“When I Mourn My Mother, I Do So In Ancient Greek”

An Advent Retreat with George Herbert
Day Fifteen: Saturday after the Third Sunday of Advent

And now for something completely different: a poem, not from The Temple but from one of the other published works by George Herbert – in Greek!

A confession: I am no Classics scholar, even though I studied Koiné Greek (a.k.a. New Testament Greek) during my Master of Divinity in 1985-88, and I attempted Latin for two years in high school. All of this qualifies me to know how little I actually understand. Give me a copy of Bauer – Gingrich – Danker (a New Testament concordance) and a grammar handbook and I might be able to produce a passable translation and parse the verbs; otherwise, I am usually guessing. Classical Greek is somewhat impenetrable to me, because while I will recognise words, the meanings will have changed, and the word endings of Attic and other dialects are different, too. The Greek of the Iliad and the Odyssey is even more difficult that Aristotle, Plato, or Euripides, as it is some 450 years older, and is in the Ionic and other dialects. Since moving to Greece three years ago I have been studying Standard Modern Greek – the spoken language of Greeks in Greece and in the Diaspora – for the past three years, and I can speak and read it like a small child. I can sit down with a poem in Greek and make sense of it and the technique of the poet (especially if there is an English translation opposite it). Thus, I can claim that I have read Konstantinos Kavafis (Constantine Cavafy) in the original – but he was writing in Modern Greek only 120 years ago. Likewise, I find I can read the current poets collected in Austerity Measures:The New Greek Poetry edited by Karen Van Dyck (London UK: Penguin Books, 2016).

Someone who is a Classics scholar of some standing is the current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the Rt Hon Boris Johnson. He read Ancient Greek and Latin while at Oxford, for which he received an Upper Second (approximately a B+ or an A- in North American university grading). Apparently he can recite the first one-hundred lines of the Iliad, and you can find a video of it here. It’s a pretty good party trick. He uses Erasmian pronunciation, which no Greek living or dead ever used, but it is pretty common across Europe and in the English-speaking world. Although I was trained in the Erasmian pronunciation, too, when I studied New Testament Greek, I have adopted that used by Modern Standard Greek, and I understand that it is increasingly being taught that way in universities in the USA. Modern Greek pronunciation has evolved from the language as spoken by Homer and Pericles, especially since it has moved from being a tonal language to an accented one, but it is still closer to the original than what Boris Johnson speaks.

George Herbert knew Classical Greek and Ancient Latin even better than the Prime Minister. His job required it – before ordination he was the Public Orator of Cambridge University between 1619-1627, and he was required to deliver long speeches in Latin (and perhaps Greek) during graduation ceremonies and on other great occasions. He also wrote poetry in Latin and Greek, almost as much as he did in English. Arguably, much of his skill in writing English was derived from studying the works of the ancient poets, although he managed to avoid the Latinate English of John Milton in Paradise Lost. That said, the only people who can profitably read and appreciate his poetry in Greek and Latin are Classics scholars, and there are fewer of them than there used to be. In Herbert’s day to be educated was to be able to read in Latin, and ideally Greek, as well. Today, not so much.

George Herbert idolized his mother. He was not alone – so did John Donne. In 1560 (or 1558, or 1565 – sources vary) she was born Magdalen Newport, the daughter of a Shropshire gentleman who was knighted in the reign of Elizabeth I for military service in Scotland. She married well, being yoked to Richard Herbert, Lord of Cherbury in 1681, and over the next ten years gave birth to ten children, George being the seventh. Richard Herbert died in 1596, and as the eldest son was but thirteen, she managed the family estate for the next thirteen years. Magdalen Herbert remarried in 1609 to a man only in his twenties, Sir John Danvers, when she was at least in her late forties. They remained married until her death in 1627. John Donne had met Lady Danvers when she was still the widow Herbert, and Frances Ward argued in 2011 that she was a great influence on the young man, starting when they met in 1596. Although the relationship appears to have been platonic, it was nevertheless passionate, and Donne wrote love poems dedicated to her. Later he wrote his religious sequence poem La Corona and dedicated those to her. It is striking that this woman was not only the mother of one of the great poets, but also the intimate friend of another.

Shortly after her death Donne and George Herbert published a book memorializing Lady Danvers: Memoriae Matris Sacrum, or, in English, “To the Memory of my Mother: A Consecrated Gift”). It included a sermon by Donne in English, and Herbert wrote fourteen Latin poems and five Greek ones. The best edition of these poems was published by the George Herbert Journal, Volume 33 (Fall 2009/Spring 2010), but also as a separate book in 2012. It is “A Critical Text, Translation, and Commentary Edited by Catherine Freis, Richard Freis, and Greg Miller” (henceforth “FFM “). They reproduce the poem three ways: first, in the original language, then in a polished English version, and then, in their analysis, as a construal, i.e. a close translation from the Greek into the English that makes no attempt at being poetic or reproducing the rhythms or the metre original. The book is a marvel, and I suggest that anybody who is a serious Herbert nerd needs to get it. It would be interesting to have them turn their attention to Herbert’s English poetry and see what they find of his skill in Ancient Greek and Latin.

