Publishing, classics, mood swings

Pindar, The Second Isthmian Ode, vv. 1-12

On the occasion of Richard Seaford’s article in TLS June 17, 2009, the beginning of the Second Isthmian was read and translated.

Men of old, Thrasyboulos,
who mounted the chariot of the golden-crowned Muses,
gathering there with the glorious lyre,
lightly shot their honey-voicèd hymns of youth,
of the beautiful youth that had attained
the lovely summer-ripeness wooing Aphrodite
on her perfect throne.
For the Muse did not desire profit
then, nor worked a trade:
Nor were the softly sounding songs
from honey-spoken Terpsichore
sold with silver faces.
But now she allows
the Argive’s word to attain the place
most near to truth.
Money, money makes the man.
Who said it having lost his goods and friends.

Οἱ μὲν πάλαι, ὦ Θρασύβουλε,
φῶτες, οἳ χρυσαμπύκων
ἐς δίφρον Μοισᾶν ἔβαι-
νον κλυτᾷ φόρμιγγι συναντόμενοι,
ῥίμφα παιδείους ἐτόξευον μελιγάρυας ὕμνους,
ὅστις ἐὼν καλὸς εἶχεν Ἀφροδίτας
εὐθρόνου μνάστειραν ἁδίσταν ὀπώραν.
ἁ Μοῖσα γὰρ οὐ φιλοκερδής
πω τότ’ ἦν οὐδ’ ἐργάτις·
οὐδ’ ἐπέρναντο γλυκεῖ-
αι μελιφθόγγου ποτὶ Τερψιχόρας
ἀργυρωθεῖσαι πρόσωπα μαλθακόφωνοι ἀοιδαί.
νῦν δ’ ἐφίητι <τὸ> τὠργείου φυλάξαι
ῥῆμ’ ἀλαθείας < ⏑ – > ἄγχιστα βαῖνον,
χρήματα χρήματ’ ἀνήρ
ὃς φᾶ κτεάνων θ’ ἅμα λειφθεὶς καὶ φίλων.


It is untypical of Pindar thus to idealize a poetry for not being “profit-hungry” (φιλοκερδής) or “working a trade” (ἐργάτις). He was definitely not ashamed of getting paid, even writing about it, for instance at the end of the Third Pythian,

If the god should hold out exuberant wealth to me,
I have the hope to find great glory forthwith.

εἰ δέ μοι πλοῦτον θεὸς ἁβρὸν ὀρέξαι,
ἐλπίδ’ ἔχω κλέος εὑρέσθαι κεν ὑψηλὸν πρόσω.

A close reading of the beginning of the Second Isthmian might, with a pinch of imagination, elicit a more significant message than the hypocritical reverence for amateur disinterestedness that it professes. The piece may be read as a statement of literary criticism as well as, beneath the surface, ironically detached professional pride. The key-word is “lightly” (ῥίμφα). Poets of old wrote lightly, says Pindar, lovesongs of (about or to) beautiful youths. He has in mind the Archaic melic poets, for instance Alcman, Alcaeus and Ibycus, perhaps also Archilochus and Sappho although they preferred girls — but παιδείους … ὕμνους in v. 5 may in fact with some good intention be read as “songs of young boys and girls” (cf. Crat. fr. 258, Eup. fr. 327, LSJ παιδικός III 2 a).

Now if we compare this description of the Archaic Lyre with Pindar’s own production, we find that he is depicting the very antithesis of Pindaric poetry. Pindar wrote grave hymns, about deadly serious mythological subjects. If he should occasionally write about boys (fr. 123), the result is not light, but morally challenging, boldly metaphorical, and possessing the gravity of good and expensive knives. Hence, the lightly composing amateur poets of old — would they not be, from Pindar’s perspective, also a tad light-weight? Is it not also possible to elicit from the epithet παιδείους another meaning: I mean educational? Instead of the ordinary παιδικός, Pindar chooses an adjective which is cognate with παιδεία, education, and which is elsewhere normally used in the context of child-rearing.

This cannot be without significance: indeed from Pindar’s perspective, the Archaic poets belonged to the Lehrjahre of Greek poetry. Now, with Pindar, poetry had reached maturity. And might accordingly, as an adult, allow itself professional remuneration.

Clothed in words of pious reverence, the beginning of the Second Isthmian could in fact contain an ironical and carefully concealed snub at the patron: possibly he could not afford to pay that much. The entire poem contains only 48 verses, to be compared with about a hundred in most Pythian and Olympian odes, and three hundred in the Fourth Pythian.

Then again a silver coin is a silver coin, and we could perhaps compare the story about Pindar’s older contemporary Simonides, as related by Aristotle (Rhet. 1405b):

As the winner in the mules’ race tried to offer Simonides too little money, he said that he did not want to compose a poem, professing to be insulted for having to write about half-asses. But when he gave enough, Simonides wrote:

Hail, sisters of storm-heeled horses (fr. 10 Page, PMG)


Not a very original idea of mine, I see now after studying Verdenius’ commentary. Although it is usually surmised that Pindar asks for money, rather than mocks the unsufficiency of his client’s funds.


