was published by Carcanet/OxfordPoets on 27 August 2010
A Version of Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days
From the back cover:
'It's a bold deed to summon up Hesiod in eighty sonnets. The form, both familiar and odd, may shock us into a wakeful reading. For this is not at all an antiquarian version of two ancient texts. On the contrary, Robert Saxton addresses us here and now in the Age of Iron and makes us wonder how much longer Earth will endure our stay.'
Hesiod was a farmer-poet who lived in Boeotia, in mainland Greece, around the beginning of the 7th century BC. A contemporary or near-contemporary of Homer (who lived in Asia Minor), he’s best known for two works, the Theogony and the Works and Days, both written in the metre of the Iliad and the Odyssey, namely dactylic hexameter. We value the Theogony today as the earliest account that’s come down to us from the Greeks of the mythic creation of the universe, the birth of the gods, the violence of the Titan Cronus towards both his father the sky god Uranus and his youngest son Zeus, the war between the Titans and Olympians, and the subsequent establishment by Zeus of divine (Olympian) supremacy and of an ethical framework for humankind. The Works and Days is admired for its literary qualities – it’s a more shapely poem than the Theogony and shows a better control of its effects. But it’s also prized for its telling of the myths of Pandora and the successive Ages of Mankind and for the insights it gives us into the daily life of ancient Greece, particularly work and survival in the countryside. Addressed to a good-for-nothing brother named Perses, it’s full of worldly-wise grumbles and very precise practical and moral advice – on everything from how to cut timber for a plough to behaviour best avoided at a holy banquet (such as leaving the ladle in the mixing-bowl after helping yourself to wine).
Hesiod’s Calendar attempts, in two sonnet sequences, to convert the heart of the Theogony and the whole of the Works and Days into English poetry for the modern reader. I have no Greek, and have worked from two translations of both poems into English: one in iambic pentameter by Dorothea Wender, published as a Penguin Classic; and a literal prose version by Glenn W. Most in the Loeb Classical Library series. I’ve made more extensive use of the Loeb than of the Penguin.
My rendering of the Theogony is extremely partial – only 210 lines, compared with the 1,019 lines of the original. My aim for the project was to write a poetic treatment, using Hesiod as sole source, of the Greek myth of the warring clans of gods, ending with the placement at Delphi of the stone which Cronus chose to swallow, believing it was his new-born son Zeus, who it was prophesied would usurp him. The castration by Cronus of Uranus is the most dramatic episode in the narrative, and it’s followed by what must be one of the most brilliant transformations in pre-modern literature, unthinkably gruesome yet ultimately redemptive: the storm-driven sea voyage of Uranus’ severed genitals to Cyprus and the consequent emergence of the goddess Aphrodite from their tent of foam (like ‘cuckoo spit’, I can’t help thinking). Concentrating on pure gold (as I saw it), I felt no loyalty to the untransmuted ore –including various name-clotted genealogies, and much else that failed to engage my interest.
My Works and Days is much more faithful, in its own irresponsible way, to the content of the original poem. It runs to 910 lines, compared with Hesiod’s 828, the difference being accounted for by many passages I’ve amplified slightly to round off the meaning or elaborate an image, or to ensure that each sonnet is acceptably self-contained. My purpose was to experience Hesiod’s poem at the same time (literally) as rendering the whole of it in as lively and readable a fashion as I could, and in a coherent voice neither too grave nor too light (I was keen to avoid anything as blatantly detached as Byron’s ‘Hail Muse! et cetera’, from Don Juan, while being unable to resist the occasional irony). When I say I wanted to experience the poem, what I mean is that I rendered it blind: I read it in the process of my rendition, passage by passage, sonnet by sonnet, and not before – for the sake of freshness. The risk, which of course became sharper the more I wrote, was that I would come across something ‘untranslatable’ in rhyme and be forced to give up. I offer thanks to the great god Zeus, who orders our lives and commands our reverence, that I made it to the end.
Sample sonnets from Theogony
Now Uranus loathed his hideous offspring
and banished them from the moment of their birth
to a secret hiding-place, pitch-black and stifling ...
where better than the bowels of Mother Earth?
Savouring this wickedness, he dribbled, crazy-eyed.
Earth, in mourning, felt her belly stretch and strain,
punched by windmilling arms, a brawl inside
her making her nauseous, dizzy with pain.
Grief-stricken for her children, angry, she hatched a plan.
Quarrying from herself a mineral, ‘adamant’,
invincibly hard, she fashioned a mighty sickle.
Then she addressed her Titans: ‘You must unman
your evil father. I’m sick of this heartless torment.
I thirst for revenge – don’t tell me you’re fickle!’
Hearing these words, the Titans, filled with alarm,
fell silent for a minute. Then, tremblingly,
Cronus, who’d always wished his father harm,
spoke out: ‘Dear Mother, you can rely on me.
I’ve hated that monstrous tyrant from the start –
without him there’d be no such thing as shame.
Proudly for you I’ll take the hero’s part
and in a brave venture earn a hero’s name.’
