Friday, March 22, 2019

The Fragments of Archilochos (Browsing my shelves)

I'm sure I've seen interest in my blogging world in the new collection of letters between Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner; I'm not sure I'm quite prepared to read them myself--the two volume set is over 2000 pages and Amazon tells me it weighs seven and a half pounds. I'd probably end up with tendinitis just holding the book. But I've been reading reviews (and thinking about reading the whole thing) and one of said reviews is the always excellent Jeet Heer's at the New Republic. And that made me realize I actually had a work he mentioned: The Fragments of Archilochos, translated by Guy Davenport with a foreword by Hugh Kenner. A good enough reason to pull it off the shelf.

Archilochos is an Archaic Greek poet; his dates are pretty vague, but somewhere in the early to middle 7th century BC. He was a member of an aristocratic family and a soldier. What we have of his poetry is in no better shape than what we have of Sappho; there are two complete poems--maybe--and a number of fragments that either come from quotations in later authors or were pulled from the wrappings of less-well-off mummified Egyptians. Davenport translates all the fragments he had at the time, from the Budé edition of 1958.

I'd forgotten how charming this volume is. Here's his version of what's probably Archilochos' best known poem:
Some Saian mountaineer
Struts today with my shield.
I threw it down by a bush and ran
When the fighting got hot.
Life seemed somehow more precious.
It was a beautiful shield.
I know where I can buy another
Exactly like it, just as round.
Archilochos is also famous for the contrast between the hedgehog and the fox, used by Isaiah Berlin as a title and epigraph to his essay on the nature of writers, particularly Tolstoy. Here's Davenport:
Fox knows many,
Hegehog one
Solid trick.
Another fun one:
What breaks me,
Young friend,
Is tasteless desire,
Dead iambics,
Boring dinners.
And I know how to lead off
The sprightly dance
Of the lord Dionysus,
     the dithyramb.
I do it thunderstruck
With wine.
Davenport doesn't hide the fact that these are fragments, but he does clean up a bit.

The other charming thing about the volume is the illustrations done in a modernization of Greek black-figure drawing. My edition doesn't name the artist, but I saw in the review Davenport was also an illustrator, and I suspect they must be his. (Does anybody know for sure?)

Those dresses strike me as more proto-Mod than Archaic, but still...
The girls are clothed but the boy naked. Oh, Mr. Davenport!

Anyway, a fun volume I'd half forgotten I owned. 


  1. Ah, what a find! I love the Greeks! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Isn't it fun? I'm sure I must have read it when I got it but I probably haven't opened it in twenty years.

  2. I think I'm reading your posts out of order, but I was looking for a Daisy to peek out from behind that shield.

    1. Frankly those girls strike me as more a Daisy dressing up than an actual Xanthippe or Diotima.