I first read The White Goddess during a road trip with my ex at the turn of the century. I can remember several days when we were staying at a bed-andI first read The White Goddess during a road trip with my ex at the turn of the century. I can remember several days when we were staying at a bed-and-breakfast in pre-Katrina New Orleans. It was neither overly warm nor overly humid, and my erstwhile spouse was recovering from serving as a mosquito smorgasbord, so I had some down time to sit out on the patio and read. I have to say that the first time through this book left me confused and lost; the second time through I’m on firmer ground in understanding what Graves is trying to do with his “historical grammar of poetic myth” and I’m glad I have spent the last few months reading it again.
Truly, you can read only the Forward and Chapter XXVI, “The Return of the Goddess,” and get the gist of Graves’ argument. What comes between is the convoluted path of erudition and intuition (and a certain amount of wish fulfillment on Graves’ part) where he explains the original purpose of poetry (myth) and its perversion.
As Graves explains, poetic myth (the first poems) “are all grave records of ancient religious customs or events, and reliable enough as history once their language is understood and allowance has been made for errors in transcription, misunderstandings of obsolete ritual, and deliberate changes introduced for moral or political reasons.” (p. 13) Poetry originates as the invocation of the Triple Goddess (Aphrodite-Hera-Hekate are just one of her many iterations, she’s also the Muse who Homer calls upon in the Iliad) and the expression of the exaltation, horror and awe one feels in her presence. For millennia it was the religion of the Eastern Mediterranean and put out feelers throughout West Asia until it was perverted and eventually subsumed by invading patriarchal Sun worshippers (aka, Indo-Europeans and Semitic tribes) whose gods (Zeus, Apollo, Yahweh, etc.) usurped her attributes and – in the extreme case of Judaism and its descendants – denied the feminine principle entirely. This ur-religion persisted in a severely attenuated form in mystery cults (e.g., Eleusinian or Orphian), the bardic colleges of Ireland and Wales, and in witches’ covens before nearly vanishing utterly except in the intuitive inspirations of modern poets who don’t understand what it is they’re invoking.
Graves’ purpose in writing The White Goddess is nothing less than to restore the Goddess to her rightful position as the source of all acts of creation – physical, spiritual and intellectual – and depose the unholy trinity of Pluto, god of wealth; Apollo, god of science; and Mercury, god of thieves, who have ruled the world for the last three thousand+ years. (A sentiment shared by a growing number of people today, if not expressed quite so mystically.)
The book is a rather scathing indictment of Western civilization. Here’s the author’s description of the collapse of Western religion: “As a result, all but a very few have discarded their religious idealism, Roman Catholics as well as Protestants, and come to the private conclusion that money, though the root of all evil, is the sole practical means of expressing value or of determining social precedence; that science is the only accurate means of describing phenomena; and that a morality of common honesty is not relevant either to love, war, business or politics.” (p. 476) And he anticipates Stephen Prothero’s arguments in God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World--and Why Their Differences Matter: “[N]o good can come from publicizing either the contradictions between the main revealed religions and their mutually hostile sects, or the factual mis-statements contained in their doctrines, or the shameful actions which they have all…been used to cloak. What is really being urged is an improvement in national and international ethics, not everyone’s sudden return to the beliefs of his childhood – which, if undertaken with true religious enthusiasm, would obviously lead to a renewal of religious wars; only since belief weakened all around have the priests of rival religions consented to adopt a good-neighbourly policy.” (p. 477)
Graves’ solution to our woes is…idiosyncratic. It’s certainly utopian and it’s disturbingly nondemocratic:
If…it is wished to avoid disharmony, dullness and oppression in all social…contexts, each problem must be regarded as unique, to be settled by right choice based on instinctive good principle, not by reference to a code or summary of precedents; and, granted that the only way out of our political troubles is a return to religion, this must somehow be freed of its theological accretions. Positive right choosing based on moral principles must supersede negative respect for the Law which, though backed by force, has grown so hopelessly inflated and complex that not even a trained lawyer can hope to be conversant with more than a single branch of it. Willingness to do right can be inculcated in most people if they are caught early enough, but so few have the capacity to make a proper moral choice between circumstances or actions which at first sight are equally valid, that the main religious problem of the Western world, is…how to exchange demagogracy, disguised as democracy, for a non-hereditary aristocracy whose leaders will be inspired to choose rightly on every occasion, instead of blindly following authoritarian procedure. (p. 479)
And I think many people – while acknowledging many of the problems he points out – would balk at this answer. (view spoiler)[I got the impression that the author would not regret a return to the ancient ways of the Goddess, with year-kings and human sacrifices to ensure prosperity. (hide spoiler)]
I can’t recommend The White Goddess. If this brief review has sparked any interest or you’re a fan of Graves, then you may want to try this book. If you’re interested in authors such as Riane Eisler or Merlin Stone, there’s interesting information here. As I wrote, you can skip or skim Chapters I through XXV, without losing the author’s central message, which takes up all of 20 pages (in this edition).