All this great Earth was gratified to hear.
Taking Cronus aside, she talked him through her scheme
and placed in his hands the saw-toothed scimitar.
Concealed, he waited till the sky god tiptoed near
under cover of Night to inseminate Earth’s dream –
careless, as all excited lovers are.
Longing for love he lay across the land,
fully extended. Cronus, spying on his lust
from behind a stone, reached out with his right hand
to grab his bush, then with his left hand thrust
the jagged blade to harvest the genitals,
which he flung behind him with a mighty throw
so they went spinning high over hills and dales.
From their wound, blood gouts fell on Earth below.
Nine months later Earth bore the Erinnyes – Furies
who avenge parricide eternally
to discourage jealous sons from gross defiance
(that this deterrent fails to work is curious).
Also from that blood sprang the Meliae –
nymphs of the ash; also, some say, the Giants.
The massive organs, landing with a splash,
rolled in the waves like a wounded whale.
White foam frothed out around the immortal flesh,
and in that tent of spittle hatched a girl.
From embryo to child to woman she grew,
impatiently, as the strange craft drifted west
to holy Cythera, till a sudden storm blew
the foamy thing to Cyprus where it came to rest.
Then out she stepped: Aphrodite. Goddess.
Irresistible, and already beloved
by Love. Wily. Vengeful. Expert in bed.
The shore was pebbly, nevertheless
flowers sprang up from her footsteps as she moved
up the beach. Doves cooedaround her lovely head.
Sample sonnets from Works and Days
If you start to plough around the shortest day,
your harvest will be scanty – a basketful
perhaps. Neighbours will find you pitiable,
reaping on your knees the pauper’s way.
But Zeus’ plans are hard for us to tell.
If in the spring, when the cuckoo calls from the oak,
he gives us rains for three whole days, which soak
into the ground and fill up to the level
of an ox’s hoof-print, neither more nor less,
then he who ploughs in winter’s depths may fare
as well as a more punctual soul. The will
of Zeus makes all the difference: no one can guess
his intentions. Remember this. Take care
to be observant. Farm with a farmer’s skill.
Pass right by the smithy where the idlers talk
all day, dodging both the chores and the cold.
Better to work at home with your sleeves rolled
up, indoors and out. Don’t let winter walk
off with your livelihood while you sit on a stool
rubbing with scrawny hands your swollen feet –
a sure sign of malnutrition. You’ll eat
well enough if you work and don’t play the fool.
Hopeful yet idle, many turn to crime.
Gossip is useless – the parliament of dreams,
where lost men keep on losing. No one warns
them of the danger. They’re running out of time.
Summer, like winter, isn’t all it seems.
Tell your slaves: ‘The clock’s ticking: build those barns.’
Lenaeon is the cruellest month, in the grip
of the harsh late winter, when the ox’s hide
is pierced by ice. Give this month a wide
berth. Boreas blows deadly winds which whip
across Thrace and lash both woods and sea
into storms. Frost weighs down oaks and firs
to the bountiful earth, and digs its spurs
into the flanks of life, mercilessly.
The forest groans. Animals shiver, and fold
their tails under their genitals – even those
blessed with fur coats. The North wind slices through
the shaggiest pelts – all succumb to the cold,
except the sheep’s fleece. Only a sheep can doze
through such a day, when human flesh turns blue.
This harsh wind curves an old man like a wheel,
but leaves untouched the fragrant girl who stays
by her mother’s side indoors, innocent of the ways
of Aphrodite – more bud than flower still.
Just washed, she anoints with oil her tender skin
and then lies down for an afternoon sleep
in an alcove. Far away, in a jumbled heap
of legs, the octopus in its foreign
realm takes a bite of one foot so as not to starve
in its hearthless, dismal home, for the sun
has taken its lantern to Africa: it can’t see
its prey. Elsewhere, dreaming of a sheltering cave
or thicket, forest creatures on the run,
panicked by snow, are desperate for sanctuary.
Find your own shelter too, in a fleecy cloak
reaching down to your ankles, woven thick,
so your body’s hairs lie still and don’t stick
out with a shudder. Your blood’s heat will stoke
your private furnace. Wear boots of ox hide,
felt-lined, and when the worst of the weather
comes, stitch the skins of new-born kids together
with an ox’s sinew and wear them when you ride
or walk in the rain as a cloak on your back
to keep you dry. Don a felt cap as well,
a fitted one that’s snug around your ears.
Rain looks in the sky for the slightest crack
to fling itself through. But, given the right apparel,
we can all defend ourselves against its spears.
Look to your health. Boreas chills the dawn,
and over the shivering land spreads a veil of mist,
drawn from the river, squeezed from the fist
of winter. By evening, from the wind-torn
skies, merciless rain will often tumble down,
sometimes with storms as the clouds turn inky-black
and thicken, with a flash and a loud crack
of thunder. Everyone fears the farms might drown.
Outwit Boreas. Finish your work and be sure
to get home ahead of him, staying safe and dry.
