Anacreon Translated by Robin Hamilton (Frisky Moll Press (2009))
Publ. in Sphinx on-line pamphlet reviews 12. (2010)
A brief foreword stresses the ‘wry perspectives’ on love, drinking and aging found
in this 6th/5th century Greek lyrical poet, and the poet-translator provides delightfully
articulate often colloquial approaches to these perennial preoccupations. Most pieces
are headed as numbered Fragments (as in collections), but their impact is seldom
fragmentary. They are compact, and rounded with an internal coherence making titles
Particularly engaging, despite the apparently direct tone, is a sense of the elusive
ego, a complex factor in Classical lyric poetry: is it adopting a stance, imitating
an attitude, posturing, or all three and more? One of several poems that bewails
decrepitude (with suspect hyperboles) has an enigmatic yet potentially playful view
of death’s finality:
So it is fitting that I celebrate my fear of the underworld:
The kingdom of Hades is dark and grim, the way there pitiful,
and once arrived, there is no coming back.
Hamilton also exploits ambiguous imagery and settings. His version of the frequently
anthologised address to a standoffish Thracian filly who shuns advances and skills
brings out the interplay of sexual and equestrian implications where so many plodding
literal renderings have failed. And the first of a series of light-hearted poems
about pederastic love suggests that the protagonist is relieved to have finished
a wrestling match, supervised by rather inappropriate deities:
…a tough ring to fight in and a hard man
To face. I pull myself up groggy
From the canvas. Thank you, Dionysus, that
That’s over. Goodbye Eros, Goodbye
Aphrodite, for a time.
Then this mock-formality gives way to celebrating the release of wine and how ‘bedding
the bottle/’S better than bedding that boy!’ Though I’m reminded of Frost’s dictum
that ‘poetry is what is lost in translation’, I am still, here and elsewhere, compelled
to feel that Hamilton has consistently brought alive the unique spirit of this ancient
poet. He captures the pagan surrender to pleasure and its contrast to our post-prohibition
My only reservations are about the poems that use modern equivalents without any
sense of the ancient context, a balance which Hamilton usually sustains to perfection.
Anacreon was unfortunately not a Glaswegian whisky drinker!
The pamphlet is rather functional in appearance but it’s cover is distinguished by
a superb bust from the Acropolis, the poet’s head slightly tilted as if weighing
up some amusing contradiction.