MARCH 5, 2020

1. What It’s Everything about

Homeri Batrachomachia.

Perlege Maeonio cantatas carmine ranas

Et frontem nugis solvere disce meis.

Homer’s Fight of Frogs and Mice

Peruse the frogs proclaimed in Homeric verse and discover

to unwrinkle your eyebrows at my nonsense.

Martial, Book XIV (Apophoreta), 183

The Oxford Classical Dictionary supplies a succinct intro to the work that Martial’s poem functions as a “present tag” for.

The Batrachomyomachia, the “Fight of Frogs and Mice,” is a mock legendary poem of slightly more than 300 dactylic hexameter verses, broadly mimicing the language and design of Homer. The poem was extensively checked out as a school text in the Byzantine duration. […] The work has been otherwise dated, however it is most likely to be the work of the late Hellenistic period than of the early Classical age, given that it contains what appear to be allusions to Moschus’s Europa and Callimachus’s Aetia, and its language reveals the influence of Latin.

Plutarch associated the Batrachomyomachia‘s authorship to a fifth-century BCE poet, Pigres of Halicarnassus. But recommendations by Plutarch’s first-century CE contemporaries Martial and Statius suggest that at least some Roman literati considered the work an authentic instance of Homer parodying himself, which goes a long method in explaining the endurance of this tongue-in-cheek, mouse-sized legendary.

Unlike the often-scabrous nugis Martial asks extravagance for, the Batrachomyomachia isn’t likely to raise any censorious eyebrows. The story (as equated by Stallings) starts with what seems a variation on an Aesop fable:

One day a thirsty mouse approached the verge

Of the lake and dipped his muzzle in to consume.

No water might be welcomer or brisker.

He ‘d only just got away death by a whisker–

That bane, the Weasel!

The mouse, named Crumbcatcher, is a grand son of the Mouse-king. He’s welcomed at the lake shore by Pufferthroat, ruler of the frogs, who informs the mouse:

Peleus, Lord Mudworth was my Sire.

My mother was the Princess of the Mire

And I was reproduced upon the river bank […]

The two go on to chat about the various foods they eat and the diverse worlds in which they flourish. A lengthy stating of mouse-wiles and delicious nibbles follows, however in due course Pufferthroat reacts by inviting Crumbcatcher to take a directed tour of frog-environs:

You boast about your tummy overmuch.

We too have numerous marvels to check out

Both in the pond and on the marshy shore.

So the daring mouse obliges by hopping on the hospitable frog’s back. However Crumbcatcher can’t swim, and we note his unease and reservations as they move farther into the water: “He pulled his fur, and tucked his little paws tight/ Versus his chest, his heart trembled at his plight.”

Soon enough, those forebodings coalesce as a water snake breaks the surface and threatens to devour the nauticalists. Pufferthroat naturally dives for the safety of the lake bottom. As for Crumbcatcher:

But the mouse, abandoned, fell under the wave,

And squeaked in horror of a watery grave.

And lot of times he sank down in despair.

And lot of times he struggled back for air,

In the end he could not leave his fate–

Drowning he calls out:

O Frog! You will be punished for your criminal offense–

[…] and my massacre

Will not go unavenged– you’ll pay the rate.

You won’t escape the army of the mice.

And so a legendary war is introduced, integrating scenes and language expressive of both the Iliad and Odyssey The mice equip themselves with needles for spears and armor made of pea-pods.

2. Why Do We Still Read This Old Stuff?

Not specifically, I think, for the story, amusing as parts of it may be.

Both of Pigres’s accomplishments are briefly kept in mind in Gore Vidal’s historical book Creation, in which the poet styles himself the descendant of Homer and declares, “His music flows through me.” Vidal’s lead character identifies Pigres’s reworking of the Iliad as “infuriating,” however goes on:

He also composed an abnormally creative narrative about a battle in between some frogs and mice which he decently associated to Homer.

” It ought to be,” he said, tilting back his head and pretending to be blind.

It takes real poetic skill to parody a master so subtly that the outcome becomes incorrect for the poetry of the master himself at play. And now, in A. E. Stallings translation of the Batrachomyomachia, we have what seems a comparably enthusiastic and convincing re-creation of that ancient leisure. Stallings is both an experienced classicist and a well-regarded poet in English. And she is specifically well concerned for her seemingly natural command of meter and rhyme– a command that’s unusual in our age. Her rhymed couplets are the product of an innately sensitive ear.

The difference between a delicate ear and hollow technique is incredibly dealt with by Stephen Dobyns in Saratoga Hexameter, a mystery novel about poets:

“[H] e had definitely no ear, he’s never had one, as a matter of truth. I remember him once arguing that rhythm is a result of metrical control, which is silly. Meter is only one of the elements of rhythm, but when you lack an ear, then meter is what you hang onto most.”

” How come” asked Charlie.

” Well, anybody can count, however not everyone can dance …”

The waltzing ease of Stallings’s verse need to be apparent in the passages already priced estimate.

How far, by introducing rhyme, does she move from translation into adjustment, or even appropriation?

Stallings herself obliquely frames this issue in a Literary Hub interview(the italics are mine):

Rhyme I would state is a sort of metaphor– a likeness between unlikes– and has a few of the exact same strange power. It is a chauffeur of composition and not an ornament (if done effectively)– a rhymed poem should, in a sense, be “rhyme-driven.”

Or, as expressed by Rilke in a 1921 letter to Rolf von Ungern-Sternberg, rhyme “is the deity of very secret and extremely ancient coincidences [and] one can neither anticipate nor invoke her.”

