BMCR 2000.11.06

Poems from the Greek Anthology. Expanded edition

, Poems from the Greek anthology. Ann Arbor paperbacks. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999. xxv, 114 pages ; 21 cm.. ISBN 0472086081 $16.95.

Kenneth Rexroth’s Poems from the Greek Anthology [ PGA ] has been by me nearly twenty years, and I welcome the reissue. In my role of Common Reader, I take the sincerest pleasure in Rexroth’s poetry. I go back to his translations and his own poems time and time again, and have some of them by heart. As scholar, after long acquaintance, I have found no flaw in his handling of Greek; rather the opposite.

When poems work, when words become charmed, it is easy to over-praise them, and to review them in the usual sense is to risk the hybris of tampering with the Muse. An academic reviewer of translations may legitimately raise the limited question whether the translator has understood his text. On this count Rexroth cannot be taxed with wanton looseness or ignorance. A Bentleyesque reader (if such still exist) might object that Rexroth has taken too many liberties in some of his versions to merit the title of translator. Yet for all that Rexroth was a poet of ripe modernism (he midwifed the Beat movement), he followed the tradition of the greatest English translators from the classics. Like theirs, his ideal reader knew Greek, and Rexroth always invites us knowingly to study the play of original and translation.

While I do not have the insight of a Bloom — or of Rexroth himself, for he was a fine critic — in showing how poems succeed, I would like add a few thoughts, prompted by Prof. Mulroy’s excellent introduction, on how Rexroth handles his originals. From Livius Andronicus on it has been clear that when you translate a poem, you must make it work as a poem in the target language. How hard this is, anyone who has tried it knows: il faut mettre la main à la pâte.

It is hardly necessary to insist on how greatly English differs from Greek. This goes beyond grammar. Greek meters make little music when imitated in English (even our iambics are built on different principles). The ancients differed from us as much in taste and sensibility. They fondly cultivated formulaic and “poetic” diction, while present fashion for the most part rejects anything but “plain language.” And, as Rexroth says in his essay on the Greek Anthology [ GA ] in his Classics Revisited, pagan poets dealt more bluntly with experience than we do: “Sex is sex. Infidelity is infidelity; there is nothing complicated about it. Death is death.”1 Rexroth never underestimated the remoteness of the GA‘s world, and handsomely got around the difficulties of rendering those poems. First, he selected, in the main, originals whose sentiments are closest to the universals of the condicio humana : love, death, time.

Second, he dropped the matter of meter altogether, and never attempted to imitate or even suggest things like elegiac couplets. Third, Rexroth used plain, direct, and musical English, and chose his words with great care, that quality which Petronius called, in connection with Horace, curiosa felicitas. 2 “I know what the Greek says,” asserts Rexroth in his foreword. He certainly did; he also knew his own language.

How well Rexroth’s principles succeed appears in his translation of Sappho [ PMG, frag. ades. 976], p. 100:

The moon has set,
And the Pleiades. It is
Midnight. Time passes.
I sleep alone.

Absolutely literal. Nothing is missing but the Greek sounds and meter, and the feminine inflection of “alone” in the last line. Where a literal rendering works, Rexroth leaves it at that. Or perhaps we should better say seeming literalness. Notice how Rexroth duplicated the original’s enjambment μέσαι δὲ … Mulroy says that in translating, Rexroth was not “making [the epigrams] less artificial but rather replacing one kind of artifice with another.”

With the same kind of artful simplicity, Rexroth can also use plain English to convey feelings that the Greek poet entrusted to a “poetic” word. Two good examples can be seen in the first translation, from Agathias Scholasticus. Agathias [ AP 5.237 line 3] has ἀμφιπεριτρύζουσι χελιδόνες“swallows around-about-chirr.” The swallows are wakeful and restless, like the grieving man on his bed, and it is enough for Agathias that their noise comes from unspecified, random directions: though unseen, they disturb. Rexroth renders this “The swallows stir in the eaves,” locating the birds where we moderns would expect them and thus satisfying present day taste, which demands precision of image. Further down, Rexroth’s “tittering accusations” recasts Agathias’s φθονεραὶλαλητρίδες. Rexroth avoided the easy and cute word “twitter” above (which the Loeb translator uses) in order to keep “titter” for later. Rexroth’s accomplishment here is to convey Agathias’s feeling by utterly different means than Agathias used.

