Michael Tolkien

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 superfluous.

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 ‘I’m-determined-to-enjoy-myself’ attitude.

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.






Robin Hamilton