Those who adhere to nature’s laws
are spared a fall. No
hunger brings them to their knees.
They’ll have their fill at harvest homes.
Earth will bestow
a rich reward. Their oakheads
swell with acorns. Their oakhearts
swarm with honey bees.
Peter Fallon’s widely acclaimed translation of The Georgics of Virgil appeared in 2004. A subsequent edition was published by Oxford in its World’s Classics series.
In Deeds and Their Days he turns his hand to a poem by Hesiod (c.700 BCE) which was a model for Virgil’s ‘song of the earth’. In his rendition of the work commonly referred to as ‘Works and Days’ the energy of his sprightly verses propels a version of man’s origins, an ancient almanac, a store of instructions for the best way to live on earth and the drama of the poet’s address to, and condemnation of, his brother, Perses.
Peter Fallon’s skills as a translator have never been more clear.
Peter Fallon was wary of taking on the Greek poet Hesiod. He shouldn’t have been.
In 2004 Peter Fallon, devoted farmer as well as poet-editor, published his translation of Virgil’s agricultural Georgics to great acclaim. As he explains now, in the afterword to Deeds and Their Days (After Hesiod), he was repeatedly asked what he was going to translate next, on the grounds that it is a waste of a proven success not to attempt to repeat it. And, although his answer was “Nothing”, because he did not think of himself as primarily a translator, there were obvious tracks that he could follow. Virgil’s pastoral Eclogues followed the model of the Greek Idylls of Theocritus; in parallel the Georgics can be linked back to Hesiod’s Works and Days, from around 700 BC, which treated the agricultural year among other things. Fallon says he had completed a draft of the Hesiod by 2006, soon after the publication of the Georgics, but was not satisfied with it. The idea of translating Hesiod dogged him for years. The Georgics is modelled on Works and Days in a number of ways that Fallon notes: the opening invocation to Zeus and the Muses prompts Virgil’s invocation of Maecenas as his patron; the almanac of the farming year, and the significance of various days, salutary or unlucky, are in Hesiod first.
“Fallon’s Latin is excellent, but his Greek is not. He overcame this misgiving, reflecting on successful predecessors in what Ezra Pound and Robert Lowell call imitations and Derek Mahon calls adaptations”
So why did he not publish the Hesiod translation until now? The reasons are interesting and substantial. First there is the old translator’s bugbear of inability to read fluently in the original. Fallon’s Latin is excellent, but his Greek is not. He overcame this misgiving, reflecting on successful predecessors in what Ezra Pound and Robert Lowell call imitations and Derek Mahon calls adaptations. Still, Fallon tells us that he “turned his back on Hesiod but he wouldn’t go away”. He “was drawn to Hesiod because of what his work meant to Virgil”, just as Seamus Heaney was drawn to Virgil in part as a fellow farmer.
A second factor that stopped Fallon from continuing with Hesiod was that he felt the version he completed in 2006 “lacked something”. For his “imitations” to be successful, rather than shortcomings in literalism, the imitating writer has to make some distinct contribution of his or her own. Hesiod seems to have found his hour: a learnt line-for-line translation by the Harvard Hellenist Gregory Nagy has just appeared; and the accomplished Greece-based American poet AE Stallings is publishing a verse translation with Penguin early next year. So Fallon’s wish to put a distinctive mark on his translation is understandable. He has now done that in a spectacular way, mainly by a change he made in 2015 when he completely recast the dactylic hexameters of the original into fluent six-line stanzas. This gives compulsion and rapidity to the narrative by a process that he describes in a very neat image: “By discovering and affixing rhymes I shaped a stanza that might allow it to be read as I thought it should be, that is, quickly, with the rhymes as stepping stones in an extended game of hopscotch.”
To illustrate this, here is a passage early in the poem describing Zeus’s inauguration of the golden age:
But mind this well, from where
They sprang, gods and men,
it’s both one and the same.
From Time’s beginning the gods who dwell
on Mount Olympus made a race of men,
a golden race, whose second name
The creative looseness of the lines of varying length is tied up by the tightness of the – mostly monosyllabic – rhymes, and the sentences that predominantly continue past the stanza’s end keep the narrative thrusting forward.
One of the crucial elements in the success of Fallon’s Georgics was the easy lightness with which he introduced Irish colloquialisms into his version: “your storm fears / are a thing of nothing”, “while I’m at it” and so on. In the passage just quoted, “mind this well” and “one and the same” have the same vernacular ease. He achieves this effect widely in Deeds and Their Days, and with the same success as in the Georgics; the advice for springtime work, where the original (going by Nagy’s close translation) says “Get to work early”, Fallon says airily, “The early start – you know the tale . . .” inviting the Irish “tosach maith, leath na hoibre”; Pandora is “a right bitch”. By now Fallon’s declared reluctance to identify as a front-line translator is not credible. The style of these translations is unmistakable, and Fallon is bound to be asked again what he is going to translate next. If he says “Nothing” again, he will not be believed.
“It is very welcome to have a lively version of ‘Works and Days’, one of the foundational works of European poetry, with the drive of this one”
Beyond the formal success here, it is very welcome to have a lively version of Works and Days, one of the foundational works of European poetry, with the drive of this one. Beyond the Virgil parallels, and the familiar stories of the early sections – the five ages, Prometheus, Pandora – Works and Days is an early poetic treatise on astronomy as it relates to the seasons, the first farmer’s almanac. In the extensive account of the seasons and the stars we find “Pleiades and Hyades and brave Orion”, Arcturus and the Dogstar. The ostensible occasion of the poem – stern instructions to the narrator’s brother after a disputed inheritance – is, as Fallon says, no more than an excuse for a wide-ranging account of the world of nature, the universe and daily life. One of Fallon’s earlier poetry collections was called The News and Weather. In Works and Days he has found the perfect original, not just for the Georgics but for himself as poet, farmer and translator. And Hesiod, who wouldn’t go away, has found an ideal transmitter to the modern age.
— Bernard O’Donoghue, The Irish Times
A Great Delight, A Little Load
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.
— Carlo Geblér, Dublin Review of Books