Nabokov felt that a good translator should “dress up as the poet” he translated, and not dress up the poet as himself. When Rexroth warns that what might seem to be “mistranslations” are “ironic comments on the Greek,” the irony of his jeux d’esprit, as he called them, lies in the spectacle of a modern poet trying on an ancient Greek outfit: a modern man in a chiton is still plainly a modern man. The effect need not be pointlessly ludicrous. For example, in the version from Marcus Argentarius on p. 61 (which Mulroy also discusses), the sentiment — Death is inevitable, wisdom is useless, enjoy yourself — is Greek but the details are modern. Whiskey replaces wine, and Bertrand Russell stands in for Zeno and Cleanthes. Such travesty compels the reader to admit that such topos is no less urgent for being a topos and well-worn.

Rexroth takes the shortest way with Julian the Apostate’s epigram on beer (p. 42), cutting down three elegiac couplets to eight words:

You call it wine?
I call it mush.

Out goes all the rhetoric of the original. Perhaps Rexroth is implicitly criticizing Julian’s taste, but I think rather making Julian’s scorn plain by pruning the emperor’s supercilious luxuriance.

I have a friendly difference with Prof. Mulroy, in that it was not the challenge (as he says — although of course it was the challenge) that brought Rexroth to the GA, rather because Rexroth found so much poetry there.

The reputation of the GA has gone up and down since Planudes’ collection was first printed, in 1494. After a vogue in the late 19th/early 20th century, the GA seems again to be out of favor.3 Quite apart from their own value, Rexroth’s translations will, I hope, benefit scholarship by focusing again attention on the GA‘s great literary value.

To read the Anthology again after reading Rexroth’s translations is (as Carne-Ross said of Guy Davenport’s Seven Greeks) to learn how to read Greek better. Many poets who have been too often dismissed as mere versifiers turn out to have written movingly indeed. Consider the Byzantine courtier Paulus Silentiarius writing on love (pp. 79-81), and smutty Martial’s tender epitaph on a little girl (p. 63).

We expect emotion from the epigrams on love and death. Rexroth finds feeling also in the epideictic and dedicatory poems. In this he brings me, for one, to question the received wisdom that epideictic poetry concerned itself solely with rhetorical exercises on imaginary topics. In one epigram (Leonidas, p. 55), a young man dedicates his outgrown toys to Hermes; in another (p. 57), a old joiner hangs up his tools. Antiquity respected changes of life as significant occasions and observed them with an awe4 which Rexroth is sensitive enough to catch.

Rexroth eminently deserves study and imitation by the poet and translator. He is a very healthy poet, and his style lacks baleful peculiarities that an enamored beginner might be tempted to cultivate in himself. Certainly a beginner might imitate Rexroth’s irony, but I have always found imitating irony a useful and self-correcting exercise. Rexroth’s title is for convenience. PGA contains much Latin poetry (including from the Carmina Burana) as well as much Greek from outside the GA. Nonetheless the whole collection takes its tone from the GA. Like the GA‘s compilers, Rexroth includes frivolous and funny epigrams alongside the more serious Love-and-Death poems.

My “critical” comments I lay at the publisher’s door. I panted to see the words “expanded edition” in this book’s announcement. Could it have been that more had been found among Rexroth’s papers? Alas, no. The selection is the same as that of the first edition. But for David Mulroy’s sensitive and intelligent introduction (and we are glad to have him speak up for the GA), one might even call this a “diminished” edition. The publishers removed Geraldine Sakall’s lino-cuts that illustrated the original, for what reason, I cannot tell, except possibly that someone objected to their lustiness. Sakall’s prints are witty and expressively grotesque. Rexroth declined to add notes, but poems 26 and 94 might have been better understood with the graceful gloss of the pictures. Meantime, if University of Michigan Press was going to make changes to their copy-text — a mere photograph of the 1962 edition — they ought to have corrected the typo “Anixamandros” on p. 3.

