A Review of A.E. Stallings’ translation of Hesiod’s Works and Days

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A.E. Stallings (trans.): Hesiod: Works and Days
Penguin Classics, 54 pp. $9.00.

At some point in antiquity (nobody really knows when; but in all likelihood during the Roman empire) one Marcus Argentarius wrote a poem about reading his scroll of Hesiod’s already-ancient Works and Days – or rather, about not quite reading it:

I had my hands full, that day,
rolling out another few
verses of Hesiod – when who
should suddenly come my way

but Pyrrha, and as soon as I
caught sight of her, my hand
dropped his volume on the sand,
and I said out loud, ‘Why

is it one of your quirks,
Hesiod, an old old man,
to do everything you can
to bother me with Works?’

Only four lines, this, of packed and epigrammatic Greek (Marcus wasn’t about to waste any more time, with Pyrrha in his sights); but there are three times as many in the briefest translation I can come up with. The pun, though, is the thing: Hesiod’s Works and Days are hard work, and a young man wants to have more than hard work on his hands. (As it happens, Hesiod would have ruefully agreed that this is one of the troubles with young men.) True, Works and Days concerns itself with tasks needing to be done, and the seasons and dates when those are to be carried out; true, too, that its poet has a short way with shirkers (notably with the shirker-in-chief, his own brother Perses); but it’s also the case that Hesiod’s poem of just over 800 lines was valued by the ancient world as one of the major classics of archaic literature, fit to stand beside the two epics of Homer. Marcus might have got his girl – we will never know – but he certainly risked missing out on his education.

Yet Works and Days amounts to more than an agricultural calendar interspersed with a series of stern tellings-off for a wayward brother and assorted wasters around the (evidently awful) Boeotian town of Askra. Not that the poet lived in such a place out of choice exactly, being the son of an immigrant from the coast of Asia Minor:

…………………………………He settled down
Near Helicon, in Askra, wretched town,
Bad in winter, harsh in summer, not
Ever pleasant.

The poet’s plain telling of the worst here – no sentimentality about the old home town – is caught exactly by A.E. Stallings’ purposefully limping ‘Bad in winter…’ line: that ‘not’ at the end seems to leave things just about open (not what? not wholly bad, surely? and not the worst, all things considered?), but the enjambment delivers a let-down we knew had to come: ‘not | Ever pleasant’. The English poetry here seems to capture a glumness characteristic of Hesiod, or at any rate characteristic of Works and Days, where disappointment is generally seen coming a mile off. And good sense, Hesiod suggests, is in any case always a disappointment for the fools of this world, forever clinging to their sense of hope. The poet isn’t going to be taken in by such feelings:

…………………………………………….The dope
Who’s idle and awaits an empty hope,
Gripes in his soul, lacking a livelihood.
But as provider, Hope is not much good,
Not to a man who lacks his daily bread
But loiters at the forge all day instead.

This scene – it can be nowhere other than downtown Askra, with that welcoming (but time-wasting) free heating in the blacksmith’s workshop – is partly an opportunity for worldly-wise realism: the speaker obviously can’t hear the word ‘Hope’ with a straight face, even if nobody else feels the irony. ‘Hope’ is the loser’s last resort. Yet the poetic grimness goes a little deeper than just this, for Hope has already featured in Works and Days, when Hesiod gives his version of Pandora and her opening of the jar of troubles:

But woman grappled off the jar’s huge lid,
Scattering its contents as she did,
Unleashing sorry troubles on Mankind.
Hope only did not fly. She stayed behind
In her impregnable home beneath the lip
Of the jar; before she had a chance to slip
Out, woman closed the lid, as Zeus designed.

At this point, early in the poem, it’s tempting (even inevitable) to see Hope as a kind of saving grace: however bad things get, we’ll always have Hope. Yet for Hesiod, Hope is one reason why things for mankind are bad, and only get worse. The irony is as harsh as the weather in Askra.

The poet Hesiod (as Stallings suggests, both in her persuasively argued and brilliant Introduction, and – more pertinently – in the superb creation and mastery of a characteristic voice for him in her verse) feels very much like a real person. Not the most appealing of persons, admittedly; but a real one even so. And this is, once we stand back a little and think about it – rather a remarkable thing, even if it is (as some classicists over the years have maintained, perhaps a little too impressed by the reach of their own philology) an illusion, or even an impossibility. Like anyone else, this poet (who – we have to force ourselves to remember – worked either at the time of Homer, or just a little after it) can be amusing, off-beat, grumpy, fascinatingly or tediously instructive, unpredictable and all-too-predictable: his voice is one we want to listen to, and also one we want to argue with. For instance, all that complaining about Askra and the people who live there (his brother included): might not Hesiod have considered doing as he tells us his father did, and upping sticks for a better place? And as though we had indeed interrupted him with that question, Hesiod has an answer at the ready. It is very much a poet’s answer too, in that he contrives to suggest that he ventures abroad only when called by fame:

……………………………………………….as for me,
I’ve never sailed the broad sea on a ship,
Nor yet, except to Euboea, my one trip,
From Aulis, where, once, waiting in winter’s grip,
The Greeks mustered a great host to deploy
From holy Hellas against fair-womaned Troy,
And that is where I crossed to Chalcis once
For the funeral games established by the sons
Of Amphidamas, great of heart. I won, you hear,
With a hymn, and took the tripod by the ear
And offered it to the Muses of Helikon
Right at the spot where they first set me on
The path of clear-voiced song.

