the dying old man in Gerontion. Hesiod’s grand mythologizing accounts are refracted through modern poetic images of death and mortality, and rendered all the more prescient for it—we question our own brief place in these spiralling ages of humanity. Hesiod can be clunking, awkward and heavy at times; he was notorious for his riddles in antiquity. Quintilian complained that he “rarely soars”, and that most of his work is filled with names, names, names (magna pars eius in nominibus est occupata), meaning the poet’s propensity for personification, allegory and a superfluity of nouns. Stallings’s skill is to turn this to her advantage. Take the prosaic original line: “the act of Giving [Dōs] is good, while the act of Taking forcibly [Harpax] is bad”, which she delivers in a delicious Manley Hopkins mouthful:

Give begets gifts, Grasp: grudge. for Give is breath

while Seize is evil, and her wages, death.

Elsewhere, Stallings is brilliantly sensitive to the occasions when Hesiod’s language does sing: her description of Prometheus’ theft of fire as “a plunder| from under the nose of Zeus who joys in thunder” cleverly picks up on Hesiod’s proclivity for internal rhyme (terpikeraunon | ton de kolousamenos). At other times, for the sake of metre, she subtly glosses, embellishes and engorges Hesiod’s language, perhaps beyond necessity: she translates the Bronze age born “ek melian” (from ashwood) as “tough as ashwood for the hafts of spear”, a nod to the material from which Homeric spears are made, but silencing the far more obvious—and insalubrious—reference to the tree-nymphs (“Meliae”) born from the come and blood of Cronus’ severed penis in Hesiod’sown Theogony.

But this is pedantry. Stallings’s translation triumphs in presenting a cogent, unified voice, whilst accommodating Works and Days’ internal contradictions and propulsion towards aporia, its tentative and faltering development of Hesiod’s case for work and justice, and its revelation of the way the world works, the etetuma, “the plain truths to steer by”. These plain truths are rarely straightforward, and always contain the underbelly of something more sinister—that ambiguity of humanity,the ability for one and the same concept to hold both a positive and negative side.

Works and Days is a call for rule of law, and Hesiod hovers between blind fury at persistent travesties of justice and utter resignation, but constantly imploring, cajoling and exhorting his brother and his community to do better. For Hesiod, injustices do not go unchecked, and we all suffer for them in the long run. Famously, Hesiod introduced the concept of two different forms of Strife (Eris), one good, one bad. Stallings translates this with almost insouciant airiness:

It turns out Strife’s a twin, a double birth—

There are, not one, but two Strifes on the earth—

A man who gets to know them both admits

One’s blessed, one’s cursed—the two are opposites.

“Good Strife” is productive jealousy and vaulting ambition; neighbour strives to surpass neighbour, and is spurred to work. Delighted, Nietzsche called this constructive envy “one of the most remarkable of Hellenic ideas”—an idea that “deserves to be impressed upon newcomers right at the gate of entry to Hellenic ethics”; under another light, a “politics of envy” seems like a blueprint for good neoliberal rhetoric. Nonetheless, there is something salvific in Hesiod’s wish to see that what divides can also bind.

Why Hesiod now? Some have found in Works and Days an apt evocation of our concerns over climate change and global warming, or the urgencies of international politics, or treatment of minorities. Stallings offers a new perspective. Much of Hesiod’s language and thematic anxieties seems to arise out of the economic tumult of the last ten years: debt (chreos), profit (kerdos) and assets (chremata) are recurring themes, evoking parallels with the austerity measures, debt crises and the punishing bailouts that have plagued Greece, the country where Stallings has lived since 1999. She draws these connections beautifully in a Poetry essay (“a letter from Greece” 2012), and they rumble away throughout her translation. Hesiod’s despair at the hands of bribe-eating judges, his recourse to law and order, and his willingness to find the economic and emotional fullness in what is available—the profit in asphodel—renders him curiously apposite, an important voice that Stallings’s translation labours to make heard.

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Nicolas Liney is reading for a DPhil in Classics at Christ Church College.