Hesiod lived and composed in Greece in the latter part of the eighth century B.C. The ancients considered him a contemporary of Homer, but whereas we know nothing personal about Homer—not even if he or she was one, two, or many—Hesiod tells us a lot about himself and is the first Western writer to give us his own biography. The Works and Days is not the first Western poem, but Hesiod is arguably our first poet, and certainly our first “prize-winning” poet.
Hesiod relates that his father, being not overly successful in merchant shipping, emigrated from the Greek colony of Cymae in Asia Minor to Boeotia in mainland Greece, settling in the village of Askra (“wretched in winter, nasty in summer, never pleasant”), about as far inland as you can go without catching sight again of the sea. Hesiod prefers farming to the vicissitudes of waiting for ships to come in. He himself only made one sea voyage, crossing the tiny strait over to the island of Euboea (a mere 125 feet wide at its narrowest)—a geographical joke. There he won a poetry contest and carried off a bronze tripod, which he dedicates to the Muses, who had, after all, personally given him his divine gift for song. (No, really: in his Theogony, he runs into them while pasturing his lambs on Mt. Helicon—they breathe the gift into him despite their poor opinion of shepherds generally.)
Hesiod addresses his didactic poem to his brother, Perses, with whom he is embroiled in a lawsuit over their paternal legacy. Hesiod claims that Perses has already taken more than his share and suggests that the judges are corrupt and open to bribery (“gift-guzzlers”). Some of Hesiod’s discursive lecture is on justice, some is on farm management, and household economy, and then there is an almanac section on the right and wrong days for assorted activities. Even though Perses has grabbed more than his due, he appears to be hard up, a work-shy wastrel.
Hesiod’s principal concern is with justice, justice being the squaring of oneself with the gods, one’s fellow men (neighbors and kin), and the rhythms of the earth. Religious observance, basic manners (don’t clip your fingernails at the public feast!), and watching the constellations all go some way towards keeping oneself in right relationships, but above all honest toil is required.
I live in Greece, a transplant from over the sea. Translating this poem during the Greek financial crisis, I have, to my surprise, found it topical and resonant. The ancient poem speaks eerily to the moment, with its concerns about debt, corruption, justice, employment, and poverty. And who in Greece is not in a lawsuit with his brother over an inherited property? (Greece still lacks, disastrously, a complete land registry.) When Hesiod declares, disgustedly, that “this is an iron age indeed,” it is a line that could be spray-painted on the walls of Parliament. The Works and Days, far from being a fusty relic, demonstrates Pound’s dictum: “literature is news that stays news.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 33 Number 8, on page 35
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