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A Great Delight, A Little Load

Carlo Gébler

Deeds and their Days, after Hesiod, by Peter Fallon, Gallery Press, 71 pp, €11.95, ISBN: 978-1911337218

The classical Greek poet Hesiod, a contemporary of Homer, lived sometime between 750 and 650 BC. He was not an illiterate rhapsode who committed his work to memory, but a literate poet who wrote down what he composed; he may have been the first classical poet to work in this way.

Hesiod’s best known work is probably Works and Days: it certainly impressed Virgil, for when the later came to write The Georgics, it being standard practice for Roman empire poets to recycle content from their Greek antecedents, he cited Hesiod approvingly and at length.

In 2004 Peter Fallon gave us his Georgics (a wonderful work in my opinion) and, whilst preparing that book he encountered Hesiod’s Works and Days, the hummus, so to speak, from which The Georgics sprang. This encounter

catalysed a desire to bring Hesiod’s poem, newly minted in his own idiom, to an Anglophone readership: he set to work combing through ten or twelve English translations (Fallon has Latin but no ancient Greek) and then drafting his version and now, thirteen or fourteen years and many drafts later, we have his rendering of Hesiod’s work, Deeds and their Days.

Fallon’s version runs to 830 lines, parcelled out into nearly 250 six-line stanzas. The form is consistent but never rigid; the lines run on for as long as need requires, including between stanzas; there are rhymes and half-rhymes throughout which bind the whole but these are never at the expense of sense or syntax; the language, overall, though resolutely grave, is always simple and sprightly, lean and enticing; there are some patches of unfamiliar myth, some archaic Greek characters, and occasional proper nouns with which a reader may not be familiar, but there is nothing that can’t be solved in a minute with a classical dictionary or by consulting Wikipedia; this, in other words, is a work that is supremely approachable, as this passage (which also nicely exemplifies the burden of Hesiod’s counsel – “Don’t tarry. Get to work!”) attests:

Don’t postpone until tomorrow
or the day beyond what you
   could do today. Procrastination
never crammed a granary, nor the efforts
of a layabout. Good management
   Ensures full approbation.
He who defers stares ruin
in the face.  

I want to quote just one more passage, which again shows Fallon’s style and also carries Hesiod’s other great theme, which is that at all times our primary human task, as George Orwell puts it (in his essay on Charles Dickens), is to behave better:

         The good word
is the jewel in your crown, no better
    joy than flows from it when
it’s used well. The mean word floated
on the wind rebounds with double force.
    Be one of nature’s gentlemen

at parties at which all those who
congregate divide the burden of expense
         and make of it a great
delight and little load.

As the quoted passages reveal (and this is true of the whole) this is a work where those tyrannies that typically bedevil new versions of ancient texts, such as exaggerated fidelity to ancient poetic protocol and wilful anachronism (to name but two), have been eschewed in favour of clarity. There is also modesty in Fallon’s practice: he is so determined that we will love Hesiod as much as he does he simply will not let Fallon, or our admiration of what Fallon can do, ever get in the way. There is no showing off here anywhere, and by keeping himself out of the way Fallon ensures that we really do encounter this great ancient poet and come to see that we do indeed need to cherish him as Fallon wishes.

Now there are many reasons for affection: Hesiod is an Adam, and it is good for us to know from whence our literary art has sprung and to honour that source. However, more vital than its historical importance is the work’s moral message. Hesiod was a moderate, the burden of whose counsel was this: the primary duty of human beings is to put ourselves into and then maintain a proper relationship with planet earth. This relationship, says Hesiod, has many aspects: stewardship is one: awe is another; understanding is a third; but the kernel of the relationship between us and the earth is respect. As the Holocene ends and the Anthropocene era begins, and Gaia’s future has never looked so bleak, we would do well to heed the counsel of Hesiod as articulated by his peerless advocate, Peter Fallon. Oh yes, we need to talk about Deeds and their Days.

1/1/2018

1/1/2018

Carlo Gébler is a writer and teacher.

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