Saturday, 24 June 2017

Aristophanes Frogs - Not Croaking but Drowning

I have been gradually warming to the Frogs after a second or third reading after initial doubts as to whether it is still possible to laugh at comedy written in Ancient Greece almost 25 centuries ago – but to my great surprise/relief it is. There is clear evidence in the text a lot of the techniques that are so familiar to us in our own modern comedy of the modern era, the classic two-man, fall guy and sidekick combo of Dionysus and Xanthias his slave, mistaken and switching identity gags, slapstick or visual gags, so much that is the ancient precursor to so many a classic comedy routine so familiar to us.
All the above notwithstanding there still remains the issue of how much we are really getting, the missed nuances and allusions to the political and historical scene of the day. This is succinctly put by Malcolm Heath in the introduction to his article, ‘Political Comedy in Aristophanes’ Hypomnemata 87, Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 1987 © Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht (1987) and Malcolm Heath (2007);
‘To understand Aristophanes’ plays therefore, we must ask about the reception with a view to which they were composed ; and this will inevitably raise in turn the question of political intent.
But this question, though inescapable, is extremely difficult to answer-and is so for readily intelligible reasons. It is not simply that we lack the intimate knowledge of the contemporary world which Aristophanes presupposed of his audience, so that many of the allusions pass us by or baffle us. Even where we can detect and explain an allusion, its tone or point may elude us. Irony, fantasy and playful distortion are parts of the artists’ repertoire, and they may present an almost insuperable interpretative barrier to ‘outsiders’, to those not antecedently familiar with the moods and intentions conventionally appropriate in a given comic genre. It would be an exaggeration to say that what seems to us prima facie plausible is probably for that very reason wrong; but it would be perfectly correct to insist that its seeming prima facie plausible to uninitiates like ourselves affords exceptionally weak grounds for supposing that it probably right.’
So it is clear that we will be missing a lot as modern audiences read through this play and have to tread carefully before making too many wild assumptions. But despite that it might still be possible to throw out a few conjectures as to the themes and ideas that bob to the surface of the Stygian swamps, much like the occasional croaking frogs head. One such conjecture has been that of scholarly inferences from the text of the play, (specifically lines 33-4, 190-91 and 693-694 with attendant scholia) of a grateful Athenian state rewarding the slaves who had rowed in the naval battle of Arginusae with citizenship.

The naval battle of Arginusae took place towards the end of the Peloponnesian War near the city of Canae in the Arginusae islands, east of Lesbos in 406 BCE and by the accounts offered by Xenephon [Hellenica:1.6.1-34] ad Diodorus Siculus [Library, 13.98-101] was a surprise victory but with heavy losses of life in an ensuing storm, lives which were considered could have been saved were it not for the incompetence or negligence of the eight Athenian generals assigned to the command of the fleet. Ian Worthington (University of New England, Armidale, Australia) in Hermes 117 Bd. H.3(1989) pp.359-363, describes the recent discussion and scholiast commentary on this point and concludes that too much reliance is laid upon scanty evidence (line 693-4 being the only direct allusion) for the dilemma to be resolved in any fully satisfactory way.
Let us proceed therefore and enjoy with caution! I think we should try to look at questions of how much an Old Comedy play Frogs is, what if any weight we should give to the idea of the Frogs as a political play, if at all, the purity of the texts as they have come down to us, in particular how much intervening directors and performers may have ‘improved’ the texts during their long history of transmission to the west, how much can we expect a modern performance of Frogs to deliver to us in the 21st Century, and anything else that springs to mind – however please don’t try to suggest any links whatsoever with Paul McCartney’s ‘controversial’ song the Frog Chorus.
I look forward to reading this late play of Aristophanes when we next meet.


