9th Greek Australian Legal and Medical Conference
Rhodes, Greece 2003

< return to index of papers


Hon. Austin Asche, AC QC

Inevitably and necessarily Greek poetry starts with Homer.  Inevitably and necessarily, because we have only fragments before this.  But it must be obvious that the works of Homer do not spring, like Aphrodite from the waves, full bodied and complete.  He must have been the inheritor of traditions, of folk-tales, and songs and legends and campfire memories.  Every great writer builds on what has gone before. 

So with Homer.  We start with him because, even if we can but dimly trace his origins, he is clearly the giant who stood above all others.

So, we have a commencement.  The next question is, where does Greek poetry end?  The answer is very plain.  Never, or, at least not in the conceivable future.  The twentieth century has seen the emergence of magnificent Greek poetry, and the tradition continues into the twenty-first.

They started it.  I quote from the Encyclopaedia Britannia:

Most of the literary genres of the modern Western World were invested or at least formalized by the ancient Greeks.

To endeavour to encapsulate 3000 years of Greek poetry in a short talk, is rather like that Monty Python sketch in which various contestants attempt to summarise Proust in thirty seconds, - with pretty ghastly results.

I could, of course, retreat into technical discussions of the epic, the elegiac, the lyric and the pastoral, (all forms invented by the Greeks), and discourse about the hexameter, the iambic, the trochee and the dithyramb.  All fascinating stuff, but this is not an academic lecture, and, I'd prefer to show you the building rather than the blueprint. 

So let me start with the story of Alcmaeon as related in the sixth book of the History of Herodotus.  Alcmaeon had rendered good service to Croesus the King of Lydia.  As a reward, Croesus told him that he could take as much gold out of the Treasury as he could carry on his person.  Alcmaeon put on a large tunic, very loose and baggy at the front and the widest top-boots he could find.  Thus equipped, he entered the Treasury.  I now quote directly from Herodotus:

He attacked a heap of gold dust: he crammed into his boots all up to his legs, as much as they would hold, filled the baggy front of his tunic full, sprinkled the dust all over his hair, stuffed some more into his mouth, and staggered out, scarcely able to drag one foot after the other and looking, with his bulging cheeks and swollen figure, like anything rather than a man.  When Croesus saw him, he burst out laughing, and gave him all the gold he was carrying, and as much again in addition.

I propose to take a similar but more modest approach.  I will enter the Treasury of Greek Poetry and take from it as much golden examples as I can find in so short a time, and display them to you.  Like Alcmaeon, this will be an exercise in self-indulgence, but I hope that what I display will be well loved old favourites or new discoveries to delight you.  But I remind you that Croesus was enormously rich, - hence the expression as rich as Croesus, and his treasury was vast.  And what Alcmaeon took was the tiniest infinitesimal fraction of what was there.  So, I, likewise.

Translation can never give us the full meaning, and sometimes the translation may surpass the original.  There is little doubt that Omar Khayyam is a much better poet in English than he ever was in Persian, because Fitzgerald mixed some splendid poetic imagery of his own into the brew.  Alternatively, some painstakingly correct translations of Homer can be very dull, because, somewhere in the translation, the poetic imagery, the real spirit, the inspiration, (in the literal sense of that which breathes) has been lost.  Obviously it is more important to catch the spirit in poetry than in prose because spirit is the very essence of poetry.  I am not sure how accurate are some of the translations I offer to you, but, if they sound good in English, the chances are that the translator has caught the true meaning from the original.  In any event he has given us something to enjoy.  Thus, I really do not care how precisely accurate Gilbert Murray is in his translation of the chorus from the Hippolytus of Euripides, but what we get is such a splendid piece of poetry that I am sure Euripides would approve. 

To the strand of the Daughters of the Sunset,
The Apple-tree, the singing and the gold;
Where the mariner must stay him from his onset,
And the red wave is tranquil as of old;
Yea, beyond that Pillar of the End
That Atlas guardeth, would I wend;
Where a voice of living waters never ceaseth
In God's quiet garden by the sea,
And Earth, the ancient life-giver, increaseth
Joy among the meadows, like a tree. 

Isn't that marvellous and wondrous!

Sometimes the words themselves can sing to us in the original even if we do not know the meaning.  Anne Fadiman, that delightful essayist whom you must all read, tells us that, without knowing what the words meant, she placed up and down her room reciting with hundreds of repetitions, the first two lines of the Odyssey.