I have an ugly secret to divulge - with few exceptions I have not read in their entirety the foundational epics of Western civilization. You name it,I have an ugly secret to divulge - with few exceptions I have not read in their entirety the foundational epics of Western civilization. You name it, chances are good I haven't read it: Gilgamesh - no; Homer - no; Virgil - no; Beowulf - no; The Song of Roland - no; Cervantes - no. I could go on with the "roll call of shame" but I'm sure you get the idea.
Oh, I've taught parts of many of these works as a TA during my days at UCLA, and I know their gists but I've never been able to sit down and read them with any great degree of enjoyment. I vastly prefer modern retellings like Gardner's Grendel or Jason and Medea or S.P. Somtow's Shattered Horse.
One factor in my "shameful" literary history is that I find the "heroes" of these epics somewhat ludicrous and not people to emulate. The epic hero is no longer a "hero" in the modern sense. All too often, he's a spoiled child without conscience or morals (Achilles in the affair with Briseis being, perhaps, the iconic case study of this phenomenon). Another part of the explanation lies in a fundamental difference between how & what people enjoy today and what they enjoyed 1,000+ years ago. Until relatively recently, few people read. Illiteracy was the rule not the exception (TV may be far more retro than we realize). People heard and watched their entertainments, and most of the works cited above were meant to be recited or sung.
(Ah, hah - light bulb goes off): I can't change the first factor but I could try an experiment related to the second. I would check out a couple of epics and see if they were more palatable "said" than "read."
In the case of this audiobook version of Gilgamesh, I'd say the experiment has been a success. The entire reading is only 2 hours or so long, and managed to hold my attention much of the time (while I'm certainly not an ADD child, my thoughts have a tendency to latch on to something and go off on its own flights of fancy, missing the later narrative or the rest of the interview; it's why I'm not a fan of audiobooks in general). I hope the version of Beowulf I checked out as well proves equally engrossing.
Gilgamesh, for those of you whose literary landscapes are even more parched than mine, is the story of the king of Uruk and his boon companion, Enkidu. Their struggles against the gods and Gilgamesh's ultimately futile quest to conquer death. It has been restored to a place among the canon (having been lost for 2,000 years) because, in addition to being an exciting adventure, it's also a remarkably sophisticated reflection of humanity (remarkable at least to those who find it difficult to accept that our distant ancestors had mental lives as rich and complex as our own). There's a great deal of moral ambiguity that one doesn't find in the Homeric epics or the Norse sagas. Gilgamesh begins the poem an uncontrollable tyrant, enslaving men, raping virgins and generally doing as he pleases without regard to consequences. By the end he has become a model despot, a wise ruler and resigned (however reluctantly) to the futility of glory and the inevitability of death.
Some of the other themes that Gilgamesh addresses include:
1. The role of friendship/companions in person's life.
2. The tension between Man and God, and what each owes the other.
3. The tension between Ruler and Ruled similar to 2 above.
In both 2 & 3, the somber conclusion appears to be that the weaker of the two must rely upon the mercy of the stronger to ameliorate the harshness of life as there is no legitimate recourse to the "natural order" of things.
4. In the Flood Digression, we are also introduced to the nascent idea of justice in proportion to the offense when the gods reprove Enlil for destroying all of mankind rathan than just decimating them for their sins.
5. The absence of biblical prudery. In fact, sex is a civilizing event, and it's clear that Gilgamesh and Enkidu are carnal lovers as well as "lovers" in the Platonic sense.
6. Defeating death and achieving immortality (or not, as the case may be).
I learned a few fascinating things from the accompanying essay by Mitchell:
The earliest form of the Gilgamesh story comes from five separate tales in Sumerian from c. 2100 BC. Gilgamesh, himself, was a real king in Uruk c. 2750 BC; a man who obviously made an enormous impression on his society to be remembered 600 years later (how many figures are remembered from the 1400s in our culture?). Unfortunately, what the real man may have accomplished is lost in the depths of time.
Our version is primarily based on a Babylonian synthesis from c. 1750 BC, a version of which was preserved in Ashubanipal's library in Nineveh (c. 7th Century BC). I find it wonderful and humbling to think that Ashurbanipal stood as far from Gilgamesh in time as we do from Jesus and Mohammad. I'm not so sure what to make of the fact that we're still wrestling with the same problems that bedeviled humans 5,000 years ago.
As to the translation: I found it a bit flat and passionless. The English is serviceable and supposedly closely follows the connotative meaning of the original but there's no "poetry" in the language and little emotion except for a few passages.
I'm glad I decided to try this and get the whole story directly from the source....more
When reading Michael Dirda'sClassics for Pleasure, I came across his essay on George Meredith, a 19th century English writer. I probably would have rWhen reading Michael Dirda'sClassics for Pleasure, I came across his essay on George Meredith, a 19th century English writer. I probably would have read and enjoyed the essay and then moved on but for the fact that Dirda dwelt on Meredith's 50-sonnet cycle of poems that detailed the break up of his first marriage. A subject quite unusual for Victorian England. In fact, a subject most unusual for any period before our modern era of the tell-all memoir.
Being a divorce' myself and titillated by the brief excerpts Dirda reproduced, I surfed over to the Gutenberg Project site and downloaded a copy of Modern Love.