Sappho 81b

Put lovely garlands, Dika, in your hair
with soft hands binding strands of dill:

then you will flower, and the blessed Graces
shall come near; they turn away from the ungarlanded.

σὺ δὲ στεφάνοις, ὦ Δίκα, πέρθεσθ’ ἐράτοις φόβαισιν
ὄρπακας ἀνήτω συναέρραισ’ ἀπάλαισι χέρσιν·

εὐάνθεμος ὢς γὰρ πέλεαι καὶ Χάριτες μάκαιραι
μᾶλλον προσέσοντ’, ἀστεφανώτοισι δ’ ἀπυστρέφονται.

Some spacious and perhaps philologically indefensible conjectures have made sense of the poetry:

εὐάνθεμος ὢς γὰρ πέλεαι (’then you will flower’): εὐάνθεα γὰρ πέλεται (’for they are flowery’, unmetrical).
προσέσοντ’ (’shall come near’): προτέρην (’former’, senseless).

Walter Headlam’s translation of Aeschylus, The Suppliants

— And what of the sense in its importance for the relationship between translation and original? A simile may help here. Just as a tangent touches a circle lightly and at but one point, with this touch rather than with the point setting the law according to which it is to continue on its straight path to infinity, a translation touches the original lightly and only at the infinitely small point of the sense, thereupon pursuing its own course according to the laws of fidelity in the freedom of linguistic flux. Without explicitly naming or substantiating it, Rudolf Pannwitz has characterized the true significance of this freedom. His observations are contained in Die Krisis der europäischen Kultur and rank with Goethe’s Notes to the Westöstlicher Divan as the best comment on the theory of translation that has been published in Germany. Pannwitz writes: “Our translations, even the best ones, proceed from a wrong premise. They want to turn Hindi, Greek, English into German instead of turning German into Hindi, Greek, English. Our translators have a far greater reverence for the usage of their own language than for the spirit of the foreign works. . . . The basic error of the translator is that he preserves the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue. Particularly when translating from a language very remote from his own he must go back to the primal elements of language itself and penetrate to the point where work, image, and tone converge. He must expand and deepen his language by means of the foreign language. It is not generally realized to what extent this is possible, to what extent any language can be transformed, how language differs from language almost the way dialect differs from dialect; however, this last is true only if one takes language seriously enough, not if one takes it lightly.”

These notes towards a poetics of translation by Walter Benjamin and Rudolf Pannwitz (translated by Harry Zohn) may possibly serve as a justification of Walter Headlam’s prose translations of Aeschylus. At least I find them curiously attractive, although I am aware that native speakers of English may take offence.*) Anyway, as a semantical commentary on the Greek text the translation more than serves its purpose. Headlam’s philological notes are also very useful, and rightly made an impression on Martin West as he was editing Aeschylus for Teubner, as evidenced by the apparatus to at least the Supplices as well as the eulogy of Headlam in West’s Studies in Aeschylus.

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The Swallow song (Carmina popularia 2 PMG)

ἦλθ’ ἦλθε χελιδὼν
καλὰς ὥρας ἄγουσα,
καλοὺς ἐνιαυτούς,
ἐπὶ γαστέρα λευκά,
ἐπὶ νῶτα μέλαινα.
παλάθαν σὺ προκύκλει
ἐκ πίονος οἴκου
οἴνου τε δέπαστρον
τυροῦ τε κάνυστρον·
καὶ πύρνα χελιδὼν
καὶ τὰν λεκιθίταν
οὐκ ἀπωθεῖται· πότερ’ ἀπίωμες ἢ λαβώμεθα;

εἰ μέν τι δώσεις· εἰ δὲ μή, οὐκ ἐάσομες·
ἢ τὰν θύραν φέρωμες ἢ τὸ ὑπέρθυρον
ἢ τὰν γυναῖκα τὰν ἔσω καθημέναν·
μικρὰ μέν ἐστι, ῥαιδίως νιν οἴσομες.
ἂν δὴ φέρηις τι, μέγα δή τι φέροις·
ἄνοιγ’ ἄνοιγε τὰν θύραν χελιδόνι·
οὐ γὰρ γέροντές ἐσμεν, ἀλλὰ παιδία.

Came, came the swallow
with pleasant seasons,
with the beautiful year.
It is white underneath
and black on the back.
You, roll the fruitcake
out of the rich mansion
and a cup of wine,
and a basket of cheese:
nor wheat bread shall the swallow,
nor pulse bread
refuse. Now should we leave? or else receive?

