BMCR 2006.12.32

Nonnos of Panopolis: The Paraphrase of the Gospel of John

, , , , , Paraphrase of the Gospel of St. John. Bible. John.. Ventura: Writing Shop Press, [2003]. 263 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 0971317046. $29.95.

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The practitioners of our cold and sober science are often nonplussed by the work of a capable enthusiast. Perhaps we professional classicists are put in mind of the eager but inexpert undergrads we habitually encounter, or perhaps we are envious of a person who can hold down a full-time job and still produce what is expected of us. But we lose something when we dismiss the amateur’s work out of hand. We must guard our reservations and sift the wheat from the chaff. Mark Anthony Prost’s (hereafter P.) translation of Nonnus’ ‘Paraphrase’ is the work of an amateur with much good and much bad, which still has a place in a scholar’s library.

One virtue of P.’s work is apparent from the outset: it does not try to be the scholarly monograph it is not. The introduction is quite obviously the work of a playful enthusiast. It is a compilation, completely devoid of references and footnotes, of generalities on Egypt and Antiquity which become vaguer and more speculative the closer the author comes to Nonnus’ own time and place until he turns entirely to historical fiction. Nonnus is presented as an energetic student in a monastic academy and a junior participant in the Council of Ephesus. Some readers might prefer the terse and honest ‘caveat lector’ preceding the introduction: “Of the writer, nothing is known.” Such readers are advised to skip the introduction.

The translation itself is on the whole careful and accurate. There are lines that are strikingly poetic and archaic for poetry’s sake: “shoon” for shoes at 9.174, and “dewy drops all brimming o’er” at 12.12. But this probably gives the English reader a fair impression of the effect of the poetry of Nonnus, which was certainly artificial and might have struck contemporaries as stilted. P.’s manner is less sympathetic when he employs a decidedly unpoetic slash in “mother of Christ/God” to render Χριστοῖο Θεητόκος (2.9). The character of P.’s translation is displayed in his rendering of the first line of the ‘Paraphrase’ ( Ἄχρονος ἦν ἀκίχητος, ἐν ἀρρήτῳ λόγος ἀρχῇ): “Ere time, ere space, ere speech dwelt the archaic Word”. More literally it is “Without time he was, intangible [or not found] in the ineffable beginning”. P.’s choice is, as he intended, more literary, but the points of accuracy he sacrifices are more than mere niceties. ‘Ere’, for instance, has itself a temporal quality (as does ‘archaic’, for that matter), and the whole concept of timelessness — quite clear in the Greek — becomes confused for the English reader. Altogether, though, a casual comparison of text and translation reassures me, at least, of the faithfulness of P.’s rendering.

Even if John’s Gospel is better prose than the ‘Paraphrase’ is poetry, Nonnus’ composition is, nevertheless, a work of some interest. To students of Nonnus, of course, but also to anyone interested in the state of Greek poetry in late antiquity, in the reading and reception of the Fourth Gospel in the fifth century, or in the burgeoning Christian intelligentsia of the period. Readers of the ‘Dionysiaca’ may be surprised to find allusions to classical myth few and far between. Still, the appearance of Eos and the Farshooter signal the arrival of a new day (1.102), and Hades tries to catch Lazarus near Lethe (11.165). For the most part Nonnus prettifies John’s text at a regular pace, but there are instances of extended elaboration, often in odd and unexpected places. On the one hand, the poetic potential of the opening of the Gospel is fulsomely realized, but there is hardly any elaboration at all on the resurrection. On the other, Nonnus makes the blind man of 9 v. 1 a grotesque monster whose eyelids are fused together, and he dilates for several lines on the construction of lamps (18 v. 3).

The ‘Translator’s Notes’ which follow the translation answer a few of the questions about P.’s choices: Why, for instance, “What are the simple facts?” is preferred to Pilate’s simple and searching “What is truth?”. Why iambic hexameter was chosen for an English rendering of Greek epic meter. And where to look for Homeric allusions. There is also a modicum of helpful information on the text and style of the ‘Paraphrase’. On Greek poetry more generally, however, P. must be approached with circumspection by the unwary, as when he suggests that the dactylic hexameter “appears to be the natural rhythm of the Greek language” (216), or that Homer wrote “1200 years before Christ” (220).

P. scored a coup in convincing two reputable scholars to contribute appendices to his volume, and these pieces will make this book of lasting value. Edwin D. Floyd’s “The Traditional Poetic Context of Nonnos” is an original addition to the scholarship on Nonnus and the best thing in P.’s book. Floyd offers an analysis of Nonnus’ poetry which is both careful and approachable. He reviews Nonnus’ meter and use of the pitch accent, but he also pays particular attention to his vocabulary and how it derives meaning from Homer, Hesiod, and other precedents. Most interestingly, he develops the proposition that the ‘Dionysiaca’ was written after the ‘Paraphrase’ and depends upon it for the significance of a number of its terms. He does so chiefly by means of a comparison with Parmenides and his contrast between ‘Truth’ and ‘Opinion’.

Ron Newbold’s “Nonnus, Dionysus and Christianity” does not address the topic of its title quite as substantially as does Floyd’s essay. Rather, it is an example of the sort of idiosyncratic literary criticism striving after ‘higher truths’ which tends to leave hard-nosed philologists unsatisfied. Newbold meditates on the contrasting natures of force and power, and sees both a Christianity and a Dionysiac paganism which forfeited their original power by adopting force as a tool. For Newbold, Nonnus is a poet of power, finding power without force in John’s Gospel, and subversively decrying the power dissipated to violent and abusive force in the story of the Wine God.

P. ends his book with a wooden fantasy lifted from Richard Garnett’s ‘Twilight of the Gods’, “The Poet of Panopolis”. (Garnett’s name appears as ‘Garrett’ just as often as it is spelled correctly.) An indignant Apollo manifests himself to Nonnus just after he converts to Christianity in order to achieve an audience, and the poet in turn vies with a filthy desert hermit for the see of Panopolis. No great wonder this stuff had fallen out of copyright to make its publication possible, if not commendable.

This translation of Nonnus’ ‘other’ work is a curate’s egg of a book. The translation is readable and useful, and the translator’s notes are sophomoric and insightful by turns. Floyd’s essay is a new and solid contribution to the study of Nonnus, while Newbold’s offers food for thought, if nothing else. And the fiction of the introduction and the final appendix may be enjoyed by those who enjoy that sort of thing.

[For a response to this review by Leofranc Holford-Strevens, please see 2007.01.06.]