Poetry on Friday: Praxilla’s Cucumbers and Dido & Aeneas Get Close in a Cave

It was such a beautiful day that I got out my Greek Lyric Poetry. And so I sat outside in fifty-degree weather at what we call our “cafe table,” mittens and wool coat temporarily abandoned.  Armed with a Greek dictionary and grammar, I read Praxilla, a little-known Greek woman poet of the fifth century B.C.

“To know Greek is to know yourself,” a professor once said to us.  Greek and Latin are cognate languages, but the emotional issues are very different for me. I channel the Latin like a Roman matron—I  am very practical, and was a Roman matron in an earlier life!—but the Greek of fifth century B.C. is very strange and remote  to me. I had barely heard of Praxilla, and no wonder: her work has survived only in a couple of fragments.

In the three lines we have of Praxilla’s poem, “Adonis,” the shades of the Underworld have asked Adonis after his death to name most beautiful thing he left behind in life.

Here is my literal prose translation:

“The most beautiful thing I have left is the light of the sun,/ next the shining stars and the face of the moon,/ and also summer cucumbers, apples, and pears.”

It seems very lovely to me, but apparently there is a  cucumber joke.  The cucumbers  cracked the Greeks up, because cucumbers don’t go with the sun, stars, and moon, or,  apparently, the fruit. I rather wonder if the cucumber is one of the Greeks’ bawdy jokes,  but my footnotes do not suggest that.  There are references to cucumbers in Aristophanes, however, and comedies are connected.  Praxilla’s cucumbers inspired a Greek proverb, “sillier than Adonis.”

And here is Richmond Lattimore’s superb translation:

Loveliest of what I have left behind is the sunlight,
And loveliest after that is the shining stars and the moon’s face,
But also cucumbers that are ripe, and pears and apples.

Oh, Lattimore, that is so lovely!  I do wish I could write poetry.

I am so not Greek! But I love it.


As you all know, I love Virgil’s Aeneid.  The Latin is elegant, stately, and richly allusive.  Even the plot, based loosely on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, is compelling.  But I never bother with  English translations–you don’t much once you know a language–and simply assumed that Virgil and the translators were in accord.

This month, due to our informal Virgil readalong, I have dipped into several modern translations.  Each time,  I have returned to the Latin with relief that I do not rely on translators’ idiosyncracies. Though we are all reading a book called the Aeneid,  we are not reading the same book.  These very different translations bear as little resemblance to each other as cucumbers and apples, to go back to Praxilla’s crazy joke.

Before I go on, let me say that just because I don’t care for a particular translation doesn’t mean it is not right for  you.  If you like a translation, stick with it.  You won’t see the problems or mistakes.

Without question, the best, richest, and most accurate of 21st-century translations  is that of Robert Fagles , who won the  Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the American Academy of Poets in 2007 for his Aeneid. (He won the same award in the 1990s for his translation of the Iliad.)  Not only does he write beautifully, but he understands the Latin thoroughly and captures the spirit of epic and the complex emotions of the troubled hero, Aeneas, who is fated to found Rome at the cost of his personal happiness.

I am equally enthusiastic about the  translations of Robert Fitzgerald (1983) and Allen Mandelbaum (1971). Again, both are fine poets in their own right who know their Latin well—as people did back in the day.  Mandelbaum won the 1973 National Book Award for his translation of the Aeneid.

Now on to two well-respected recent translations:  I respect but am personally  less keen on the  translations by David Ferry (2017) and Sarah Ruden (2008). Ferry’s poem is gorgeous, but there are mistakes and mysterious intrusions of his own poetic observations.  Still, I can make a very good case for reading this version on its own merits.  Sarah Ruden is very literal, and attempts to match the number of Latin lines in her economical English.  A fascinating exercise, but because each Latin word is so packed with subtle shades of meaning, it does not work for me.

But do read the ones that work for you!  All tastes are different.  And you won’t be comparing it with the Latin probably.

AND NOW A TREAT!  I am going to show you something very cool. In Book IV, when  Dido and Aeneas rush into the same cave for shelter from a storm, Virgil arranges the words so that the two are enclosed by the walls of the cave.  We cannot do this in English translation!

The orange words are the cave; the blue are Dido and Aeneas.  See how they are  in the cave?  Speluncam, in orange, means “cave,” and the adjective, eandem, which means “the same”and modifies the cave, is placed at the end of the line.

speluncam Dido dux et Troianus eandem

As you can see, Dido and the Trojan leader in blue  are  inside. Very cool!  And the word “leader (dux) is between Dido and the Trojan  because both Dido and the Trojan Aeneas are leaders.

Aren’t you overwhelmed?  I hope you liked it.

Have a good weekend and see you soon!