And glad I am that I did. Dirda is right to celebrate the poet's honesty and insight into the birth, life and death of Love. While I'm going to have to read the cycle again (and again) to fully appreciate it, several sonnets immediately touched me:
IV. ...Oh, wisdom never comes when it is gold, / And the great price we pay for it full worth: / We have it only when we are half earth. / Little avails that coinage to the old!
VIII. ...Where came the cleft between us? Whose the fault? / My tears are on thee, that have rarely dropped as balm for any bitter wound of mine: / My breast will open for thee at a sign! / But, no: we are two reed pipes, coarsely stopped: / The God once filled them with his mellow breath; / And they were music till he flung them down, / Used! Used! Hear now the discord-loving clown / Puff his gross spirit in them, worse than death!...
XV. ...Her own handwriting to me when no curb / Was left on Passion's tongue. She trembles through, / A woman's tremble - the whole instrument: - / I show another letter lately sent. / The words are very like: the name is new.
XLIII. ...I see no sin: / The wrong is mixed. In tragic life, God wot, / No villain need be! Passions spin the plot: / We are betrayed by what is false within.
XLVIII. Our inmost hearts had opened, each to each. / We drank the pure daylight of honest speech. / Alas! that was the fatal draught, I fear....
L. ...Then each applied to each that fatal knife, / Deep questioning, which probes to endless dole. / Ah, what a dusty answer gets the soul / When hot for certainties in this our life!....
And there are other sonnets that touched me, too. Like XXXIV, where the spouses skirt around the issue of their estrangement; or XVI, where Meredith, in an unguarded moment, says "Ah, yes! / Love dies," and only later realizes that this is when the "red chasm" began to grow.
I'm sufficiently impressed by this author to search out more of his work (though I fear I'll have to wait until the To-Read shelf becomes a bit less crowded)....more
Don't have anything terribly profound to say about Akhmatova. Overall, the collection here merits three stars. I find that I prefer her earlier stuff,Don't have anything terribly profound to say about Akhmatova. Overall, the collection here merits three stars. I find that I prefer her earlier stuff, pre-Revolution and from the early '20s (before Stalin solidified his control), but there are some very affecting stuff from the period when her son was in a gulag (I'm thinking here, though I can't remember the specific poem, of the image of the women waiting in line to hear news of their husbands, lovers, sons, etc.).
Some of the more memorable verses (for me):
Now, like a little snake it curls into a ball, Bewitching your heart, Then for days it will coo like a dove On the little white windowsill.
Or it will flash as bright frost, Drowse like a gillyflower... But surely and stealthily it will lead you away From joy and from tranquility.
It knows how to sob so sweetly In the prayer of a yearning violin, And how fearful to divine it In a still unfamiliar smile. p. 81
There is a sacred boundary between those who are close, And it cannot be crossed by passion or love - Though lips fuse in dreadful silence And the heart shatters to pieces with love.
Friendship is helpless here, and years Of exalted and ardent happiness, When the soul is free and a stranger To the slow languor of voluptuousness.
Those who strive to reach it are mad, and those Who reach it - stricken by grief... Now you understand why my heart Does not beat faster under your hand. p. 181
... Damned if I will. Neither by glance nor by groan Will I touch your cursed soul, But I vow to you by the garden of angels, By the miraculous icon I vow And by the fiery passion of our nights - I will never return to you. p. 285
That was when the ones who smiled Were the dead, glad to be at rest.... p. 386
A sky white with a frightful whiteness, And the earth like coal and granite. Under this withered moon Nothing shines anymore.
A woman's voice, hoarse and impassioned, Doesn't sing, but yells, yells. On the black poplar right above me Not a single leaf rustles.
Was this why I kissed you? Was this why I tormented myself, loving? To remember you now, calmly and wearily, With loathing? p. 643
O God, for myself I could forgive everything, But I would rather be a hawk clawing a lamb, Or a serpent biting someone sleeping in the field, Than be a human and be forced to see What people do, and from putrid shame, Not dare to raise my eyes to the heavens on high. p. 647...more
UPDATE JAN 2013: I finished reading Stephen Mitchell's translation soon after the New Year and can't recommend it enough.
And, as with any good literatUPDATE JAN 2013: I finished reading Stephen Mitchell's translation soon after the New Year and can't recommend it enough.
And, as with any good literature, I find that upon rereading the Iliad, I got something more out of it. Something that had nothing to do with my first impressions noted below (and that I'll elaborate upon more fully in my review of David Malouf's Ransom: A Novel when I finish that book). ____________________________________________
Up to now, I’ve only read fragments of The Iliad. First as an undergrad in various Western Civ and Greek history classes, then as a TA in grad school (for the same classes just from the other side of the podium). I even got to translate fragments in my Greek-language classes. But I never had a desire to read it on my own. Three things have militated against reading it up to now: Until recently, I hadn’t done a lot of poetry reading. That prejudice began to crack about 15 years ago when a former flame introduced me to Dickinson and Plath. I then read John Gardner’s epic recasting of Medea (Jason and Medeia). The “block” is still pretty high but I’m far more open to poetry now than in my youth.
