Fragment of a Greek Tragedy, in English and Greek

A.E. Housman and D.S. Raven

There is no more famous parody of Greek literature than the riotous send-up of Greek tragic diction by the scholar and poet A.E. Housman (1859–1936). Written when he was around 24, the skit first appeared in The Bromsgrovian (1883), the magazine of Bromsgrove School. Not only had Housman been educated there, but after his spectacular failure in Greats at Oxford, his headmaster had offered him a temporary teaching job to get him back on his feet. It was perhaps Housman’s struggles in the classroom – of pupils offering tortured translations of Greek choral odes, but also of outmoded textbooks presenting absurd English ‘translationese’ – that first planted the idea of this delightfully contorted, hyper-Aeschylean wordfest. At several points throughout his life, Housman allowed the republication of the piece, but forbade anyone from reprinting it for profit; on several occasions he used the opportunity of its reappearance to make some further improvements to the text. The version given below reflects the final form of his text (the manuscript of which is held by Bryn Mawr College); significant differences in earlier versions are listed in a few footnotes.

The parody tackles an episode known in Greek myth but not found in extant tragedy: on returning home Alcmaeon murders his mother Eriphyle, to carry out the wishes of his dead father Amphiaraus, who had died in the campaign of the Seven Against Thebes; the prophetic Amphiaraus knew that he would die but, after Eriphyle accepted a bribe to order him to go, his fate was sealed. More information about the parody and its textual evolution can be found in an Italian article by Yorick Gomez Gane (Atene e Roma 44 (1999) 26–43), which can be freely accessed here.[1]

In the late 1950s, David (D.S.) Raven (1933–80), then also around 24 and a Fellow of Trinity College Oxford, worked up a tour de force version of Housman’s parody: he transmuted it into tragic Greek poetry, thus redressing Housman’s English in the proper garb of iambic dialogue and choral ode. It brilliantly honours Housman’s fabricated nonsense and the conventions of Greek language and metre at the same time; no-one else has thought to rival his remarkable achievement. Although the Greek text was first published in Greece and Rome in 1959, that reproduced here reflects the revised version of his composition, as found in his brilliant (but all too slim!) volume Poetastery and Pastiche (Blackwell, Oxford, 1966).


Cho. O suitably-attired-in-leather-boots[2]             See Raven's Greek
Head of a traveller, wherefore seeking whom
Whence by what way how purposed are you come
To this well-nightingaled vicinity?
My object in enquiring is to know.
But if you happen to be deaf and dumb
And do not understand a word I say,
Nod with your hand to signify as much.
Alc. I journeyed hither a Boeotian road.
Cho. Sailing on horseback or with feet for oars?
Alc. Plying by turns my partnership of legs.
Cho. Beneath a shining or a rainy Zeus?
Alc. Mud’s sister, not himself, adorns my legs.
Cho. To learn your name would not displease me much.[3]
Alc. Not all that men desire do they obtain.
Cho. Might I then hear at what your presence shoots?
Alc. A shepherd’s questioned mouth informed me that –
Cho. What? for I know not yet what you will say.
Alc. Nor will you ever, if you interrupt.
Cho. Proceed, and I will hold my speechless tongue.[4]
Alc. – this house was Eriphyla’s, no one’s else.
Cho. Nor did he shame his throat with hateful lies.
Alc. Might I then enter, passing through the door?
Cho. Go, chase into the house a lucky foot.
And, O my son, be, on the one hand, good,
And do not, on the other hand, be bad;
For that is very much the safest plan.[5]
Alc. I go into the house with heels and speed.


   In speculation                                    (Strophe)        See Raven's Greek
I would not willingly acquire a name
   For ill-digested thought,
   But, after pondering much,
To this conclusion I at last have come:
    Life is uncertain.
    This truth I have written deep
    In my reflective midriff,
    On tablets not of wax.
Nor with a pen did I inscribe it there
For many reasons: Life, I say, is not[6]
    A stranger to uncertainty.[7]
Not from the flight of omen-yelling fowls
   This fact did I discover,
Nor did the Delphic tripod bark it out,
    Nor yet Dodona.
Its native ingenuity sufficed
My self-taught diaphragm.

Why should I mention                             (Antistrophe)        See Raven's Greek
The Inachian daughter, loved of Zeus,
    Her whom of old the gods,
    More provident than kind,
Provided with four hoofs, two horns, one tail,
    A gift not asked for:
    And sent her forth to learn
    The unfamiliar science
    Of how to chew the cud?
She, therefore, all about the Argive fields,
Went cropping pale green grass and nettle-tops,
    Nor did they disagree with her.
Yet, howso’er nutritious, such repasts,
    I do not hanker after.[8]
Never may Cypris for her seat select
    My dappled liver!
Why should I mention lo? Why indeed?[9]
    I have no notion why.

    But now does my boding heart                 (Epode)                See Raven's Greek
    Unhired, unaccompanied, sing
    A strain not meet for the dance.[10]
    Yea, even the palace appears
    To my yoke of circular eyes
    (The right, nor omit I the left)
    Like a slaughterhouse, so to speak,
    Garnished with woolly deaths
    And many shipwrecks of cows.
I therefore in a Cissian strain lament,
  And to the rapid,
 Loud, linen-tattering thumps upon my chest
  Resounds in concert
The battering of my unlucky head.

Eriphyla (within) O, I am smitten with a hatchet’s jaw;                       See Raven's Greek
And that in deed and not in word alone.
Cho. I thought I heard a sound within the house
Unlike the voice of one that jumps for joy.[11]
Erip. He splits my skull, not in a friendly way,
Once more: he purposes to kill me dead.
Cho. I would not be reputed rash, but yet
I doubt if all be gay within the house.
Erip. O! O! another stroke! That makes the third.
He stabs me to the heart against my wish.[12]
Cho. If that be so, thy state of health is poor;
But thine arithmetic is quite correct.[13]

A.E. Housman aged 18, on his arrival at St John’s, Oxford (1877).
D.S. Raven aged 30: here he inspects the JCR as Dean of Trinity, Oxford, after Balliol students had continued their inter-college rivalry by planting daffodils there (1963).


1 Those with a subscription can read a brief survey of some of Housman’s parodic allusion in this Classical Journal article of 1953 by Ralph Marcellino; a critical text of the poem with succinct commentary can be found in Archie Bennett’s edition, which can be partially browsed here.
2 ‘gracefully-enveloped-in-a-cloak’ 1883 / ‘suitably-surmounted-with-a-hat’ 1897.
3 ‘Your name I not unwillingly would learn’ 1883.
4 These last two verses were added into the text in 1897.
5 In 1883, this line instead ran as the two lines: ‘And then thou wilt be like the man who speaks,/ And not unlike thine interlocutor.’
6 ‘For obvious reasons’ 1883.
7 divested of uncertainty’ 1883.
8 ‘myself, I deem unpleasant’ 1883.
9 This line ended ‘I repeat’ in 1883.
10 ‘A most displeasing tune’ 1883.
11 ‘unlike the accent of festivity’ 1883.
12 ‘my heart, a harsh unkindly act’ 1883
13 In 1883, the last two lines ran: ‘Indeed, if that be so, ill-fated one,/ I fear we scarce can hope thou wilt survive.’