Saturday, 6 May 2017

The Architects of Hell: Homer, Virgil, Dante

I am not sure to which circle of Hell I should be consigned for the crime of not getting  round to properly researching for the month’s blog and deciding to wing it; perhaps to buried up to the neck in warm termite infested soil with winged slugs crawling over me and licking the sweat from my tortured brow. I have managed to read Homer and Virgil and am just looking into the early cantos of Dante’s Inferno. Heaney I haven’t managed to get to so I will confine myself these three.
With Homer in Book XI we are presented with one of the earliest accounts of a visit to the Underworld in western European literature and at this point, the ground zero as it were, the foundations are distinctly pre-Christian and a dismal and depressing place rather than anything else. The structure of the underworld is loose and has a more sandbox vibe to use gamer speak – there are few walls or fences, one can wander at random and meet different grades of souls separated only by distance. There are some tortures going on but even they feel a tad lack lustre, a few wheels, some grapes dangling on a wire – it’s depressing but not particularly hair-raising. Hades is a gloomy place where souls hang out for a while, longing for even the most common of lives back on earth rather than their current dusty limbo. Homers depiction underlines the message of the Iliad, that ruin is the fate of all, and cannot be avoided and only those favoured by the gods can hope to pass their time here in relative peace and enjoyment, on the Elysian higher slopes for example. If the Western European Hell could be likened to a vast architectural structure or series of superimposed structures running back through time, with the Odyssey Book XI version we have the basic foundations, rope markers instead of walls, a loose and open underworld, as yet  relatively un-policed (at least on the inside)..A category D prison for the damned.
Virgil builds on the first detailed layers, not only physical but poetical and psychological on the basic ground plan given to him by Homer. The two poets are great in quite different ways, Homer, stark with his deeply ordered melody and rhythm, booming powerfully out over the hearth fire of the assembled Greek lords, creating a finger deep woodcut version of the afterlife, grim and obscure in its delineation. The Roman maestro skilfully adds mental terrors, dreams, phantasms, a richer vocabulary, bringing into play the full panoply of inherited tricks of the Alexandrian poets, playing like flickering tongues of fire through the fine golden mesh work of his masterful word play and contrasting light and shade.
The architecture/topography comes into sharper focus, gates of horn and ivory, broad battlements and fortified walls, rivers of fire, iron towers.  The Aeneid version is also a place of prophecy, prefigured by the Sybil as guide and adviser and by the long section towards the end where Anchises describes the future generations of lives to come, pre-ordered souls perhaps?! Augustus is amongst them, the Emperor under whose reign Virgil flourished and therefore had to or wanted to shoehorn some Imperial Family advertising space into his oeuvre. The prophetic aspects of Virgil’s vision would go on to inspire Dante to use that model and structure Paradise and even elements of Purgatory upon it.

Dante brings Virgil with him as his personal guide and fellow wayfarer in his underworld as homage to his great poetic mentor and designer of the earlier drafts. It is not often that an ancient poet lands a best supporting act in his own creation.
The Geography is based on clearly defined concentric circles moving in and downwards at the same time creating a much more claustrophobic effect – the sins of inversion made flesh. He takes the entire structure apart and rebuilds it so that the patterns of the architecture are at the same time recognisable and completely new. The castle and battle elements are there but so are many other fearsome environments described in even more vivid and remarkably outré detail. The psychological horrors as well as the graphic imagery have been ratcheted up even further. If Virgil is Sergio Leone, with Dante we are surely dealing with Quentin Tarantino. And of course the full complex of medieval Christian juridical categorisation is brought to bear throughout the completed grand edifice.
The cross fertilisation of ideas is also textual, too many examples to go into much detail here but I could leave you with a prominent one. There must be hundreds like this scattered throughout the trifold architecture of Hades and it gives you an inkling of the fascinating interplay of even the tiniest elements. It gives me the distinct impression of wandering through the many levels of a vast three dimensional visionary structure and from time to time tapping a tuning fork against the adamantine walls and hearing the same note or a distant harmonic of previous ages and poetical masters long-dead.
This example looks more closely at the very familiar Homeric topos of men being likened to leaves on the trees. We look to Dante first:

L’inferno Canto III. 112-114
‘As in the autumn-time the leaves fall off,
First one and the other,
Till the branch
Unto the earth surrenders all its spoils’

Most commentaries refer this back to Homer’s Iliad Bk.VI.l.146
Just like the generations of leaves, so are men;
Some leaves the wind scatters upon the ground and others
The budding wood produces
For they come again in the season of Spring.
So are the generations of men, as one springs up the other dies’

But surely they overlook the intricacy of the textuo-architectural structure and order which to my understanding is on an entirely different level of subtle inter-reaction. Note here in Virgil VI the intermediary architectural structural element, like a forgotten support strut, hidden deep in the inner walls of the Western Christian edifice of Hell:

Ver.Aen.VI. l.305-12
‘Huc omnis turba ad ripas effuse ruebat
matres atque viri, defunctaque corpora vita
magnanimum heroum, pueri innuptaque puellae,
impositique rogis iuvenes ante ora parentum :
quam multa in silvis autumni frigore primo
lapsa cadunt folia, aut ad terram gurgite ab alto
quam multae glomerantur aves, ubi frigidus annus
trans pontum fugat, et terris immittit apricis.’

