The Enduring Grace of the Trivial: On “The Battle Between the Frogs and the Mice”

March 5, 2020   •   By Art Beck

The Battle Between the Frogs and the Mice

A. E. Stallings

1. What It’s All About

Homeri Batrachomachia. 

Perlege Maeonio cantatas carmine ranas
   Et frontem nugis solvere disce meis.

Homer’s Battle of Frogs and Mice

Peruse the frogs extolled in Homeric verse and learn
   to unwrinkle your eyebrows at my nonsense.

Martial, Book XIV (Apophoreta), 183

The Oxford Classical Dictionary provides a concise introduction to the work that Martial’s poem serves as a “gift tag” for.

The Batrachomyomachia, the “Battle of Frogs and Mice,” is a mock epic poem of slightly more than 300 dactylic hexameter verses, broadly imitating the language and style of Homer. The poem was widely read as a school text in the Byzantine period. […] The work has been variously dated, but it is more likely to be the work of the late Hellenistic period than of the early Classical age, since it contains what appear to be allusions to Moschus’s Europa and Callimachus’s Aetia, and its language shows the influence of Latin.

Plutarch attributed the Batrachomyomachia’s authorship to a fifth-century BCE poet, Pigres of Halicarnassus. But references by Plutarch’s first-century CE contemporaries Martial and Statius suggest that at least some Roman literati considered the work an authentic instance of Homer parodying himself, and that goes a long way in explaining the endurance of this tongue-in-cheek, mouse-sized epic.

Unlike the often-scabrous nugis Martial begs indulgence for, the Batrachomyomachia isn’t likely to raise any censorious eyebrows. It manages to parody without sneering and satirize without scarring. And it presents the dynamics and tragedies of war through a lens that, while clear, shields the viewer with a certain charm. The narrative (as translated by Stallings) begins with what seems a variation on an Aesop fable:

One day a thirsty mouse approached the brink
Of the lake and dipped his muzzle in to drink.
No water could be welcomer or brisker.
He’d only just escaped death by a whisker —
That bane, the Weasel!

The mouse, named Crumbcatcher, is a grandson of the Mouse-king. He’s greeted at the lake shore by Pufferthroat, ruler of the frogs, who informs the mouse:

Peleus, Lord Mudworth was my Sire.
My mother was the Princess of the Mire
And I was bred upon the river bank […]

The two go on to chat about the different foods they eat and the disparate worlds in which they flourish. A lengthy recounting of mouse-wiles and delicious nibbles follows, but in due course Pufferthroat responds by inviting Crumbcatcher to take a guided tour of frog-environs:

You boast about your belly overmuch.
We too have many wonders to explore
Both in the pond and on the marshy shore.

So the adventurous mouse obliges by hopping on the hospitable frog’s back. But Crumbcatcher can’t swim, and we note his unease and second thoughts as they move farther into the water: “He pulled his fur, and tucked his small paws tight / Against his chest, his heart quaked at his plight.”

Soon enough, those forebodings coalesce as a water snake breaks the surface and threatens to devour the nauticalists. Pufferthroat instinctively dives for the safety of the lake bottom. As for Crumbcatcher:

But the mouse, abandoned, fell into the wave,
And squeaked in terror of a watery grave.
And many times he sank down in despair.
And many times he struggled back for air,
But in the end he could not flee his fate —

Drowning he calls out:
O Frog! You shall be punished for your crime —
[…] and my slaughter
Will not go unavenged — you’ll pay the price.
You won’t escape the army of the mice.

And so an epic war is launched, incorporating scenes and language evocative of both the Iliad and Odyssey. The mice send a herald to demand redress, but Pufferthroat haughtily denies any recollection of the episode. The mice arm themselves with needles for spears and armor made of pea-pods. They send a herald, declare war, and attack. The frogs resist, the gods meddle, champions rise and fall. Just as the mice seem ready to prevail, Zeus heartens the frogs; but then he tires of the carnage and sends a finito thunderbolt: “While in the west the setting of the sun / Announced to all the One Day War was done.”

2. But Why Do We Still Read This Old Stuff?

Not especially, I think, for the story, amusing as parts of it may be. Perhaps we’re just taking our cues from the late-antiquity and medieval Byzantines, who used the Batrachomyomachia as a teaching text; they must have seen something in it. Or perhaps we remember Pigres as a curiosity, who purportedly authored not only this unique mock epic but also an innovative adaptation of the Iliad that was said to significantly reauthor the text, recasting Homer’s hexameters into an alternating hexameter-pentameter scheme. That work no longer survives, but it was noteworthy enough to make its way into a Byzantine encyclopedia.

Both of Pigres’s accomplishments are briefly noted in Gore Vidal’s historical novel Creation, in which the poet styles himself the descendant of Homer and declares, “His music flows through me.” Vidal’s protagonist characterizes Pigres’s reworking of the Iliad as “maddening,” but goes on:

He also wrote an unusually clever narrative about a battle between some frogs and mice which he modestly attributed to Homer. One summer afternoon he sang me this work in a perfectly pleasant voice [and] I applauded him sincerely. “This is marvelous work.”

