Monthly Archives: September 2022

I’ve spent an hour or two in the afternoons loafing in the Bodleian, which is to say, I’ve read thirty or forty lines of Theocritus, with middling confidence I know roughly what it means; by the way, that’s why you should never use translations: confidence will be higher, but that’s all. There is no substitute for the schoolboy method, not because it has a sobering and salutary effect on confidence, but because it is the thorny path to a richer sense of understanding as hard-won; strait is the gate. Loafing, because that’s a sluggard’s portion, and I have of course spent most of the time skimming through books on Hellenistic poetry — not a frivolous distraction, though I may be putting the cart before the horse, because it makes all the difference how you take things; or rather, the ultimate purpose of this immersion, should I pursue it, is not to extract the sense from the text by torturing it with a dictionary, but to arrive at some feeling of its “effect”. I wrote the other day that the poetry of the period is “highly literary” or some such nonsense; that question may be summed up in the remark of one critic that while the scholars of the past (till some date in the C19th, presumably) had praised Theocritus for his fetching portrait of authentic rusticity, it was only the poet’s consummate skill that made such a reading possible. Where a pre-war Australian commentator took the fine feelings of certain erotic passages as proof of the poet’s high morals, now they are recognised as pastiche of archaic originals, the important question being how much they add, to earn their keep in the canon. Some time in the sixties, it became fashionable to understand the rough country ways of bucolic in tension with Epicurean high-mindedness — whether to undercut it, or as its foil. And lately, scholars feel the crushing weight of what has been lost, both contemporary verse that may have been less highly wrought, and archaic models whose looming presence can just about be discerned, hovering over the shoulders of the text like an iceberg on a foggy night, making it impossible to come to any firm understanding of what the authors of the Hellenistic period were up to, beyond the assertion that it was something. The thought that this scholarly culture, materially expressed in the technology of the library at Alexandria, only came into existence because the descendants of Alexander’s generals thought patronising the arts would improve their thuggish image, explains the resonance of the literature of the period in the time of Augustus, who also faced a problem of legitimacy, to which his answer was Maecenas.

I am being a little unkind; these are not unreasonable things to bring to bear on texts that have surely lost some of their ability to speak for themselves. But I am reminded of something said to me recently by a friend in a gallery: maybe it is better to just look at the paintings, and as it were sink or swim. That isn’t a philistine attitude; at least, not necessarily. And it is increasingly apparent to me (with age) how much curation (perhaps, then, criticism too) simply brings to bear the passing preoccupations of the time on work that one imagines casting them off with an Olympian shrug of the shoulders.

There is, perhaps, another danger too (meting out a further turn of the screw of philological despair). There are good grounds for attributing certain preoccupations or ideas to their Zeitgeist, as with Epicureanism and Stoicism. In much the same way, when we try to think about certain questions that provoke musing and pontification, we naturally reach for what is in the air, with a satisfying feeling of having been rational and cerebral, when in fact in every age and time, that gesture, that little upward stretch, that simian flourish, is a nostrum for stilling thought, with its attendant discomfort.

The question of Epicureanism and eros is pertinent to Theocritus; my flippant survey above of the literature is meant to provoke at least a provisional tolerance of not taking any particular view. There is something unsatisfactory to the modern mind in the rumination of the period on reducing suffering. We might perhaps say that one who is not prepared to risk, and even entertain suffering will not really live. In a quotation I can’t now find, Lucretius counselled as a cure for love emptying one’s seed with “any old” (quaeque) partner — presumably, a prostitute; get it out of your system, as it were. Memory or understanding may not serve, but my point is the exasperation provoked by that sort of stuff. (I will go back to the library, and look it up, and cite chapter and verse in a comment below). If we now reach out into the air from our armchair, the word “relationship” is likely to be conjured up, the advance guard to a host of prim platitudes about how love should properly flourish. If I can roll my eyes at them, why not the Greeks, at the self-help of their day?

C.S. Lewis, in his book The Discarded Image, provides a literary history of the cosmological furniture of the middle ages, richly present still in Shakespeare and Milton — those celestial spheres. Anyone disposed to expatiate on the constitution of the universe had ready to hand a richly-stocked imaginarium, and people were probably on the whole content to believe that something on those lines was roughly right. But as Lewis says, great men such as Michelangelo were the exception; they knew it was just flimmery, because they really thought about “the nature of things”. We can’t all be Michelangelo, but God equipped us with shoulders that we might shrug them.