A second factor in my reluctance was that The Iliad lacks any reasonably sympathetic character. Among the “heroes” there’s Odysseus (perhaps) but he doesn’t really get a chance to shine until Homer gives him his own epic. Even then, for me, Odysseus has always been an anti-hero rather than someone to admire or emulate. Hector, too, generates some sympathy but not for anything “heroic.” Rather it’s his interplay with Andromache and Astyanax that makes him a real person.
The final impediment to reading this classic is that I already know why it’s so important – why read the original when I have a wealth of analyses by men and women who’ve done it for me?
Yet – there’s always been a nagging guilt that I hadn’t read it. When I saw that an audio cassette of the Fagles translation was available at the library, I decided this was a prime opportunity to assuage that guilt (after all, I had enjoyed both Gilgamesh and Beowulf much more in their audio incarnations).
So, having finished it, did I learn anything? Were my perceptions and preconceptions challenged and/or changed? Up to cassette 6, side A, I would have had to say “no.” But then I heard a line that fundamentally altered my view of the poem and made it pertinent in a wholly unexpected way. It was the point where Homer says that Paris chose Aphrodite (as the fairest) for love. The whole poem fell into place then, and I understood what it meant to me and why Homer had written it (or had sung it) in the manner he did. After all, there’s this schizophrenic attitude apparent on the author’s part: Though much of the tale revolves around the “glorious” exploits of Akhaia’s and Troy’s greatest warriors or the machinations of the gods, there is yet a sense that Homer despises his subjects, finding worth only in those human moments when they exhibit glimpses of love, charity and compassion.
When I heard that line, though, I knew how to see the poem: As a cri de coeur against a world where Love seems unable to prevail against the brutality of War (Ares/Athena) and the cold rationalism and realpolitik of Wisdom (Hera/Athena). At that moment, I saw Paris in an utterly new light. He’s still a fool but not because he chose Aphrodite so much as that he chose her without considering the consequences. Heck, in this light, I could argue that he does realize what he’s doing but chose Love regardless, making him the bravest figure in the poem (it reminds me of a line from the song “You’ll Never Be the Sun” – “You won’t find that love comes easy, but that love is always right”).
So let this be a lesson: Works of art do not survive 3,000 years because of a fluke. They survive because they speak to audiences across time, space & culture. Perhaps not clearly, perhaps not in the way the author originally intended, but speak they do.
Sidebar: This version of The Iliad is not harmed by Derek Jacobi’s wonderful reading. He makes the poem come vibrantly alive with a masterful command of its rhythms, characters and voices without distracting from the content....more
Flowers of Evil was an entirely serendipitous impulse check-out from my local library. I can only imagine that what caught my eye was the title - FlowFlowers of Evil was an entirely serendipitous impulse check-out from my local library. I can only imagine that what caught my eye was the title - Flowers of Evil - who could resist? So I pulled it from the shelf, opened it up at random, read a few verses, and said to myself "This isn't bad."
Not only was it "not bad" but it was extraordinarily good; good enough that Baudelaire has joined the list of authors I'll pay money for.
It's random events like finding authors whose work "speaks to me" in some way (Maugham, Le Guin, Chekhov, etc.) that keep me from being an out-and-out atheist. Afterall, it's strongly suggestive that there's at least a guardian spirit of some kind looking out for me. At the risk of offending or titilating some, Baudelaire's passions and obsessions mirror my own. I'm particularly taken with his ability to combine carnality with spirituality, often in the same poem. A short example that springs to mind is "Correspondences" (this and later translations are from the Oxford World Classic's edition, James McGowan, translator):
Nature is a temple, where the living Columns sometimes breathe confusing speech; Man walks within these groves of symbols each Of which regards him as a kindred thing.
As the long echoes, shadowy, profound, Heard from afar, blend in a unity, Vast as the night, as sunlight's clarity, So perfumes, colours, sounds may correspond.
Odours there are, fresh as a baby's skin, Mellow as oboes, green as meadow grass, - Others corrupted, rich, triumphant, full,
Having dimensions infinitely vast, Frankincense, musk, ambergris, benjamin, Singing the senses' rapture and the soul's.
Or there's "Conversation":
You are a pink and lovely autumn sky! But sadness in me rises like the sea, And leaves in ebbing only bitter clay On my sad lip, the smart of memory.
Your hand slides up my fainting breast at will; But, love, it only finds a ravaged pit Pillaged by a woman's savage tooth and nail. My heart is lost; the beasts have eaten it.
It is a palace sullied by the rout; They drink, they pull each other's hair, they kill! - A perfume swims around your naked throat!...
O Beauty, scourge of souls, you want it still! You with hot eyes that flash in fiery feasts, Burn up these meagre scraps spared by the beasts!
And any man (or woman) who writes poems to his cats is going to be on my A List by default. From section II of "The Cat" comes these verses which describe my young friend Oberon to a T (not to be confused with an earlier poem of the same name that begins, "Come, my fine cat, to my amorous heart"):
From his soft fur, golden and brown, Goes out so sweet a scent, one night I might have been embalmed in it By giving him one little pet.
He is my household's guardian soul; He judges, he presides, inspires All matters in his royal realm; Might he be fairy? or a god?
