Archilochus

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ως Διωνύσοι’ ἂνακτος καλὸν έξάρξαι μέλος
οίδα διθύραμβον οἴνωι συγκεραυνωθείς ϕρένας
Archilocus Fr.96.

Homer? Homer to us is just a word;
His Iliad tells us nothing of him at all;
If possible, the Odyssey is worse.
Archilochus, undeterred
By caution or shame, was wholly personal
Yet once was ranked with Homer for his verse.

The poems of Homer have survived entire,
But of Archilochus, unlucky dog,
Nothing but scraps and broken lines remain;
And yet they pulse with force and fire.
With him I hold unending dialogue
But labour to fix that savage spirit in vain.

“Archilochus, peerless poet of your age,
Singer of injuries, of neglect and wrong,
Traducer alike of enemy and friend,
Dealer in excrement and rage,
Slanderer, poison-pen and scorpion-tongue,
Where did it get you, poet, in the end?”

“I was a spearman. For soldiers of the line
Life in my day was thankless, grim and hard.
Born out of wedlock — my mother was a slave —
My sole defence was the divine
Gift which the gods impartially award
To high or low: I used what gifts they gave.”

“You made a joke of throwing away your shield
Saying: ‘I’ll get another just as good,’
And to the highest bidder you sold your spear.”
“I ran, it is true; I did not yield
And till then fought as stoutly as I could.
Good sense may make men run as well as fear.”

“What of the old man driven to suicide?
Neobule and her sister in the noose
Choking to death for the unbearable shame
Spread by your spite?” “I had my pride.
If satire overwhelmed their crude abuse,
I used it to protect my wounded name.”

“But worse, Archilochus, bastard, slave-girl’s whelp,
Your drowned friends could not keep you from a feast,
All your companions washed up on the shore,
Cold sea-fruit, piled like kelp.”
“I pledged them in wine; I made them a song at least.
They would have done the like for me, no more.”

“You valued pride, yet yours was not the pride
Of well-born men that brought great Hector low
And moved Achilles to honour a father’s pleas.
You boasted of what most men hide;
That high tradition it was your luck to know
You mocked with the base scorn of Thersites.”

“I am a soldier; I am a poet; I am
soldier’s poet. That noble epic line
I too could master, but I chose instead
Plain Facts — there is no dithyramb,
So said Cratinus, where there is no wine —
I drank and washed those heroes from my head.”

“Well, what does it avail you now? Your praise
Survives, but look and see what has become
Of all your poems: Tags quoted from the past,
Tatters from dunghills, a chance phrase
On paper smeared by an Egyptian bum,
To this your life’s whole work has come at last.”

“Garbage at Oxyrhynchus spared my page
Better than Athens or Alexandria could,
Or Constantinople that passed their learning on.
I cannot, I own, contain my rage
Knowing the blundering muse of Hesiod
Spared, and my art swept to oblivion.

“Yet ruins of time, like the disasters of war,
We accept as rational men are bound to do.
To live, to be forgotten, each takes his chance:
It has happened to poets before;
You are a poet, it could happen to you
To perish by the blind malice of circumstance.”

“Surely the Fates punish insolence now and then?
Perhaps you incurred by the self-willed course you chose
Some god’s displeasure, or the Muse’s curse?”
“No, if the Muse should judge like men,
What must we think of glorious Sappho, whose
Fragments and tatters match those of my verse?”

“They say your mastery of the stinging word
Brings wasps to hover always round your tomb.”
“They do, yes, but the inference is wrong.
You have lived in Greece: you must have heard
That wasps will gather to the honey-comb;
What draws them is the unfailing honey of song.”

And I recall, once in that house in Greece,
Breakfasting on our terrace in the sun,
On coffee and rolls and honey, how around
The gold-striped wasps gave us no peace,
But would not leave us till the meal was done.
I hear Archilochus laugh from underground.

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