I look forward to further ruminations on the trifold nature of Hell as well as my well-deserved chastisement, perhaps in the form of a Falernian vintage graced goblet?


Friday, 7 April 2017

Sophocles Ajax, Unauthorised Violence, Madness and Suicide


We take a look this time at Sophocles ‘Aias, written in about 440 BCE,  during the so-called pentecontaetia, the fifty year period in Greece between the defeat of the Persians at Salamis and the lazy but menacing beginnings of revolt against the Delian League, rumbles around the Peloponnese which would later erupt in a full scale war between Athens and Sparta in 431 BCE. The Samian Revolt must have been a current topic on the lips of many - a real life story of revolt and capitulation in the face of Athenian might - and an event in which Sophocles himself as a general took a minor part. It is perhaps no mere coincidence that both Athena and Aias are tutelary figures for the Athenian state..perhaps signifying the constant struggle of the state versus the individual and the fault lines these struggles exposed and about which much of the ensuing Peloponnesian War was about.

There is an interstice through which we might catch a glimpse of the image that ancient Greek audiences would have had of Aias (Ajax in modern westernised spelling) - and that lies in the space between the depiction in Sophocles play of the hubristic locker-room jock throwing a murderous tantrum at losing what he assumes is rightfully his - the arms of the dead hero Achilles -and the differently nuanced accounts available to us in the Odyssey/Iliad and fragments of Pindar. The hero’s very name evokes the pain and suffering he undergoes as part of his god-decreed fate and he is fully aware of this himself as he groans aloud his own name and what it calls to mind:

[Aiai: tis av pot’oueth’hod’epounumon toumon ksunoisein onoma tois emois kakois;]

‘Ai-ai! Who would have thought my name of Aias
Would suit so well, as namesake to my woes?’

Soph.Ajax 412-3 (Tr. George Burges 1849)

This is a perfect example of why the ancient Greek text matters so much to an accurate dramatic interpretation of the play - I’ve seen recorded performances where this line is not clearly understood and the player merely ‘sings the name Ajax’. The reason lies in our westernisation of the name and so perhaps modern productions in English should try to give him back his original name of Aias. Without it the line is rendered meaningless or at best without its full force.

Sophocles’ Ajax has been looked at by some early scholars in terms of its ‘chiaroscuro’ effects - contrasts of light and shade (Stanford 1978) and while it's true that the light or the quasi mystical dawn variety of it does indeed play a symbolic role in Aias’ redemptive act of honour self-killing, there is a lot more going on in this comparatively short tragedy; the transition from the old Homeric world of freely acting highly individualistic heroes and the black and white code of honour by which they lived to that of the current age in which Sophocles audience found themselves of compromise, agreements and pacts with erstwhile enemies, difficult decisions in the grey zone of political dealings, a world represented by the wily, flexible deal broker, the past  master of persuasion Odysseus - a story of hubris and its concomitant downfall and punishment of the mighty human who dares to act without divine aid or sanction - the Derridean undecidable nature of the madness that grips Aias and the ensuing violence against the animal booty inside the camp precincts, unauthorised due to its location but authorised by divine madness and even the author itself brought into doubt - Athena or Aias as author of the act of transgression.

Athena’s role as author can be traced back to the competition for the arms of the dead Achilles, where she unfairly favours Odysseus over Aias, considered by the Trojan prisoners to be the obvious winning candidate due to his prowess on the battlefield and many cases of having saved the Achaean host during their retreat. She compounds this ‘authorship’ by deluding Aias into thinking he is killing the Atreidae by making him slaughter the camp livestock - resulting in his utter disgrace in front of his peers and the only way to preserve his honour by suicide.

