Hesiod Harangues His Lazy Brother

Happy New Year to all my readers. Stats from WordPress tell me that in 2018 there were 32,000 visitors to my website and they took a look at various pages on almost 50,000 occasions. Phew. It seems a lot to me. Many thanks.
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But with Christmas now over – my local park has a stack of Christmas trees the size of several London buses waiting to be shredded – with resolutions having been left unmade or already in pieces, I suspect I’m not the only one to be suffering a horrible sense of deja vue as the great Brexit debate and debacle has started up again. You thought it was safe to go back into the water? You thought you’d heard the last of the Irish Back Stop? It seems not. I’m as tempted as many to shriek ‘Oh get on with it!’ but what is ‘on’ and what is ‘it’?
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Actually, I have a genuine fear that the depth of national disillusion with the process and with conventional politicians makes this country more vulnerable to even more coarsened debate and extremism of various kinds, all promising to solve problems at a stroke. But really we know that’s pie in the sky. Right? Hesiod, of Ancient Greece, would agree. His Works and Days sounds very familiar. It is about conflict in a family, the problematic (perhaps intractable) nature of the world and the sense of a sequential decline in the fortunes of a society – all of which he counterbalances with advice, particularly about the importance of work – of keeping on keeping on.

To be honest, for many years, I’ve only known Works and Days by name. The title always attracted me with its Antaeus-like focus on groundedness, labour, the need to start from where ever we are now; it’s rejection of flighty idealism that quickly shades into the unconsidered fundamentalism. We need to work – nothing is given on a plate. And work needs to be sustained (through days) to be effective. Boring? Only if untrue and this is as true as anything can be.

I first came across the title of Hesiod’s poem in T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’:

 

There will be time, there will be time

To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;

There will be time to murder and create,

And time for all the works and days of hands

That lift and drop a question on your plate;

 

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My old student’s guide to Eliot (by B.C. Southam, published by Faber) told me the allusion was to the 8th century BC writer Hesiod – to a poem which “gives an account of the primitive conditions in the country, together with maxims and practical instructions adapted to the peasant’s life”. Last year, Penguin Classics published a new translation of the poem by A. E. Stallings. It’s a lively and very readable version, though her decision to convert Hesiod’s dactylic hexameters into iambic pentameter couplets makes the ancient poem sound too English and 18th century for me. Another older prose translation by H. G. Evelyn-White is freely available here. 

hesiod-smDid you know Hesiod probably pre-dates Homer? Hesiod is aware of the siege of Troy but he makes no reference to Homer’s Iliad. He’s usually placed before Homer in lists of the first poets. The other striking aspect of Works and Days is that (unlike Homer) he is not harking back to already lost eras and heroic actions. Hesiod talks about his own, contemporary workaday world, offering advice to his brother because they seem to be in a dispute with each other. Hesiod’ anti-heroic focus is an antidote to the Gods, the top brass and military heroes of Homer. Most of us live – and prefer to live – in Hesiod’s not Homer’s world.

Hesiod also talks about himself – his long poem has a lyric and personal quality to it. We hear that he grew up in the unremarkable town of Askra, in Boeotia. He disparagingly refers to it as “bad in winter, sultry in summer, and good at no time” (tr. Evelyn-White). In fact, his family were recent economic migrants from Aeolian Kyme in Asia Minor across the Aegean.  Hesiod’s father made the journey: “[he] used to sail on shipboard because he lacked sufficient livelihood. And one day he came to this very place crossing over a great stretch of sea; he left Aeolian Cyme and fled, not from riches and substance, but from wretched poverty” (tr. Evelyn-White). As Stallings points out, “Hesiod’s is not a static, stay-at-home sort of world, but one of opening horizons, widespread trade, far-flung Greek outposts with freedom of movement, cultural festivals [. . .] and social mobility.”