If so, then give, or else we’re not content
We’ll take the door or the lintel above it
or the woman, she who is sitting outside it,
she’s small indeed, an easy load;
if you will bring, bring something large:
now open, open the door for the swallow,
we are not old men, but only children.


A Greek popular song, sung by the children of Rhodes as they went from house to house in what apparently was an ancient version of ‘trick-or-treat‘. According to Theognis of Rhodes, cited by Athenaeus 8.60, who preserves the song, the collection was occasioned by a religious festival in the month of Boëdromion. In Athens, this was an autumnal month. The theme of the present song has been taken as evidence that on Rhodes, Boëdromion came in the spring.

In the European classical tradition, the song has often been quoted as a prime example of naive Greek pastoral, a celebration of life and the beauty of nature. Perhaps the reality behind it is grimmer than we have realised.  In the later European context, ‘trick-or-treat’ indeed took place in the autumn, after the harvest and slaughter was done, when farms and houses were well-stocked. The poor people who performed the trick-or-treat had long winter months to look forward to, and needed every ounce of nutrition they could get.

Now, apparently here the children are dressed up as swallows, with white cloths in front and black on the back. What if the talk about spring and beautiful seasons is only a game, a sort of grimly humourous joke intended to soften the hearts of the rich mansion-owners — and, at the same time an instance of the superstitious euphemic practise so common of Greek society. The beatiful season, καλὰς ὥρας, καλοὺς ἐνιαυτούς, which is coming, is not the spring — but winter. Let’s call the winter beatiful, maybe it will be nicer to us.

Sappho 8

P.Oxy. 2289

[ἆδυ  μὲ]ν [τ]ὸ [κάλλος ἴδην φιλάων]
[ὤστε π]ὰμ φ[άεννον ἐν ὠράνοισιν]
[ἄστρον,  Ἄ]τθι· σὸ[ν δὲ πρόσωπον ἐλλάμ-]
xx[πει] νεφ[έλαισι.]

Sweet is the beauty of friends to see,
like every flaming star in the sky,
Atthis: but your face shines
xxthrough clouds.

A. E. Housman, The Name and Nature of Poetry

A decently formatted version of this text is availabe here.

[p. 4]

The question should be fairly stated, how far a man can be an adequate, or even a good (so far as he goes) though inadequate critic of poetry, who is not a poet, at least in posse. Can he be an adequate, can he be a good critic, though not commensurate? But there is yet another distinction. Supposing he is not only not a poet, but is a bad poet! What then?

COLERIDGE, Anima Poetae, pp. 127 f.

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Osip Mandelstam, The Kremlin Mountain Man

The so-called ”Stalin epigram” (1933), read with some help from a native Russian speaker.

Мы живем, под собою не чуя страны,
Наши речи за десять шагов не слышны,
А где хватит на полразговорца,
Там припомнят кремлёвского горца.
Его толстые пальцы, как черви, жирны,
А слова, как пудовые гири, верны,
Тараканьи смеются усища,
И сияют его голенища.

А вокруг него сброд тонкошеих вождей,
Он играет услугами полулюдей,
Кто свистит, кто мяучит, кто хнычет,
Он один лишь бабачет и тычет.
Как подковы, кует за указом указ —
Кому в пах, кому в лоб, кому в бровь, кому в глаз
Что ни казнь у него — то малина
И широкая грудь осетина.


We live, but feel not the land beneath us
In ten steps’ distance, you will not hear our words
But if they may utter a half-choked sound
They’ll remember the Kremlin Mountain man

His fingers are thick, glistening worms
But his words true like twelve pound weights
His moustaches laughing cockroaches
And his bootstraps are beaming

The thin-necked rabble of chiefs around him,
Half-man servants he toys with.
One squeaks, one mews, one whimpers, he only
Babbles and points.

Like horse shoes he forges ukas on ukas
For each one’s groins, foreheads, eyes

His every death sentence a raspberry
But the Ossete’s chest is broad.

glistening worms: Demyan Bedny had mentioned to Mandelstam that Stalin left stains of fat on the books he borrowed (Montefiore, Stalin, p. 135 in the paperback ed.).

The thin-necked rabble of chiefs: according to Montefiore loc.cit. an allusion to Molotov’s small head and thin neck. Cf. also Gottfried Benn, ”Englisches Café”, which begins:

Das ganze schmalschuhige Raubpack,
Russinnen, Jüdinnen, tote Völker, ferne Küsten,
schleicht durch die Frühjahrsnacht.

Raspberry malina (малина): Perhaps an allusion to Malenkov, who like Mandelstam knew Latin and read poetry. He was one of the chief authorites in the executive branches of the 1930’s purges (see Montefiore, op.cit. s. 258-60). Because of feminine traits, he was nicknamed Malanya. Stalin’s broad chest could then be a complementary contrast to Malanya’s legendary broad hips.

the Ossete: see on Stalin’s father here.