The Iliad depicts Aias as a reliable and extremely doughty warrior, the ‘bulwark of the Achaeans and someone who time and again saves the day by stemming a full blown rout or reducing a devastating enemy onslaught to a bruising Trojan fallback. He is huge in stature and considered to be a genius in warcraft and a man of the highest reliability and integrity, his only clear fault being that of not relying on any god to aid him in battle. There is one exception where he is struck by the staff of Poseidon and his strength regenerated but as far as I remember, this is off the battlefield not during combat. It is an important point to note since this would seem to be the source of divine anger and the decision to punish Aias for his hubristic attitude to divine aid. It is not easy to trace the actual original or specific reason for Athenas hatred of Aias other than a wish to support her favoured mortal Odysseus at all costs and perhaps a general remit to punish human boasting and insolence and this brings me to another theory, one which I haven't seen out there but is perhaps still worth looking into.

There is the bizarre matter of not one but two, yes two Ajaxes (Ajaxi?) or Aiacades involved in the same Trojan conflict, normally distinguished by the epithets The Greater and the Lesser to avoid confusion. Moreover they have similar elements in their traditions and this is my I have a feeling that Sophocles may have blurred some of the Lesser onto the Greater - if we accept that we can see more of a reason for Athena's hatred since the Lesser raped Cassandra, and not just any old run of the mill rape but a rape inside a holy sanctuary..which is bad enough until you find out who’s bumper sticker is on the lintel..yes you guessed it..I Heart Athena. The lesser also takes part in a competition and is caused by Athena to stumble and lose the race to her favourite - sounds familiar doesn't it? There were indeed many variants available to Homer during the composition period of the Iliad and Odyssey (if we take him as the sole compositor or aggregator of the songs of Troy), there is even one of Ajax and Achilles engrossed in a dice game while the battle rages on around them, so it's not too far fetched an idea for Sophocles to have conflated elements of the two in order to create a more boastful and rebellious version of the mild mannered hulk in other traditions.

The play is also about Justice and how that might operate in society. It is clear that the contrasts between the uncompromising stance of Aias with that of Odysseus and Tecmessa with their impassioned and nuanced pleading highlight this - Ajax relying on a code of honour amongst a group of warriors led or rather commanded by the Lords Agamemnon and Menelaus - a system which clearly breaks down and allows for the individual to express his own idea of what is right (in Ajax's case - death with honour) - and Odysseus/Tecmessa appealing for the most reasonable outcome for all, including themselves, an appeal to compassion and pity based on compromising hard laws in order to reach a middle ground where everyone can get something. Aias is from a zero-sum world - you win or lose. If you lose and in this case lose face - there is only one option left and that it death in order to maintain integrity. When he recovers from madness this is his ‘seeing the light’ and reaching a sort of enlightenment and acceptance of his condition. Isn't his character also a very eloquent expression of the choice facing us all as we stand alone between the twin darknesses of being unborn and being dead forever? Here is Aias in his final speech eloquently summing up the nature of existence in line 633 (in some texts 646)

[ apanth’ ho makros kanarithmetos chronos
phuei t’adela kai phanenta kruptetai:
kouk est’aelpton ouden, all’alisketai
chou deinos orkos chai periskeleis phrenes]

‘All things obscure a long unmeasured time shews;
And, when shown, again conceals; nor is there
Aught free from capture. E’en the oath of Jove
Is captive made, and resolutions rigid.’

Soph.Ajax 633/646   (Tr. Burges 1849)

Ajax through his hubris, downfall, madness and final epiphany is to us a polished shield in which we can all dimly see our own existential predicament - that of the struggle of upholding our noble dreams and ideals in a sordid and limited world of suffering and compromises. The answer for Aias was death - for us who struggle on - it is to read his eloquent and fiery lines and to allow them to enter our hearts and thereby equip us with the means to live in the possession of our full integrity between the ‘twin darknesses’.


