By in Writing

Greek poetry: Parody by A. E. Housman and Comedy by Aristophanes

Every so often I try to dissect poetry from a tome titled World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse from Antiquity to Our Time . It does not skimp on the poetry. It does, however, skimp on context. While the editors provide a general introduction to the main divisions and some dates, they provide (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) no info on individual authors and no context for specific works. It’s been my grumble since page 1 and it’s likely I’ll continue to grumble about this until I finish the book. If I finish the book.

Today, I’ll examine two poets. The first is about as ancient Greek as his name, A(lfred) E(dward) Housman (1859-1936). While he studied both Greek and Latin, he is better remember for his translations and scholarly work on Latin texts, particularly those of Juvenal, Manilius an Lucan. He also wrote poetry in English, but for the most part, kept that private.

The work selected here is “Fragment of Greek Tragedy: a Parody” and is silly. It’s in the form of a classic Greek play, but that’s were all the resemblance stops. It’s actually quite funny.

ERIPHYLA. [ within ] O, I am smitten with a hatchet’s jaw;
And that in deed and not in word alone.
CHORUS. I thought I heard a sound within the house
Unlike the voice of one that jumps for joy.
ERIPHYLA . He splits my skull, not in a friendly way,
One more: he purposes to kill me dead.
CHORUS. I would not be reputed rash, but yet
I doubt if all be gay within the house.
ERIPHYLA . O! O! another stroke! That makes the third.
He stabs me to the heart against my wish.
CHROUS. If that be so, thy state of health is poor;
But thine arithmetic is quite correct. (p. 118)

The next selections comes from Aristophanes (c 446 -c386 BCE), a comic Athenian playwright, noted for lampooning war, and the leading politicians and statesmen of the day. One of the plays, The Clouds , even lampoons Socrates, who was living at the time, as running a “Thinkery,” an academy for lazy young men who had nothing better to do than, say, learn how to measure the distance a flea can jump.

In the passage quoted in World Poetry , a father of one of those young men, Strepsiades, decides to get in on some of that action (or non-action?) for himself:

That when the ordeal is completed,
A new Stredpsiades rise,
Renowned to the world as a welsher,
Famed as teller of lies,
A cheater, a bastard, a phony, a bum… (p. 120)

The other play by Aristophanes, The Birds, is about birds banding together at the suggestion of two men and building a city in the sky to intercept the sacrifices to the gods, essentially blockading and starving the gods. It is ridiculous and quite funny. The excerpt is a speech from one of the humans to the birds, reminding them how they’ve been used by humans—as food!

Then, as if this weren’t enough,
They refuse to roast you whole,
But dump you down in a dish
And call you a casserôle. (p. 119)

These were fun for me. I hope you at least cracked a smile at some of these.


Wikipedia on A. E. Housman


The Birds

The Clouds


Last review: “Self-Publishing was not a Last Resort” and “This Brave New World of Indie Publishing”

Last Poetry review: Euripides


©2015 Denise Longrie

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