Monthly Archives: February 2023

It’s the difficult bits that can be both the most frustrating, and the most rewarding. Here the nurse in Euripides’ Hippolytus (surely an ancestor of the nurse in Romeo and Juliet) has been complaining about how hard life is, when suddenly, she waxes woolly and philosophical, as Euripides is wont to do. Barrett, in his commentary, suspects the passage is interpolated, because it is not easy to make good dramatic sense of it. I am not sure he is right. Perhaps it is partly that the attitude expressed shows a somewhat “later” religious sensibility, that smacks of mystery religions, and is a bit fluffy. The bit I like states the other side of that feeling; the passage as a whole falls short of endorsing our fancies about what lies concealed in the clouds. The passage is 189 ff (with the inclusion two lines from the preceding strophe for context); a rough translation follows.

πᾶς δ᾽ ὀδυνηρὸς βίος ἀνθρώπων
  κοὐκ ἔστι πόνων ἀνάπαυσις.
ἀλλ᾽ ὅ τι τοῦ ζῆν φίλτερον ἄλλο
σκότος ἀμπίσχων κρύπτει νεφέλαις.
δυσέρωτες δὴ φαινόμεθ᾽ ὄντες
τοῦδ᾽ ὅ τι τοῦτο στίλβει κατὰ γῆν
δι᾽ ἀπειροσύνην ἄλλου βιότου
κοὐκ ἀπόδειξιν τῶν ὑπὸ γαίας,
  μύθοις δ᾽ ἄλλως φερόμεσθα.

All man’s life is painful, and there is no end to our toils. Whatever other thing [there is] that is dearer than life is concealed with clouds in the surrounding dark. We seem to be in anguished love (δυσέρωτες δὴ φαινόμεθ᾽ ὄντες) with this “this” that shines (τοῦδ᾽ ὅ τι τοῦτο στίλβει: a very strange expression, but I feel I understand it exactly) here on earth; because of lack of experience of another life, and the non-revelation of what lies beneath this world, we are vainly (ἄλλως) carried along by myths (or perhaps better, “tales”).

The word for “shine” (στίλβειν) is used for example by Theocritus of the bare chests of athletes that carry an erotic charge: it’s an earthly radiance, not an ethereal glow, sunlight, perhaps, rather than the moon. But this is no easy delight, as it were of the Mediterranean holidaymaker. δύσερως adds to love the dys- of dysfunctional or dysplasia. Remembering that this passage answers the utterance of a banal pessimism worthy of Ecclesiastes, or the Life of Brian, and also that the play is about Phaedra’s lovesickness unto death for Hippolytus, this love is surely more bitter than sweet, and far indeed from being reasonable or easy. Spring comes, the sap rises, and there may be no true comfort in it, but we cannot help but desire the light.


Greek, in common with other languages such as Finnish or German, is endowed with a class of words known as “particles” which lend something like a tone of voice to utterance. They’re hard to pin down, and in reading, one tends to just think “oh, that’s a particle” and rely on the context. In addition, any one particle may be used with different shades of meaning. The problem is addressed for classical Attic prose by the magisterial Greek Particles by Denniston, without which no classics library would be complete: he gives lots and lots of examples culled from his canonical authors.

One such particle is γε μήν. I think the sense roughly corresponds to something like the English sentence “It’s not warm out, but it is sunny” with an emphasis on the “is”. One might equally say “at least it’s sunny”, but that does suggest something a little different.