Saturday, 25 February 2017

Ovid has left the building - Metamorphoses and breaking the Pax Ovidiana

A sunny pre-noon in Las Vegas 2289..AD, you put on your chem- suit and an extra synthetic lung (high grade Kazakh of course) and hover down the strip past Caesars Palace..on the way your attention is caught by the dreamcam ads for a new show at Homerz Bar..’OVID!-THE MUSICAL’ – so of course you slide in and take a seat to see what all the fuss is about. The matinee show is a chaotic psychedelic melange of images, scents and textures designed to evoke the myriad transformations of the gods and heroes of the Graeco-Roman past..turntablist par excellence Tad Hayes takes centre stage amongst a heaving mass of holographic dancers weaving through billows of luminous orange smoke laced with mescaline vapour – the crowd go wild at the centre piece, featuring the apotheosis of the sexually polyvalent and dual-merged character Emperor Augustus/Marsyas as he is flayed alive the skin looping off in long wet crimson strips, festooning the heaving audience, many of whom are rapidly succumbing to the tangerine fumes and being carried out into the fresh air of the foyer by drone-stretcher. Staggering out to avoid the worst of the psychotropic mayhem..the last thing you hear as you fall out of the building iris valve onto the sidewalk is the insane bellowing of the revellers still standing…OVID, OVID OVID! A short sweaty figure scampers out beside you wearing a six armed business leotard..he chirps enquiringly into your sonically hammered eardrum..’That Ovid Guy! He sure knows how to put a show on! Do you know where this guy is based?, I mean I gotta get hold of his agent!!’ For him Ovid has left the building – or has he?
A bizarro vision of the future? But could it also be our present, one in which the works of Ovid rather than the man or his poetical wizardry have been refined out themselves into something altogether different, leaving merely the endearing and compelling accounts of fantastic mythic episodes? In effect a 'Pax Ovidiana' has resulted ;a canon of the poets works, almost a literary credo of what the myths are about and what they tell us through his lens, stained indelibly into the fabric of the English cultural history and beyond in perpetuity.
The Metamorphoses are tales that are viewed through ever increasingly obscured refracting lenses of successive poets eager to make their mark on the English tradition  – Ovid or rather his elegiac-epic is firmly hardwired into our understanding of Greco-Roman myth but has he ‘left the building’? Is it no longer necessary to engage directly with his linguistic pyrotechnics in order to savour and utilise the true essence of his work, as many succeeding poets have done with a superficial at best or at worst no understanding of the original languages in which the masterwork was written? Does it matter anyway when the stories themselves are so popular? How much if any of the original Ovidian DNA remains..and perhaps Nietzsche-like should we be experiencing a Twilight of the Idols moment and try to momentarily tear out the Ovidian co-axial cable and try to come  face to face with the myths themselves through alternative routes or like Ted Hughes attempt to solder some Anglo Saxon into the motherboard and subvert the elite Roman quantum logic from within?
To try to answer these questions we need to return to Ovid’s English literary future, through the prism firstly of the earliest translations into English of the metamorphoses, in particular the puritan versifier Arthur Golding (tr.1567), father of the so-called’ Shakespeare’s Ovid’, passing through Frank Miller’s 1916 Loeb edition in order to try to enter the mind of Ted Hughes who used both texts as galleys during his own re-configuring of Ovid and arrive at some answers not only to the continuing relevance or obstruction of Ovidian myth in the literary landscape..or the legacy literature industry, but possibly even hints as to what translation itself might be, what it can do and how much of the originator’s blood genome is required to prevent full on textual zombification or cloning..a process equally as mercurial and protean as the masterpiece of Ovid himself.
A thought which constantly strikes me as I write is simply never enough to’ like’ or ‘dislike’ is far more pressing an issue for us as readers, interpreters if you will, to locate him and then decide what me might then do about or with him in the context of our ongoing literary canon – iconoclastic as that may seem I deem it not only advisable but a wholly necessary enterprise.
We start then with Golding whose work must be seen in the light of his other translations and his staunchly Christian outlook  and its impossible to overlook the effect on Ovid of his puritan cast of mind- the other works I am particularly thinking of are the those of the sermons of John Calvin which were instrumental in spreading the Protestant doctrines through the English speaking world at the time. Golding was responsible for around 30 translations in all and its interesting to note that he was not as famed at the time for the Ovid translation as his Caesars Commentaries. Shakespeare then seems to have had a hand in promoting him to posterity by using some of his lines in his plays as he referenced and utilised what he admired of the translation. Even on a cursory reading of the opening dedicatory Epistle to 'Robert Earle of Leycester' reveals a moralising and Christianising slant on the Metamorphoses. We are instructed how the various tales might alert us to the ' wicked sinnes' they represent : '

'The piteous tale of Pyramus and Thisbee doth conteine
The headie force of frantick love whose end is wo and payne
The snares of Mars and Venus shew that tyme will bring to lyght
The secret sinnes that folk commit in corners or by nyght'
(l.109-112 Golding - Dedicatory Epistle to Ovid's Metamorphoses)

