Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Wherever I travel Greece wounds me - the Greek stories are everywhere - the Collected Poems of George Seferis

The ancient Greek plays are everywhere.  I think of them as foundations of Western literature, but still, I was not expecting to find in Ishmael Reed’s 1973 novel The Last Days of Louisiana Red, which is mostly about radical Black politics in Berkeley, an actor named Chorus who blames his professional and personal problems on Sophocles:

“What I did was to go back to see where I went wrong.  It started with plays like Antigone.” (end Of Ch. 5)

Reed’s previous novel, Mumbo Jumbo (1972), includes an alternate history of the Bible, so logically he moves to the Greeks in this one.

It was not at all surprising to find lines from Greek plays and from Homer running all through George Seferis’s Collected Poems: 1924-1955 (although half or more of the poems are from the 1930s, tr. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard).  The great modern Greek poets all seem to be myth-haunted.  Every island and city and bit of coast come with old stories, old literature, and Seferis embraces it.

He even writes a self-parody:

from In the Manner of G. S.

Wherever I travel Greece wounds me…

At Mycenae I raised the great stones and the treasures of the house of Atreus

and slept with them at the hotel “Belle Helène”;

they disappeared only at dawn when Cassandra crowed,

a cock hanging from her black throat.

And so on, the parody being that the poem is even more packed with ancient Greece than usual.  Every sailor is if not Odysseus then one of his doomed companions.  The sea is always the sea now, abut also the sea then.

Seferis gathered a collection of poems from the late 1930s into a “logbook,” an idea he liked so much it is now titled Logbook I (1940).  Europe was a dark place in 1940, but not surprisingly Logbook II (1944) is written from exile, in South Africa and Egypt.  Here his recurring character, a Greek sailor, adjusts to a new landscape and its exotic African lilies:

from Stratis Thalassinos among the Agapanthi:

There are no asphodels, violets, or hyacinths;

how then can you talk with the dead?

The dead know the language of flowers only;

so they keep silent

they travel and keep silent, endure and keep silent,

beyond the community of dreams, beyond the community of dream.

Some of this is straight out of the last book of The Odyssey, but it is as much about grieving for all of the newly dead in the Aegean Sea.  How do you talk to these dead?  What could you tell them?  Seferis’s poems are his attempts.

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

The ancient Greek plays, in chronological order - a readalong for next year - cry, cry in triumph, carry on the dancing on and on!

Let’s read the ancient Greek plays next year.  All of them.  There are not so many, and they are generally short.

I’ll read them all, one per week, and put up some kind of post on Friday, where anyone can join in.  Of course anyone can do whatever they want, on their own blog or on Twitter or in quiet communion with nature.  Below, we can see my schedule, but everyone is welcome to dip in as they like.

I have no Greek and no expertise, except that I read through the plays over twenty years ago, and have read several on occasion since.  They are, overall, fundamental texts in my understanding of literature, not just theater.  They are also full of great characters, exciting stories, extraordinary language (even in translation), and conceptual innovations of the greatest importance.

We are lucky to have seven surviving plays by Aeschylus, seven by Sophocles, nineteen by Euripides (one of which is perhaps by someone else), eleven by Aristophanes, and one by Menander, with one more close enough to complete that I am including it.  Forty-six plays in forty-six weeks.

I have made an educational and perhaps foolish attempt to put the plays in chronological order, relying mostly on the Penguin and University of Chicago editions.  My chronology is likely full of errors – please correct – and anyways should be often taken as guesswork.  But once we get into the 420s the mix gets pretty interesting.  405 is a landmark in literature.  All years are BCE.

A

Aeschylus (524-456)

S

Sophocles (496-405)

E

Euripides (480-406)

Ar

Aristophanes (446-386)

M

Menander (341-290)

 

472

A

The Persians

 

470

 

 

first Sophocles play

467

A

Seven Against Thebes

 

463

A

The Suppliants

 

???

A

Prometheus Bound

 

Early?

S

Ajax

 

458

A

Agamemnon

 

 

A

The Libation Bearers

 

 

A

Eumenides

 

441

S

Antigone

 

Before 440?

"E"

Rhesus

 

438

E

Alcestis

Death of Pindar

431

E

The Medea

 

430

 

 

Death of Herodotus

c. 429

E

The Heracleidae

 

428

E

Hippolytus

 

c. 426

S

Oedipus Rex

 

c. 425

E

Andromache

 

425

Ar

The Acharnians

 

c. 424

E

Hecuba

 

424

Ar

The Knights

 

c. 423

E

The Suppliants

 

423

Ar

The Clouds

 

c. 420s

S

The Women of Trachis

 

422

Ar

The Wasps

 

421

Ar

Peace

 

Late - 420-414

S

Elektra

 

c. 416

E

Herakles

 

c. 415

E

The Trojan Women

 

c. 414

E

Iphigenia in Tauris

 

414

Ar

The Birds

 

c. 413

E

Ion

 

c. 413

E

Electra

 

412

E

Helen

 

411

Ar

Lysistrata

 

411

Ar

The Poet and the Women

 

c. 410

E

The Phoenician Women

 

Late ?

E

The Cyclops

 

409

S

Philoctetes

 

408

E

Orestes

 

405

E

The Bacchae

 Death of Sophocles

 

E

Iphigenia in Aulis

 

 

Ar

The Frogs

 

404

S

Oedipus at Colonus

 

400

 

 

Death of Thucidydes

399

 

 

Death of Socrates

392

Ar

The Assemblywomen

 

388

Ar

Wealth

 

347

 

 

Death of Plato

323

 

 

Death of Alexander

322

 

 

Death of Aristotle

316

M

Dyskolos

 

c. 315

M

The Girl from Samos

 

 

Just putting the list together got me excited to read the plays along with whoever is interested.  Perhaps half of them are among the greatest works in literature.  But we can chat about that later.


As for translations, I have no advice.  The University of Chicago series has been a standard for a long time.  The Oxford series with the black covers always seemed excellent, and have more notes.  Every Penguin Classics I have tired has been good.  Any of these will have adequate notes for most people.  I am curious about some of the “celebrity” versions – Seamus Heaney’s Antigone, or Wole Soyinka’s Antigone, for example.  H.D.’s Ion is a good one.  But all of that can wait, too.

I plan to start in January, with the first post on The Persians up on January 14.

The title of the post uses the last line of The Eumenides as per Robert Fagles.