An encounter with Theognis

Recently, I was looking through some old bookcases in my house and found this book:

This delightful little book contains a selection of Greek literature (surprisingly enough) from Homer through the three tragedians to Plotinus “the last great pagan philosopher” and many more besides.

So I was just flicking through this book when I encountered Theognis.

Honesty compels me to confess that I had never previously heard of Theognis. The only biographical information provided by this book is “Elegiac poet, of Megara. Mid sixth century B.C.” Intrigued, I quickly chose what must be described as a last resort for most aspiring scholars – a Wikipedia search. But I’m not going to provide a potted biography of Theognis here, because I can never compete with the myriad Internet-based encyclopaedias and reference sites which can do exactly that. So, back to the poetry:

At the bottom of p92 is a short poem rather enigmatically entitled “Gloom” by this edition, in a 1962 translation by Willis Barnstone:

Best of all things – is never to be born,
never to know the light of sharp sun.
But being born, then best
to pass quickly as one can through the gates of H ell ,
and there lie under the massive shield of earth

Fairly depressing, then. I liked it immediately.

It took me a little longer to locate the original Greek text. This I did with the help of the Perseus Digital Library: the above is lines 425-428 of Theognis’ work:

πάντων μὲν μὴ φῦναι ἐπιχθονίοισιν ἄριστον
μηδ᾽ ἐσιδεῖν αὐγὰς ὀξέος ἠελίου:
φύντα δ᾽ ὅπως ὤκιστα πύλας Ἀΐδαο περῆσαι
καὶ κεῖσθαι πολλὴν γῆν ἐπαμησάμενον.

And without further ado, my translation:

‘Tis best, for earthbound mortals, best of all not to be born,
And not to see the light which from the harsh bright Sun is torn.
But being alive, ‘tis best to make haste through the gates of H ell ,
For under a piled-up heap of earth forever must one dwell.

Clearly I took some liberties with the original text. The repetition of “best” in the first line essentially serves to fit in with the metre of my translation, while a small leap of the imagination was required to produce “torn” – a word which, as well as making the rhyme-scheme work, fitted in rather neatly (I felt) with the sense of pain and danger associated with the Sun in the original (“ὀξέος”), and which Barnstone conveys using “sharp”.

The use of a rhyme-scheme in itself will probably require some justification. I think that the words I have chosen to make up the rhymes express their own sharp contrasts. “Born” is usually a positive, hopeful image, which is put in a negative, unpleasant light by the rhyme with the word “torn”. Meanwhile, the location of “ H ell ” casts a shadow of suffering and misery over “dwell”. The rhymes in my English translation almost make this poem sound like an aphorism or a maxim – which fits in with the style of the rest of Theognis’ poetry.


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