An Introduction to Alkman
From Guy Davenport, 7 Greeks (New Directions, 1995), pages 14-15
Alkman, born in Sappho's Lydia and a resident in a city where Archilochos would have felt at home, Sparta, is something of a mixture of those two. Like Sappho he wrote songs for girls to sing; like Archilochos he looks at the world with a tempered eye. I have not translated all of his one- and two- word fragments, and I have made multiple translations of his great Hymn to Artemis of the Strict Observance, first, to graph the text (found in an Egyptian tomb at Saqqâra in 1855, part of a funerary library presumably to be at hand on Resurrection Day) as literally as possible, indicating lost portions; second in octosyllabic couplets to indicate something of the music and intricate imagery; third, to conjecture the full shape of the poem (the myth it deals with can be found in Pausanias) with no attempt at translating; and fourth to make the sparest possible faithful version, to show how phrase follows phrase. [Diotima editors' note: the third and fourth versions do not appear in Diotima; they can be found in 7 Greeks, pages 122-127.]
This amazing hymn was sung at the Feast of the Plow by girls dressed as doves. They would have sung (as we gather from the poem) in rivalry with an opposing choir. All over Greece we find all endeavor taking the form of a contest, an agon. Before the age of Archilochos, Sappho, and Alkman, we hear of contests of trumpets, city against city, the splendor of which tantalizes the imagination more than all the kings and archons in the history books.
Alkman's congeniality is in his celebration of the table, the fireside, old-fashioned cooking, and -- with a resigned affability -- the arthritic good humor of his old age. Goethe admired and imitated his lyric about night coming on and the sleep of animals and birds. Aristotle records that Alkman suffered terribly from lice. My translations were made from Antonio Garzya's Alcmane: I Frammenti (Naples, 1954) and in part from Bruno Lavagnini's Aglaia: Nuova Antologia della Lirica Greca da Callino a Bacchilide (Turin, 1964).
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