The Ancient Delights of the Epigram

The Greek Anthology, Books 1–5

translated from the Greek by W.R. Paton and revised by Michael A. Tueller
Loeb Classical Library/ Harvard University Press, 435 pp., $26.00
Walters Art Museum, Baltimore/Bridgeman Images
Lawrence Alma-Tadema: Sappho and Alcaeus, 1881

1.

In its present version, The Greek Anthology comprises about 4,500 short poems, composed by authors ranging from the third century BCE to the fourth century CE (with outliers on either end) and including works by many of the most brilliant figures of Greek literature, especially from the Hellenistic period (323–31 BCE). The collection—assembled over hundreds of years—came to Western Europe from Byzantium in the fifteenth century and immediately began to exercise on European poetry and culture an influence whose depth and breadth are even now difficult to gauge.1 “I’ll tell you the best poem ever written in Alexandria,” announces the commander in chief of the British army (Middle East Command) to a dinner party in Evelyn Waugh’s World War II trilogy, Sword of Honour. Duly encouraged by his hostess, the general begins:

They told me Heraclitus, they told me you were dead
They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.
I wept as I remembered how often you and I
Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.

And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,
A handful of grey ashes, long, long ago at rest,
Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;
For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.

This is Callimachus (third century BCE), from the Anthology, in the inescapable Victorian translation of William Johnson Cory. Waugh, like other even mildly modernist Englishmen of his era, was both embarrassed by Cory’s sentimental old chestnut and unable to get it out of his head. He had the poetry-plagiarizing hero of The Loved One adapt it to commemorate the suicide of his mentor:

They told me, Francis Hinsley, they told me you were hung
With red protruding eye-balls and black protruding tongue
I wept as I remembered how often you and I
Had laughed about Los Angeles and now ’tis here you’ll lie…

This trip from the sublime—which Callimachus’s Greek text is—to the camp and down to the ridiculous is fully in keeping with the spirit of the Anthology, the vastness of which accommodates poems of remarkable variety. Under the auspices of the Loeb Classical Library, Michael A. Tueller has published the first volume (books one to five of sixteen) of a projected complete edition of the whole gigantic thing—a fully updated revision of W.R. Paton’s five-volume Loeb from a hundred years ago. It is an ambitious and worthy enterprise, but news of it may make non-initiates wonder what epigrams are, and what this enormous Anthology of them is, and why?

2.

Sometime in the mid-to-late sixth century BCE, the Greek lyric poet Anacreon, a fixture at the court of Polycrates, tyrant of the island of Samos (just…


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