When my eyes, to this cat I love Drawn as by a magnet's force, Turn tamely back upon that appeal, And when I look within myself,
I notice with astonishment The fire of his opal eyes, Clear beacons glowing, living jewels, Taking my measure, steadily.
And, unlike in re my Russian literary interests, I was pleased to find that my graduate-school French was good enough that I could intelligently compare the parallel texts in the Oxford edition. McGowan uses a variety of techniques in translating Baudelaire; sometimes following both syntax and wording nearly exactly, sometimes translating a bit freely. In most cases I think he comes very close to capturing the original's intent.
There was something that I found utterly inexplicable: There is a missing poem. The final section of the Oxford edition are 14 poems (supposedly) that were included in the 1868 edition of the original work. Poem #3, "The Peace Pipe," isn't there. The text goes from poem #2, "To Theodore de Banville," to poem #4, "Prayer of a Pagan," as does the table of contents. I probably would have missed it entirely because I usually don't focus on the numbering but for the fact that there's a note for "The Peace Pipe" on page 383.
Despite that, readers of this review are safe in assuming that I highly recommend Baudelaire....more
I’m not surprised that I didn’t get as much enjoyment from reading this collection of Sylvia’s* poems as I did and do from her prose. I’m just not a “I’m not surprised that I didn’t get as much enjoyment from reading this collection of Sylvia’s* poems as I did and do from her prose. I’m just not a “poetry kinda guy.” It takes a remarkable coincidence of interest and talent (on the poet’s part, not mine) for me to want to read poetry (you’ll note the size of my poetry shelf). In the past, I’ve relied upon significant others (Plath, Dickinson) or Fate (Baudelaire, Gardner, Meredith) to guide my poetic adventures.
That said, it goes without saying that I would recommend this woman’s grocery lists if anyone published them so if you have the opportunity, please go out and get this book.
This volume is a compilation of several previous collections and a number of unpublished poems with almost no annotation. In fact, if this book fails at any level it’s in not giving much in the way of context for the poems. Most of the endnotes consist of little more than, e.g., “p. 281 `Black Out!’ [Dorset, 1940].”
While I give the book overall only 3 stars, there are many poems here that I would give 4 or 5 to and I’m going to reproduce a few here to give the interested a taste of Sylvia’s style.
The first poem snared me right out of the gate – “Quiet Neighbors”:
Sitting alone at night Careless of time, From the house next door I hear the clock chime.
Ten, eleven, twelve; One, two, three – It is all the same to the clock, And much the same to me.
But no-night more than sense heard it: I opened my eyes wide To look at the wall and wonder What lay on the other side.
They are quiet people That live next door; I never hear them scrape Their chairs along the floor,
They do not laugh loud, or sing, Or scratch in the grate, I have never seen a taxi Drawn up at their gate;
And though their back-garden Is always neat and trim It has a humbled look, And no one walks therein.
So did not their chiming clock Imply some hand to wind it, I might doubt if the wall between us Had any life behind it.
London neighbours are such That I may never know more Than this of the people Who live next door.
While they for their part Should they hazard a guess At me on my side of the wall Will know as little, or less;
For my life has grown quiet, As quiet as theirs; And the clock has been silent on my chimney-piece For years and years.
Other poems would warm the cockles of a PETA member – “A Song About a Lamb”:
“O, God, the Sure Defence Of Jacob’s race, Lover of innocence And a smooth face, Accept my sacrifice – A little lamb, bought at the market price.
“With fleece so soft and clean And horns not yet A-bud, the creature’s been The children’s pet. And sore they wept to see Their snub-nosed friend come trotting after me.”
God heard: the lightnings brake Forth in his honour; But by some slight mistake Consumed the donor. The lamb fell in a muse – But soon took heart, and leaped among the pews.
There are many poems that deal with the theme of Nature unsullied by human interference. Her “epic pastoral” “Opus 7” is an example of this; and here I’ll quote one stanza from “Peeping Tom”:
There is no beauty like the beauty of the wild, That blossoms suddenly out of the bare hillside. It is the barren woman that goes with child, It is the clenched knot of necessity untied, Eternity waylaid, and labouring creation Into forgetfulness and laughter beguiled: A relenting, a reconciliation, a glimpse of the bride, Nature, hidden under her dark veils of Time and Space and Causation.
Another poem – “The Patriarchs” – is in the same vein as “A Song About a Lamb.” It’s written from the point of view of the ram sacrificed in Isaac’s place. (It’s a bit long to quote in full here.)
She’s also a cat lover – “Lines to a Cat in a London Suburb”:
Quadruped on a bough, Cat absolute, Cat behind All cat-shows of your kind, I see and salute you now:
Massive, tenacious, bland, Sardonically surefooted, Pacing along the sooty Aspen branch, and fanned
By all the obsequious Spring To ear fine-furred and strong Squat nose conveys of song Or scent wave-offering;
As pace in stealthy hope Through incense cloud and Tu Es Petrus hullabaloo Cardinals into Pope.
But more compactly wise, More serpentine in sin (My more than Mazarin) Your commerce with the skies;
While vacant and serene Your eyes look down on me, In all the wavering tree The one unshaken green.
