As much as I enjoy A.E. Housman’s serious poetry, if I could only save one item from his collected works I’m afraid it would be his hilarious parody of old-fashioned translations, “Fragment of a Greek Tragedy.” It turns out the Russian critic and translator M.L. Gasparov has rendered it into Russian, which makes me very happy; go to Avva’s comment thread and scroll down to where it’s quoted (it begins “О ты, прекраснокожанообутая/ Глава пришельца!”)

Incidentally, anyone interested in Mandelshtam should read Gasparov’s fascinating essay on the Slate Ode (what I’ve linked is the English summary, which is itself quite long; the Russian original is here). He considers it impossible to understand the poem without taking account of the history of its composition:

The fact of the matter is that, in the course of the development of the Ode, from one wording to another, its meaning changed almost to its opposite. At the beginning, the predominant concept, for Mandel’shtam, was “culture”, while towards the end it was “nature”. At the beginning, the predominant problem was the development of new poetry from old poetry, the preservation of cultural tradition; at the end it was the creation of new poetry independently of old poetry: directly from nature, from the elements. It is easy to see the connection of the above with the whole evolution of Mandel’shtam. “The early Mandel’shtam” is Acmeism, nostalgia for world culture, poems about cathedrals, Beethoven and Bach, the classicist poetics of literary allusions. “The later Mandel’shtam” is Conversation about Dante, the geological and biological imagery, the innovative poetics of unusual (almost surrealistic) word-combinations. The Slate Ode is 1923, it is the very turning-point from the earlier manner to the later, from the enthusiasm for culture to the enthusiasm for nature and the elements.


  1. I saw the Housman (in Dwight McDonald’s parody anthology, I think) decades ago. “O suitably attired in leather boots” and “well-nightingaled vicinity” stuck in my mind long after I forgot the source.

  2. Gasparov’s Zapisi i vypiski (Notes and Excerpts?) is all the rage with half-educated Russian quasi-intellectuals like myself. Contrary to what his Academy page says, Gasparov has made clear he is not a literary critic, but a translator (of Latin poetry above all) and a stikhoved; as such, he is not supposed to pass value judgement.

  3. The highlight of my short-lived acting career was playing Osip Mandelshtam in a high school production of “The Stray Dog Cafe”. I remember reading Nadezhda Mandelshtam’s “Hope against hope” at the time. Actually, even more than reading it, I remember buying it. There used to be a bookstore called the Astor Place Bookstore or something of the sort. It didn’t look like they had a lot of books, but you quickly realized that they only had one copy of each book on the shelf. Many were still wrapped in plastic. It was impossible to find anything there yourself, but if you asked the woman at the counter she could find any book for you by name. I told her I wanted “Hope Against Hope” and she swiftly walked over and pulled the one copy off the shelf. Try doing that at Barnes and Ignoble. They’ll probably send you to the “self-help” section!

  4. I remember that place! I bought my replacement copy of Buck’s Greek Dialects there, and for a while I was buying OCT volumes of Plato and Lucian until they raised the price. I recall the staff as being extremely surly, but this was 20 years ago, so I may be confusing them with Strand employees.
    Hope Against Hope is a great book; I’ve bought Hope Abandoned but haven’t read it yet.

  5. Yes, very surly – but they actually read books! (Amazing, but true…)

  6. Holt Parker says

    If you have a subscription to JSTOR, you can get D. S. Raven’s amazing Greek translation of Housman’s Fragment. Greece and Rome 2nd Ser., Vol. 6, No. 1. (Mar., 1959), pp. 15-19.
    I don’t know whether it’s a greater proof of Raven’s intimate knowledge of Greek meter or of Housman’s perfect ear for Aeschyean weight.

  7. We’re sorry. You do not have access to JSTOR from your current location.
    Could you copy at least the first couple of lines here? I’d love to see a Greek version.

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