Lenaion’s a difficult month for man and beast.
Give less food to each ox; to yourself, more.
The long nights help – though the unlucky die.
Conserve your pantry till the season lets you feast.
from Stride magazine website, review by David Hart, October 2010:
‘This is a delightful book, a personal project that Robert Saxton conveys with fluid and delighted prose – introduction, notes, sample prose translations – and a version of Hesiod in sonnet form that leads me happily to believe Hesiod really did live and write.
Not a lot is known about him,and it’s not surprising what is known is a matter of dispute. What I want to know and Robert Saxton doesn’t tell, has to do with Hesiod’s writing materials – how physically he did it – and by what routes and means his poems have reached us.
Saxton makes the case for Englishing by way of a version of sonnet form, giving himself leniencies, although on the page clearly there they are, LXV of them, albeit with the line structure 4, 4, 3, 3.
Although lines like this (opening Theogony XII)
Now in the ascendant, Zeus prepared for war.
Prophetically on the night sky blazed a comet.
might seem to demand a crash course in the gods, the voice carries through as if effortlessly, I am pleased to be caught up in the telling and, in this curious way, to (let’s say) hear his voice
Turn out your hired man, and instead install a loyal serving girl who’ll cater for all your needs in the home – someone who isn’t tied
to a child who’d get under your feet all the time. (Works and Days XLIV)
Well, there we were and are. I must return to ‘blazed a comet’, as anyone reading this would be querying it, I’m sure. The construction rhymes ‘comet’ with ‘vomit’ two lines later. Is that awkwardness worth it for the rhyme? I want to imagine Hesiod would have said no.
It is possible for me to make one translation comparison, with reference to Dorothea Wender’s (Penguin 1973/76). ‘The metre’ (she writes) ‘of both the Theogony and the Works and Days is dactylic hexameter, the metre of Homer and of most long works in Greek and Latin.’ Which reminds me I do have an LP somewhere of readings of ancient Greek poetry, although I no longer have an LP player. She continues, ‘I have done my translation in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter) because I think that, in feeling, it is the closest English equivalent.’
So here is a comparison of Wender’s and Saxton’s final lines of Works and Days:
These days are blessings to the men on earth; The rest are fickle, bland, and bring no luck. Everyone has his favourite days, but few Have knowledge that is sure. Sometimes a day Will be a stepmother, and then she’ll change And be a mother. He is truly blest And rich who knows these things and does his work, Guiltless before the gods, and scrupulous, Observing omens and avoiding wrong.
Such days are a tainted blessing. Others make no sense at all – for one of those random days might give like a mother or grab like a mother-in-law.
Happy are those who know all this, and take care not to upset the gods, but sing their praise, work hard, and try to be just. Who can do more?
These are not quite an even comparison, the latter being sliced out of Saxton’s final sonnet (LXV), the former from Wender’s final page of flow. I mean, anyway, to commend Hesiod as adoptable as a 21st-century poet.’
Comment from Robert Saxton:
This is a generous review, for which I’m grateful. But I would defend the line ‘Prophetically on the night sky blazed a comet’ on the grounds that the inversion is slightly archaic, but not otherwise awkward; and archaisms, it seems to me, are an essential part of the tone of my version of Hesiod, though not too obtrusive. In poetry that absorbs such formulations as ‘Hail’ and ‘O’, a mild inversion that carries a hint of the epic style yet is hardly a whisker away from formal English idiom seems to me to be earning its keep. The inversion is also intended to carry a hint of ironic detachment. I feel no discomfort about the line.
Review by Philip Womack, August 2010 (philipwomack.blogspot):
One of the nicer things about being in the literary world is that one comes across, serendipitously, books that might otherwise escape one’s notice. In the books cupboard the other day I found, published by Carcanet Press, Robert Saxton’s version of Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days.
It is a brilliantly clear sonnet sequence, full of wisdom and humour. The sonnet has the formality and grandeur of dactylic hexameter, whilst allowing for an extra layer of charm. We have the whole ancient world spread out before us in musical language: ‘the fragrant girl who stays / by her mother’s side indoors, innocent of the ways / of Aphrodite – more bud than flower still ... Far away, in a jumpled heap / of legs, the octopus in its foreign / realm takes a bite of one foot so as not to starve.’ Here is the familiar and the alien together, as Hesiod is at once someone we know (‘Have good regard for measure in all you do’) and someone whose mores we can wince at: (‘choose a wife who’s four years past puberty / and a virgin.’) Simple lines evoke much: ‘Elsewhere, dreaming of a sheltering cave / or thicket, forest creatures on the run / panicked by snow, are desperate for sanctuary.’
Saxton’s version (he has no Greek) is a yardstick to the stars of Greek myth – here the theogony develops at full tilt, from Chaos: ‘no dream, no fear, no rain, / only an idiot swirl in a cosmic brew’, through the birth of the Olympians and finally ‘the stone that Cronus swallowed, now at Delphi’. It is accessible and intelligent, investing what can be a knotty, even dreary work with new vitality.