And “X” from the Boxwood collection:
The fire; the cushion, and the toy, The curtained room And my sweet milk to come – All mine by right feline – Is this not joy?
The wind, the dangerous dark, the sway Of bough to ride, The midnight world so wide – All mine by right feline – Is that not joy?
And she wrote love poetry (or poems about relationships, at any rate) – “I, so wary of traps”:
I, so wary of traps, So skilful to outwit Springes and pitfalls set Am caught now, perhaps.
Though capture, while I am laid So still in hold, is but The limb’s long sigh to admit How heavy freedom weighed.
And “Though you are not so far”:
Though you are not so far But that I could come to you By walking a mile or two, You may stay as you are. You will not hear me stepping light To your door tonight, or any other night.
Though we are not so estranged But, did I like to woo, I could easily undo What’s blunted or deranged, You need not fear I’ll venture this, Or abjure the sloth which our accomplice is.
For since loves have their date Why should we seek to renew Ours for a year or two That must die soon or late, When we, my dear, of all the many Conclusions now choose the best and kindest of any?
* I think our relationship has reached the point where Sylvia wouldn’t mind my familiar use of her Christian name :-)...more
Note that in what follows all book and line references are to the Fagles translation.
In the classic Star Trek episode “Errand of Mercy” there is a sceNote that in what follows all book and line references are to the Fagles translation.
In the classic Star Trek episode “Errand of Mercy” there is a scene toward the end that my readings of The Iliad and The Odyssey brought to mind and prompted the comment made in the Comments earlier, i.e., “the Klingons are ancient Greeks.” The Organians have revealed themselves to be super-evolved, incorporeal beings and have put a stop to the “insane war,” as Ayelborne calls it, the Klingons and the Federation have begun. Kirk begins a self-righteous (and hypocritical) rant that the Organians have no right to interfere with relations between the warring parties before Ayelborne stops him in mid-tirade with the observation that he is claiming the right to wage war on an interplanetary scale, slaughtering millions (if not billions, considering the technology). Kirk stops, pauses and says, “Well, no one wants war.” At which absurdity, Kor, the Klingon commander (played by John Colicos) gives Kirk a look of utter disbelief. Later Kor expresses his regret that he and Kirk will not have a chance to fight and ruefully comments, “It would have been glorious.”
Here’s a link to the scene I’ve described on YouTube; note Kor’s look and how, later, he lovingly lingers on the word “glorious.”
This sentiment the Klingons will still hold a century later as in this episode (forget the title) of DS9: It’s the end of the Dominion War, and Sisko, the Federation admiral (can’t remember his name) and General Martok are celebrating the defeat of the Dominion and the Cardassians. Martok makes a toast to the killing of their enemies but he’s nonplussed when the Federation officers only half-heartedly join in. How can you not celebrate the glorious slaughter just ended, he wonders?
I bring up these examples because it occurred to me that the warrior ethos of the Achaeans would have suited the Klingons quite well. Both cultures value war – the proof of a man’s character is in his ability to fight well, capture prizes, and slay his enemies. Some Klingons are by nature Achillean, e.g., Kang; some are Odyssean, e.g., Koloth. But they all would have felt at home in Bronze Age Greece.
Alas, none of this has much to do with this review of Robert Fagles’ translation of The Odyssey, it’s only something that struck me as I read and didn’t play a large role in how I responded to the story. Nevertheless, any chance to horn in a Star Trek reference is not to be missed (an observation I’ve made elsewhere).
As to The Odyssey, a little background is in order. Several years ago, I mentioned in my review of the Audio CD of Gilgamesh that I had not read the great, foundational classics of the Western Canon: Gilgamesh, Beowulf, The Iliad, The Odyssey. I’m still avoiding The Aeneid, The Song of Roland and The Canterbury Tales, though I have a modern English version of the latter on my To Read shelf and I’ve contemplated getting Fagles’ translation of Virgil. For the most part, I’ve caught snippets of these works over the course of my academic life or I’ve watched their watered-down versions on TV or at the movies (if available). (view spoiler)[In celebration of finishing the book, I watched the 1955 Italian version (titled “Ulysses”) with Kirk Douglas and Sylvana Mangano (yowza!). It wasn’t bad. It followed the story more closely than I thought it would, though it glossed over the murder of the maids at the end, combined the characters of Circe and Calypso, and made Odysseus’ philandering a result of amnesia or, in the case of Circe, her resemblance to Penelope. (hide spoiler)] So I was surprised to find that, of the 24 books, only eight dealt with the adventures most Americans are familiar with – the cyclopes, Circe’s island, the Sirens, etc. The first four books don’t even concern Odysseus at all; they’re an account of Telemachus’ visits to Nestor and Menelaus to search out news of his father. Fully half of the poem (books 13-24) occurs after Odysseus returns to Ithaca and recounts his schemes to reveal his identity and take revenge on the suitors.
Going into this review, I thought that I preferred The Iliad but now I’d have to say it’s a toss up. I’ve found that both speak eloquently to me but about different things.(1) Where The Iliad is a brilliant examination of the loathing and attraction we feel toward violence and the personal costs of war (see, for example, Chris Hedges’ War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning or Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel for more contemporary perspectives), The Odyssey became a tale of a family recovering from war’s effects(2) and the importance of personal narrative.
