10
Feb
10

Biblical Humor and Housman

Yesterday, in New Testament Greek, we were translating aloud from Mark 4 (the parables of the sower, the light under a bushel, the growing seed, the mustard seed) when my friend Chris got to do verse 32: καὶ ὅταν σπαρῇ, ἀναβαίνει καὶ γίνεται μεῖζον πάντων τῶν λαχάνων καὶ ποιεῖ κλάδους μεγάλους, ὥστε δύνασθαι ὑπὸ τὴν σκιὰν αὐτοῦ τὰ πετεινὰ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ κατασκηνοῦν.* Seeing οὐρανός, and in the New Testament no less, he tried to translate it as “heaven:” thus, τὰ πετεινὰ οὐρανοῦ as the birds from heaven. Which, of course, made no sense. I pointed out that birds of the sky is actually a pretty common stock phrase in Greek, Latin, and Aramaic (and he smacked himself in the forehead when he realized that he should have gotten the parallel with Biblical Hebrew), but before that our professor made us all burst out laughing when she kind of got stuck on that translation of οὐρανός as heaven by saying, “You know, birds from heaven as opposed to earth. Like, not penguins.” I think our class will be known as the Penguins of Heaven from now on… It might have gotten worse, but when Nick tried to add ostriches to the mix, I pointed out that the Greek for that would be στρουθοί (cf. Septuagint Job 30.29) or στρουθοί αἱ μεγάλαι (cf. Ξενοφόντος Ἀναβάσις 1.5.2).

*A quick and dirty (and therefore still in translatese) translation: And whenever it [a tiny mustard seed] should be planted, it goes up and becomes greatest of all herbs and great shoots come to be, so that the birds of the sky are able to roost under its shadow.

Earlier this week, in Greek Lyric Poetry, my professor (the same one, actually) brought in a humorous little satire written by Alfred Edward Housman. If you don’t know who A. E. Housman was, he was a turn of the (20th) century philologist, clacissist, and poet, reknowned for being extremely polemic, and generally right, as well as the very classically-influenced style of his poetry (as I often do, while I wouldn’t recommend it as a source for a scholarly work, I’ll make the Wiki link available for a brief introduction). Anyway, being familiar with countless classical works, Housman was also just as frustrated as we modern students with the literary devices of the ancients, such as synecdoche, understatement, hendiadys (oh ye gods, hendiadys!), repetition, and all the other things that contribute to things translated directly from Greek or Latin (or Hebrew, for which see the King James Bible, which while not the most scholarly version of the Bible ever does match the literary style of the original more accurately than any other English version) sounding just plain weird. To express his frustration, or possibly for a laugh, he wrote a “fragment of a Greek tragedy,” of the murder of Eriphyle by her son Alcmaeon, which follows the cut to avoid cluttering the page too much with something someone else wrote:

CHORUS: O suitably-attired-in-leather-boots
Head of a traveller, wherefore seeking whom
Whence by what way how purposed art thou come
To this well-nightingaled vicinity?
My object in inquiring is to know.
But if you happen to be deaf and dumb
And do not understand a word I say,
Then wave your hand, to signify as much

ALCMAEON: I journeyed hither a Boetian road.

CHORUS: Sailing on horseback, or with feet for oars?

ALCMAEON: Plying with speed my partnership of legs.

CHORUS: Beneath a shining or a rainy Zeus?

ALCMAEON: Mud’s sister, not himself, adorns my shoes.

CHORUS: To learn your name would not displease me much.

ALCMAEON: Not all that men desire do they obtain.

CHORUS: Might I then hear at what thy presence shoots.

ALCMAEON: A shepherd’s questioned mouth informed me that—

CHORUS: What? for I know not yet what you will say.

ALCMAEON: Nor will you ever, if you interrupt.

CHORUS: Proceed, and I will hold my speechless tongue.

ALCMAEON: This house was Eriphyle’s, no one else’s.

CHORUS: Nor did he shame his throat with shameful lies.