I took it into my head the other day to dip my toe in Theocritus’ spring, with a view then to tackling Virgil’s Eclogues. Hellinistic poetry is very self-consciously literary — so it would not be like reading Homer as a precursor to the Aeneid. Theocritus’ eclectic use of dialect creates a very different texture from what those who learned Greek at school may be used to, and it looks like a tough nut to crack. Here are the opening lines of Idyll I:

῾Αδύ τι τὸ ψιθύρισμα καὶ ἁ πίτυς αἰπόλε τήνα,
ἃ ποτὶ ταῖς παγαῖσι μελίσδεται, ἁδὺ δὲ καὶ τὺ
συρίσδες: μετὰ Πᾶνα τὸ δεύτερον ἆθλον ἀποισῇ.
αἴ κα τῆνος ἕλῃ κεραὸν τράγον, αἶγα τὺ λαψῇ.
αἴ κα δ᾽ αἶγα λάβῃ τῆνος γέρας, ἐς τὲ καταρρεῖ
ἁ χίμαρος: χιμάρῳ δὲ καλὸν κρέας, ἕστέ κ᾽ ἀμέλξῃς.

This isn’t quite the same text I was reading yesterday in the library, for example, what looks like a dative in line 6 turns into a Doric genitive, without its iota subscript. More importantly, the comma in line two might be omitted or placed one word earlier — all punctuation is the editor’s. For the reader whose Greek may be rustier still than my own, it may help to consider that almost any alpha, if long (which scanning the hexameters will reveal) might be an eta in Attic; the first word is an example. And then, the second person pronoun has tau, like Latin, for Attic sigma. I think the second word is the dative of that, but the internet translates “something sweet”, and the internet may be right; but it is less vivid.

I suppose at this point I should attempt translation:

That’s a sweet whispering music, shepherd, from the pine over there by the lochans, and you, too, play sweetly on the pipes; you will take the second prize after Pan. If (αἴ κα) he chooses the horned he-goat, you will take the female, or if he takes her as his prize, you will get the kid; her flesh is fine, till you milk (cognate!) her.

Less recent editions put the comma in line 2 after the verb, and understand a relative clause with the pine as the subject; but then we need a verb for ψιθύρισμα, whispering. The reader can supply an implied συρίσδει, echoing the verb at the beginning of line 3, which coalesces with μελίσδεται, also third person singular and with the same effective sense, or a sense of “musical whispering” that partakes of both: turning a clumsy repetition into elegant balance, at the cost of grammatical difficulty that would puzzle the head of any schoolboy.

More recent editions remove or displace the comma to create an apposition, allowing the verb to take whispering as its subject: “the pine tree, that one by the water” (the alpha is then printed without an accent). The whole thing is a bit … looser, and at the same time, less complicated.

But then … ah, the pleasure of browsing in a decent library, with ten different commentaries to compare … the wheel turns a little further, and someone sums up the whole matter as a case of “syntactic ambiguity”. Yes, I thought, that’s right! Just as the Greeks knew all those words for different goats (with sheep to follow, in the shepherd’s reply starting in line 7) they understood their own language without parsing it. It’s a good heuristic for the schoolboy: first find the subject, then the verb, and then the rest “should fall into place”. But only as a first approximation.

This is an off-topic post, for my own benefit as an aide-memoire, but also anybody else who might find it useful.

Flashcards such as Anki, and many others, employ spaced repetition to learn information such as vocabulary. The basic idea is the more you get an item right, the less frequently it is reviewed. Computers are obviously well-suited to doing this, and the technology recorded here is more or less out of date. I am learning Gregg shorthand (in fits and starts, I’m afraid) and it’s a bit of a faff to get the glyphs into the virtual ecosystem. So for this purpose, I have created some hand-made cards. Archie Barnes created VOLATS for his students of Chinese at Durham. Those learning that language face a herculean labour of memorisation. Here without further ado is the handout he made to describe the system, itself salvaged and recorded for posterity by the author of the site, which has in turn vanished; but today I came across a reference to it on a Chinese learning forum, with a link to the Wayback Machine.