Stallings handles this extraordinary passage with aplomb: it’s evident from even these few lines that she hears a human voice in the Greek, which her verse articulates with just the combination of fluency and slightly face-you-down formality that gives her ‘Hesiod’ his presence. When we are told, ‘I won, you hear’, Hesiod tells us to listen to him (phemi, the Greek says: I’m talking here) – whether we want to hear this or not; and this is, of course, the evidence of his own poetic pre-eminence. How many poets are wont to play down their own prizes? Not this one, and few since. Then there is the sly folding-in of the legend of Troy, no more than a quick illustration to inform the main story of Hesiod’s journey to success (a short enough one and, as Stallings points out, almost the narrowest sea-crossing to be contrived anywhere in Greece): is it possible that the Iliad, or at least some of the material behind the Iliad, is being taken as read whilst simultaneously being left behind here? Stallings finds the right level of stiltedness for that epithet of Troy, ‘fair-womaned’ (kalligynaika in the Greek: and present in both the Iliad and the Odyssey): here is diction that is proud of itself, but that same pride feeds the seriousness of the autobiographical information. The whole story of the contest and Hesiod’s victory is somewhere off-stage – ancient poetry-buffs eventually stitched together a fantasy competition between Hesiod and Homer himself – but it is central to the authority of the poetic voice. To one side, also, is that meeting with the Muses on the slopes of Mount Helikon, which features in the prize-winning hymn itself, Hesiod’s Theogony. We will all of us, of course (the Works and Days assumes), be familiar with this already.

The effect is strikingly modern, even while Stallings’s translation preserves an atmosphere of old-fashioned propriety and formal observation. Hesiod has his down-home moments, and Stallings does not merely rise to but moves into these with amazing dexterity (anyone wondering just how long an axle for a farm-cart needs to be cut can receive directions here, in rhymed couplets); he has moments, too, of standing high on his own dignity, and here Stallings makes his utterances seem completely inevitable and even (maybe too charitably sometimes) endearing. But modern as many of these effects may feel, our contemporary is really what Hesiod is not; and in this respect, Stallings’s formal choices as a poet-translator are crucial. Whatever this Works and Days sounds like, it does not sound like a work of standard contemporary poetry, not only in terms of diction, but in terms of form. The liberating absence is that of the translator’s own sense of importance; for unlike Hesiod, Stallings knows the worth of modesty. A translator into verse whose implicit (or sometimes explicit) relation to their original is that of welcoming a talent almost as powerfully up-to-date as their own is never going to deliver a live version of Hesiod. Stallings, on the other hand, has made a real poem out of Works and Days; and this has been – fittingly – a matter of hard work, of not shrugging off or shirking the ancient and the alien, while allowing it to be accepted as part of the voice that still speaks so compellingly in the Greek. As for the couplets, they have an obvious part to play in this whole process; but they are not there for the sake of form alone, since Stallings is a true poet, and can therefore bring form to life. Although she mentions Robert Frost, in fact Stallings has no room for pastiche (of Frost, or anyone else) in this version, and she finds enormous breadth and depth of resource in her open couplets, time and time again. Here, for instance, Hesiod is proving he’s no sailor; but the sea-sick couplets persuade us that we shouldn’t be too keen to get to the sea either:

While breezes are predictable, when still
The sea is harmless, then, with confidence,
You can entrust your swift ship to the winds –
Drag it to the sea, load all your freight.
But sail back home quick as you can – don’t wait
For the new wine and autumnal rain, the fast
Onset of winter, South Wind’s fearsome blast
That roils the sea, with the thick autumnal rain
Of Zeus, that makes the sea a sea of pain.

This alone would bear a page of close stylistic and formal criticism, though it’s too good for anyone to want to stop long enough to provide that. It is, in other words, itself poetry; and that it is at the same time a faithful version of the Greek text should be a matter for something a bit more than mere admiration.

So, Stallings has provided a Works and Days that is not at all simply of our own time, but which will certainly last our time. The Hesiod whose existence she goes so far to persuade us of would certainly approve of the work here – of its difficulty, but also its successful accomplishment. As for Marcus Argentarius, even his dislike of work (and of Works) might be overcome by this learned, humane, and skilful treatment of the ‘old man’. No reader of the best poetry should miss this Works and Days: not even for Pyrrha.