The Penguin Book of Greek and Latin Lyric Verse by Christopher Childers (ed & trans) - review by Daisy Syme-Taylor

Daisy Syme-Taylor

To the Sound of the Lyre

The Penguin Book of Greek and Latin Lyric Verse


Penguin Classics 956pp £45

When, in the introduction to this book, Christopher Childers describes his many years of translation as ‘a sort of personal odyssey’, it is difficult to know how best to respond. One could, perhaps, hold the book up in exasperation to a flatmate and exclaim, ‘look at the size of this thing’ – the book is some thousand pages long, ranging from the earliest Greek poets to their Roman imitators. Along with Childers’s own translations, it contains copious footnotes, biographical essays on each poet, a foreword on lyric verse, explanations of historical contexts and detailed descriptions of how to read Greek and Latin metres.

Yet the fact that Childers has lent his time and scholarship to producing such a back-breaking book is something for which we should show immense gratitude, for it is a work of ambition and accomplishment, and somehow still enjoyable reading. It is an odyssey of sorts: Childers leads us from island to island, never quite reaching a familiar home. The task he sets himself is to render into English that quality of lyric that is at once song – the ‘shimmer-music’ identified by the ancient Greek poet Alcaeus – and yet unavoidably material. In the words of Alcman, there is ‘On one side, steel; and on the other/the lovely lyre-playing’. All the examples chosen insist on the materiality of lyric and delight in the vegetal (quinces, myrtle leaves, violets), drinking parties, bees, spears, sex, constellations, ships, the islands of Greece. Flicking through the pages, one is constantly reminded of lyric’s textual richness. 

Not tempted to commit himself to modern-day notions of what lyric poetry might be, or even to restrict himself to what a fifth-century Hellene might call ‘lyric’, Childers has chosen both fragments and complete poems from across the corpus of classical literature. Contemporary readers familiar with the desperate eroticism of Sappho, the saucy and scabrous Catullus or the idylls of Theocritus may be taken aback by the outright politicking voice of, say, Solon. One might expect a single translator, faced with so many competing registers, to flatten the strong voices of each poet. Childers’s singular aim, however, is to provide translations that do not so much resemble the originals as reflect the different characters of each poet. In pursuit of this, he switches up his pens (or lyre strings) to differentiate between them. This has the startling effect of allowing readers to make connections across subgenres. Elegiac couplets, associated with love elegies and inscriptions and epitaphs, are rendered in rhymed iambic pentameter. The Sapphic stanza, a ‘languid, haunting, minor-key sort of quatrain’ associated with prayers and hymns, is given an A-B-A-B rhyme scheme and a metre that at least resembles the original. The ‘limping iambic’ of Catullus and Martial is likewise given an English metre, iambic hexameter, that alludes to the original.

There are many moments of beauty in this volume. Here is Childers’s translation of Theocritus’s Idyll 11: 

He wooed her not with apples, roses, rings,
but with pure wilderness – all the rest seemed silly.
His sheep flocked from the pastures and went home
all by themselves, while, feverish on the shore,
laved by seaweed, he sang to Galatea
as the dawn broke. 

And here is his version of Virgil’s Eclogue 10:

I see myself now, wandering through the roar
of mountain glades, nocking, on every cliff,
my Parthian bow with Cretan shafts: as if
those things could cure the wound that makes me wild,
or human pain could make the harsh god mild.
Now neither woodland nymphs can bring me joy
nor poetry. Be gone, you sylvan grove.

Occasionally, the attempt to give each poet a unique character and voice cloys, particularly when Childers slips into the dangerous territory of the rhymed couplet: ‘Leophilus is leader now, Leophilus has sway,/it all rests with Leophilus; Leophilus, hooray!’ Elsewhere, the heady erotics of Theocritus turn colloquial, and stealthily funny, in the sly allusions to other bucolic poets: ‘You and an oxherd once – Go on, turn tail!/Ida, Anchises, oaks and galingale/are waiting. Go, beslut the bee-loud vale.’

Of course, all this poses the question of what ancient lyric verse really is. Glenn Most’s scholarly afterword, at which the reader finally puts into port, argues that it is something quite different from what we now think of as lyric. Ancient lyric verse was not epic poetry, or drama, or didactic, though poems possessing the last quality do make it into the collection. The most recognisable element, to modern ears, is the first-person voice. But these are not personal, or at least private, works. Rather, they are public, written for performance, for circulation among friends or to be set on monuments. Company and song are at the heart of what lyric is about, and it is the task of the translator to make us hear the delight in conviviality. Metre reminds us of both lyric’s materiality (its ‘lapidary quality’, as Childers puts it) and its origins in song.

Readers will perhaps notice that much of the book is taken up with Greek lyric rather than Latin lyric, with the latter seeming almost an afterthought. This raises the question of whether some space might have been given to other translations and adaptations of ancient lyric poetry. One wonders whether, for all the great wealth of Childers’s translations, more might have been made of the translations that are for so many the point of entry to this poetry. He does make use of these in his idiosyncratic sketches of what little we know of the lives of each of the poets included – he refers, for example, to the borderline erotic masochism of Sappho 31, its transformation by Catullus, and its taking up by Donne and Swinburne. But he might have gone further.

One of the most pleasing aspects of lyric is its many references to settlements, mountains, forests and the mythological figures associated with them. This is partly so that the listener can identify local landscapes and gods. But to the modern reader delight is often found in the simple listing of names, however unfamiliar these might be. Much of the pleasure of this book comes from the sheer amassing of minor deities, mountains, plants and lovers. The reader is at once aware of the voice that sings the lyric and its materiality, whether glimpsed in pieces of papyri or set in stone.

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