From this point of view, rhyme ends up being a system that supplants whatever preliminary intent the poet had with the hitherto unstated intent of the poem. This is great and to be wanted. However is “rhyme-driven” translation possible without unnecessary anomaly of the translated text? Whether the source poem is rhymed or not is next to the concern of whether the target language rhyme is producing a new initial driven by its own special rationale. Equating poetry into poetry is writing poetry, and mutation is inescapably part of that. How much does a true “rhyme-driven” translation danger redefining the original? A question answerable, I believe, just in the particular, not in the general.

3. Pigres Flows Through Me

Nevertheless, we’ll begin with the basic. Because the Renaissance, translators have “Englished” Classical poems in rhyme plans not present in the initial. The purpose wasn’t to give access to the initial. (Latin, a minimum of, stayed part of the educated Englishman’s core curriculum.) Rather, translation was a way by which poets improved their own language. The rhymed couplets of Golding’s Metamorphoses had little to do with Ovid’s streaming Latin rhythms, however whatever to do with seeding Shakespeare’s splendid blossoms. Chapman’s iconic Homer existed in rhymed couplets, as was Pope’s.

Obviously, one should bear in mind that throughout the 16 th, 17 th, 18 th, and most of the 19 th century, English poetry was anticipated to rhyme, so these great translations could be said to have been as much culture-driven as rhyme-driven. They’re read today by those who wish to read or study English literature of the duration, not as entrees to Homer, Horace, or Virgil.

Considering that the Modernist era, totally free verse has actually practically become our translation norm, with a perceived focus on transmitting “authentic” poetic imagery. Robert Fitzgerald’s 1960 s-era melodic Homer, for instance, is styled as a relatively transparent window to the original, an effort to carry the reader to the culture of the work rather than vice versa. Nearly all post-1950 s Homer translations provide some nod to various meters, however, for the general reader, I think their successes rest more on an illusion of openness, a design that doesn’t get in the way of the story and the imagery. We reside in a casual age. Many readers don’t count the beats, much less anticipate rhyme.

And yet more than half the appeal of Stallings’s frogs and mice is communicated by a melodic rhyme scheme that appears so well fit to the material that it evokes Gore Vidal’s Pigres singing the work.

For a baseline, here’s the 1914 Loeb prose translation by H. G. Evelyn-White. It begins with “Crumb-Snatcher” explaining his mother’s early nurturing:

[S] he bare me in the mouse-hole and nourished me with food, figs and nuts and dainties of all kinds.

Even in prose one gets the sense that the underlying work is vividly lyrical, still, we are lucky that the internet likewise provides a quickly accessible verse version from an 1824 edition of Knight’s Quarterly, by a pseudonymous William Maginn. For me, it’s an example of a translation in which the rhyme plan might well hinder the original. An ancient, hungry, playful voice has been replaced by something both mannered and egotistical– the small mouse has gotten the voice of an English gentleman in addition to his food.

” She nursed me up with fond maternal care,

And in soft high-end my youth was reproduced;-LRB-

Feasted was I on dainties rich and uncommon,

On figs, and nuts, and cates, delightful fed:

However how can we, Physignathus, who tread

Such various paths, in social concord meet;-LRB-

You where the lakes their glassy estates spread out

Live mid the waters, while to me’t is sweet

To stay with lordly guy, and what he eats I eat.

” To me no pretty morsel is unidentified,

Not thrice-baked bread in rounded plate laid–

Not large spread cake with sesame bestrown–

Not livers rich in snow-white fat selection ‘d–

Not slice from gammon cut with trenchant blade-

Not pudding, food for gods never-ceasing fit–

Nor new-pressed cheese from milk tasty made,

Nor aught sage cooks prepare, whose discovered wit

Lines the capacious pot with lots of a luscious bit.”

Now here’s Stallings, in 2019:

She fed me there on figs and walnut meat

And offered me dainties of all kinds to eat.

I’m so unlike you, how can we be friends?

Our natures are developed for different ends–

You live out on the water as you’re able,

While I am used to eating from man’s table–

I never ever miss out on the fresh loaf, kneaded thrice,

Embeded its neat basket, or a slice

Of marbled ham, or pastry packed with cheese

And sesame, as flaky as you please,

Or liver robed in fat like fine, white silk,

Or cheese that’s freshly curdled from sweet milk,

Or heavenly honeycake that’s so divine

One whiff makes the immortals pine.

All dishes cooks prepare, with every spice

For the banquets of humanity, are fit for mice.

If we (albeit arbitrarily) posit the Loeb version to be more or less image-verbatim, Stallings’s passage does wander off a bit, specifically in the last lines, which wed heaven and earth, mortals and mice, and come to a conclusion that might well be rhyme-driven. Nevertheless, the mouse’s child-sized starving voice appears to travel intact from Pigres’s lines into Stalling’s translation. The outcome is a harmonic duet that honors both poets.

If she were equating Homer, rhymed couplets, however skilled, may find it difficult to leave their oddity in our age.

4. The Lyre Accompanying the Song

As a translator who discusses translation, I’m painfully knowledgeable about the all too common reviews of translated fiction and poetry that, after long discussion of the underlying work, add a simple “as skillfully equated by.” I feel guilty waiting up until the end of this piece to discuss this volume’s incorporated illustrations by Grant Silverstein, as well as the rather unique organization of the book.

This edition seems somewhat multi-purpose, or rather multi-useful.

But, more importantly, the main area provides the poem interwoven on every page with Silverstein’s pencil illustrations– of frogs and mice and weasels and hawks and snakes and gods with human faces. They are an important part of the success of this little volume, which I am extremely pleased to have actually checked out.


Mea Roma, a 130- some poem “meditative sampling” of Martial’s epigrams was published by Shearsman Books in 2018.

Find Out More