BMCR 2002.04.02

Puerilities: Erotic Epigrams of The Greek Anthology

, Puerilities : erotic epigrams of The Greek anthology. Lockert library of poetry in translation. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2001. 1 online resource (xx, 127 pages).. ISBN 1400814367 $9.95.

1 Responses

[[For a response to this review, see BMCR 2002.04.13.]]

The Greek Anthology is coming back into fashion, I rejoice to see. Daryl Hine’s translation of Book XII must be a first in the GA’s career. How times have changed. A hundred years ago when the Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name kept (mostly) quiet, this classic of boy-love1 would have come out furtively, the title-page stamped “for private circulation only”. Now poet Daryl Hine has translated all these juicy bits into splendid English, with facing Greek, and a great University Press publishes them for all to buy and read.

If such a translation had come out in 1900, its principal attraction would have been its subject matter. We are now accustomed to far more explicit stuff than the Greeks dished out, and since we are not distracted by the thrill of forbidden fruit, we can concentrate on the poetry. That Princeton should publish a volume of erotica surprises less than that they would care to publish a book of verse so light, playful, often frivolous and so eminently designed to entertain—as if they were to sponsor a collection of limericks. In fact, many of Hine’s translations are limericks.

Puerilities —though there is nothing puerile about Hine’s verse—about sums up the tone. Strato, reputed the composer of the original collection (the παιδικὴν μοῦσαν or Musa Puerilis) which developed into Book XII of Cephalas’s anthology, has more poems here than anyone else. Straight from the first Strato dismisses the Muses and the high genres. He is a quibbler, a punster, a naughty fellow who uses dirty words and high-schoolishly frolics in his naughtiness:

CCXXIII STRATO Against your wall you lean your fundament, Cyris. Why tempt the stone? It’s impotent.

Other poets in Book XII sing the same note. Eros is a fertile subject, interesting in itself, and a poet can always find something to say about it. Strato and his colleagues use boy-love as a pretext for making verses, as baroque composers and their librettists used eros as a theme which could support endless production of cantatas and operas. It’s all made up, and Strato says as much in the sphrêgis to his original collection [Poem CCL). The true pleasure of Book XII lies in the enjoyment of these epigrams’ wit and punch—providing, of course, you’re the kind of person who doesn’t retch at catachreses:

CCLXIII Your rosy fingered prick that used to charm Us, Alcimus, is now a rosy arm.2

Hine translates the Greek into rhyme and meter. The wisdom of this choice is evident: a prose translation would fall flat. Sound and rhythm create their own point and pleasure, as you can hear in any limerick:

LXXIV MELEAGER If, Cleobulus, I should expire Being cast on the juvenile pyre, As to ashes I turn Sprinkle wine on my urn And inscribe it, “To Death from Desire.”

In a “puff” on the back of my review copy, Richard Howard of Columbia University rightly praises Hine’s translation for its giving a broad picture of what the GA is really like, a mix of all things, including the salacious. Yet Puerilities (as the original) is not all dirty jokes, clever fictions, and witty turns on topoi. “As happy…love,” says Hine in his introduction, “has occasioned very little poetry at any time, [and] passion almost always sounds a plaintive note,” even a Boy-Muse Collection may include poems whose tone is wistful, grave, resigned. One will here come across many moving epigrams and a few famous ones.

XLIII CALLIMACHUS Little I care for your popular cyclical poem: Such thoroughfares I thoroughly despise. So I detest a boy who makes himself common, Nor do I drink from public water supplies. Yes, you are handsome, Lysanias, terribly handsome. ” And someone else’s!” instantly Echo replies.

Note how Hine gives a dactylic flavor to the first lines of couplets one and two, and makes the second line iambic, catching the epodic nature of the original meter without hindering the verse by a too fussy imitation. The last couplet recreates the elegiac flavor more fully, and with naturalness.

Nor do all the poems in Puerilities deal with paederastic eros. A number are about women (CLXI Asclepiades is the liveliest, with, I admit, a pederastic tinge), and some of the best are unconcerned with the sex of the person addressed:

XXXIII THYMOCLES “Loveliest,”—remember when I made That hackneyed observation?—”is the spring, But swifter than a bird upon the wing.” Now see how fast your bloom begins to fade.

Hine pays closest attention to nuance—here he has chosen the stanza of In Memoriam —and handles all the moods of Book XII equally well. His translations, precisely because of their nuance and their skillful mixing of the light and the grave, have turned me back to the Greek and opened my eyes to poetic qualities in poems I might have passed over. Consider the anonymous Poem XL:

Don’t take my clothes off! View me as a kind Of statue, draped so almost nothing shows. If you look for my naked charms, you’ll find Amid a scratchy bush my rosebud grows.

True, the poet here metaphorically includes such “low” things as pubic hair and penises. Yet what is striking about the poem is not the boy’s slightly titillating description of his own genitals, but his concern for the erastês, whom he gently warns not to expect too much, to content himself with beautiful image (and the boy knows, I infer, that image is what the man is enamored of) and avoid harsh reality.

Hine knows Greek. To repeat the tritest observation in the world, no translation is going to please everybody, so I will let readers make up their minds on their own. For my part, I wish that Hine could have worked a rendering of the ἄνθρωπε into his version of Poem XL above. As “Mister,” it shows the boy and the man hardly know one other, that the relationship may be mercenary, and yet the boy is being courteous. Rhyme is tough, though, decasyllables hold only so much, and I’m not going to get shirty.

Before I close, an aside. Puerilities, and the text that stands under it, furnishes endless material for debate on ancient sexuality, homoeroticism, heteroeroticism, the place of various sexualities in ancient societies, the relationship between the love poetries of the various sexualities, etc. Antiquity is a big subject; sex is even bigger. It might be worth commenting on what sort of view Hine takes of ancient sexualities, and with what theory he has approached the poems of the Musa Puerilis, and how ancient attitudes have been adapted to modern ones. Such digressions would be out of place in a review or strictly literary aim, nor am I equipped to handle these subtleties. Others, who “have deeper digg’d loves Myne than I,” can do better.

In Puerilities, Hine has beautifully re-created Book XII of the Greek Anthology; it stands as a translation, and as a poetic achievement in its own right. Puerilities entertains, and can move one too.


1. What is now called paedophilia is in the modern world universally labelled “abuse” and criminalized, and any discussion that touches on the subject is difficult. I wish to let the reader know that I myself am sexually conservative: I am married, faithful to my wife, and a father. However, I hold to no dogma, and have no objections—medical apart—if others prefer their own sex. The morality of paederasty in the present is a subject beyond this review. The ancient world accepted paederastia and felt no qualms about it. We cannot force our tastes on people of 2000 years ago and in this review I will deal with the poets and their translator according to ancient standards, recalling …castum esse decet pium poetam / ipsum. uersiculos nihil necesse est.

2. I guess only a person with Greek will really get this: rosy fingered, ῤοδοδάκτυλος, with time turns into ῤοδόπηχυς. “Finger” and “arm” are units of measure. Not nearly as awful as O. Henry’s “a peroxide Juno” though.