Anthony Madrid uncovers the source text of a small poem by Stevie Smith
Stevie Smith’s first book of poetry was called A Good Time Was Had by All. It came out in 1937; she would have been around thirty-five at the time. That book happens to contain one of my favorite four-line poems in all the galaxies; it deserves to be better known. Here it is:
From the Greek
To many men strange fates are given
Beyond remission or recall
But the worst fate of all (tra la)
’s to have no fate at all (tra la).
Allow me to spell out why this is good.
- It includes this effect everybody loves without knowing they love it—namely, the goose’s-head-suddenly-pops-
out-of-the-hedge effect. It’s simple: difficult lines suddenly yield to limpid ones. Here, the first two lines are hedge; the second two are goose.
- The “tra las” are obviously awesome.
- The way the first “tra la” gracefully splits in two the ostensibly unsplittable word all’s—and also that doing so helps to give the last line the effect of a slam dunk.
- The spontaneous rhyme construction (fate of all/fate at all). Anybody would have thought that impossible, yet there it is and it sounds great.
Those are all “special effects.” What about what the poem is saying? It’s saying the gods send terrible fates to some guys, but that’s better than being a human blank who leaves no impression. Better to suffer than be a nobody.
Wait. Is that really all it’s saying? It isn’t. I’m ignoring the “tra las.” Whoever is saying those lines isn’t too worried about being one of those blanks. To “the speaker,” the matter is as light as hickory-dickory-dock—which sends us back to the title: “From the Greek.”
We know, instantly, that these lines cannot be straightforwardly translated out of any kind of ancient Greek we’ve ever been exposed to. Those cats never say “tra la.” Yet the fundamental sentiment does sound like the Weltanschauung of the archaic Greeks. (Fame is best.) (Also: Oedipus is not entirely unenviable.)
My records do not show when I first encountered this poem. I’m guessing ten years ago. I also remember that when the new Stevie Smith collected poems, called All the Poems: Stevie Smith (New Directions, 2015), was announced, I was excited by the prospect of footnotes. I wanted to know whether those lines really did owe their genesis to some passage in Homer or Hesiod or Hooever. And guess what, the New Directions book does have footnotes. Here’s the note for “From the Greek”:
“From the Greek” (p. 22): see the final lines of Pindar’s Pythian 12. The first line inspired the sculpture of the same name by artist Brent Green.
That’s not actually helpful, though. All the Pindar says is “You win some, you lose some.” See for yourself. Below is a little gallery of syntactic horrors: solid hedge and no goose. You almost wouldn’t know they’re translations of the same passage:
Now if a mortal man wins happy fortune
Not without toil shall this be seen: a god may
Bring it to pass—today, maybe—
Yes, but the will of fate
None can escape. Soon shall there come an hour
To strike beyond all expectation,
And give one boon past hope, withhold another.
[trans. G. S. Conway, 1972]
Success for men, if it comes ever, comes not unattended
with difficulty. A god can end it, even
today. That which is fated you cannot escape. But a time will come
such that it will strike in amazement beyond
expectation, to give one thing desired, to withhold another.
[trans. Richmond Lattimore, 1947]Win, but strive, else no man
Wins. Today—ah, god can end
It all. Flee? From what
Must be? Yet …
A future time, though casting your despair,
Unhoped will give you this and forestall that.
[trans. Carl A. P. Ruck and William H. Matheson, 1968]
If I had read any of the above lines casually, I doubt the Stevie Smith quatrain would have started to my mind. In the passage we want, it shouldn’t just be winners and losers; it should be winners, losers, and a third category: people who neither win nor lose. And the point should be that those guys are the total forget-its.
And I’ve got good news. I found the passage. Total luck. I was reading through Theognis—not to be confused with Theocritus. Also not to be confused with Hesiod’s poem Theogony.
Theognis. Nobody reads him much, these days, ’cuz people are not as into gnomic poetry as they used to be. Do you even know what it is? It’s poetry that’s based on saying stuff that’s obviously true, so you get a kind of “cosmic resonance” thing going.
’Member this bit?
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth forever.
The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.
The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.
All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.
All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
That’s gnomic poetry. And Theognis is like that, too, only not as good.
Anyway I was reading him, first time, few months ago, exactly because I had heard he was gnomic in style, which I happen to like—and I hit this:
… or rather, I hit what’s directly across from that, in the relevant Loeb Classics volume (Greek Elegiac Poetry, ed./trans. Douglas Gerber, 1999):
Some vehemently blame the noble and others praise them, but of the base there is no recollection at all.
That’s Theognis 797–8, and I aver that Stevie Smith had those very lines either in her heart or at her elbow, on the day she wrote “From the Greek.” She doesn’t dare call it a translation for obvious reasons (tra la), but I think we can all agree her piece is rather better than the original (tra la).
At any rate, I trust the matter can be considered closed at this point. She was not bluffing when she called the piece “From the Greek.” The Greek in question was Theognis. Pindar had nothing to do with it.
Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book is Try Never. He is a correspondent for the Daily.