Every other line of the entire work is laced with puritan 'trigger' words or codes for christian moral instruction or warning to the unwary. To give but a few examples, in the prefatory epistle alone I came across 'filthy pleasures of the flesh', 'heathen', 'repentance', 'wicked sinne', 'wicked lust', 'prodigality', 'flithy whoredome'. You get the idea even from this limited sampling of the opening stanzas.
To be fair to Golding he was trying to convince other Christians ready to cast disdain if not outright damnation upon the evil works of 'paynim' authors, explaining that although produced from a dark age of pagan philosophy, if read prudently (probably with a bible at your side!) it could offer much wisdom and moral instruction. He may not have been totally convincing to his puritan contemporaries who would have preferred to read the Calvinist sermons no doubt, but the curious side effect is that his clear and lucid verse rendering inspired the undoubtedly less religiously minded Shakespeare and his contemporary poets (Marlowe perhaps) to take up Golding's pioneering work and embed it into their own works - ensuring some of the puritan DNA to bleed into the metamorphoses and in the later development of the treatment and use of the tales contained in the Metamorphoses in later plays, poetry and later on operatic works. This has come to colour, albeit faintly, our understanding and reception of Greco-Roman myth in the context of Western European literature.
It might be interesting now to look at how Ted Hughes used Golding's Tudor period translation as well as a later Loeb version by Frank Miller (1916) when working on his 'Tales from Ovid '(Faber and Faber 1997). I think the reason that Ted Hughes used Miller was that it was the easiest available version of a really flat and word for word translation (Loeb at that time was well known for accurate if dull renderings of many of the Greek an Roman authors, poetry in particular) acting for him as a crib from which he could create his own literal translation from the Latin text and then hack and whittle something into shape from the result. Interestingly, Golding's 'Shakespeare's Ovid' as reprinted by the De La More Press, London is listed in the Loeb edition under VII. TRANSLATIONS.
The cross wiring as we can see is deep and extensive!
A helpful insight into Hughes's attitude to the Classics is provided by John Talbot who wrote a review of Ted Hughes , Collected Poems by Paul Keegan, ed. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2003) which was published in Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, Third Series, Vol.13, No.3 (Winter 2006) pp. 131-162. In it, Talbot tries to answer the question as to what kind of Classicist Hughes was.
Talbot argues that Hughes was using other intertexts upon which to base his understanding of the classics, not just the originals but other English poems, including his own backlog, resulting in a more complex and nuanced relationship with the Greek and Latin authors works and in turn a more compromised and ambivalent attitude to the legacy of the Mediterranean Roman cultural influence upon English literature - in this way perhaps Ted Hughes has come to mirror our own stance when confronting the Classics - how to understand and accommodate them. Hughes had a strong affinity with Norse and Celtic mythic traditions and is on record of speaking up for trying to push back the Graeco-Roman space a bit to let the older more blood born myths back into the English literary space so as not to do away completely with the classical inheritance but to hack away at the resultant weeds and undergrowth and let the other roots shine through.
Talbot focuses on three areas of Hughes's approach to the classics. Firstly, his relative ignorance of the classical languages, secondly his ambiguous attitude toward Graeco-Roman civilisation, and thirdly his use of English poetry including his own earlier works as source material for his 'translations'. The last of these areas has tended to be ignored by classical scholars looking at Hughes which Talbot maintains is a mistake since it is a area which informs his engagements with ancient authors such as Ovid or Euripides etc. It appears that Hughes had no knowledge of Greek and only enough Latin to pass the then required Latin exam for entrance to Cambridge University and his own accounts of his schooldays Latin felt some resistance to it. This attitude of resistance both informs and defines Hughes engagement with the Classics and as early as his work in The Hawk in the Rain (1957) his ambivalent attitude can be sensed when he imagines himself as the captured 1st Century BC British Chieftain, taken to Rome as part of the triumphal booty in celebration of the subjugation of the northernmost extent of the empire:
In your generous embrace,
As once, in rich Rome,
I mourn.
(from 'Two Phases', 30)
Another approach Hughes adopts is to insert his own mythic elements into the soil of Ovidian myth - a god example of this is the passage dealing with the rape of Hermaphroditus where Salmacis' entanglements of Hermaphroditus are described. Ovid's imagery includes serpents, ivy, squids...but Hughes adds an otter:
'Like a sinewy otter
Hunting some kind of fish
That flees hither and thither inside him'
[Hughes, Tales from Ovid]