As to the first theme, there are three axial characters around which the story revolves. The most often forgotten is Telemachus, Penelope’s and Odysseus’ son, still in his swaddling clothes when Odysseus left but now a full grown:
Telemachus’ story is of a young man trying to find out who he is. Consider that he’s been raised by an over-protective mother (1.409-14), old nurses and his father’s aging retainers. There’s a scene where Telemachus expresses doubts about his parentage to Athena (disguised as Mentes, a visitor to Odysseus’ house):
And young Telemachus cautiously replied, / “I’ll try, my friend to give you a frank answer. / Mother has always told me I’m his son, it’s true, / but I am not so certain. Who, on his own, / has ever really known who gave him life? / Would to god I’d been the son of a happy man / whom old age overtook in the midst of his possessions! / Now, think of the most unlucky mortal ever born – / since you ask me, yes, they say I am his son (1.247-55).
Telemachus isn’t expressing actual doubts as to who his father is. He’s looking at his life and what he’s accomplished and asking himself, “How can I claim to be Odysseus’ son when I allow these suitors to plunder his house?” So off he goes to see if he can discover news of his father, and in the process discovers himself:
Enough. Don’t let me see more offenses in my house, / not from anyone! I’m alive to it all, now, / the good and the bad – the boy you knew is gone. (21.344-7)
Even going so far as to defy his father’s orders about the straying maids(3):
…they marched the women out of the great hall – between / the roundhouse and the courtyard’s strong stockade – / crammed them into a dead end, no way out from there, / and stern Telemachus gave the men their orders: / “No clean death for the likes of them, by god! / Not from me – they showered abuse on my head, / my mother’s too / You sluts – the suitors’ whores!” (22.484-90)
The second axis is Odysseus:
When I was young, I liked Odysseus’ tale, but was never much interested in Achilles’. Of course, I only knew the bowdlerized version: No murdered maids, no sacking of Ismarus, no consideration that Polyphemus had a credible grievance against Odysseus and his crew, no dwelling on just what Odysseus, Circe & Calypso got up to on their islands, to sully my innocent child’s mind. An older self, however, is more cognizant of the man’s complexity: He’s a rapist, a murderer, a liar and a philanderer (i.e., the quintessential Achaean hero); yet … he’s charming, intelligent, and (despite his wandering eye) devoted to wife, son and father.
Book 5 begins with our hero’s wanton sacking and rape of Ciconian Ismarus, a little town on the Aegean’s north coast that hadn’t even been a Trojan ally but had the misfortune of lying along Odysseus’ homeward route:
The wind drove me out of Ilium on to Ismarus, / the Cicones’ stronghold. There I sacked the city, / killed the men, but as for the wives and plunder, / that rich haul we dragged away from the place – / we shared it round so no one, not on my account, / would go deprived of his fair share of spoils (9.44-9)
In Book 5 too, we find him mourning his plight:
With that the powerful giant-killer sped away. / The queenly nymph sought out the great Odysseus – / the commands of Zeus still ringing in her ears – / and found him there on the headland, sitting, still, / weeping, his eyes never dry, his sweet life flowing away / with the tears he wept for his foiled journey home, / since the nymph no longer pleased (5.164-70)
Yet not averse to enjoying the nymph’s embrace:
Even as he spoke / the sun set and the darkness swept the earth. / And now, withdrawing into the cavern’s deep recesses , / long in each other’s arms they lost themselves in love (5.249-51)
But, in the end and despite everything Poseidon and the other gods think to throw at him, Odysseus remains true to his wife, son and father:
Sunny Ithaca is my home. Atop her stands our seamark, / Mount Neriton’s leafy ridges shimmering in the wind. / Around her a ring of islands circle side-by-side, / Dulichion, Same, wooded Zacynthus too, but mine / lies low and away, the farthest out to sea, / rearing into the western dusk / while the other face the east and breaking day. / Mine is a rugged land but good for raising sons – / and I myself, I know no sweeter sight on earth / than a man’s own native country….
True, but time and again Odysseus turned his face / toward the radiant sun, anxious for it to set, / yearning now to be gone and home once more… / As a man aches for his evening meal when all day long / his brace of wine-dark oxen have dragged the bolted plowshare / down a fallow field – how welcome the setting sun to him, / the going home to supper, yes, though his knees buckle, / struggling home at last. So welcome now to Odysseus / the setting light of day, and he lost no time / as he pressed Phaeacia’s men who love their oars, / addressing his host, Alcinous, first and foremost (9.23-32 and 13.31-44)
The more interesting character is Penelope, the third axis:
Her gender makes it difficult to assert herself as an individual(4), but manage it she does in several scenes where she shows she’s equally charming, intelligent and devoted as her spouse, and a worthy companion for an Achaean king. Homer makes it believable that she would wait 20 years for Odysseus.
Penelope is at her best in Book 19 when she interviews Odysseus, who has returned home disguised as an old beggar, interrogating him at length about his connection with her husband. I am of the school that prefers to believe Penelope recognizes Odysseus by the end and engineers the crisis of the archery contest in Book 21 to give him opportunity to smite the suitors (see 19.408-9 for the lines which strongly suggest so).
