Hesiod I: Theogony, Works and Days, Testimonia; Hesiod II: The Shield, Catalogue of Women, Other Fragments, edited and translated by Glenn M. Most.
Harvard University Press, revised edition 2018 [326 pages; 481 pages.]
Reviewed by Anthony Madrid
Everybody likes Hesiod without knowing it. They don’t know it, ’cuz they’ve never read him, maybe never even heard of him. But they like him, just the same, ’cuz he’s the secret author of a book that fascinated them deeply in their childhoods: D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. It may be necessary to provide a visual. Here’s the cover:
’Member that thing? I don’t know if that book is as big now as it was in, say, 1978. I do know that everyone in my generation (Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter Administrations) knows the pictures in that book as well as they know anything. Pandora with the box of evils. Athena coming out of Zeus’s head. Various monsters.
It’s hard to put your finger on the power of that book. The pictures are slightly childish, lot of work with Prismacolor pencils and shading. But the images are bold, bold at all costs, and they show all these scenes that are disturbing in just the right degree. In a word, it’s Hesiod.
I’m overstating. The first section is Hesiod. Over the course of the book, you get a ton of Ovid, too. Naturally. In the final tally, it’s probably three times as much Ovid as Hesiod, but: it’s the Hesiod material you remember. The pantheon of the Olympians, and the story of the two rows of gods who came before ’em. It’s all Hesiod’s Theogony done up as a set of pictures—which… that’s almost exactly what the original is, if you think about it. It’s mainly scenes, and the pacing is like when you're dealing a pack of cards: four of clubs, Jack of hearts, seven of hearts, nine of diamonds. You can read the whole poem in an hour. Most do.
But do they return to it. I don’t. Checking in with Theogony is like checking to see if the Big Dipper retains its shape, night after night. It does. It’s always just what you expected. That’s why I prefer Works and Days. Works and Days is a little bit like a poem that might have been written in an 18th-century madhouse. There’s little personal bits, loads of advice (some of it patently cuckoo), and then miles of simply joyous description of natural phenomena, in the gnomic mode. For example, here’s Hesiod describing the wind in the worst part of winter:
[The north wind] falls upon many lofty-leaved oaks and sturdy firs in the mountain’s dales and bends them down to the bounteous earth, and the whole immense forest groans aloud. The wild animals shiver and stick their tails under their genitals, even those whose skin is shadowed by fur; but, chilly as it is, it blows through them although their breasts are shaggy, and it goes through the hide of an ox, and this does not stop it, and it blows through the long-haired goat—but not at all through sheep does the force of the wind Boreas blow, for their fleece is plentiful. It makes the old man curved like a wheel, but it does not blow through the soft-skinned maiden who stays at the side of her dear mother inside the house, still ignorant of the works of golden Aphrodite . . .
That’s good stuff, and it doesn’t take much to imagine it couched in James Thomson’s iambic pentameter or Christopher Smart’s Biblical strophes or John Clare’s couplets. You can also see from this passage how good our translator, Glenn Most, is. He makes you read Works and Days twice, back to back. The first time, you just read it; the second, you underline the choice bits.
This edition, of course, has a much larger scope than I’m giving it credit for. For instance, the “Testimonia” section in Volume I is ten times as interesting as it has any right to be, ’cuz what you’re basically getting there is the reception history of Hesiod’s poems. It made me wish there were sections like this in the editions of all ancient poets. Actually, never mind “ancient”—all poets, period. Just knowing which lines people chose to quote is rather mind enlightening. (We all know which lines out of Shakespeare are in heaviest rotation; wouldn’t it be pleasant to know which lines out of the Ramayana were? The information exists; someone just has to gather it, number everything, and translate the whole into English.)
As for the Hesiod II volume, that’s strictly for maniacs. It comprises all this material that is probably not even by Hesiod, ’cept it might as well be by him, ’cuz everybody thought it was, in the ancient world. One has to get around to these satellite poems eventually, as they are essential to the Hesiod Phenomenon in ancient Greece, but, never having heard a single person recommend the stuff as poetry, I am putting off Volume II until I’ve more or less memorized Works and Days.
Twenty-six bucks, online, for Volume I—that’s not that bad. Basically a plate of food and a bowl of soup and a Diet Coke. I’d say eat a banana, go a little hungry—and ram your nose into Hesiod I.
ANTHONY MADRID lives in Victoria, Texas. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2013, Boston Review, Fence, Harvard Review, Lana Turner, LIT, and Poetry. His second book is called TRY NEVER (Canarium Books, 2017).