The poems do not have titles, but are simply numbered. Here is one in Greek (please note that I have not figured out how to make my computer type in Classical Greek, so I do not have all the accents and breathing marks correct):

“Storm in the Thames at Wapping”

Poem 18 (“White-Topped Waves of the Thames”)

Κύματ’ επαφριώντα Θαμήσεος, αίκε σελήνης
Φωτος απαυραμένης όγκου εφείσθε πλέον,
Νύν θέμις oρφναίv μεγάλης επί γείτονος αίση
Ουλυμπόνδε βιβάν ύμμιν ανισταμένοις.
Αλλά μενείτ’, ου γαρ τάραχος ποτί μητέρα βαίνη,
Καί πρέπον ώδε παρά δακρυόεσσι ρέειν. (FFM p. 50)

(1) White-flecked waves of the Thames, if, since the moon
(2) Has been robbed of [her] light you should desire more of [her] majesty,
(3) In this case it would be right onto the night-black domain of [your] great neighbor,
(4) As you rise over your banks to climb Olympus-wards.
(5) But stay, for disorder shall not go near my mother,
(6) And it is fitting to flow like this by those who weep. (FFM p. 165)

Polished Translation
If, white-topped waves of the Thames, you should claim a greater share
Of the moon’s high station for yourself, her light already stolen,
This one time it is right for you, topping the banks into the night-black
Share of your great neighbor, to climb towards Olympus.
But stop, for chaos shall not approach my mother,
And it is fitting to flow so excessively alongside those who weep. (FFM p. 51)

And here is part of the analysis by Freis, Freis, and Miller (FFM p. 165):

The poem imagines a storm physically manifesting the failure of the orders, categories, and hierarchies of the natural order to remain and render the world in some sense comprehensible, stable, and meaningful. The poem is structured in elegiac couplets: the first describes the scene; the second, introduced by Νύν (“in this case”), evaluates that scene and draws a conclusion; and the third, introduced by Αλλά (“but”), qualifies the evaluation. Homeric usage and vocabulary are so prominent in this poem that Herbert may have in mind Homer’s descriptions of rivers seething with foam, including the Scamander which overflows its banks and tries to drown Achilles (Iliad 5.599, 18.403, 21. 235). In addition to the description of white-capped rivers found in Homer, there are other Homeric spellings and uses: oρφναίv, Ουλυμπόνδε, ύμμιν, δακρυόεσσι, and ρέειν. Further there are two uses of Homeric syntax. The first is in line 2. The word εφείσθε (“you should aim at, long for, desire”) is aorist optative middle in a future less vivid conditional, introduced by aike. Smyth notes that this syntax is “exclusively Homeric” (2334). In line 5, the verb βαίνη (“shall not go”) is a Homeric anticipatory subjunctive (Smyth 1810).

They also identify the metre as an elegaic couplet which “was usually the first metrical Latin form that
sixteenth- and seventeenth-century school boys learned and imitated, writing hosts of elegiac verses throughout their school and college careers” (FFM 184-185).

What strikes me me as someone who has previously only read Herbert’s English poems, is the absence of God. Instead, Herbert is very much acting like an Ancient Greek, addressing the River Thames as if it is some river deity, like Scamander, the river near Troy, who is both a river and a god. It is a poem that a non-Christian could have written.

This undoubtedly speaks to aspects of Herbert that are usually opaque to us if we know him only from his English poems and The Country Parson. Yes, he was very devout, but he undoubtedly idealized the role of a priest and the capacity of his charge to be formed into a truly devout community. One wonders if he might have become more moderate had he lived past the age of forty, to see the rise and fall of Puritanism and the lives lost in the English Civil War, to see his step-father become one of the people sentencing the king to death, as well the abolition of the episcopacy and the suppression of the Book of Common Prayer. What the Latin and Greek poetry demonstrate is that he was able to suspend his Christian perspective, if only in the midst of grief. He might have done so for other reasons, had he lived.

That’s enough for today. Tomorrow is a Sunday, so I won’t post anything on Herbert, but I will return on Monday with another of his English poems, as we count down to Christmas.

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece. More about me at https://www.linkedin.com/in/bruce-bryant-scott-4205501a/
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