HOMER

The long voyage back to the
Odyssey



There is something curiously unique about the work of Homer, which was somehow put together around 800 BC from pieces of an ancient oral tradition, by an anonymous literary and artistic genius whom the Greeks called "Homeros". Throughout the ancient Greek world Homer was held as the great master and his work the high point of the epic genre; but even further as a reflection of outstanding courage along with admirable mental bearing toward life. It was felt that if you really your knew Homer, you understood life. His verse was read in the Hellenic schools as a sort of secular bible designed to provide patterns of behavior for the young and set straight their minds foor the world they would enter.

But as we approach Homer now in a much changed world with different languages and sensibilities, the way into the Iliad or Odyssey is not straight. Ever since the rediscovery of Greek in the West during the Renaissance, learning to read Greek was always an arduous task. And it is the same today, there are many young people who start Greek to find their road through Attic grammar becoming confused when they start to deal with archaic Homeric forms and rare vocabulary. It is like trying today to read Chaucer cold and without preparation, and most people sooner or later find a modernized translation which they can read as ordinary English. The only trouble is that what comes out is ordinary English and not at all the same as the original 15th c. poetry. The same is true of the various English translations of Homer which glide over the interesting peculiarities of the Greek text, in the belief that communication is the aim of art and that the "storyline" reigns supreme. Reading the Odyssey after three years of study of the Greek, a person is still hesitant. The odd forms of grammar and the exceedingly rare or questionable words are always something to be looked up and this impedes the flow of reeading. But in English this can be cured now with the advice of the publisher's editor, who wants to get a plain if not dumbed-down text out for the use of college classes. Like recognizing the tune of Beethoven's Ninth or whistling it forth, simplification is easy and anyone can do it.

Sometimes the road is curving and precipitous, the line between where you are and where you want to be is often not at all straight. If I want to find an example of this in this literary search or "nostos" going back to Homer, I will have to go to some unusual places for help. And one which I have found unfailingly enlightening for my students, is in the first page of Ezra Pound's great work, a remarkable conflation and interleaving of everything from the Renaissance and every other known world. I am speaking of the Cantos. Let me talk about this a bit first and state why I think this short Homeric section at the beginning of Canto I is so valuable and important, with a few words of explanation:

You will find the Pound text of which I am speaking in this essay below, but there are several things which require some preface.

You see immediately that there are very strange words in there, like "swart" and "ell-square" and "pitkin", not to mention the spelling of "dreory" and what is the "bever" in a "fosse"? No reason I should tell you, because these are things intended to hold up your reading and make you listen to the line. There are words exactly like this in the Greek of Homer, and so Pound decided to use similar archaisms in the English. That is part of the archaic, ancient tone of the original.

Then there is a problem with the epic verse form which Pound recognized immediately. He doesn't want a pseudo-antique Tennysonian line of verse, which is in effect just 19th c. mockery of the epic notion. Since Homer's lines reflect the great sound of antiquity, Pound searched for something which would approximate this in English. He went first to the Old English 9th c. poem "Seafarer" which uses initial alliteration for three 'on-stress' words in a four beat line, with the fourth assonance usually not matching. This is the original verse line of the English language in the Old English of the 9th c. and it persisted into the Middle English of the 14th century with the polemics various popular reformers. "Piers Plowman" by William Langland, which we have written in various MS copies around 1375, retained the true epic English tone until subsumed by the Norman French verse line of Chaucer. Here is an example at the Introduction:

I schop me into a shroud, as I a scheep were;
In habite as an hermite unholy of werkes
Wente I wyde in this world wondres to here;
Bote in a Mayes morwnynge on Malverne hulles
Me bifel a ferly, of fairie, me-thoughte.
I was wery, forwandred, and wente me to reste
Undur a brod banke bi a bourne side;
And as I lay and leonede and lokede on the watres,
I slumbrede in a slepynge, hit swyed so murie.

In Piers too there are various unsusual words, and if you were interested in the poem it would be your things to search out their meaning, or lose the sense of the language. In the Pound Odyssey Canto wihc you have below, there are significant touches of this alliteration, just enough to establish a sense of archaic antiquity, along with the conscious use of Anglo-Norman words I have cited above.

Before I give you the text of Pound's Homeric recreation, there is something to mention on Andreas Divus, who appears suddenly near the end of Pound's poem. You will find these words unexpectedly appearing, one may take them as some sort of a sly academic aside:

Lie quiet Divus. I mean, that is Andreas Divus,
In officina Wecheli, 1538, out of Homer.

In fact Pound laid us a trap to see if we would get the point. It seems that in Paris sometime around 1905 he had picked up a copy of a rare translation of Homerinto Latin by Andreas Divus. In 1538 Greek was just being first taught in the Western Universities as Erasmus noted from his own experience in this same period, and translators like the famous Homeric Chapman who knew no Greek had to use this very unreliable Latin translation. So Pound gives you the impression that he was translating from the Latin, and many modern writers have believed him. In fact this was an edition with Greek and the Latin translation, edited by one Spondaeus, the Greek facing the Latin, in fact a Renaissance Loeb Library edition.

Of course Pound had studied Greek in youth as a student before 1900, and even in late life he was translating from Greek drama the Electra and Trachiniae in 1957. So why does he bring up this surprise Andreas Vicus? First, he was so involved in Renaissance world that he wanted the raise the status of Vicus high, perhaps as a start to his raising of Italian culture and even the new Fascism over the ethics of his native USA. This later involved treason charges ending at St Elizabeth's Hospital in DC for a while. And second, he seems to have wanted to tease your surprised eyes and play an academic joke on you as a gullible West-based English critic. Translating the Odyssey passage from the Latin version, indeed?