512pxannbrl._sx316_bo1,204,203,200_He seems to have been a poet-farmer who makes sure we are aware that he has already won a literary competition at a funeral games on the island of Euboea. His prize-winning piece may well have been his earlier Theogony, a cosmological work describing the origins and genealogy of the gods. But Works and Days presents him as something of a magpie writer rather than a poet with a neatly conceived architectonic design. The poem mashes together myth, allegory and personal asides, as well as more philosophical passages, theology, natural description, proverbial advice and an almanac or calendar based on phenology (the study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events and how these are influenced by seasonal variations in the climate).

The occasion of the poem is also very personal. Hesiod has a brother – Perses – and they seem to be in dispute (perhaps as a result of their intrepid and entrepreneurial father’s death and the inheritance of the estate). Stallings has this: “Already we’ve divvied up our lots, but you / Keep laying hold of more than is your due”. It is this inclination to give advice to his (younger?) brother that controls much of the text. The name ‘Perses’ is unusual and may mean something like ‘waster’ or ‘wastrel’ and the brother seems to be trying to take more than he is due and the motivation for this (according to Hesiod) is a mile-wide streak of laziness. Perses wants his fortune on a plate rather than having to work for it. His big brother intends to give him some “plain truths to steer him[self] by” (tr. Stallings).

By way of correcting his brother’s indolence, Hesiod firstly explains there are two types of strife. One of these is the kind of Brexit bickering (and potentially far worse) that we are all too familiar with: “One brings forth discord, nurtures evil war: / Wicked, there’s nothing mortals love her for” (tr. Stallings). But the other is a more benign sense of competitiveness based on envy: this sense of strife “spurs a man who otherwise would shirk, / Shiftless and lazy, to put his hands to work”. Wow! That’s telling your brother like it is. Is this being listened to? Hesiod makes sure: “Perses, take this to heart, lest Strife, whose quirk / Is mischief-making, draw your mind from work” (tr. Stallings).

pandora2There are further reasons to set to work in the very nature of the cosmos and the human world. Hesiod tells the Pandora story here. Zeus causes the creation of a female figure, Pandora, as a way of avenging Prometheus’ pro-humankind actions (stealing fire from the gods, for example). Her name suggests she is a concoction or committee-created figure from contributions from all the Olympian Gods. She is given a jar which she opens: “ere this the tribes of men lived on earth remote and free from ills and hard toil and heavy sickness [. . .] But the woman took off the great lid of the jar with her hands and scattered all these and her thought caused sorrow and mischief to men” (tr. Evelyn-White). Hesiod’s locating of the root of human sorrow in the actions of a woman echoes the Christian story of the loss of Paradise and it is one of the reasons why Hesiod has been accused of misogyny, though as Stallings suggests, he’s not any more complimentary about the males of the human race.

Plagued by the ills of Pandora’s jar (only Hope is said to get lodged in the rim of the jar), Perses is then given a longer lecture on the decline of the human condition in Hesiod’s portrayal of the five ages of man. Here is the classic description of the Golden Age of man when we imagine we once lived “like gods [. . .] with spirits free from care; / And grim old age never encroached” (tr. Stallings). The ages of Silver, Bronze and (present-day) Iron are described. Between the latter two, Hesiod locates a brief Heroic age (the age of Thebes, Oedipus and the Trojan war). But despite this diversion, Works and Days makes it plain to Perses that the age he lives in is unpleasantly harsh and demands work work work to survive: “For now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labour and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them. [. . .] The father will not agree with his children, nor the children with their father, nor guest with his host, nor comrade with comrade; nor will brother be dear to brother” (tr. Evelyn-White).

An obscure natural symbolic passage follows (a “fable” Hesiod calls it) in which a hawk has seized a song bird and mocks its struggles and shrieks: “Miserable thing, why do you cry out? One far stronger than you now holds you fast, and you must go wherever I take you, songstress as you are. And if I please I will make my meal of you, or let you go. He is a fool who tries to withstand the stronger” (tr. Evelyn-White). It’s tempting to see the songbird as the poet savaged by philistine powers though, in the Perses context, perhaps the songbird is a lazy good-for-nothing who is being shaken up and challenged by the world of necessity and work. A bit later Hesiod suggests another interpretation: that the natural world is red in tooth and claw, unlike human society which is governed by “law and right” (tr. Stallings) and so Perses ought to be obedient to Zeus’ powers out of gratitude for that. It’s interesting to think this of this as the first passage in Western Literature open to a variety of critical interpretations.