Rexroth’s poetry is unconcerned with such publishers’ blunders. I heartily recommend his PGA any reader who wishes to be pleased, moved, and enlightened.


David Mulroy, editor of this reprint, drafted a very useful list of the original sources of Rexroth’s translations. He forwarded it, incomplete, to University of Michigan Press on the expectation that they would undertake to have someone locate the remaining unknown originals (some of them rare birds indeed), which somehow the publishers neglected to perform [personal communication]. When I had access to a proper library, I searched out as many of Rexroth’s originals as I could find. I was able to identify a few which escaped Prof. Mulroy, and so I add them here for the convenience of readers.

Page 4. Collectanea Alexandrina: reliquiae minores poetarum graecorum aetatis ptolemaicae, 323-146 A.C.: epicorum, elegiacorum, lyricorum, ethicorum : cum epimetris et indice nominum edidit Ioannes U. Powell. (reprint) Chicago : Ares Publishers, 1981. p. 186:

ἤνθομεν ἐς μεγάλας Δαμάτερος ἐννέ’ ἐάσσαι
παίσαι παρθενικαί, παίσαι καλὰ ἔμματ’ ἐχοίσαι,
καλὰ μὲν ἔμματ’ ἐχοίσαι, ἀριπρεπέαι δὲ καὶ ὄρμως
πριστῶ ἐξ ἐλέφαντος, ἰδῆν ποτεοίκοτας ἄστρῳ.

Page 7. Georg Kaibel, Inscriptiones Graecae Siciliae et Italiae. 1890. No. 75:

πολλὰ μεθ’ ἡλικίας ὁμοήλικος ἡδέα παίσας
ἐκ γαίας βλαστὼν γαῖα πάλιν γέγονα·
εἰμὶ δὲ Ἀριστοκλῆς Πειραιεύς, παῖς δὲ Μένωνος.

Page 12. Helen Waddell Mediaeval Latin Lyrics, New York: Richard R. Smith, 1930, p. 22: “MS of Beauvais.” Poetae Latini Minores. Ed. Baehrens. Leipzig: B.G. Teubner, 1882. Vol. 4, p. 105 (no. 116). Attributed to Alcimius with the reading o facetos for the inquietos of line 1. Also found as no. 324 in the Oxford Book of Latin Verse, ed. H.W. Garrod, 1912. Inquietos and o facetos are both emendations of the MS’s infacetos.

O blandos oculos et inquietos
et quadam propria nota loquaces!
illic et Venus et leves Amores
atque ipsa in medio sedet Voluptas.

Page 14. Waddell, p. 20: “MS. of St. Rémy at Rheims”

Pulchra comis annisque decens et candida uultu
dulce quiescenti basia blanda dabas.
si iam te uigilans non unquam cernere possum,
somne, precor, iugiter lumina nostra tene.

Page 15. Carmina Burana 83.

Page 17. Not AP 9.112, but AP 11. 23.

Page 25. Not AP 7.364, but AP 7. 189.

Page 68. possibly Martial 9.95. “Ein völlig unverständliches Wortspiel” remarks Friedlaender of this epigram in his edition of 1886; but Shackleton Bailey, following Calderini, takes Martial’s made-up name Olfius to mean cunnilngus, agreeably with Rexroth’s interpretation.

Page 108. Poetae Latini Minores Vol. 4, p. 107 (no. 118). Also no. 363 in the Oxford Book of Latin Verse.


1. “The Greek Anthology” in Classics Revisited, New York: New Directions, 1989, 15. Quoted by Mulroy, xxi.

2. Satyricon 118.5

3. In the late 1800s, the GA was so popular that Tauchnitz brought it out as a two volume cheapie, in Greek, to be sold at German railway stations, while a selection of translations edited by Peter Jay was published by Penguin in 1982 but is long out of print.

4. St. Paul found the ceremony of putting away childish things solemn enough to refer to it at 1 Cor. 13.11.