(You will, of course, note that my pronunciation is in the purest Attic dialect of the sixth century BC, which may not be familiar to all of you, because it is known only to myself).

There are many translations of those lines, which so intoxicated Anne, and here is one, which goes a little further into the third and fourth lines.

Sing me, O Muse, that hero wandering,
Who of men's minds did much experience reap,
And roamed the citied realms of many a King,
E'en from the hour he smote the Trojan Keep.

Then we are off to Circe and the sirens, and Cyclops; - and the wrath of Poseidon and the protection of Athena; - and the clashing islands and the deadly whirlpool; - and the sinister lure of the lotos; - and the snarling dangerous suitors; - and the loyal wife weaving by the day and unweaving by night; - and the faithful dog, recognizing his beloved master after ten years, and dying at his feet; - and the bloody vengeance of the returning hero.  Well, that's the encapsulated Odyssey for you.  You can work out the Iliad for yourselves.

The words ring in the original because they were meant to.  The Iliad and the Odyssey were recited.  The writing down came hundreds of years later.  They were recited, usually to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument.  The feat of memory may seem huge, but not if you reflect that the performers began learning as young boys, and devoted their lifetime to the task.

After the ringing songs of Homer, came Hesiod, the first agricultural scientist, because his poems are full of advice to farmers.  He also had some straightforward views on marriage.

Bring not a wife to your home too soon or too late.
Wait till you're thirty, but don't thereafter wait;
Thirty's the age..........
..........Make sure with a neighbouring maid,
but watch if people grin when you name her for wife.

Along with the epic or narrative came lyric poetry.  These poems were usually short, with a single theme, and, as the name implies, sung to the music of the lyre.  They could range from the elegiac to the satiric, from the ideal to the factual, from praise to invective.  Accepted as the forerunner of the lyric poets is Archilochus of Paros.  According to one modern writer, he has relevance today because, modishly crude translations have made him the brother of certain contemporary poets, while scholars have set him at the opening of their histories of the so-called •Western mind'.  I'm not sure about modish translations because the translation I give you now is about a century old.  But if you regard down-to-earth realism as a modern trait, then this example takes it back two and a half thousand years.

Not for me the general renowned, nor the well-groomed dandy,
Nor he who is proud of his curls or is shaven in part;
But give me a man that is small and whose legs are bandy,
Provided he's firm on his feel and is valiant in hear.

This is the age-old plea of the professional soldier to be led by a professional.  It also has something of Hotspur's views in Henry IV (Part I) when he expresses his disgust at the ponce who arrives perfumed like a milliner after the battle.  And here is another pragmatic approach by Archilochus, and the translation, this time, is a modern one.

Some Thracian tribesman flaunts my shield.  I left it,
blameless in a bush • betrayed it there unwittingly. •
And yet I saved myself, so what's that to me?
To Hell with it.  I'll buy another every bit as good

Surely this is an early version of the philosophy illustrated by the well-known couplet,

He who fights and runs away,
Lives to fight another day.

This is often mistakenly cited as a recipe for cowardice, but it is more properly a recognition of the fact that an orderly retreat will preserve one's forces for later fighting.  The emphasis, after all, is on the words lives to fight another day.  Archilochus is saying the same thing.  He escaped with his life; - but he's going to buy another shield.  And, in the same practical vein, is this sound of philosophy of Theognis:

Truly is it a disgrace to be drunk among the sober.
But it is also a disgrace to stay sober among the drunken.

For matters of the heart, and the lyric poetry of human tenderness we must give the palm to Sappho of the island of Lesbos.  Whether she was a Lesbian in both senses of the word does not really matter because her true significance is as a writer of love itself.

These words she said to me,
"What sad calamity!
Sappho I leave you most unwillingly"

To her I made reply;
"Go with good heart, but try
Not to forget our love in days gone by."

"Else let me call to mind,
If your heart proves unkind'
The soft delightful ways you leave behind."

Her love extended to nature as well as to people.

Cool waters tumble, singing as they go,
Through appled boughs.  Softly the leaves are dancing.
Down streams a slumber on the drowsy flow,
My soul entrancing.

For dauntless courage and self-sacrifice we can find an example in the immortal lines, probably by Simonides, celebrating the 300 Spartans under Leonidas who died defending the pass at Thermopylae.

