NIGEL HUMPHREYS POET

THE LOVE SONG OF DAPHNIS AND CHLOE

The Love Song of Daphnis and Chloe will be published in 2015 by Circaidy Gregory Press.  It is a long narrative poem based on the 2nd century Greek Romance Daphnis and Chloe: ÄÜöíéò êáὶ ×ëüç, written by Longus of whom little is known.  I first came to know these two innocent lovers through the ballet music of Ravel (you can see the ballet on YouTube) but had no idea of the mythology involving their romance and adventures. The music gives no hint of narrative so when I came across a translation in a Hereford charity shop earlier this year I decided to speculate £1.50. To my surprise and delight I found it to be a 1657 translation by a George Thornley complete with contemporary but eccentric punctuation and spelling. (At the time of its publication Cromwell was to live one more year and the Commonwealth was on its last legs too.)

Soon after I began to read it the idea quickly struck me that it may transcribe into a cywydd to the story’s advantage. Now I’m a great fan of the Welsh cywydd. It’s a challenging form (7 syllable rhyming couplets crammed with every poetic confection possible) and makes for concise economic narrative while locking in a well-defined rhythm.  However, in order for it to succeed in English one must compromise by using imperfect rhymes, half rhymes and assonant rhymes.  The Welsh Language has no such need. It is a poetic form specifically evolved through Welsh.

The pastoral poem or idyll dates from around 750 BC and has perhaps never been more relevant than now as we plough through the complex pastures of high tech modern living with ill-honed plough shares. It deals with quite another lifestyle - that of herders and drovers of sheep, goats and cattle living the good life under the capricious self-serving eye of the gods. It is Arcadia. It is Eden. It is ‘the stuff that dreams are made on’.

Daphnis is the boy of course, despite his pseudo-gynecic name, and with Chloe lives and herds his flock of goats on the isle of Lesbos. Each, having been abandoned to die there by being exposed to the elements as new-born babies, are variously rescued and brought up as herdsmen by different adoptive parents in Idyllic surroundings.

The original covers four books and book one extends to 32 pages of poetry. It’s a matter of dicing the seventeenth century prose into half rhyming couplets while keeping as close to the original translation as possible, and packing each line with as much poetic convention as it will stand. Some of Thornley’s words have almost disappeared – in fact have disappeared. I now know that a ‘piggin’ is a small bucket but what is a ‘phane’, ‘latrociny’ or ‘freques’ (fracas?).

So this has been an exciting challenge. Though the internet is no help with these archaisms it does tell me that there doesn’t appear to be another poetic version of Daphnis and Chloe in existence. In the cywydd form, somewhat ironically, it becomes more accessible to the twenty-first century ear like a stream being cleared of debris so that it flows 'sweet' . To make for seamless reading  I’ve stuck rigidly to modern conventional word order avoiding every temptation to invert in order to facilitate rhyme. I have to trust Thornley’s translation of course and dog the sense as close as I can without spooking it, though there are instances where it can be comfortably contracted. On the other hand I have given myself license to substitute his words of the sake of the form and where a more imaginative use of language will enhance. I also allow myself 6 and 8 syllable lines where rhythm makes it necessary but for the most part keep myself to the 7 beat template following the cadences of natural speech. And so it begins:

Mitylene – city of Lesbos

for a long age honoured as

the island’s fair chatelaine; 

a distinguished domain

intersected by the sea

abounding with bridges weaned

of white unpolished marble.

You would not think to call

it a city but a moated land

within yet another island.

 

Some twenty furlongs away

the manor of a rich lord lay,

the most ideal idyllic terrain

under the eyes of Elysium.

There were ranges prodigal

with animals for game, hills 

and vine-veined slopes, gilded

yields from corn filled fields,

coombes with orchards and lawns,

and pearl-strung hills, rich downs

with sheep, cattle and goats,

the sea trimming the coast

and to the horizon’s far reach

the flourish of a burnished beach.