Whether she recognizes him or not, Penelope exerts a measure of control over the situation throughout by keeping Odysseus guessing, asking him to interpret her dream about the geese (19.592-624), proposing the archery contest (19.643-81), cross-examining Eurycleia in Book 23, or facing each other at last and only relenting when Odysseus proves his identity with the story of their marriage bed:
Living proof – / Penelope felt her knees go slack, her heart surrender, / recognizing the strong clear signs Odysseus offered. / She dissolved in tears, rushed to Odysseus, flung her arms / around his neck and kissed hi head and cried out, / “Odysseus – don’t flare up at me now, now you, / always the most understanding man alive! / The gods, it was the gods who sent us sorrow – / they grudged us both a life in each other’s arms / from the heady zest of youth to the stoop of old age….
The more she spoke, the more a deep desire for tears / welled up inside his breast – / he wept as he held the wife / he loved, the soul of loyalty, in his arms at last. / Joy, warm as the joy that shipwrecked sailors feel / when they catch sight of land – Poseidon has struck / their well-rigged ship on the open sea with gale winds / and crushing walls of waves, and only a few escape, swimming, / struggling out of the frothing surf to reach the shore, their bodies crusted with salt but buoyed up with joy as they plant their feet on solid ground again, / spared a deadly fate. So joyous now to her the sight of her husband, vivid in her gaze, / that her white arms, embracing his neck would never for a moment let him go… (23.230-9, 259-272)
The second theme I want to briefly touch upon is “personal narrative.” You are your story. If you lose control of it, you lose control of yourself. The Odyssey abounds in stories: There’s Helen’s spin on her time in Troy (4.243-98), Eumaeus’ biography of his youth (15.437-541), the suitor Amphimedon’s version of events in his interview with Agamemnon in the House of Death (24.106-225), or Penelope’s own tale of how she coped with Odysseus’ absence (pretty much all of Book 19).
But the story-teller nonpareil is Odysseus – “the master of stories” (23.300). He spins no fewer than five versions of his homeward journey, beginning with the most fantastical in Book 8 – the one Homer knew his audiences would most like to hear: The perils of the Lotus Eaters, outwitting Polyphemus, the heartache of nearly reaching home on Aeolus’ winds, losing all but his flagship to the cannibal Laestrygonians, his yearlong dalliance with Circe, the Land of the Dead(5), the seven years’ imprisonment with Calypso, and finally finding himself washed up on the shore’s of Scheria, to be found by Nausicaa and brought to the Phaeacian court to tell his marvelous tale. (Succinctly recapped – though strategically edited – for Penelope and the readers in 23.354-87.) Elsewhere, Odysseus is a Cretan refugee (13.290-324, 14.219-407, 19.194-234, and at 24.339-52), and his sojourn considerably less god-fraught and magical.
Which is true (or truer)? Do any of them have a measure of truth? Or is there yet an unspoken truth we’ll never know? (e.g., Odysseus spent 10 years a slave of the Cicones after they had defeated his men…hmmm?)
Whatever the case, the truest line in the entire poem is – not surprisingly – Penelope’s:
One moment he seemed…Odysseus, to the life – / the next, no, he was not the man she knew, / a huddled mass of rags was all she saw. (23.108-10)
Whoever the man was, he was not the Odysseus that had left Ithaca 20 years before.
In Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, he writes about the fragility of knowledge. In the West, Homer was forgotten for nearly a millennium, and – in that sense – the Renaissance truly was a “rebirth” of knowledge, just as so much of what survives from our past is the result of accident. What we have are fossils, the ten percent that had the good fortune to be buried under the mudslide or caught in the flash flood and preserved. It’s mind numbing to consider how much we’ve lost.
Which is all the more reason to rejoice that we can read such master works as The Odyssey and The Iliad, and so I strongly recommend that you don’t wait until you’re in your mid-40s to do so.
(1) In the Bernard Knox’s Introduction, he mentions that a major theme of the poem is the importance of guest rites and ensuring proper relationships among warriors but – let’s be honest – unless you’re an anthropologist or historian, who really cares about such things today? Which raises the question of why we should bother to read something recited/written by people three thousand years dead. It’s because you find in it something of import or interest that speaks to you. I didn’t find anything in The Odyssey that affected me on an emotional level but I did find an interesting story about a family struggling to survive and a study about how people present themselves. When I go back to read this again (and I will now that I know how good it is), I’m sure I’ll find something else.
(2) See 8.585-96
(3) Before you think Odysseus gets off the hook, he had ordered that they receive clean deaths – the maids were stilled doomed.
(4) Even her son tries to keep her under wraps (21.390-9), and one can only imagine what she may have accomplished if Athena hadn’t been constantly putting her to sleep (ibid., and elsewhere).
(5) Two things of note here, though not directly pertinent to this review, are the contrast with Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra, and Penelope (11.457-518) (see Agamemnon’s final words: “the time for trusting women’s are gone forever!”) and the famous interview with Achilles, where he doesn’t claim to regret his choice but does lament that life – glorious or obscure – is better than being king of the dead (11.554-59).["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more