Go, tell the Spartans, thou who passeth by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.

Here is the direct contrast with Scott's great poem that the man who does not love his country:

Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonoured, and unsung.

These 300 Spartans who died holding the pass against at least 300, 000 invaders were indeed wept and honoured, and the songs made about them have echoed down the ages.  Cruelly and reluctantly passing over such giants as Anacreon, Alceus and Pindar, and many others, I remind you that the great dramatists, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides rose to great poetic heights in the choruses to their plan.  I have given you the apple tree, the singing and the gold, from Euripides.  Here is one from Aeschylus:

This Earth, this Asia, wide as east from west,
Mourns empty of her manhood dispossessed.
Xerxes the King lead forth his war array!
Xerxes the King (O King unwise!)
Steered in the wake of doom his orient argosies.

We cannot linger in the Golden Age.  We must hasten on to the silver or Hellenistic Age.  The Greek city-states declined as the Peloponnesian war drained the resources of Athens and Sparta, and the power of Macedonia rose.  Alexander the Great set forth to conquer most of the known world, and under that colossal shadow, the glory of Athens dimmed.  As it is put in the introduction to the Oxford Book of Greek Verse:

The fourth century has one of the high confidence and established certainty of the fifth.  It was a period of anxiety, poverty and doubt.  Its mental state is reflected in the paucity of its poetry, and when poetry came to life again, it was in new conditions in Alexandria.

Towards the end of the fourth century, however, some well known figures emerge.  Theocritus, for instance, is the father of the bucolic idyll, - country swains and rustic maids and all that, - and we can hardly discount him because he had a considerable influence on English poetry, though whether for good or bad is debatable.  But it your taste runs to shepherds and shepherdesses dancing around in some happy Arcadia, - and quite a few European poets, including Shakespeare, dabbled in this sort of thing, - then give due thanks to Theocritus as you prance the pastoral to the pipes of Pan.  Callimachus carried on the lyric tradition, and he deserves a mention, not only for his obvious merit, but also because he is fortunate that one of his glorious poems was translated into equally glorious English by William Cory.

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 remember'd, 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 way, but them he cannot take.

The silver age merged into Byzantine poetry, much of it religious; for one must remember that the early Christian fathers depended upon the New Testament as translated into Greek.  By the fourth century AD, however, classical Greek was declining in favour of the demotic, although it took some centuries before poets accepted this.  We can see the same sort of situation prevailing in England in the centuries after the Norman Conquest, where the conquerors and the courtiers, that is, the educated elite, spoke French or Latin, while the ordinary citizen spoke English; but the demotic, in this case English, ultimately prevailed.  I must apologise that I can tell you nothing of Greek poetry during the Byzantine period or, from thence, up to the twentieth century.  This is not because there is nothing to tell, but simply because I am totally ignorant of it, and I am not going to insult your intelligence by pretending otherwise. 

I do know a little about Greek poets of the twentieth century, because their fame must necessarily be known to anyone who has even the smallest interest in twentieth century poetry generally.  Elytis and Seferis both received the Nobel Prize for literature, and this is pretty clear evidence of their influence beyond their national boundaries.  However, I am not suggesting that I have anything other than a dilettante interest and I do not put myself forward as an expert.  Rather than pretending to a knowledge that I do not have, I will refer you to the two poets of whose works I know a little, though very little; but what I have read in translation gives at least a glimpse of the splendour of their achievements.

The broad humanity of Seferis is demonstrated in the poem The Weeping Man, whose infinite sorrow means nothing to those who pass him by.  Edmund Keeley in Modern Greek Poetry comments that the weeping man's boundless pain has lost all significance because of our having complacently grown used to him.  This is emphasised in the last lines:-

We've grown used to him, like everything else you're used to
he doesn't stand for anything;
and I talk to you about him because I can't find
anything that you're not used to,
I pay my respects.

Keeley comments:-

Just in case the reader complacently relaxes with his understanding of this irony, the poet turns to him in the last three lines to remind him of just how much he, too, has come to take for granted, not only the sorrow the weeping mans represents, but everything else as well.

When Seferis wrote the poem, I doubt if the expression compassion fatigue had been invented, but we are all familiar with the temptation to turn off, when we read of, or see on television, the latest appalling cruelty by human beings against other human beings.

