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Introduction to the Translations from The Greek Anthology
The Greek Anthology is a collection of some 4,000 poems assembled by Byzantine scholars nearly a thousand years ago. The poems range from the seventh century BC through to the renaissance of Greek culture in Byzantium in the sixth century AD. Some of the pieces are by the greatest names in Greek poetry, others are by obscure poets, and still others are anonymous. There are five volumes in Harvard University Press’s Loeb Classical Library edition, with prose translations by W. R. Paton. Poets who have translated some of these wonderful pieces into English include Dudley Fitts (my teacher at Andover), Kenneth Rexroth, Robin Skelton, and Andrew Sinclair, while Peter Whigham’s Poems of Meleager, and Tony Harrison’s Palladas: Poems contain work of those poets that appear in the Anthology.
My practice here has been to riffle through the pages and find things that appeal to me, or that challenge me, or that I can figure out a way to bring into comfortable English. I have not been ambitious about anything like a systematic approach. It is my impression, however, that this random selection nevertheless represents fairly the frame of mind, the attitude, the tone of the whole collection. One goes into a bar, and the patrons are not the same on any given night, and the stories and jokes are different, but the bar has its own character and this, after a while, is why one goes there. These poems are epigrams, mostly in elegiac meter, and they are impish and indecorous, but there is an insight into the Greek spirit and experience that one doesn’t get anywhere else. You need Homer and Aeschylus and Sophocles, but you need these too, if only to learn how to laugh in Greek.
Reproach to a Stupid Courtier
Point your nose at the sun and open your mouth wide.
That way, you’ll at least be useful for telling the time.
I send you these flowers, Rhodoclea,
that I wove with my own hands into a garland—
lilies, roses, anemones, fresh narcissus,
and gleaming purple violets.
Wear it, but do not be proud,
for, moment to moment, both of you are fading.
On Marcus’ Book
To fight off sadness,
or a case of the blues,
unroll and peruse
this wonderful book,
in which you can look
at what will be,
what is, and has been.
And as you will see
in the lives of men
our joys and pains
our fears and desires
are like smoke from fires
and nothing remains.
The Astrologer’s Prediction
After Calligenes had put in his crop,
he came to consult Aristophanes, the astrologer,
to ask if he would get an abundant yield.
Aristophanes did some elaborate calculations
and then announced, “Yes, sir, absolutely,
providing that you get rain, and not too many weeds.”
And then, as an afterthought, he added, “And no
frosts to hurt the plants. And no hail.”
Calligenes was about to thank him, when he added,
“And you keep the goats out of the field.” And at last,
with Calligenes halfway out the door,
he called out one further thought: “And you don’t get locusts!”
Envious Diophon, when he was crucified,
saw somebody near him up on a higher cross,
which ruined his whole day.
Note on an Apple
He who threw me to you loves you.
before we both decay.
The roses are blooming, Sosylus,
the chickpeas are in, and the first cabbages,
smelts are running, and there’s the new cheese. . .
But we don’t go picnicking as we used to do
with our friends Antigenes and Bacchius.
We were all fooling around only yesterday,
and today we carry them to their graves.
These are the rules of my little soirées, Aulus,
and you’re invited, but only if you obey them.
No fucking poetry. That’s the first.
And rule two: no talk about poetry, either.
You poor bastard, you look at the calendar with such lust,
calculating your wealth at compound interest,
which is Time’s gift. But Time is not your friend,
and never having drunk wine or wreathed your temples
in pretty garlands, or dallied at love, you will die
with only the pennies they put on a dead man’s eyes.
On the Double Bath
The men bathe here on one side of the gate,
and, on the other, the
Love can’t make it through, but idea does—
which is almost as good and sometimes even better.
Translations from The Greek Anthology by David R. Slavitt