Theocritus Id. III concerns a lovesick goatherd serenading the unreceptive Amaryllis outside the cave where she lives, curtained with fern and ivy (the erotic resonance is all too tempting, after Freud). At one point he threatens to throw himself off a cliff. The textus receptus (the manuscript tradition) says “And if I don’t die, but you will be pleased”, where “but” translates the particle. There are two apparent problems — γε μήν can’t be used in a conditional sentence like that, and wouldn’t it make more sense without the “not”? Many editions print δή (another particle, perhaps “indeed”) in place of μή (not), and Denniston himself in this passage proposed changing γε μήν to γε μέν, meaning something like “at least”; and it can be used grammatically in a conditional sentence. One subsequent commentator gets the meaning of the particles the wrong way round (relying perhaps on library notes that became misleading somewhere between library and study), another says γε μήν is here used in “one of the senses” of γε μέν, which at least saves altering the text by conjecture. Or you can keep γε μήν in its native use, by supposing an anguished break in the sense between protasis and apodosis (more exactly, there would be no apodosis, if without then followed by an independent exclamation); this works with either μή or δή. It seems both the manuscripts and Greek authors themselves muddled up their particles, especially by the Hellenistic period. They are, after all, subtle!

One commentator mentions that Sappho threw herself off a cliff for love, and subsequent unrequited lovers used the same spot as a drastic remedy: if they survived, they would be cured of their love; which in our case, would doubtless please the beloved. Is that too neat and tidy?

I’m not competent to judge the question, but had I been reading Theocritus without the privilege of a well-stocked library, I would most likely never have encountered the admittedly interesting possibility that the text says the less obvious thing (difficilior lectio), relying instead on the judiciousness of commentators in making the sensible choice. And even if you have the library, it takes time to take stock of such questions. So perhaps the tortoise wins the race after all.

I have been making very, very slow progress with Theocritus. Ken Dover’s edition, with glossary, professes to enable the curious and less scholarly reader to discover at least “what the Greek means” (an ambition that bears comparison with Ranke’s as a historian to ascertain “wie es eigentlich gewesen sei”, what it was really like), but I don’t think I could have done so without recourse to the comprehensive and magisterial edition of Gow, from half a century ago. And even then … The trouble is, Dover is often silent on the really tricky points (and his glossary also). Perhaps he assumes the help of a teacher. There is a tension between working out roughly “what it means” and ruthlessly chasing down all those foxes; behind that lies the tension between taking the word of the notes in whichever edition you use (if they even say anything to illuminate whatever remains opaque), and making one’s own judgment. Something like this occurs when children learn an instrument, and assimilate a musical tradition, before eventually forming their own performance style and personal musicianship: the journey to Mündigkeit.

I have a tentative idea for a project to provide a bit more help to other lapsed classicists to ease the way; apart from anything else, few have access to sufficiently equipped libraries to go it alone (or rather, not alone). That might consist of two parts: an introduction offering general hints on such matters as how to cope with the “hyperdoricism”; and a series of short disquisitions on the really tricky bits, where there is genuine uncertainty about how a line should be taken or a word parsed. Or on the other hand, certain intriguing oddities of thought: I have one in mind about a slipperiness between thought and word and perception that suggests a different relationship than ours to the “inner voice”. Needless to say, one must tread carefully, just as with Whorfian speculations about exotic languages such as Hopi embodying a different way of thinking; but it’s something I think readers should think about, rather than being glossed over. Really that one takes me beyond the idea of the sporadic commentary, as it leads straight to such questions as, but is that just a parody of Homer? Certainly beyond my competence. Many German scholars of the nineteenth century wrote fat volumes speculating about the contours of ‘archaic thought’, and the territory is treacherous.

For now — having read just two Idylls — I’m turning to a diversion. In March I mean to see a play on the Phaedra myth, and I thought it would be fun to read the classical texts (by Euripides, Seneca and Racine). I dipped into the first (Hippolytus) and the Greek is so easy by contrast with tricksy Theocritus! It’s a lot to read in a few weeks, and I’ll have to be more hare than tortoise, or fail.

Before I do that, though, I would like to try the experiment of reading the third Idyll in just a few days. There is another tension which is that of confidence: if you doubt everything, you can make no more progress than Achilles, faced with the lumbering tortoise always just ahead of him. It’s a test of how much osmosis has occurred through this immersion. Or how much fire is in my Grecian mind.