This is from James Scully's translation of Aias (also known as Ajax), in The Complete Plays of Sophocles, translated by Robert Bagg & James Scully.

                     Dear boy
may you be luckier than I was. If so, if
you're still like me, you won't do badly.
For now, I envy you your innocence.
You know nothing of evil. Life is sweetest
before we realize the joy of it, and the grief.
Then it will be up to you, to show
your father's enemies what you're made of
and whose son you are.

But for now, O, graze
on the fizzy air
, be a child, a joy
to your mother here. And don't worry.
The Greeks won't dare
touch you, or shame you, not
even when I'm gone. I'll leave
Teukros to watch out for you
and bring you along,
he won't let you down

I'm not use to seeing "graze" or "fizzy" used like this and am at a lost to understand how the sentence works. How can air be "fizzy"? How can air be "graze[d] on"? Why are these words used, and (as a bonus) how do they reflect the original (untranslated) text's meaning?

What does it mean to "graze on the fizzy air"?


1 Answer 1


The part in bold appears in lines 558–559 of the Storr edition:

τέως δὲ κούφοις πνεύμασιν βόσκου, νέαν
ψυχὴν ἀτάλλων, μητρὶ τῇδε χαρμονήν.

Meanwhile let light airs feed thee; cherish thou
Thy tender years to glad thy mother’s heart.

Sophocles. Ajax, p. 90. Translated by Francis Storr (1912). London: Heinemann.

If (like me) you don’t know Classical Greek, then one way to work with the Greek text is to use the Perseus Collection, where clicking on any word in the Greek text takes you to a brief dictionary definition, with links to the more detailed entries in classical dictionaries such as Lewis & Short. Following these links in line 558, I find:

  • βόσκου = feed, tend. Scully chose “graze” because the word is used of animals: it’s related to βοσκός = herdsman.
  • πνεύμασιν = winds, airs.
  • κούφοις = light, nimble. Scully’s choice of “fizzy” is quite brave! I guess he had in mind the insubstantial and evanescent quality of the bubbles in fizzy drinks.

Some other translations of these lines:

                                May the breath
Of life meantime nourish thy tender frame.
That thou mayst prove a comfort to thy mother!

Thomas Francklin (1788).

Meanwhile feed on light breezes, and nurse your tender life for your mother’s joy.

Richard C. Jebb (1896).

                        Gentle airs, meanwhile.
Give thee repast; dally with infancy,
And be thy mother’s darling!

George Young (1906).

As for the meaning, there is a note in Jebb:

558 κούφοις πνεύμασιν light airs, gentle breezes, such as nourish young plants.

Jebb, p. 90.

Apparently this was a folk belief in the ancient Mediterranean: Jebb gives us some citations, including this passage in Pliny:

[…] the wind that blows from due west […] is of a drier nature; by the Greeks it is known as Zephyrus. Cato has recommended that olive-yards should look due west. It is this wind that begins the spring, and opens the earth; it is moderately cool, but healthy. As soon as it begins to prevail, it indicates that the time has arrived for pruning the vine, weeding the corn, planting trees, grafting fruit-trees, and trimming the olive; for its breezes are productive of the most nutritious effects.

Pliny the Elder. Natural History, book XVIII, chapter 77. Translated by John Bostock and H. T. Riley (1856). London: Henry G. Bohn.

This notion persisted into medieval times. Chaucer, for example, wrote:

Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes

Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1400). The Canterbury Tales, General Prologue. Wikisource.

  • I thought Scully might be an old literary figure but his translation was published in 2011, so he would certainly be familiar with fizzy drinks. He might also think that fizzy things are naturally appealing to children.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Feb 14, 2022 at 21:30

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