The otter as a mythic figure features in earlier poems of Hughes - in Lupercal, the otter:

'Brings the legend of himself
From before wars or burials, in spite of hounds and vermin-poles;
Does not take root like the badger. Wanders, cries;
Gallops along land he no longer belongs to;
Re-enters the water by melting.'  (Lupercal 79)

Its difficult to say exactly what Hughes is up to here. Is he inserting the otter as a invader from his own mythic universe to stake a claim upon the Ovidian soil? Or is he attempting to bring traditional English countryside creatures of northern Europe to add a hint of other mythos, such as the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic inheritance which he felt was overshadowed by the blanket of Mediterranean culture which Ovid represented for him? Perhaps Hughes is engaged in nothing less than a metamorphosis of Ovid himself - bring us to face the question of what translation is anyway - the carrying over from one era to another of part or whole or even merely echoes of a coded message contained in the great writings of the past for the instruction and inspiration of the human future.
The scholarship on these aspects of Hughes relationship to the Classics is in its infancy and much of it has up until now been overlooked. One reason is that it is only relatively recently that Hughes' entire published catalogue has been brought together in an accessible format, Keegan's Collected Poems being a case in point.
Talbot concludes his investigation into Hughes and the classics with a sort of manifesto banner or a thrown gauntlet   with regards to the future translations in English of the Classics:
'We have to get used to a new type of classical poet; one who both needs the classics and needs to fend it off; who does not know Latin or Greek but who can gather the energies of English poetry-his own and others'-in a pitch he could not have done without the classical perspective.'
I would add that there is a obstruction danger of the 'front of shop' classical authors, Ovid especially, who take up a lot of 'advertising space' in the English imagination and this also should be challenged by succeeding poets and translators, both those with a knowledge of the ancient languages and those without. The translators themselves must resist the received wisdom of the preceding cultural elite accretions and avoid the dead-end conclusion that 'everything is simply marvellous and a wonderful masterpiece' without at the very least giving the texts a fierce poke in the ribs with a very sharp stick - and hold them up to more rigorous investigation and evaluation. It might even be time to explore the Greek and Roman myths from other avenues - through other lenses. Where those other paths might lie, Hughes gives us a tentative hint. Its up to us as readers to follow the hints of this and other poet/translators and bring up new gods from the fertile soil of the less travelled lands of the classic texts available to us.

As for Ovid and his continuing reception in Western literature, I leave you with a quotation from the Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek:

'The more opera is dead, the more it flourishes'

Friday, 6 January 2017

Classical Gas...

Salve and Euge!

It's the month of Janiarius...Looking back to the old year and forward to the new..I have decided to use the Oxford Classics edition of Classical Literary Criticism.edited by D.A Russell and M. Winterbottom ( could there be a more apposite name for this season?). I think that it differs from the Penguin in the areas of translation as well as textual notes and introduction. This should give us some interesting angles from which to examine , evaluate and ultimately enjoy the work. I look forward to delving into this selection of texts with you all soon!

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

January Legendum meet

Salve or Chaire!

There are two options for January meeting of Legendum. Classical Literary in Plato, Longinus and Horace..or...Boethius - The Consolation of Philosophy. Let me know which one you prefer either in the comments section or the other standard comms channels.

Have a great Saturnalia!

