Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Works and Days by Hesiod, Translated by Richmond Lattimore (circa 700 BC)

My latest dip into Harold Bloom's Western Canon is the Ancient Greek poem The Works and Days by Hesiod (circa 700 BC). As Bloom suggests, I read Richmond Lattimore's translation (published together with Theogony and The Shield of Herakles, which I'm saving for later).

Hesiod was from a region in Greece called Boetia and may have been a younger contemporary of Homer. In The Works and Days, instead of getting the narrative journey of past warriors that we see in Homer's the Iliad or the Odyssey, we have a contemporary piece of writing addressed to Hesiod's brother, Perses. Hesiod and Perses' father was a farmer, and when he died his land and estate was distributed between the two brothers, but Perses used the influence of some local judges to take more than his fair share (at least that is Hesiod's story).

In this poem to his brother, Hesiod responds to Perses by evoking the Gods and their justice, the story of Pandora's box, and the punishment in store for an unjust humanity that has strayed from its godly beginnings. He then goes on to list some practical advice: What time of year to plant your corn, what you should be doing in the winter (hint, it involves a lot of work preparing your equipment for the summer), what kind of woman you should marry, when you should harvest your grapevines, and the very small chunk of the year when you can relax. He also briefly touches on the best seasons for starting a sea voyage, and then ends the poetic advice with a listing of the lucky and unlucky days of the year for various pursuits.

If this sounds a little dull compared to the battles and characters of Homer, well, it kind of is, but there is a certain beauty in Hesiod's lists and advice, as well as some well placed jabs at his ne'er-do-well brother:

I mean you well, Perses, you great idiot, and I will tell you. Look, badness is easy to have, you can take it by handfuls without effort. The road that way is smooth and starts here beside you. But between us and virtue the immortals have put what will make us sweat. The road to virtue is long and goes steep up hill, hard climbing at first, but the last of it, when you get to the summit (if you get there) is easy going after the hard part.

Classics can be pretty fun, and The Works and Days only takes an hour or so to read, so embrace the listy advice and learn a thing or two from Hesiod!

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