Friday, February 13, 2009


A Chorus of Frogs

The chorus in Aristophanes' Frogs croaks "brekekekex koax koax" (line 209 and elsewhere). For an amusing commentary, see George Horton, In Argolis (Chicago: McClurg, 1902), pp. 51-54:
Who says that ancient Greek is not spoken in this country still? Just as we emerged from the lane, I heard a chorus of voices shouting an immortal line from Aristophanes. I stopped and listened, with the same feeling of pleasure that one might experience in unexpectedly hearing the voice of an old friend in a strange land. Yes, there they were!
"Kek, kek, kek, koax!"
There was no chance to dispute the pronunciation, or to doubt for one moment its genuineness. The throats were Greek, and older than Aristophanes himself; pre-Mycenaean, pre-Pelasgian, pre-anything that the archaeologists wot of. I do not know why they said
"Kek, kek, kek, koax!"
nor what they meant by it,—whether it is a prophecy, a song, or a curse; but I do know that these voices have been repeating it, insisting upon it, chattering about it, ever since the Seven fell before Thebes,—and long ere that.

I crept through the tall wheat to the shaft of an old well, and peeped down. Half a dozen feet below me, three or four frogs were floating buoyantly, their hind legs trailing listlessly behind them, their heads raised to the sky. Even as I looked, one of them began his "Kek, kek, kek" and two or three interrupted him with a In raucous and derisive "Koax!"

I looked sharply into their big bulging eyes, and I fancied I detected there a faint gleam of amusement, perhaps of derision. If so, I think I understood. At any rate, I have stuck pretty faithfully to my Greek for a layman, and perhaps I am entitled to an opinion.

There they were, in a marsh or a puddle, while tall Achilles was driving his maddened horses about Troy and the limp corse of beautiful Hector bounded through the dust, and they knew that a coward's arrow would smite him in the heel; there they were when proud King Agamemnon walked to his palace-gates on carpets, lest the earth defile his victorious feet, and they knew that he was a cuckold and that a shameful death awaited him within; there they were while Pericles and Phidias were supreme in Athens, and they knew that the most of those divine works of art would melt away in barbarian or Christian lime-kilns, and that a Venetian bomb would wreck the Parthenon; there they were when Aeschylus was fighting with the Greek navy at Salamis, and they knew that the filthy Turk would defile the soil of Hellas with slavery and moral degradation for hundreds of years. Argolis And they looked on all the time out of bulging, humorous eyes, and cried—
"Kek, kek, kek, koax!"
Away with your Pindars, your Miltons, your Tennysons, your Gibbons, your Ciceros, your Websters! We take ourselves too seriously, we mortals, with our little ephemeral dynasties, religions, civilizations! The voice of the frogs outlives them all; and what other voice so expressively sums up the whole matter as these that cry
"Kek, kek, kek, koax!"
Update: Thanks to Fran Manushkin for drawing my attention to the Stephen Sondheim musical The Frogs, which has a clever version of the frogs' chorus.

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