Deeds and Their Days review: Found in translation
Peter Fallon was wary of taking on the Greek poet Hesiod. He shouldn’t have been
Peter Fallon: drawn to Hesiod because of what his work meant to Virgil. Photograph: Suella Holland/Gallery Press
Deeds and Their Days
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.