Christopher Childers, The Penguin Book of Greek and Latin Lyric Verse – review

Christopher Childers’ The Penguin Book of Greek and Latin Lyric Verse is a vast undertaking with a great deal to offer those like me who enjoy reading classical literature but can’t read it in its original languages. Epic and drama are excluded, as is the prose literature, but ‘lyric’ is defined very widely indeed, covering both what the ancients would have understood by the term – poems written for performance to the lyre and in a range of metres associated with such performance – and more broadly short or medium length poems speaking in the first person and / or veering towards song, as Childers puts it.

This means, of course, that the book reflects an enormous variety of life experiences and attitudes towards both them and life in general. Readers gain insight into how the world changed for its people as Greek society evolved through the hundreds of years between the time of Archilochus in the seventh century BCE with its tiny city states, and the great Hellenistic kingdoms with their polyglot populations, wide geographical spread and cultural memory, or again as Roman society evolved from republic to empire, and Latin literature from dependence on Greek originals to its own distinctive flowerings. Vivacious introductions to different contexts and historical phases guide the reader through these developments and separate introductions to different writers bring their distinguishing features into focus.

In the Translator’s Preface Childers explains his fundamental decision to represent different Greek and Latin genres and metres by using what seem to him appropriate English metres and rhyme schemes. He hopes this will help him achieve the lapidary quality that he finds in Greek and Latin poetry, whose conventions strongly marked its difference from non-poetic utterance. As different metres were associated with different occasions and genres, poets could invoke these associations across vast spaces of time. This might be to build on them – as the Roman Horace adopted the metre of the Archaic Greek Alcaeus for his carpe diem ode, ‘elevating the Mytilenean’s gruff particularity to universality and transcendence’ as Childers puts it – or it may ironically subvert them, as Ovid does in using the metre of martial elegy in Amores I.9.

Such an argument is strong in principle. Problems can arise from the scale of Childers’ undertaking – a single author translating eighty poets spanning eight centuries, and, as he says, doing so ‘according to consistent principles’. Of course rhyme and conventional metre can lend power to utterance of all kinds, passionately exalted, intimately conversational, persuasive or didactic. However, producing such verse rapidly and in bulk is a challenge to the most skilful rhymer. Childers’ translations of Sappho’s invocation of Aphrodite (Fragment 1) and her expression of envy of a man sitting by a woman that Sappho herself desires (Fragment 31) both have fine phrases in them. However, to my ear, rhyming gives their overall movement a glibness that robs them of feeling and makes them far less effective than several of the other versions I know. The longer fragments that seem to me to work best in Childers’ versions are 44 (the marriage of Hector and Andromache) and 2 (inviting Aphrodite to come from her home in Crete). 44 is indeed strongly marked as poetry by the fact that each of its lines is split into two half lines. However, it barely rhymes, and the midline pauses throw emphasis on individual phrases, so that its distance from ordinary speech enhances its power. And Childers’ Fragment 2 is extremely beautiful. Rhymes again are lightly touched and unobtrusive. The translator’s exquisitely evocative phrasing conveys both the physical beauties of the place Sappho is describing and her own reverent delight in them. Shifting between full and half rhymes, the poem combines the pleasure of fulfilled expectation with the energy of surprise:

Here, through the apple boughs, the lapse of water
sounds icy-clear, and here, rose-shadow fills
the grass, as through the leaf-light and leaf-flutter
a trance distills.

And here are meadows where the buds of spring
exuberantly bloom, where horses graze,
and, honey-sweet, the wind goes whispering …

The success of this longer fragment (I’ve omitted two stanzas) is matched by that of many of the very short ones, also unconstrained by rhyme and – perhaps consequently – as vivid in Childers’ versions as in those of other translators.

In a wider view, I often found the use of rhyme alienating in a way that made it hard to read much of the book at a stretch. I have the same problem with James Michie’s Horace. My objection is not, of course, to rhyme per se, or to its application to Latin and Greek verse. Derek Mahon’s very few, unforgettably brilliant versions of lyrics by Horace and Ovid get much of their wit and driving power from the flair of their rhyming. But Mahon translates very freely. The translator committed to following the precise contours of meaning and implication in the original as closely as possible finds his choice of rhymes inhibited by that very fact. The result can easily be a structure that seems mechanically and externally imposed on the poem, like a skin graft that’s failed to take, rather than something organically involved in its growth. For continuous reading I personally would have preferred it if Childers had allowed himself greater formal freedom.

And yet, and yet, when everything does come together in individual poems Childers’ approach gives great delight. Here’s his version of Horace’s famous Pyrrha Ode (I. 5). In it, exuberantly colloquial language gives an air of immediate, spontaneous utterance to thoughts that the poem’s structural complexity makes linger in our minds in a richly interwoven shimmering of suggestions:

Pyrrha, now who’s the skinny          young thing on top of you,
drizzled in perfume, rolling          on beds of roses laid
xxxxxxxxxxxxdeep in some grotto’s shade?
xxxxxxxxWho is it for, that blond hair-do

so careful to seem careless?          Poor kid! How many tears
he’ll shed at the shifting weather,          surprised by the deities’
xxxxxxxxxxxxmood swings, and the rough seas
xxxxxxxxand black winds, wet behind the ears,

who’s so in love now, thinking          you’re golden through and through,
that you’ll be free forever,          you’ll be forever kind,
xxxxxxxxxxxxand doesn’t know the wind
xxxxxxxxdeceives. Poor bastards, for whom you

glitter before they sail.          Not me – a seaside shrine
shows on a votive plaque that          I’ve hung this dedication
xxxxxxxxxxxxto the great Power of Ocean:
xxxxxxxxmy sailor’s clothes, still wet with brine.

Childers’ translation of the ode is amplified by detailed contextual notes. I can’t evaluate these in the way a classical scholar might but as a general reader I found them immensely helpful. They combine close reading of the words themselves – sensitive exploration both of metaphors, going well beyond what I’d noticed for myself on previous readings, and of the implied ambivalence of the speaker’s feelings – with background information only a scholar could give. This involves the poem’s generic contexts and metrical allusiveness. For the enthusiast prepared to follow up references to relevant poems included in the volume, such information offers starting points for developing a sense of classical literature as a living, evolving whole. In relation to this specific poem, it prompts a deeper appreciation of Horace’s dazzling artistic synthesis of earlier subgenres and motifs.

Poem after poem gets similar treatment, exploring it both in itself and in relation to other poems. This brings us back to the sheer scale of what Childers has done in this volume – some 550 pages of poems (including the broad introductions to periods and writers) and another 320 pages of notes to individual texts. These look forward as well as back – to modern and Early Modern authors influenced by the ancients as well as to the predecessors the ancients themselves drew on or deliberately alluded to. At the highest points we have outstanding single poems where the brilliance of a great original is matched by the brilliance of the translation. However, the special achievement of the volume is in the sheer amount of translated poetry, background information and synthesising comment it offers the reader, in the process both illuminating these outstanding single works and opening wide fields of reading pleasure.

The Penguin Book of Greek and Latin Lyric Verse translated and edited by Christopher Childers. £40.00 hardback. Penguin Classics. ISBN: 9780241567449

I would like to thank David Cooke for his permission to repost this essay, written for his magazine The High Window.


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