Hope is forever stealing the little
time life allots us, and our last dawn
overtakes us with so many dreams
—Julius Polyaenus of Sardis (1st c. BC)
Greek Anthology, Vol. 3, edited by W.R.Paton, (Loeb Classical
Library), pp.6-7


   The Evening Star restores all that the
bright dawn has scattered; it brings back
the sheep, and the goats, and the child
to its mother.
The Penguin Book of Greek Verse, edited by Constantine A.
Trypanis, No. 58, p. 148


   The moon sets
And the Pleiades, it is the middle
Of the night, the hour passes,
And I, I sleep alone.
D.A. Campbell, Greek Lyric Poetry, p. 40


   Aeschylus, son of Euphorion,
an Athenian, now departed, lies
covered here by the rich corn-bearing
earth of Gela.
   The renowned grove of Marathon
could tell you of his valor, and so could
the bushy-haired Persians who fell
before it.
The Penguin Book of Greek Verse, p. 183


   This, noble Sabinus, is but a stone,
a very small token to record a love
as great as ours: I shall forever search
for you. I ask only, if it be permissible
down there among the departed—for
my sake, do not drink from the waters
of forgetfulness!
—Anonymous (5th c.AD)
The Penguin Book of Greek Verse, p. 365

A Footnote in Explanation

These are the first verses I have translated from the Greek, a language I have begun to learn. I have no expertise but love of it, and these are a distant reflection of the originals. A man born blind who suddenly saw a candle for the first time would have obtained some conception of what the sun means, but only on a minuscule scale. So it is with these, and indeed any, translations. Several of the poems are in elegiac hexameter. It is impossible to approximate their exquisite syllabic intricacies. The form is stricter than any rhyme, and the words have an unapproachably austere beauty. It is a miracle how they were fitted into so rigid yet rich a pattern.

The epitaph by Aeschylus for himself ends in the Greek with a verbal bang—the last word is epistamenos, the present participle of a middle or passive deponent verb. It is related to the word Plato used for scientific knowledge. Here it is the “punch line” of the epigram. It means the Persians learned of his valor the hard way, in battle and in defeat, in their bodies, and its very sound at the climax rings with pride; he had been among those who saved Greece at Marathon.

Matthew Arnold said the difficulty in translating Homer is that he’s so plain. Plain is the wrong word for the characteristic genius of Greek versification and style. We have no word in English for what Matthew Arnold tried to say. In translating one feels compelled to add a word here and there; otherwise the original seems pedestrian, which it is not. The epitaph to Sabinus in the original can move one to tears. Where I have rendered “but a stone, a very small token,” the chaste Greek has only he lithos (the stone) he mikre (the small), and where I might have written “yearn for you” the Greek verb is actually “search for.” “I shall search for you” and aeei (always) indeed imply a search for all eternity, since he does not give up hope of finding his beloved again, even though it be among the dead.

This Issue

February 22, 1979