“It should be,” he said, tilting back his head and pretending to be blind. “Homer composed it. I merely sing it. I am his voice only.”

It takes real poetic skill to parody a master so subtly that the result becomes mistaken for the poetry of the master himself at play. And now, in A. E. Stallings translation of the Batrachomyomachia, we have what seems a comparably ambitious and convincing re-creation of that ancient recreation. Stallings is both a trained classicist and a well-regarded poet in English. And she is especially well regarded for her seemingly natural command of meter and rhyme — a command that’s uncommon in our era. Her rhymed couplets are the product of an innately sensitive ear.

The difference between a sensitive ear and hollow technique is wonderfully addressed by Stephen Dobyns in Saratoga Hexameter, a mystery novel about poets:

“[H]e had absolutely no ear, he’s never had one, as a matter of fact. I remember him once arguing that rhythm is a result of metrical control, which is foolish. Meter is only one of the elements of rhythm, but when you lack an ear, then meter is what you hang onto most.”

“How come” asked Charlie.

“Well, anybody can count, but not everyone can dance…”

The waltzing ease of Stallings’s verse should be evident in the passages already quoted. In her preface, she explains that she used rhymed couplets as a “nod” to George Chapman’s 17th-century translation of Homer, and in the “hope […] that the rhymes” would “enhance the charm […] and subvert some of the high-flown (mock?) epic language.” My totally uninformed guess is that her couplets percolated first and the justifications came after the fact.

But her choice to rhyme, rather than mimic, the unrhymed meter of the original Greek or  simply use free or blank verse, raises a theoretical question. How far, by introducing rhyme, does she move from translation into adaptation, or even appropriation? One doesn’t usually worry about such things with bagatelles like the Batrachomyomachia, but it’s also a venerable “marvelous work.” And this lively translation — into marvelous English verse — merits a small discussion.

Stallings herself obliquely frames this issue in a Literary Hub interview (the italics are mine):

Rhyme I would say is a kind of metaphor — a likeness between unlikes — and has some of the same mysterious power. It is a driver of composition and not an ornament (if done properly) — a rhymed poem should, in a sense, be “rhyme-driven.”

Or, as expressed by Rilke in a 1921 letter to Rolf von Ungern-Sternberg, rhyme “is the deity of very secret and very ancient coincidences [and] one can neither anticipate nor invoke her.”

From this perspective, rhyme becomes a mechanism that supplants whatever initial intent the poet had with the hitherto unstated intent of the poem. This is fine and to be desired. But is “rhyme-driven” translation possible without undue mutation of the translated text? Whether the source poem is rhymed or not is beside the question of whether the target language rhyme is creating a new original driven by its own unique rationale. Translating poetry into poetry is writing poetry, and mutation is inescapably part of that. But how much does a true “rhyme-driven” translation risk redefining the original? A question answerable, I think, only in the particular, not in the general.

3. Pigres Flows Through Me

Nonetheless, we’ll begin with the general. Since the Renaissance, translators have “Englished” Classical poems in rhyme schemes not present in the original. The purpose wasn’t to give access to the original. (Latin, at least, remained part of the educated Englishman’s core curriculum.) Rather, translation was a means by which poets enriched their own language. The rhymed couplets of Golding’s Metamorphoses had little to do with Ovid’s flowing Latin rhythms, but everything to do with seeding Shakespeare’s magnificent blossoms. Chapman’s iconic Homer was presented in rhymed couplets, as was Pope’s.

Of course, one should remember that throughout the 16th, 17th, 18th, and most of the 19th century, English poetry was expected to rhyme, so these great translations could be said to have been as much culture-driven as rhyme-driven. They’re read today by those who want to read or study English literature of the period, not as entrees to Homer, Horace, or Virgil.

Since the Modernist era, free verse has pretty much become our translation norm, with a perceived emphasis on transmitting “authentic” poetic imagery. Robert Fitzgerald’s 1960s-era melodic Homer, for example, is styled as a relatively transparent window to the original, an attempt to transport the reader to the culture of the work rather than vice versa. Almost all post-1950s Homer translations give some nod to various meters, but, for the general reader, I think their successes rest more on an illusion of transparency, a style that doesn’t get in the way of the narrative and the imagery. We live in an informal age. Most readers don’t count the beats, much less expect rhyme.

And yet more than half the charm of Stallings’s frogs and mice is conveyed by a melodic rhyme scheme that seems so well suited to the material that it evokes Gore Vidal’s Pigres singing the work. (For the purposes of this discussion, let’s just give Pigres credit for at least some version of the work his name is forever linked to.) How far does Stallings diverge from Pigres’s aesthetic? It’s worth looking at a particularly image-rich passage.