Monday, 14 November 2016

Domitian Creep - Martial's Epigrams

Saturnalia is almost upon us, where boys nervously play for nuts at the risk of their buttocks, the cap wearing dice player looks over his shoulder for any swiftly approaching buffoon, intent upon throwing him in the nearest pond for a laugh, and the rod brandishing schoolmaster seeks in vain to control his particularly unruly class at this festive time.
At such times we could do worse than turn to the witty epigrams of Martial to provide the cheeky tocsin and mood music of ribaldry and outrageous bawdiness for such frivolous pursuits.
Martial (40 CE-104CE) like a couple of his famous near contemporaries hailed from Spain and after a standard Roman education in the provinces came to Rome in his early twenties to seek his fortune. He reminds me of Lucian in that despite a great eloquence and mastery of language, rather than follow a career at the bar or elsewhere, Martial decided to apply his verbal talents to the page and in particular the epigram – a brief, well-crafted witticism covering almost any subject, a person, object, occasion and gradually (if we believe his own trumpet blowing) making quite a name for himself. There are 12 books extant as well as other collections which don’t fall neatly into the finished epigram format – On Spectacles, Apophoreta, and Xenia.
Martial tells us where his works can be bought and it appears from this that there did indeed seem to be a growing readership for his ribald verses and witty if rude character portraits – although he states that he never uses real names, it might have been possible for those in the know to read between the lines, unless some of the epigrams are mere exercises in ‘types’ rather than any particular individual. Reading through the books of epigrams, you get a variegated and rich picture of life in Rome from the angle of the client, constantly on the run to dinner of a rich patron to curry favour, perhaps get a decent bite to eat, perhaps even some money, following your patron to the baths, or assisting in his own legacy hunting or favour currying with even higher-ups..a veritable sweating pyramid of amicitia! There are shades of Juvenalian tropes, the simple rustic life versus the noisy crowded and expensive city, but Martial fares better as he withholds invective judgement and just gives us jewel-like visions of the odd, bizarre, amusing and disgusting aspects of Roman life at the time. He revels in the obscenity rather than rails moralistically at it.
For me the books appear to take us through Martial’s career arc (if they are in more or less chronological publishing order) and hence the title, it has been noted by many that the increasingly nauseating Imperial panegyric aimed at Domitian tend to cast a shade over his other work.  The Imperial bum licking epigrams are shouldered by an increased traditionalist tone, mere empty praise of gods or mythological figures, something which an earlier Martial would have steered away from as old hat in favour of some good old cock and cunt quips. The earlier books have a more anti-establishment air, a time before he came to the notice of a wider readership and thus the Imperial entourage and the emperor himself. Later on he appears to tone himself down and is finally content to turn out what amount to ready made to order, factory production line pieces: the Apophoreta have a list of random gift labels/fortune cookie-esque vibe, almost listlessly executed, like an experimental spare button box to be stored away and rummaged through later on a rainy day. Perhaps he ran out of steam and retired to the country – but finding the boondocks too quiet, returned to the capital for one last roll of the sheep’s knuckles.
Amongst the ribaldry and ribbing there are some genuine moments of pathos, a series of epigrams to Erotion. I am not sure whether he addresses the same Erotion in all the instances her name appears, from what we can glean from the texts themselves, she is a young girl who tragically died at the age of six (?) but the epigrams contain some very vivid element of pathos that strikes a contrast with Martials other work – which despite being very witty and punchy have a very canapé effect upon the poetic palate. The Erotion epigrams hint at other depths in Martial, hints that he could have turned his talent to works of higher literature.
But he preferred to carve out a career of two or three liners, possibly on a commission basis as his little collections sold more and more and he became more in demand and further under the Imperial radar and patronage, always the master of the bon mot, adept at turning out a well-wrought punchline for a staggering variety of situations – striking a very realist stance as he brings the vicissitudes and joys of Roman life vividly to life. The epigrams are like bright little gems whose glint has not faded even after the odd couple of millennia.
I look forward to assaying their brilliance when we next meet. In the meantime here is a list of some of the epigrams I particularly liked or found interesting for one reason or another.

Book/Number Notes/Docket Note

1/43               60 men to a tiny boar!
1/33 ‘ille dolet vere qui sine teste dolet’
1/83 Dogs like to eat shit
2/29              A well dressed ex-con
2/36 Doggy Bags
3/60 Host v Guest dole fare
3/93   (4/13)             Images of marriage age
4/42                           Martials perfect boy
5/13                          I can be you but you cannot be me
5/20                         ‘quisque, vivere cum sciat, moratur?’
5/24                          Hermes, Hermes, oh get on with it!
5/34+37             Death of Erotion
5/78             Dinner at Home
7/20                         Santra rakes it in
8/27                           Legacy hunters
9/1                              In the hall of fame?
9.25           Wandering eyes
9.68                          A Noisy bastard
9/91                        Domitian dinner invite?
10.47                          The Good Life
10.61          Erotion’s Tomb
11.99          Wardrobe Malfunction
12.10          The Emptiness of Riches
12.13         Hating comes cheaper than giving
12.70         An Acquired taste for Luxury

Vale! And Happy Saturnalia!