A Sleepless Night


I have a basic rule in my reading. 

Less demanding stuff – usually fiction – at night and in bed. More demanding stuff – non-fiction, or challenging fiction – during the day. The rule was put in place for good reason, because – if I try reading the latter at night – I just can’t sleep. 

Well, rules are made to be broken, I suppose, and I foolishly did just that last night. Fast forward to 230am and – as awake as awake could be – I gave up and went to write the notes for this piece. 

The culprit in this case was Hesiod. Which would be a surprise to him, no doubt, since he’s been dead some two and a half millennia. It was a surprise to me too, considering I’d found him rather boring up until then. 

How We Got Here

Inspired by Ted Giola’s wonderful article on his Lifetime Reading Plan, I’ve been in the fledgling stages of my own (hopefully) long-term undertaking. The general idea is that I start at the beginning of western literature and work my way forwards. 

That means starting with the Greeks. Having already studied Homer, I cracked on with Herodotus. To my dismay I found several references in his Histories to this ‘Hesiod’ fellow, and therefore – after wrapping up that brilliant work – backtracked a few centuries. 

With a massive caveat that nobody seems to know anything about any of this for sure… Hesiod was probably a contemporary of Homer’s. We’re talking roughly 7th-8th century BC. While fragments of his other writing survive (and he was an actual writer, unlike Homer), Hesiod is most famous for two particular pieces: Works and Days, and The Theogony. The former is basically an instruction manual on how to live a good life in Ancient Greece, while the latter is the story of how the gods – and all creation, for that matter – came to be. 

Works and Days is pretty dull. The ‘Works’ part is fine, and – as with Herodotus – contains advice as relevant now as it was then. The ‘Days’ part is all ‘be sure to open your bottles of wine on the fourth day of the month, not the fifth day, else disaster shall surely befall you.’

If you’re a true scholar on Ancient Greece, there’s probably plenty of fascinating detail and lots of tasty morsels in the minutiae to give valuable clues on what life at the time was really life. From an artistic perspective, however, there’s little interesting about the writing itself. 

Short as it admittedly was, I was glad to be done with the thing. I then flicked through a few of the brief fragments situated directly thereafter in the Project Gutenberg version I’m reading (a link will be provided shortly). They led straight onto The Theogony. So I started to read that too – it was already 1am, but I hadn’t read all day; I was in a reading mood – and that was my big mistake. 

An Evocative Evocation 

As you might expect, since it’s a classical-era poem, The Theogony begins with a good old-fashioned invocation of the muses. This serves as not only the best such invocation I’ve read, but one of the most beautiful passages of literature I’ve come across in living memory. 

Most such invocations are fairly short. You get it done, hopefully the muse plays ball, then you crack right on (usually jumping straight into the action, in media res). Virgil actually gets greedy and invokes twice – his second coming halfway through The Aeneid – but both times are nice and brief. 

The invocation in The Theogony, however, goes on, and on, and on.

Homer’s in The Iliad (‘Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus’, etc.) is about 4-8 lines, depending on which version you use and where exactly you think the invocation ends and the story begins (it’s quick, either way). In the Odyssey (‘Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide…’) it’s concluded in about three lines. 

Hesiod’s invocation here lasts around 115 lines. And yet, I wouldn’t remove or change a single one. 


samuel johnson

I recently dipped back into the excellent Reading Like a Writer, which is indeed extremely helpful for readers and writers alike. In it, Francine Prose (great writer name) talks quite brilliantly about concision

In particular, she draws an important distinction between brevity and concision. Something can be short, but overwritten; something can be long, but concise. 

She gives an excellent example from Samuel Johnson (pictured scowling above), in the form of a very, very long sentence. But she also argues – correctly – that every single word is necessary. Remove a single one, and the meaning of the thought would completely change. The sentence may be long (and actually quite complicated), but is still concise.

There are any number of writers who lack this ability. Many of them are wildly successful. 

