Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Hesiod's Calendar by Robert Saxton: review

One of the nicer things about being in the literary world is that one comes across, serendipitously, books that might otherwise escape one's notice.In the books cupboard the other day I found, published by Carcanet Press, Robert Saxton's version of Hesiod's Theogony and Works and Days.

It is a brilliantly clear sonnet sequence, full of wisdom and humour. The sonnet has the formality and grandeur of dactylic hexameter, whilst allowing for an extra layer of charm. We have the whole ancient world spread out before us in musical language: 'the fragrant girl who stays / by her mother's side indoors, innocent of the ways / of Aphrodite - more bud than flower still ... Far away, in a jumpled heap / of legs, the octopus in its foreign / realm takes a bite of one foot so as not to starve.' Here is the familiar and the alien together, as Hesiod is at once someone we know ("Have good regard for measure in all you do") and someone whose mores we can wince at: ('choose a wife who's four years past puberty / and a virgin.') Simple lines evoke much: 'Elsewhere dreaming of a sheltering cave / or thicket, forest creatures on the run / panicked by snow, are desperate for sanctuary.'

Saxton's version (he has no Greek) is, to borrow a phrase from his own works, a yardstick to the stars of Greek myth - here the theogony develops at full tilt, from Chaos: 'no dream, no fear, no rain, / only an idiot swirl in a cosmic brew', through the birth of the Olympians and finally 'the stone that Cronus swallowed, now at Delphi.' It is accesible and intelligent, investing what can be a knotty, even dreary work with new vitality.

(Picture: Hesiod and the Muse by Gustave Moreau)


  1. Dear Philip Womack

    Thanks so much for a very kind review of my Hesiod's Calendar. I should add that I'm not Robert Saxton the composer, but a different animal of the same name. We've never met. I think it would be fun to do a libretto for him one day.

    Regards, Robert Saxton (

  2. Perhaps a little less time looking out of the window and more checking your facts (easy enough to have done in this case)?