It’s still technically in copyright, but I don’t think Archie Barnes would mind. He is the author of the marvellous book “Chinese through Poetry” which teaches classical Chinese from scratch, without assuming a knowledge of the contemporary language, briefly described here:

With sporadic regularity, I read a poem early in the day, after recording my dreams; it’s the skeleton of a writer’s routine. My darling these months has been John Berryman. Berryman, so I was once told, used to write a draft first thing each morning, then put a sheet of glass over the paper. After half an hour or so he would decide if it was a keeper, or not; and perhaps scrawl some second thoughts on it; then he began drinking bourbon. That has the feel of an apocryphal story, that might have been invented by Suetonius to discredit one of the Twelve Caesars. Here is Dream Song 74:

Henry hates the world. What the world to Henry
did will not bear thought.
Feeling no pain,
Henry stabbed his arm and wrote a letter
explaining how bad it had been
in this world.

Old yellow, in a gown
might have made a difference, 'these lower beauties',
and chartreuse could have mattered

'Kyoto, Toledo,
Benares -- the holy cities --
and Cambridge shimmering do not make up
for, well, the horror of unlove,
nor south from Paris driving in the Spring
to Siena and on ...'

Pulling together Henry, somber Henry
woofed at things.
Spry disappointments of men
and vicing adorable children
miserable women, Henry mastered, Henry
tasting all the secret bits of life.

The poem will resonate in different ways for each reader: my Cambridge is not the same as his, but it does shimmer, and its winters are bitter, too. I can’t parse ‘old yellow’ — is it that kitschy film about a boy’s dog that the bad dad wants to shoot? — and a bit like Pound, beauteous pregnant pieces of finery are woven into the text like an embroidered section in a wedding dress (or ‘gown’), luminous amidst the plain white. This is different from the way I learned to read poetry, cutting my teeth on Horace: humanist philology pretends to arrive at stable meanings, delivering sense out of obscurity and, of course, textual corruption. It is like a crossword puzzle, if the crossword is a bad pun that makes you groan, and poetry breathes the esprit of the salons: there is that moment of illumination, the arrival of definitive understanding. I have read little poetry in proportion to prose, because the instability underfoot — as in this fine song — left me bristly and intolerant. Once, in Cambridge, we reflected on a talismanic graffito on a bridge over the Cam, with just that magical indeterminacy. Much the same goes for the jagged syntax (other passages bristle with it more), which makes us taste the words more richly, in a way that may be quite different for each reader. Traction begins to engage when you read your way into the poet’s voice; at least, so it has been for me, as certain tics become familiar, and affection displaces irritation. Rather than things falling into place, it’s like making a new friend.

Neil Gaiman first came to my attention as the author (with Terry Pratchett) of Good Omens, on which the television series of the same title is based (a second batch is on the way). That’s a Miltonic tale, and so is The Sandman, but it has more flounce and visual flair — a fantastical landscape where CGI brings the imaginative freedom of the comic strip to the small screen. There is also a talking crow.

Stories that take place on the plane of Gods break the narrative frame of fiction. If anything goes, outsize happenings are cheap. X-Men started a long run of bombastic cinema (though the ones with Patrick Stewart in are not bad). At this point might begin a disquisition on the roots of imaginative decline in cultural apocalypse, but the reader knows that’s not my style. Last night I watched episode five of Sandman, which besides its scarlet beauty encased a cameo of psychological realism to match anything in Hemingway or Chechov. A mortal has Morpheus’ ruby, which bestows on its keeper kindred morphological powers (I can’t grasp the backstory of the larger frame); with it he seeks to change the world by bringing truth to it. While he sits in a diner with the talisman glowing in his hand, the hidden truths of the couples who frequent it tear their relationships and lives apart. As the tenor of each situation hardens and the mask is torn off, the characters lurch into uncivil torment, like Yugoslavia.

This is not realist narrative; events don’t unfurl and crumble like that in the real world (though such a story could be framed, the tipping-point into divorce or adultery, perhaps); but the relationships, caught in the amber of the possibility of their undoing, are seen sharp and true.

I once began a fiction with the Devil as a character, but I didn’t see the trick of it, which is to allow the Miltonic cosmology without troubling with its underpinnings, and explore the human world it creates.

The devil, like Hume, plays billiards.