In a state of near-misery, I return to reading I did this summer: Dorothea Schmidt Wender’s ’73 translation of Hesiod and Theognis, included in the Penguin Classics series. Hesiod is most exciting, for me, in Works and Days, and especially in the verses concerning the ages of man. A famous passage (lines 170-201) concerns our own age, that of iron. Hesiod cries out:
I wish I were not of this race, that I
Had died before, or had not yet been born.
This is the race of iron. Now, by day,
Men work and grieve unceasingly; by night
They waste away and die.
The thumping iambs suit the content. Casting the poem in blank verse insists this is an English poetry made of its Greek original, a sure method for frustrating purists and exciting a sometimes-reticent reading public. The first line quoted intensely foregrounds the poetic subject—’I wish I [. . .] that I,”—and seems somehow to heighten the friction between the subjunctive mood and the lamentation. The heat produced seems angry to me, frustrated, incensed at being alive in the age of iron. Compare Wender’s lines, anyway, with the same in a more recent translation by Daryl Hine:
How I would wish to have never been one of this fifth generation!
Whether I’d died in the past or came to be born in the future.
I have not read that translation, but expect that these are intended to simulate the dactylic hexameter of the ancient Greek. That approach might work for some ears, but there’s something pleasing in the comparative austerity of Wender’s lines:
The just, the good, the man who keeps his word
Will be despised, but men will praise the bad
And insolent. Might will be Right, and shame
Will cease to be. Men will do injury
To better men by speaking crooked words
And adding lying oaths; and everywhere
Harsh-voiced and sullen-faced and loving harm,
Envy will walk along with wretched men.
Perhaps I’m shoehorning a particular politics into the way the line breaks operate to isolate ideas, but it hardly seems circumstantial that ‘Might will be Right’ appears on the same line with ‘insolence’ and ‘shame,’ especially in a passage lamenting the fallen state of humankind. And there may be some importation of biblical language going on—envy walks beside the wretched, rather than we wretched being led beside the still waters—which would be disappointing if the replication of the living, breathing Hesiod were the goal.
Instead, we get the Hesiod we deserve by these importations and modifications. It speaks to the nature of great poetry that even Hesiod’s widely reported misogyny serves in our current moment. The poet says, ‘Men will destroy the towns of other men’: and the way that the destruction of the town is bookended by ‘men’ reminds me—or (woe to the republic) forewarns me—of the costs to us the impending period of masculine overdrive will impose.
As we approach the inauguration, let us overhear again Hesiod’s song to his brother:
I say important things for you to hear,
O foolish Perses: Badness can be caught
In great abundance, easily; the road
To her is level, and she lives near by.