imagesIt’s certainly the lazy, self-serving, arrogant younger brother who forms the focus of the rest of the poem: “So Perses, you be heedful of what’s right . . . So Perses, mull these matters in your mind . . . Fool Perses, what I say’s for your own good” (tr. Stallings). It’s true that his name gradually fades from the text in the final 500 lines but the torrent of imperatives, offering advice and guidance on a range of practical issues, often sounds like haranguing from a concerned, perhaps slightly pissed off, brother. Much of this material is phenological – when to sow crops, when to harvest, when to shear your sheep. In winter, don’t hang around the blacksmith’s forge where other wasters gather to chat and pass the time. It’s safe to put to sea when the new fig leaves are the size of crow’s feet.

s-l300These are the passages that, around 29BC, inspired Virgil to his own farmer’s manual, the Georgics. Hesiod ends his poem in a rather perfunctory manner, roughly saying he who follows this good advice will become “blessed and rich”. But given Pandora’s jar and the Iron Age we live in, even this seems a mite optimistic. And of course, Perses never gets the chance to speak for himself. But I guess the tensions between his brother’s call for social and religious conformity and Perses’ individualistic disobedience to the demands of the gods and the sense of what is best for a society have gone on to form the basis of the continuing Western literary canon. And does any of this help with Brexit? I conclude (largely with Hesiod) the bleeding obvious: it’s complicated – solutions must be negotiated, don’t hope for some golden age because in a fallen, less-than-ideal, complex society it’s better for the future to be decided in the glacier-slow committee rooms of a plurality of voices than in the stark divisions and dramas of the battlefield. Work hard – have patience – don’t buy into fairy tales of a recoverable golden age.

Harpic and Gravy: a review of Sean O’Brien’s ‘Europa’

Sean O’Brien’s recent book, Europa (Picador Poetry, 2018) has made it onto the 2018 T.S. Eliot award shortlist. Earlier in the year, I was asked by Magma magazine on-line to write a brief review of the book (alongside Vahni Capildeo’s Venus as a Bear (Carcanet Press, 2018) and Alice Miller’s Nowhere Nearer (Liverpool University Press, 2018). What follows is an expanded version of my original review of O’Brien’s book.

 

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You know why they chose to do it but Picador’s presentation of Sean O’Brien’s ninth collection as a book about Brexit does nobody any favours. It’s a far more heterogeneous set of poems – there’s a good dose of elegiac texts, for example – though the opening 19 pages certainly does have the UK and Europe steadily in their sights. It turns out, what these two blocs share in O’Brien’s view, is a history which is ironically mostly one of conflict (a view also reflected in O’Brien’s Robert Graves Society lecture recently published in P.N. Review 244) . The opening poem, ‘You Are Now Entering Europa’ repeats the line, “The grass moves on the mass graves”. The poem goes on to ask how many “divisions” the grass has at this activity and the play on words manages to evoke both military logistics as well as peace-time political conflicts. The narrative voice is downcast, speaking in short breathless little phrases as if anything more lengthy would be beyond him or not worth it. The steadying recourse is merely “my work” which serves to sustain but for no other obvious purpose than to arrive at “the graveyard I become”.

Other poems draw on material from the Great War or the Balkan conflict while ‘Wrong Number’ looks back to visits to the divided city of Berlin, visits that read like a catalogue of failures ending in a self-regarding and (later) self-ironised “species of moral exhaustion”. How effectively poetry – or a literary sensibility – can engage with what is really existing in political terms is one of the themes here:

 

I chose not to mention this

Because it was too obvious or literary,

Like making something out of nothing

 

For the sake of poetry, as if that were a sin.