Brandon Sanderson is a commonly-used example, and for good reason. He is the biggest fantasy author of his day yet overwrites absolutely everything. A good 20% of his hefty Stormlight Archive tomes could be chopped off without the whole suffering. Bring up any random preview of any of his books right now, and within a couple of sentences you’ll find several words, even entire phrases which could be excised. 

Again, brevity isn’t necessarily the aim here, even if that often felt like a primary objective of modernism, and still does – albeit to a lesser extent – of contemporary literature. Admittedly I prefer to read shorter, sparser prose myself, but there’s an argument to be made that it lacks poetically compared to more luxurious writing. Rather, the point is to write what must be said; and if there’s a lot to be said, there’s a lot to be written. 

Back to Hesiod


You can read the same version as I did on Project Gutenberg, legally and free of charge. Just click here (no download required), then ‘The Theogony’ in the list of contents. The format isn’t the nicest, admittedly (the EPUB version for your Kindle, available here, is nicer), but ignore that if you can and focus instead on the writing. 

Here’s our first line: 

From the Heliconian Muses let us begin to sing, who hold the great and holy mount of Helicon, and dance on soft feet about the deep-blue spring and the altar of the almighty son of Cronos, and, when they have washed their tender bodies in Permessus or in the Horse’s Spring or Olmeius, make their fair, lovely dances upon highest Helicon and move with vigorous feet.

Now that’s a very long sentence. But as with Dr Johnson’s earlier example, there’s not many – perhaps any – words I’d remove. 

It’s certainly descriptive, and this proves true of the entire invocation. But the anti-adjective crusade has certainly been taken too far in modernism’s wake, and – in the case of The Theogony – the liberal use of adjectives is arguably what grants the whole its flavour. It is the ‘great and holy mount of Helicon’, not just Mount Helicon. The muses dance on feet both ‘vigorous’ and ‘soft’ (the rest of their bodies also ‘tender’). 

You’ll notice, too, a somewhat challenging sentence structure. Archaic as it technically is, this serves throughout the invocation to give an almost biblical feel. And as in the Old Testament, there is also great poetical beauty amongst this high and mighty tone. The first thing the goddesses say to Hesiod (a shepherd by trade), is:

‘Shepherds of the wilderness, wretched things of shame, mere bellies, we know how to speak many false things as though they were true; but we know, when we will, to utter true things.’

Shortly thereafter, they:

‘…breathed into me a divine voice to celebrate things that shall be and things there were aforetime.’

And shortly afterwards again:

‘…the Muses who gladden the great spirit of their father Zeus in Olympus with their songs, telling of things that are and that shall be and that were aforetime with consenting voice. Unwearying flows the sweet sound from their lips, and the house of their father Zeus the loud-thunderer is glad at the lily-like voice of the goddesses as it spread abroad, and the peaks of snowy Olympus resound, and the homes of the immortals.


I don’t want to over-analyse the entirety of the invocation in this way, since that can certainly detract from the beauty. 

And in reality, little ‘analysis’ is required. Read it for yourself, and you’ll easily discover the wonderfully smooth flow of the writing. Nor is it any challenge to recognise the sublime precision of the constant descriptions. 

It can often feel as if the invocation of the muse is there merely for tradition’s sake, or for the writer to gee himself up, or to ask for sustained help over the undoubtedly long and gruelling task of composing a lengthy work of poetry in the epic style. But in this case, it seems as if Hesiod received his divine help much more immediately. 

It is hard to believe this could possibly have been the same person who wrote the dry and practical Works and Days. Because what follows is utterly gorgeous poetry; and from that rhythm and flow, that precision and imagery, and its aesthetic merits mixed seamlessly with its professed purposes of both chronicling and exalting the gods, it truly does feel inspired. 

And indeed, even if Hesiod himself didn’t write it, we should be glad that – almost miraculously, and unlike an untold number of other classical texts – this concise and beautiful passage has been passed down to us over the course of some two thousand seven hundred years, and that we can still marvel at it today, here and now. 

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