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Alcaeus: poems and fragments

R.J.Dent is a poet, novelist, translator, essayist and short story writer who read at the much missed F-ishtales poetry readings at F-ish Art Gallery in Hastings. His modern English translation of the poems of the Greek lyric poet Alcaeus is available in July from Hastings based Circaidy Gregory Press and is reviewed by Joe Fearn.

On the back cover of R.J.Dent’s book, Peter Levi is quoted as saying of Alcaeus

“His poetry smells of vine-leaves and the sea.”

It made me wonder what my own poetry smells of, wet dogs in a dry room maybe. The folk singer Ray Hearne once told me that poetry may be read out in ballet shoes or pit boots. I quoted this to poet Peter Sansom who said he always tried for tennis shoes. I mention this because the poems and fragments in this book are of the ballet shoes variety. This is not to say that they are slight and have no resonance, for example the poem that begins:

Let us drink! Why do we wait for the lamps?
There is only a fraction of day left.
Friends, take down the large decorated cups.

Reminds me of the Yorkshire ditty:

Beer! Beer! We want more Beer!
Everyone is cheerin’
Get the chuffin’ beer in!

Alcaeus is under no illusions about drink

Wine, dear boy, and truth,
for wine is a peep-hole into a man.

And later

…and if wine shackles his wits…

Ever wondered why imbibers become so loud?

It is almost a custom
here on the mountain
in the deep silence
to make a huge din,
a great noise.

Very Arthur Schopenhauer, who insisted that silence worries most people.

Alcaeus was born into an aristocratic family circa 625 BCE, and lived in Mytilene, the largest city on the Greek island of Lesbos. Mention Lesbos and one’s mind immediately turns to the “Violet-haired, pure, honey-smiling Sappho” as Alcaeus described her (according to Wikipedia). Dent remarks that Alcaeus’s poetry is often overshadowed by the literary reputation of Sappho, his fellow poet and compatriot.

The appendix thankfully has a glossary of people and places, essential for the reader’s attempt to understand the poems and fragments. It includes Onomacles, a Lesbian hermit. These were rum times indeed.

One of the great delights to be had in reading this book is that it harks back to a past world of gods and heroes, set in a typically Hellenic fact-value continuum, which we may contrast with the modern commonly held fact-value distinction that influences some modern poetry. Alcaeus writes

The cold wave carries Sisyphus
along to the river bend.

Zeus and the blessed gods
watch as you toil, calling down curses

while making yourself a ship
which you will drag down to the sea.

It is my guess from the tone of the poem that Alcaeus might have written

“…and the other gods…” alluding to their callousness, if not for sounding disrespectful; gods of course are guiltless.


It is important to understand what this little gem of a book is about. It would be silly to read it in order to see how to write poetry. For that you would be better off subscribing to a modern poetry magazine listed on

Alcaeus’s poems and fragments are lyrical songs, most of which are monodies; lyric poetry sung by a single performer, written in this case to be accompanied by the music of a lyre. Many of these poems and fragments are concerned with the politics and personal tenure of the times. He also writes about contemporary personalities, as well as love songs, drinking songs and hymns to various gods.

R.J.Dent’s book is quite a find. There is no other published translation of Alcaeus’s poems and fragments in existence. In many ways it reminds me of ‘The Blue and Brown Books’ compiled from notes made by the students of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Both contain fragments and aphorisms that continue to illuminate and delight.

Alcaeus: poems and fragments
Translated by R.J.Dent (Circaidy Gregory Press) 2012. price £7.49

R.J.Dent’s Amazon page can be found at:

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Posted 15:55 Wednesday, May 2, 2012 In: Literature


  1. Review of Alcaeus: Poems & Fragments « News and Events

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