Roy R. Behrens, “Portrait of Guy Davenport,” c. 1978
Perfectly moving and impeccably wrought, Guy Davenport’s sense of the Greek tatters of Archilochos*:
Fragments, when they are but notes (the unfinished works of a Spenser or a Michelangelo are a different matter), touch us as the baby glove of the pharaoh that moved William Carlos Williams to tears, or the lock of Lucrezia Borgia’s hair that drew Bryon back day after day to gaze (and to steal one strand for Landor); they “brave time” with a mite’s grip, missing by a rotten piece of linen or a grammarian’s inadvertent immortality the empty fame of the sirens’ song. To exist in fragments and in Greek is a doubly perilous claim on the attention of our time.That writ to introduce the “Carmina Archolochi”—“the hundred and fifty-three fragments” rendered succinctly (“I have been as literal as an amateur’s Greek can manage”) by Davenport in an early number of Arion (II:2, 1963). Some fourteen of the bunch printed previously in that year in Henry Rago’s Poetry (CI:6, 1963). Some rewriting evident (Davenport, of the Archilochos: “much revised, more than anything I’ve ever done.** First it was simply Harvard homework: class in early Greek lyric with dear Cedric Whitman. . . . Then a version for [Poetry] . . . then another [Arion], and another [Carmina Archilochi, 1964]. When Hugh Kenner got California to bring it out [Archilochos Sappho Alkman, 1980], I then revised the whole damned thing again.”) A couple of versions. Out of Poetry:
Campaign in ThraceOut of Arion:
there’s a lost shield
damn the luck
left by that bush with no
two ways about it
and some Saian hill-billy
will strut with it
but I save my skin so
to hell with the shield
I can get me another
just as good
Some Saian mountaineer(Added in the rewrite: narrative clarity, a “moral” prop (“Life . . . precious”), vague regret. Lost: vernacular immediacy, the all-too-human taunt (“hill-billy”), the discontinuity of battle-tumult.) Here’s another couple. Out of Poetry:
Struts today with my shield.
I threw it down by a bush and ran
When the fighting got hot.
Life seemed somehow more precious.
It was a beautiful shield.
I know where I can buy another
Exactly like it, just as round.
EuboiansOut of Arion:
no bowstrings drawn to the bow-notch
no slings whipped
in a battle with Ares egging on
but a hell of a lot of sword work
and spear sticking
when the fight’s with
When the fight’s with those hard Euboians,(“Ares egging on” needed replacing: too much the gum-snapping teenage girl shouting out obvious advice. Lost: the sense of a seasoned fighter’s own talk (and shrug-off) of “a hell of a lot of sword work / and spear sticking”; the Arion version might be the work of journalist witnessing the combat.) And another. Out of Poetry:
No bow-strings’ whine or snap of bow-notch
Or whip of sling do you hear, but a delirium
Of Ares, sword work and spear sticking.
The tall Euboians famous for their knives.
StonewallOut of Arion:
I despise me a tall general
a curly-haired, cheek-filled
for me a proper officer’s
short and bow-legged,
both feet firmly planted
tough in the guts
I do despise a tall general,And out of Archilochos Sappho Alkman:
One of those swaggerers,
A curly-haired, cheek-frilled
For me a proper officer’s
Short and bow-legged,
Both feet planted well apart,
Tough in the guts.
I despise to see a tall,Paring off the dandified swagger of “curly-haired, cheek-frilled,” &c. And the merely stance-reiterant “Tough in the guts.” Why “despise”? None of its forms seem right: “I despise me a tall general” too forcedly folksy; “I do despise a tall general” too languorous and precious; “I despise to see” merely awkward. (I am wont to go with “Nothing but contempt for . . .” or something—that welling up with Olson’s plaint “I am no Greek, hath not th’ advantage.”) Davenport, answering—for Arion (III:4, 1964)—a questionnaire regarding “The Classics and the Man of Letters”: “A good translation should take the captivated reader to the original. Should.” And, refuting any claim that the classics be “used up,” repeats a lovely story about the geologist Raphael Pumpelly (1837-1923):
With a beard of curls.
Give me an officer
Who’s short and bow legged,
With his feet planted well apart.
Pumpelly, having lost his equipment, opened the Anacosta silver mines (or whatever mine)—well, I've just found the book (Pumpelly, Reminiscences, 1918, vol. I, page 198): “A thousand firebricks had, indeed, been sent by wagon from the East, but the Comanches in Texas had killed the driver, burned the wagon, and stolen the horses. In vain I studied carefully Kerl’s Metallurgie for methods used in out-of-way places.” He proceeded by methods he remembered from Agricola and Pliny. The mine was the Santa Rita, in Arizona. The dime in your pocket, minted with so many classical motifs, may contain some of its silver.Forthright immediacy, apt, untrammeled as speech itself. One Archilochos fragment reads: “Yes, yes, / As sure as a poppy’s / Green.” Another is simply “Plums.”