prof. Bill Harris

Below is the Preface from a new paper on Archilochus, which has Greek text with commentary and will be available from a link on this site in Adobe .pdf format, in added-on 'installments' as it is completed and edited. Since there is so little available on the web about this important author, I thought to offer the Preface as a brief introduction to this important author.

To an educated Greek in the Fourth Century A.D. it would have seemed inexplicable to be reading in a preface to the poems of Archilochus a statement of who this famous poet was, when and where he lived and what kind of verse he wrote. Archilochus was known to everyone who knew anything as the first poet after the Epic writers Homer and Hesiod. Although no more precise about archaic dates than we are, he would have placed Homer about four hundred years after the Trojan War, Hesiod somewhat later, and Archilochus in the time of Gyges, about or after 480 B.C., as we know from the Parian Marble. Archilochus' volumes were currently available to him, and he would hardly have thought that this author and Hipponax and Sappho, let alone a hundred others, would have virtually disappeared in the next seven hundred years. But the course of centuries has changed all that, we have only a residual fraction of Hellenic literature, and in the case of the early poets other than the Epic writers we have mere table scraps from later writers, shredded papyri in pieces at best, and hardly enough from which to write a decent literary preface.

Almost everything we know about Archilochus comes from his poems, but the surprising thing is how much quality information we have been able to glean from this scrappy source. Perhaps just because there is so little solid information, the scholarly world has devoted a great deal of detailed study to what remains of his work, much ensconced in recondite professional journal-writing, inaccessible to the reader in English translation and largely unattractive to the enthusiast learning Greek from the bottom up.

It was in 1963 that Guy Davenport surprised the world with his English "Archilochus", translating the Greek closely but with the sensitivity of a natural poet. In fact it was such a good little book that everyone thought for a while that it was new poetry from Davenport, in the guise of a translation from an ancient text. But for the literary world, Davenport became the standard readable text of this ancient author, while the discovery of the Cologne fragment and others materials pursued an independent track in the professional classical Journals. So what we have is a split view of Archilochus, on the one hand a readable translation in English, as against a network of scholarly treatments and discussion in places where the light of day rarely shines.

Using Archilochus in classes in English translation, I have always presented the material to my class with the Greek text in my hand, reading and commenting on what I found in the Greek, and what I thought about it in terms of both Greek thought and my own observations from this end of a long string of centuries. I know there is no way of thinking like an ancient Greek, the learned Richard Bentley told us almost three centuries ago that he knew about as much Greek as an Athenian blacksmith, and I am no Bentley. But there are things in Archilochus which seem to leap off the page and talk to us as if he were here. I have never thought that the Classics represented "generic thought" good for the ages, and many classical notions are clearly foreign to our new post-Enlightenment world. But clarity of mind and sheer wit do have a way of transcending time, and the sharp edge of this poet's mind is as pointed and trenchant as the tip of his spear or the edge of his ire.

The Internet has brought a great deal to light which the public eye would never have found hidden away in the university libraries, but even now it still has to be in Roman ASCII font, which precludes good access to the Greek. It is just at this juncture that I felt it opportune to write a new version of Archilochus, in order to bring out the Greek text (which I can do conveniently with the Adobe Acrobat .pdf you are reading) and add to it the commentary which I have used in decades of teaching experience with lively student minds. I insist on treating this poet as a poet, and have little patience with the attempt to put together a 'biography' where there is nothing much to record. Many of my comments will seem personal and subjective, probably anathema to some scholars but a natural result from literary reading of interesting writing. I have no copy of Davenport in my study, my translations are my own and if they coincide with his, that can be seen as unfortunate accident, or as witness to the fact that we are both very good translators.

For many years I have worked with a method of interpretation that I call Form Analysis, which is the study of highly developed poetic writing in terms of the sounds used, their configuration into words, phrases and verses, with the import and impact of Form qua form as a complement to study of Meaning or signification. Teaching in this country has hardly ventured outside the narrow restrictions of Meaning, possibly out of fear that students do not read well and don't really comprehend, possibly because of a lack of understanding of what the art of poetry is really about. I won't discuss this crux of literary interpretation here, since I will come back to it in the commentary for discussion in relation to specific patches of the Greek text. But I thought I could give a little advance notice of this approach by referring to a paper I wrote about Form vs. Meaning and another with a more detailed analysis of the sounds, as well as the wonderful approach of Harvard's Prof. Calvert Watkins in "How to Kill a Dragon" Oxford 1995, especially in the early chapters. I am sure that this is going to be the new way into reading highly-textured literature which has the density of serious poetry. Without a form-based approach to writing, we are stuck on the level of thematic-identification, topic sentences and a superficial impressions of the complex literary art. Reading a poem for meaning only without some sort of form analysis is like doing a course in Renaissance painting based on black and white slides.

The best Preface is no preface at all, with which profound statement I leave you to peruse the incomparable skeleton of the first author to follow in the wake of Homer and Hesiod, the great Greek poet Archilochus.