ALCMAEON: May I then enter, passing through the door?

CHORUS: Go chase into the house a lucky foot.
And, O my son1, be, on the one hand, good,
And do not, on the other hand, be bad;2
For that is very much the safest plan.

ALCMAEON: I go into the house with heels and speed.3

CHORUS

Strophe

In speculation
I would not willingly acquire a name

for ill-digested thought;

but after pondering much
To this conclusion I at last have come:

LIFE IS UNCERTAIN.

This truth I have written deep

In my reflective midriff4

On tablets not of wax,
Nor with a pen did I inscribe it there,
For many reasons: LIFE, I say, IS NOT

A STRANGER TO UNCERTAINTY.
Not from the flight of omen-yelling fowls

This fact did I discover,
Nor did the Delphine tripod bark it out4,

Nor yet Dodona.
Its native ingenuity sufficed

My self-taught diaphragm.5

Why should I mention
The Inachean daughter, loved of Zeus?

Her whom of old the gods,

More provident than kind,
Provided with four hoofs, two horns, one tail,

A gift not asked for,

And sent her forth to learn

The unfamiliar science

Of how to chew the cud.
She therefore, all about the Argive fields,
Went cropping pale green grass and nettle-tops,

Nor did they disagree with her.
But yet, howe’er nutritious, such repasts

I do not hanker after:
Never may Cypris for her seat select

My dappled liver!
Why should I mention Io? Why indeed?

I have no notion why.6

Epode

But now does my boding heart,

Unhired, unaccompanied, sing

A strain not meet for the dance.

Yes even the palace appears

To my yoke of circular eyes

(The right, nor omit I the left)

Like a slaughterhouse, so to speak,

Garnished with woolly deaths

And many shipwrecks of cows.
I therefore in a Cissian strain lament:

And to the rapid

Loud, linen-tattering thumps upon my chest

Resounds in concert
The battering of my unlucky head.7

ERIPHYLE (within): O, I am smitten with a hatchet’s jaw;
And that in deed and not in word alone.

CHORUS: I thought I heard a sound within the house
Unlike the voice of one that jumps for joy.8

ERIPHYLE: He splits my skull, not in a friendly way,
Once more: he purposes to kill me dead.9

CHORUS: I would not be reputed rash, but yet
I doubt if all be gay within the house.

ERIPHYLE: O! O! another stroke! that makes the third.
He stabs me to the heart against my wish.

CHORUS: If that be so, thy state of health is poor;
But thine arithmetic is quite correct.10

1: I’m guessing this is a joke on the most common translation of παῖς, but I’m not certain.
2: Probably the most linguistically specific joke in this whole “fragment,” these two lines are, of course, poking fun at the traditional translation of μέν…δέ
3: Hendiadys! Damn you, hendiadys!
4: Synecdoche or metonymy, whatever you want to call it.
5: φρήν, of course.
6: Playing on the fact that Greek tragic choruses often go off on tangents of other myths with no apparent relevance to the plot.
7: The chorus, in an act of pure speculation, of course, describes exactly what is occurring offstage. Also, here the ancient Greek practice of pounding one’s chest in grief mirrored by the fact that the chorus (the whole chorus?) has a headache.
8: The chorus cannot hear very well, but for the sake of not confusing the hell out of the audience, the actors are in reality quite audible. Furthermore, the chorus’ continued speculation is now rather understated compared to the actual events. This line is pretty much the reason my professor brought this in, since this particular meme actually occurs within the Τραχίνιαι. It’s been a while for me, but I seem to recall that an even more similar scene to this one is used in the Μήδεια when the eponymous character kills her children, but possibly with the nurse instead of the chorus?
9: Use of a related word as object of an intransitive verb. This continues in English (note that the only thing you can dance is a dance, for instance; and it even works for the subject of a zero-argument/expletive-argument verb (“the snow snowed”)), but seems to come up all the freaking time in Greek, with any intransitive verb.
10: Typical of dry British wit, especially in the Victorian/Edwardian era, when this was penned.

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