odium philologicum

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.


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