"For there is indeed something we can call the spirit of ancient Greece-a carefully tuned voice that speaks out of the grave with astonishing clarity and grace , a distinctive voice that, taken as a whole, is like no other voice that has ever sung on this earth."
-BURTON RAFFEL, from his Preface
For centuries, the poetry of Homer, Aristophanes, Sophocles, Sappho, and Archilochus has served as one of our primary means of connecting with the wholly vanished world of ancient Greece. But the works of numerous other great and prolific poets-Alkaios, Meleager, and Simonides, to name a few-are rarely translated into English , and are largely unknown to modern readers. In Pure Pagan, award-winning translator Burton Raffel brings these and many other wise and witty ancient Greek writers to an English-speaking audience for the first time, in full poetic flower. Their humorous and philosophical ruminations create a vivid portrait of everyday life in ancient Greece -and they are phenomenally lovely as well.
In short, sharp bursts of song, these two-thousand-year-old poems speak about the timeless matters of everyday life:
Wine (Wine is the medicine / To call for, the best medicine / To drink deep, deep)
History (Not us: no. / It began with our fathers, / I've heard).
Movers and shakers (If a man shakes loose stones / To make a wall with / Stones may fall on his head / Instead)
Old age (Old age is a debt we like to be owed / Not one we like to collect)
Frankness (Speak / As you please / And hear what can never / Please).
There are also wonderful epigrams (Take what you have while you have it: you'll lose it soon enough. / A single summer turns a kid into a shaggy goat) and epitaphs (Here I lie, beneath this stone, the famous woman who untied her belt for only one man).
The entrancing beauty, humor, and piercing clarity of these poems will draw readers into the Greeks' journeys to foreign lands, their bacchanalian parties and ferocious battles, as well as into the more intimate settings of their kitchens and bedrooms. The poetry of Pure Pagan reveals the ancient Greeks' dreams, their sense of humor, sorrows, triumphs, and their most deeply held values, fleshing out our understanding of and appreciation for this fascinating civilization and its artistic legacy.
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October 10, 2005
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Excerpt from Pure Pagan by Burton Raffel
Give up? How stupid,
Just for bad luck!
Nothing will work.
But Bacchus, Bacchus, if we forget your name
In our weariness, wine is the medicine
To call for, the best medicine
To drink deep, deep.
When courage is what he needs
He finds it in himself.
Drink, and Get Drunk with Me
Melanippus: drink, and get drunk with me.
Once you've crossed the swirling Acheron
And landed in darkness, what makes you think
You'll ever see sunlight again?
Don't be a fool-don't try too hard.
King Sisyphus, son of Aeolus, was the smartest man alive
And thought he could run from death,
But Fate drove him across the Acheron, then drove him over again, And the king of darkness, Cronos' son, Set him a miserable task down under the black earth. Don't even hope for such things.
Drink. Why wait for the lamps?
There's only a finger of daylight left.
Get the big cups, the ones with pictures.
Bacchus gave us wine to drown our sorrows.
Mix one of water to two of wine,
Fill them to the brim,
And let one cup quickly follow the other.
As you please
What can never
Friends? My friends are nothing,
And I weep for them,
And for me.
Not us: no.
It began with our fathers,
I loathe Love, wasting his arrows on me
Instead of aiming at huge wild beasts.
Do gods win glory by burning up men?
Is my head a noble trophy to hang from his belt?
Wine, now, and more wine, and more,
Now that Myrsillus is dead.
Movers and Shakers
If a man shakes loose stones
To make a wall with,
Stones may fall on his head
Even if he came from somewhere else,
You would say you did, too.
Drink: the Dog Star
Is coming back, so
Pigs whip up
He wants power
He has power
He wants more
And his country will break in his hands,
Is breaking now.
O Poverty, you and your sister Helplessness
Fall like wolves
On this country
Once so great.
I had you to dinner, once,
Gave you tender goat, juicy pork:
How to win friends
And influence people.
You've made me completely forget sorrow.
And the sky god pours down rain,
And the clouds whirl, and rivers freeze:
So: keep your fire high
And pour out honey-sweet wine
And lie back
With a pillow on this side,
And a pillow on that side.
Fate and Necessity
And a huge cauldron, hot
With your dinner, soon.
But still cold, until that thick winter soup
For gluttonous Alkman
Comes boiling up.
No fancy slop for Alkman, no.
Like ordinary people he likes real food.
Not Aphrodite, No
Not Aphrodite, no. But like a child,
Wild, Love comes down,
Almost as though walking on flowers-
But should not touch them,
O dancers, singers, honey-voiced girls,
Loud, clear: no more, I cannot!
God, O God, if I were only a kingfisher,
Purple like the sea, flying never afraid
Out over the waves
Set Seven Couches
Set seven couches
And seven tables
And cover them with poppy cakes,
And linseed cakes,
And sesame cakes,
In and among the wooden bowls.
Tantalus, Evil placed in the middle of Good,
Sat under a hanging rock, ready to fall,
And thought he saw,
The Peaks Are Asleep
And creeping things
Out of the dark earth
And the beasts on the hills
And bees, all bees
And monsters deep in the sea
And asleep, too, every flying bird everywhere
For eating with men
Try singing as you eat.
Look: I look back. You look with eyes
But I am eyeless.
And I can speak, having no voice. You have
A voice, but all I have is lips, and they move, soundless.
I was Callicrita, I bore twenty-nine children
And all of them lived, and still live.
I died at a hundred and five
And never needed a cane to steady my hand.
This isthmus: no digging, no fencing.
If Zeus had wanted an island he'd have made one.
He lived by his sling,
Hunting winged geese,
Creeping silently up
As they fed, watching on every side
But not seeing him.
He lived poor, he died poor.
Now he lives in the darkness
And his sling hangs motionless,
No hand to whirl it
Swift and sure,
And the geese fly over his tomb.
Once corpses left the city behind them, dead,
But now the living carry the city to her grave.
Take what you have while you have it: you'll lose it soon enough. A single summer turns a kid into a shaggy goat.