Versions of Alcman’s “Sleep”

At First Known When Lost, Stephen Pentz collects some versions of fragmentary lines by the Spartan lyric poem Alcman. This fragment was used by Edgar Allan Poe for the epigraph of his story Silence: A Fable.

Here are the selections from First Known When Lost:

The mountain-summits sleep, glens, cliffs and caves,
Are silent — all the black earth’s reptile brood —
The bees — the wild beasts of the mountain wood;
In depths beneath the dark red ocean’s waves
Its monsters rest, whilst wrapt in bower and spray
Each bird is hush’d that stretch’d its pinions to the day.

Alcman (translated by Thomas Campbell), in Adrian Poole and Jeremy Maule (editors), The Oxford Book of Classical Verse in Translation (Oxford University Press 1995). The poem was originally published in 1821 in The New Monthly Magazine.

Night

The far peaks sleep, the great ravines,
The foot-hills, and the streams.
Asleep are trees, and hivèd bees,
The mountain beasts, and all that dark earth teems,
The glooming seas, the monsters in their deeps:
And every bird, its wide wings folded, sleeps.

Alcman (translated by H. T. Wade-Gery), in T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra (editors), The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation (Oxford University Press 1938). Wade-Gery added the title “Night” to the fragment.

The mountain-tops are asleep, and the mountain-gorges,
Ravine and promontory:
Green leaves, every kind of creeping things
On the breast of the dark earth, sleep:
Creatures wild in the forest, wandering bees,
Great sea-monsters under the purple sea’s
Dark bosom, birds of the air with all their wings
Folded, all sleep.

Alcman (translated by Walter Headlam), in Walter Headlam, A Book of Greek Verse (Cambridge University Press 1907).

Vesper

Now sleep the mountain-summits, sleep the glens,
The peaks, the torrent-beds; all things that creep
On the dark earth lie resting in their dens;
Quiet are the mountain-creatures, quiet the bees,
The monsters hidden in the purple seas;
And birds, the swift of wing,
Sit slumbering.

Alcman (translated by F. L. Lucas), in F. L. Lucas (editor), Greek Poetry for Everyman (J. M. Dent 1951). Lucas added the title “Vesper.”

I found another version on the Poetry Foundation site
:

A Version of Alcman’s (fl. 630 BCE) “Sleep” poem . . .
BY JOHN KINSELLA
Dormant are pinnacles and streams of the mountains,
Chasms and bluffs and crawlers fed by the dark earth;
Dormant are wild animals and that tribe of bees
And monsters out of the sea’s dark syntax;
Dormant are clans of birds with wings that envelop.

The Campbell translation seems to be the dominant one on the internet, but there is this whose provenance I am trying to track down:

Slumbering are the mountains, crest and chasm,
Ravine and precipice,
And every creeping thing on the earth’s dark breast,
Beasts in their forest lairs and the tribes of the bees,
And monsters within the depths of the purple seas:
Slumbering too are the birds
Their swift wings laid to rest.

(UPDATE – it is a translation by R C Trevelyan from The Bride of Dionysus, A Music Drama, And Other Poems

If you followed the link to Edgar Allan Poe’s “Silence” you would note that the epigraph is worded slightly differently to any of these versions (well, only the Campbell could possible have been used by Poe)

The mountain pinnacles slumber; valleys, crags and caves are silent

I cannot trace the rest of this translation, perhaps Poe’s own?

Alcman (sometimes transliterated as Alkman) is known only from fragments – this page collects these fragments. These particular lines come from Apollonius’ Homeric Lexicon:

Apollonius Homeric Lexicon :
Some writers give the name of beast to lions, leopards, wolves, and all similar animals, that of creeping-thing generically to the various kinds of snakes, that of monster to cetaceans such as whales; which is the distinction made by Alcman in the lines:

Alseep lie mountain-top and mountain-gully, shoulder also and ravine; the creeping-things that come from the dark earth, the beasts whose lying is upon the hillside, the generation of the bees, the monsters in the depths of the purple brine, all lie asleep, and with them, the tribes of the winged birds.

Finally, a few years ago the poet Sherod Santos published his own translations of Ancient Greek Lyric poetry, evidently a rather loose one from the poet of view of the text. This attracted the opprobium of the critic Gary WIlis and a defence by Rosanna Warren. From Warren’s defence:

Occasionally, Santos’s delight in the poems, coupled with his lack of feel for Greek, can lead to inflated phrasing. It is an effect of generosity, of ebullience, and it overruns the economy essential to Greek lyric beauty. Yet in most of these cases Santos has not betrayed the originals so much as amplified them in his imagination. So in Alcman’s fragment about the sleeping creatures of the night, Santos expands the landscape to include “the low scrub thickets and the riverine glades” and several other features absent from the original, and concludes in a lush line of summation (“all are asleep in the depthless conjuring of that sound”), whereas Alcman ended simply with the long-winged birds. Why begrudge the modern poet his riff? It has its own beauty, and Alcman’s birds survive.

Warren goes on to write:

It is not as if Sappho & Co. had fared so very well in the classicizing centuries. Each era imposes its own poetic conventions and inventions upon the classics. Sappho’s first appearance in English, in 1652 in John Hall’s version of her famous “Phainetai moi” (“He seems to me equal to the gods”), traded in all the clinical specificities of the Greek for sausage links of clichés (“sweet languors to my ravish’d heart”) far worse than Santos’s occasional indulgences. And if one traces the history of that poem in English, one finds betrayal after betrayal.

Santos is not a classicist. He does not know Greek. But his poems plucked from the Greek Anthology have more vitality, strength, and delicacy than a good number of so-called original works that cram the pages of our magazines these days. Why not be grateful?

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