Hesiod and Theognis, transl. by Dorothea Wender

Hesiod and TheognisMy rating: 5 of 5 stars

Classicist Dorothea Wender’s translation of Hesiod is spectacular. Even while she says his
“Theogony” is a bit boring and not written in the wonderful style of “Works and Days”, I think her talent as a translator makes this piece on a creation myth shine. Now, I’m a huge fan of mythology and the origins of various beings, so I would have liked the Theogony no matter what. But, Wender used her skill to make it enjoyable and not simply a seemingly unending onslaught of names.

When she turns her eye to Hesiod’s “Works and Days,” she is magnificent. Just reading the first stanza, I can immediately tell that this is a much stronger piece of poetry, as Wender stated in her introduction. Hesiod stressed the need to be prepared and work hard. I enjoyed his description of the five ages of man: Golden, Silver, Bronze, the demi-gods, and Iron (us). The demi-gods were the race of heroes who have great epics and stories written about them, including those who fought in the Trojan War.

Hesiod offers advice and guidance throughout. He sagely writes: “But he who neither thinks himself nor learns / From others, is a failure as a man” (p. 68, lines 96-97). Valid then, even more valid in our present times. His advice on farming is tied to astronomy, so that one can tell when to plant, harvest, etc. based on which planets and constellations are rising or setting, visible or not, in the sky. He tells sailors when to avoid voyages, saying “Gales of all winds rage when the Pleiades, / Pursued by violent Orion, plunge / Into the clouded sea” (p. 78, lines 619-621). He marries my love of astronomy and mythology with tidbits like this.

Turning to Theognis, I could have done without him. I didn’t like what he had to say, and it had nothing to do with the translation. To quote from Wender’s introduction to his Elegies, “Unfortunately, as his personality is revealed in the poems, Theognis is not at all likeable. He seems to have been a savage, paranoid, bigoted, bitter, narrow, pompous, self-pitying person” (p. 92). I cannot help but agree with her.

Wender’s notes were wonderful and illuminating. I know she probably upset some stodgy white male classicists sitting in their cloistered rooms with her tone, but her skill and passion as a translator brought life to these words without changing the meaning of the original text. I enjoyed reading her comments, alternate translations and understandings about the text.

Overall, I’d give the Hesiod a 5, the content (not the translation) of Theognis’s Elegies a 1, the Notes a 5 and to Dorothea Wender, a 5+. Well done and well worth my time.

Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments by Sappho (transl. Aaron Poochigian)

Stung With Love: Poems and FragmentsMy rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed Sappho’s poetry via this edition with a preface by Carol Ann Duffy and notes and commentary by Aaron Poochigian. Duffy tells us of Sappho’s impact on so many, including Plato, Catullus, Horace, Ovid, Donne, Pope, Coleridge, Byron, Tennyson, Christina Rossetti, and today’s writers. Over 2,600 years of impact is pretty impressive. Horace said that Sappho’s poems merited sacred admiration and Plato honored her as the 10th Muse (p. vii). I couldn’t agree more.

So much of her writing was lost during before the common era started, but even what little remains has such presence and impact. In the 3rd and 2nd century BCE, Sappho’s remaining works were collected into 9 books (p. xliii). Cicero, Catullus and Horace would have had access to these works but by the 12th-14th c. CE, her works were almost gone. SWhat remains of her works today are fragments here and there as well as some summaries, commentaries and quotes from other classical authors which have survived.

Poochigian has a facing page for each translated fragment that situates the poem. Even better, for those of us who care about language, he tries to explain his translation project, referring to the original Greek (when it is known) and telling us the choices he makes and does not make. This slowed my reading a bit, but it added so much wondrous context. Some of this would be the context that Plato, Aristotle and Horace knew as common knowledge that influenced their thoughts on her work.

In his introduction, Poochigian says “Sappho is important because she gives a fully human voice to female desire for the first time in Western literature” (p. xxxix). This is partly a reference to Fragment 16, which was my favorite piece (pp. 58-59). It tells the story of Helen of Troy, not as a passive object stolen by Paris but as an active agent who chooses to leave her husband and follow her own desire. Not only is the poem wonderful, but the discussion of the translation on the facing page is so interesting.

Don Juan by Lord Byron

Don JuanMy rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a fun and educational read. The dedication to Southey and other first generation Romantics who turned their backs on liberalism and embraced Tory causes reminded me of Byron’s great romp in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. For epic tear-downs, Byron’s got it.

Canto 1 was awesome. The story of Juan’s parent’s marriage was great and I loved his description of his affair with Donna Julia. Canto 2 has a wonderful quote: “H/e fell upon whate’er was offer’d, like / A priest, a shark, an alderman, or pike.” (Stanza CLXII). The third canto wasn’t as good, more rambling, but still full of barbs. Canto V notes how everyone wants to write a book recounting their travel experiences in order to win praise. Canto’s VI, IX, XIII and XIV were also really good.

Overall, Don Juan was a fun melding of satire, political commentary, storytelling, and reflections on societal mores. If we isolated just the Don Juan segments, it’d be an amazing story on its own, but adding in everything else makes it so much better.

The Fall of Troy by Quintus Smyrnaeus

While lacking the storytelling ability of Homer and the focus of a good epic, I did enjoy the information provided in these relatively disjoint episodic pieces that ran from the death of Hector to the Greeks leaving Troy. 

For the story from just before the Trojan Horse to the Greeks leaving, I much preferred Tryphiodorus’s The Destruction of Troy.

The Geography of Strabo

The Geography of Strabo (Volume I, II & III of 3): Literally Translated, with Notes My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A fun read, though I did skim a bunch in the middle. I made many highlights for future reference. I will say it was a pleasure in that I would consult Greek, Latin and English versions of the Iliad & Odyssey when Strabo referenced them. Classicist fun!

Halidon Hill: A Dramatic Sketch from Scottish History by Sir Walter Scott

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a quick read of a closet drama with its main moral of prioritizing something bigger than yourself. In this case, it is putting aside a bloody revenge feud between two Scots in order that they might fight together against the English. Gordon, the younger man, wants to kill Swinton, the aged and wise knight since Swinton killed his father. However, Swinton did this in order to revenge the death of his sons at the hand of Gordon’s father. Gordon is mocked by some of the leaders of the Scottish forces as bowing down to the man who killed his father, yet the two soldiers join together and are more honorable than the leaders in the end. The pacing of the story was excellent and I enjoyed reading it.

Lives of the Caesars by Suetonius

Lives of the CaesarsMy rating: 3 of 5 stars

An enjoyable book that I have to say I started skimming through after about 130 pages. It is definitely a good reference and will find a place on my shelf. At times it felt like People Magazine, but that also made these emperors more human. While the veracity of the stories is debatable, it is a contemporary reference that bears consideration.

I enjoyed reading that many of the emperors were multilingual, e.g. Tiberius who read and wrote poetry in Latin and Greek and was well-versed in mythology (70-71, p. 132). Gaius Caesar (“Caligula”) quoted Homer to visiting kings: “Let there be one Lord, one King!” (Caligula 22, p. 146). The line referenced is from the Iliad (2:204). I pulled down my Greek & Latin edition of the Iliad and found the line right there. So very cool.

Having just finished Mary Beard’s SPQR, I was acquainted with many of the personalities mentioned, which helped immensely. I wouldn’t come at this book without having had one or more introductions to the history of the early Roman Empire.