For a baseline, here’s the 1914 Loeb prose translation by H. G. Evelyn-White. It begins with “Crumb-Snatcher” describing his mother’s early nurturing:

[S]he bare me in the mouse-hole and nourished me with food, figs and nuts and dainties of all kinds. But how are you to make me your friend, who am altogether different in nature? For you get your living in the water, but I am used to each such foods as men have: I never miss the thrice-kneaded loaf in its neat, round basket, or the thin-wrapped cake full of sesame and cheese, or the slice of ham, or liver vested in white fat, or cheese just curdled from sweet milk, or delicious honey-cake which even the blessed gods long for, or any of all those cates which cooks make for the feasts of mortal men, larding their pots and pans with spices of all kinds.

Even in prose one gets the sense that the underlying work is vividly lyrical, still, we are lucky that the internet also provides an easily accessible verse version from an 1824 edition of Knight’s Quarterly, by a pseudonymous William Maginn. For me, it’s an example of a translation in which the rhyme scheme may well interfere with the original. An ancient, hungry, playful voice has been replaced by something both mannered and self-absorbed — the tiny mouse has acquired the voice of an English gentleman along with his food.

“She nursed me up with fond maternal care,
And in soft luxury my youth was bred;
Feasted was I on dainties rich and rare,
On figs, and nuts, and cates, delightful fed:
But how can we, Physignathus, who tread
Such different paths, in social concord meet;
You where the lakes their glassy mansions spread
Live mid the waters, while to me ’tis sweet
To dwell with lordly man, and what he eats I eat.

“To me no dainty morsel is unknown,
Not thrice-baked bread in rounded platter laid —
Not wide spread cake with sesame bestrown —
Not livers rich in snow-white fat array’d —
Not slice from gammon cut with trenchant blade-
Not pudding, food for gods immortal fit —
Nor new-pressed cheese from milk delicious made,
Nor aught sage cooks prepare, whose learned wit
Lines the capacious pot with many a luscious bit.”

But now here’s Stallings, in 2019:

She fed me there on figs and walnut meat
And gave me dainties of all kinds to eat.
I’m so unlike you, how can we be friends?
Our natures are designed for different ends —
You live out on the water as you’re able,
While I am used to eating from man’s table —
I never miss the fresh loaf, kneaded thrice,
Tucked in its tidy basket, or a slice
Of marbled ham, or pastry stuffed with cheese
And sesame, as flaky as you please,
Or liver robed in fat like fine, white silk,
Or cheese that’s freshly curdled from sweet milk,
Or heavenly honeycake that’s so divine
One whiff makes even the immortals pine.
All dishes cooks prepare, with every spice
For the banquets of mankind, are fit for mice.

If we (albeit arbitrarily) posit the Loeb version to be more or less image-verbatim, Stallings’s passage does stray a bit, especially in the last lines, which marry heaven and earth, mortals and mice, and come to a conclusion that may well be rhyme-driven. Even so, the mouse’s child-sized hungry voice seems to travel intact from Pigres’s lines into Stalling’s translation. The result is a harmonic duet that honors both poets.

Gore Vidal’s Pigres even fakes blindness to advance his Homeric image, but he insists, “I am a true bard, descended from Homer […] His music flows through me.” I’d offer that Stallings carries on the imitator’s innovative tradition: Pigres flows through her. If she were translating Homer, rhymed couplets, however skilled, might find it hard to escape their oddity in our age. But she’s translating Pigres channeling Homer and, somehow, her couplets are just the thing.

4. The Lyre Accompanying the Song

As a translator who writes about translation, I’m painfully aware of the all too common reviews of translated fiction and poetry that, after long discussion of the underlying work, add a mere “as skillfully translated by.” So, I feel guilty waiting until the end of this piece to mention this volume’s integrated illustrations by Grant Silverstein, as well as the rather unique organization of the book.

This edition seems somewhat multi-purpose, or rather multi-useful. Along with the illustrated main body text, it features Stallings’s preface, which, though tongue-in-cheek, could nevertheless serve as a classroom-quality introduction to the background of the work. There is also an appendix, in which her translation is presented again in numbered lines to correspond with the original, along with instructive, but non-pedantic footnotes. All that’s lacking is the Greek original text.

But, more importantly, the main section presents the poem interwoven on every page with Silverstein’s pencil drawings — of frogs and mice and weasels and hawks and snakes and gods with human faces. At first, I thought of the illustration as maybe somewhat analogous to medieval illumination. But as I read on, I realized it wasn’t that at all. There’s too much drama in the drawings’ visual punctuation. I instead came to appreciate their larger role as visual harmonics — a substitute for a lyre, of sorts, accompanying the combined voices of bard and translator. They are an integral part of the success of this small volume, which I am very glad to have read.

¤

Art Beck is a poet, essayist, and translator with a number of university and small press journal credits, as well as volumes of both original poetry and translations from the late 1970s onward. His Opera Omnia or, a Duet for Sitar and Trombone — versions of the sixth-century CE North African Roman poet Luxorius, published by Otis Books — won the 2013 Northern California Book Award for translated poetry. Mea Roma, a 130-some poem “meditative sampling” of Martial’s epigrams was published by Shearsman Books in 2018. His Etudes, a Rilke Recital is forthcoming from Shanti Arts Publishing.