 

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But O’Brien is always at his best engaging in his love/hate relationship with England. ‘Dead Ground’ explores who owns the English countryside. It describes a ‘theme park’ landscape, a fantasy “[w]here things are otherwise” than what they really are, yet an exclusive park round which ancient walls “will be built again, but taller”. O’Brien’s second person addresses are always discomfiting, levelling an accusing finger at the reader more than most contemporary poets though it’s effect is complicated by the clear sense that he implicates himself as well. Art again gets short shrift – here it is batted away as “[t]he never-was and never-will” in contrast to the brute facts of ownership and possession. Is it the sensibility of the artist/poet again being prodded and provoked here: “The liberties you think you claim / By searching out the detail / In the detail”? Again, this is a task that seems to end nowhere better than “your six-foot plot”. In fact, in O’Brien’s vision of contemporary England, the most vital activity is wholly mercenary, “counting the takings”.

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Those who live outside this country’s circles of possession and privilege, those to be found in “Albion’s excluded middle”, are more than likely to end up in the kind of neo-Nazi meeting so brilliantly described in ‘The Chase’. Here, in Function Rooms where “gravy fights it out with Harpic” O’Brien finds “[w]ould be Werwolfs” who are planning to make Britain great again. The narrator’s antagonism to them is clear enough – the poem enjoys mocking their “banal resentments”, their abortive calls to phone-in radio shows, their “bigotry” – but the moral stance is complicated by his inability directly to confront such attitudes, though he acknowledges that he should: “Too bored to laugh, too tired to cry, you think / These people do not matter. Then they do”. Here too, the “you” does a great job of skewering the complacent reader.

O’Brien’s smokingly apocalyptic visions, familiar from earlier collections, recur in Europa, though (again) to pin these to the shameful, self-wounding moment of Brexit is surely too reductive. ‘Apollyon’ is a scary vision of destructive power as a “[g]ent of an antiquarian bent” and ‘Exile’ relishes the blunt pessimism of its given-and-snatched-away conclusion: “It is from here, perhaps, that change must come. / You are garrotted by a man your hosts have sent”. One of the instigators of betrayal and disaster, in what begins to heap up in the book as a modern wasteland, is recognisable in her “leopard shoes and silver rings” and it feels particularly pointed that O’Brien has to go as far as Mexico City (and a more mythopoetic mode) to find a strange man/beast at a bar who suggests the possibility of “living in hope despite the mounting evidence” (‘Jaguar’).

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As I have already hinted, the equivocal role of the artist has long bothered O’Brien and – it’s my impression – that he beats himself up more frequently nowadays over the poet/artist’s impotence. The hilarious but ultimately cynical account in ‘Sabbatical’ of university life (especially Creative Writing) paints a depressing scene:

 

Apres moi, Creative Writing, dammit.

Good luck, my friends, my enemies,

And those of you to whom in all these years

I’ve still not spoken. Now I bid farewell,

Abandoning my desk, my books

And thirteen thousand frantic e-mails

Enquiring about the Diary Exercise

On which the fate of everything

(To whit, this institution) hangs

 

The collection ends with ‘A Closed Book’, a poem which has clear echoes of Shelley’s apocalyptic, unfinished last poem, ‘The Triumph of Life’.  Someone – it’s “you”, of course – impotently watches a parade (“a cart”) rolling through an unspecified European square where he is sitting like a tourist (or someone on a sabbatical). The figure does little other than observe and wait, “As if this one venue would give you / The secret entire”. But here too, the knives are elegantly brought out. It is for such a moment “you spent your life preparing”, we are told, and though hopes of “transfiguration” and “perfection” are voiced, the sense is more of an exhausted spirit, of self-delusion.

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Drowned Shelley’s melodramatic memorial at University College, Oxford

Europa is full of such unflinching, incisive moments, combined with a breadth of vision and dark sense of humour that few contemporary poets can match. But I worry that in so frequently denigrating his own art (ironically because he expects so much ‘achievement’ from it), O’Brien ironically runs the risk of allowing darker agencies too much influence in a culture that, for its many faults, permits a high degree of liberal civilisation. A civilisation, in the interstices of which (at the risk of sounding too complacent), pass lives of relative peace and achievement, where even art with fewer explicit political designs should be lauded and encouraged, since it too plays an ethical/political role, as if to say, ‘this is what must be protected’.

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