“For there is indeed something we can call the spirit of ancient Greece–a carefully tuned voice that speaks out of the grave with astonishing clarity and grace , a distinctive voice that, taken as a whole, is like no other voice that has ever sung on this earth.”
–BURTON RAFFEL, from his Preface
For centuries, the poetry of Homer, Aristophanes, Sophocles, Sappho, and Archilochus has served as one of our primary means of connecting with the wholly vanished world of ancient Greece. But the works of numerous other great and prolific poets–Alkaios, Meleager, and Simonides, to name a few–are rarely translated into English , and are largely unknown to modern readers. In Pure Pagan, award-winning translator Burton Raffel brings these and many other wise and witty ancient Greek writers to an English-speaking audience for the first time, in full poetic flower. Their humorous and philosophical ruminations create a vivid portrait of everyday life in ancient Greece –and they are phenomenally lovely as well.
In short, sharp bursts of song, these two-thousand-year-old poems speak about the timeless matters of everyday life:
Wine (Wine is the medicine / To call for, the best medicine / To drink deep, deep)
History (Not us: no. / It began with our fathers, / I’ve heard).
Movers and shakers (If a man shakes loose stones / To make a wall with / Stones may fall on his head / Instead)
Old age (Old age is a debt we like to be owed / Not one we like to collect)
Frankness (Speak / As you please / And hear what can never / Please).
There are also wonderful epigrams (Take what you have while you have it: you’ll lose it soon enough. / A single summer turns a kid into a shaggy goat) and epitaphs (Here I lie, beneath this stone, the famous woman who untied her belt for only one man).
The entrancing beauty, humor, and piercing clarity of these poems will draw readers into the Greeks’ journeys to foreign lands, their bacchanalian parties and ferocious battles, as well as into the more intimate settings of their kitchens and bedrooms. The poetry of Pure Pagan reveals the ancient Greeks’ dreams, their sense of humor, sorrows, triumphs, and their most deeply held values, fleshing out our understanding of and appreciation for this fascinating civilization and its artistic legacy.
About the Author
Burton Raffel is Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Southwestern Louisiana and author of many books, including Artists All (Penn State, 1991) and The Art of Translating Poetry (Penn State, 1988). He is the translator of Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel (1990), winner of the 1991 French-American Foundation Translation Prize; Balzac's Pere Goriot (1994), and a forthcoming new version of Cervantes's Don Quijote.
As Bruce Bawer wrote in Bookforum, "the late Guy Davenport (1927-2005) left behind an oeuvre that is one long lesson in the history of civilization, and to read any part of it-story, essay, or translation-is to be enthralled by his unflagging intellectual energy and engagement." His books include The Geography of the Imagination, The Death of Picasso, Herakleitos and Diogenes, A Table of Green Fields, The Cardiff Team, DaVinci's Bicycle, and many more.
"The old Greek poetry has a freshness and immediacy about it that is partly a witty irony, partly a commitment to speaking only about the core concerns of humanity, partly a strange dazzling down-to-earthness, and partly the tragic bite of the Greek conceptual language. Who better to introduce us to the lesser-known voices of that tradition than Burton Raffel and Guy Davenport?" --Frederick Turner, author of The Culture of Hope and former editor of The Kenyon Review
"This superb gathering of ancient Greek lyrics, pungently translated by Burton Raffel, could not be more timely or more timeless. The poems are by turns hilarious and heartrending, erotic and elegaic, as fresh as the morning and shadowy as the dusk, yet always living, inescapable, and wise. Guy Davenport contributes an arresting introduction to this very welcome collection.” --Robert Fagles, translator of The Iliad and The Odyssey
"Burton Raffel has added titles and translated with great translucency--real panache!--a marvelous array of lesser known poems and poets from ancient Greece. These brief and entrancing lyric intensities ("drink, and get drunk with me," Alkaios insists) are perennially fresh and inviting, surprised by time, quick with life.” --Edward Hirsch, author of How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry and Lay Back the Darkness
"The ancient Greek anthologists collected many of the world's funniest, and saddest, raunchiest, and wisest poems, which Burton Raffel, a guardian angel among American translators, has delivered breathtakingly alive into our own idiom. If poetry ever mattered, which we know it did and does, this book reminds us why." --Brooks Haxton, author of Uproar and translator of Dances for Flute and Thunder
"These are the Greek poets who have endured through the millennia. Burton Raffel's wonderful translations capture their poetry in all its originality, freshness, and rhythm." --Peter Constantine, winner of the 1998 PEN Translation Award and the 1999 National Translation Award
"These epigrams, epitaphs, fragments, and short poems of the Greek lyricists are witty, wise, and elegant, and they demand of a translator an almost impossible range of humanity and fastidious craftsmanship that I delight to see demonstrated, over and over in Burton Raffel’s splendid English versions." --David R. Slavitt, co-editor of the Penn Complete Greek Drama series and of the Johns Hopkins Complete Roman Drama series