Modern Greek poets are conscious of a tradition going back 3000 years.  Cavafy is a prime example, and I would recommend, for English speakers, The Complete Poems of Cavafy, published by Harcourt Brace and Company, which contains a splendid introduction by W.H. Auden.  Cavafy is the perfect bridge between ancient and modern because his poems frequently refer to ancient Greek, Roman or Byzantine themes and he will sometimes interlard the modern language with classical and ancient demotic speech.  This can give a sense of timelessness, or, to put it more precisely, a sense that, even if the poem is set in ancient times, the circumstances are even more relevant today.  Hence the poem, Expecting the Barbarians refers to an incident in early Roman history when the barbarians did arrive.  The irony is that, in the poem, they do not arrive.  But I must let the poem speak for itself.

Expecting the Barbarians. 

What are we waiting for, assembled in the public square? 

The barbarians are to arrive today.

Why such inaction in the Senate?
Why do the Senators sit and pass no laws?

Because the barbarians are to arrive today.
What further laws can the Senators pass?
When the barbarians come they will make the laws. 

Why did our emperor wake up so early,
And sits at the principal gate of the city,
on the throne, in state, wearing his crown? 

Because the barbarians are to arrive today,
And the emperor waits to receive their chief,
Indeed he has prepared to give him a scroll.
Therein he engraved many titles and names of honour.

Why have our two consuls and the praetors come out
Today in their red and embroidered togas;
Why do they wear amethyst-studded bracelets,
and rings with brilliant glittering emeralds;
why are they carrying costly canes today,
superbly carved with silver and gold?

Because the barbarians are to arrive today,
And such things dazzle the barbarians. 

Why don't the worthy orators come as usual
to make their speeches, to have their say? 

Because the barbarians are to arrive today;
and they get bored with eloquence and orations.

Why this sudden unrest and confusion?
(How solemn their faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares clearing so quickly,
and all return to their homes, so deep in thought?

Because night is here but the barbarians have not come.
Some people arrived from the frontiers,
and they said that there are no longer any barbarians. 

And now what shall become of use without any barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.

This poem has become well known in English speaking countries, and one can well understand why.  Despite its setting, it speaks as much to the present as to the past. 

The prime example of a modern Greek poet connecting with his inheritance of 3000 years is Katzanzakis, whom we know from the novels and films of Zorba the Greek, and Christ Recrucified, but in poetry he wrote the epic The Odyssey • A Modern Sequel, which begins where Homer leaves off, just as does Tennyson's poem Ulysses.  Both poets assume that Odysseus will not rest after his return to Ithaca, but Tennyson sends him off again in a short poem, while Katzanzakis takes as long as the original. 

I conclude with an exciting new discovery, a poem in ancient Greek, only recently discovered in this very island of Rhodes, under a concealed rock near the ancient hippodrome, - which may explain the references to horses.  I will first read it for you, using, of course the Attic dialect of Sixth century BC.

I have been fortunate enough to have had the poem translated into modern Greek, and I now ask that the translation be read by a Greek speaker.

Translated into English, the poem would appear to go something like this:-

There was movement at the station, for the word had passed around
That the colt from old Regret had got away,
And had joined the wild bush horses he was worth a thousand pound,
So all the cracks had gathered to the fray.

These ancient Greek poets were pretty remarkable people.


Most of the early poetry comes from that excellent volume, The Oxford book of Greek Verse in Translation.

The sources of the poems by Seferis and Cavafry are acknowledged in the text.

My thanks go to George Kapetis, Greek Consul for the Northern Territory who generously presented me with The Complete Poems of Cavafy, which I have read with great delight and from which I quote the poem Expecting the Barbarians.

I especially thank my old friend Pat Singleton, a most accomplished Greek scholar, who translated into ancient Greek the final poem mentioned.  He did this by first converting the poem into literal English to render it fit to be cast into classical Greek form.  I am sure readers will be interested in the literal version Pat managed to achieve.

Now they were moving to and fro about the station,
inasmuch as word was spread about
That the cot from (old) Regret, having secretly escaped,
Has joined wild horses so highly prized
That every skilled rider was going after him.

Finally, my gratitude to John Anictomatis, previously Greek Consul, and now our popular Administrator of the Northern Territory, for converting the poem into modern Greek.

< return to index of papers

Copyright 2003. Greek/Australian International Legal and Medical Conference.
For more information contact Jenny Crofts at jennycrofts@ozemail.com.au