There is a third point which I find to bring up here. The Homeric Greek text were understood to come from a popular, oral tradition of bard and singers, which was discovered surviving in the modern Serbian guslars after 1935. Oral poetry as a wide spread field became a standard part of world poetry in those years and established the modern Homeric oral tradition. So I have felt for many years that it would seem reasonable to read Homer's Greek into a modern "oral" recording, but there are problems. First, Greek has long and short vowel lengths which are essential to the rhythms of Greek poetry and prose alike. But modern scholars, who really do know better, substitute Stress or syllable accent for length, and this creates a rocking-horse rhythm which has no authenticity. Every reading of Greek Homer I have heard has this terrible sound, it has become part of the habituation of American scholar teachers, and it seems that it si not going to go away.

Then there are diacritics or musical Pitches marked on all ancient Greek texts, where the acute is higher, the circumflex high-and-longer and the grave (incidentally) a base level nothing! Trying to read Greek with long vs. short vowels, and at the same time with "up vs. down" pitch intonations, is possibly too hard for an English speaker overall, and the examples in recording I know are so confused or MIDI mechanical that they had best be left alone. I have dealt with these academic problems in detail elsewhere so no need to reiterate here. Of course in an acoustic interpretation such as the one I will give you below the text, the differentiation between long vs. short is easy to do and esthetically a correct part of the reading.

I have been working recently with interpretative readings of ancient and modern texts, in the belief that the words we see printed black on white paper are only about 30 percent of the meaning of the lines. This is like the difference between musical score and the performance, which as Hindemith stated some seventy years ago, requires some sixty percent for the performer to serve as an artistic "added-on-value". This is especially important with poetry, and I have pointed out elsewhere the limitations of silent reading of verse, to which we have become habituated in the educated West. Oral poetry worldwide does roar and rave and rage, or it can be sly and tender or even sarcastic.

In this case Ezra Pound has gone far interpretating Homer in the text which follows, so as to make the feeling of Homer's Odyssey become real and alive for us. Following in this direction, I have prepared a carefully design acoustic reading, which will follow the text below.



___________________

And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and
We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,
Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also
Heavy with weeping, and winds from sternward
Bore us onward with bellying canvas,
Cir ce's this craft, the trim-coifed goddess.
Then sat we amidships, wind jamming the tiller,
Thus with stretched sail, we went over sea till day's end.
Sun to his slumber, shadows o'er all the ocean,
Came we then to the bounds of deepest water,
To the Kimmerian lands, and peopled cities
Covered with close-webbed mist, unpierced ever
With glitter of sun-rays
Nor with stars stretched, nor looking back from heaven
Swartest night stretched over wreteched men there.

The ocean flowing backward, came we then to the place
Aforesaid by Circe.
Here did they rites, Perimedes and Eurylochus,
And drawing sword from my hip
I dug the ell-square pitkin;
Poured we libations unto each the dead,
First mead and then sweet wine, water mixed with white flour
Then prayed I many a prayer to the sickly death's-heads;
As set in Ithaca, sterile bulls of the best
For sacrifice, heaping the pyre with goods,
A sheep to Tiresias only, black and a bell-sheep.
Dark blood flowed in the fosse,
Souls out of Erebus, cadaverous dead, of brides
Of youths and of the old who had borne much;
Souls stained with recent tears, girls tender,
Men many, mauled with bronze lance heads,
Battle spoil, bearing yet dreory arms,
These many crowded about me; with shouting,
Pallor upon me, cried to my men for more beasts;
Slaughtered the herds, sheep slain of bronze;
Poured ointment, cried to the gods,
To Pluto the strong, and praised Proserpine;
Unsheathed the narrow sword,
I sat to keep off the impetuous impotent dead,
Till I should hear Tiresias.

But first Elpenor came, our friend Elpenor,
Unburied, cast on the wide earth,
Limbs that we left in the house of Circe,
Unwept unwrapped in the sepulchre since toils urged other.
Pitiful spirit. And I cried in hurried speech:
"Elpenor, how art thou come to this dark coast?
"Cam'st thou afoot, outstripping seamen?"
And he in heavy speech:
"Ill fate and abundant wine. I slept in Circe's ingle.
"Going down the long ladder unguarded,
"I fell against the buttress,
"Shattered the nape-nerve, the soul sought Avernus.
"But thou, O King, I bid remember me, unwept, unburied,
"Heap up mine arms, be tomb by sea-bord, and inscribed:
"A man of no fortune, and with a name to come.
"And set my oar up, that I swung mid fellows."

And Anticlea came, whom I beat off, and then Tiresias Theban,
Holding his golden wand, knew me, and spoke first:
"A second time? why? man of ill star,
"Facing the sunless dead and this joyless region?
"Stand from the fosse, leave me my bloody bever
"For soothsay."
And I stepped back,
And he strong with the blood, said then: "Odysseus
"Shalt return through spiteful Neptune, over dark seas,
"Lose all companions." Then Anticlea came.
Lie quiet Divus. I mean, that is Andreas Divus,
In officina Wecheli, 1538, out of Homer.
And he sailed, by Sirens and thence outwards and away
And unto Circe.

Listen. . .



___________________

Now that you have heard this PoeticPerformance side-road as an approach to the spirit and tone of the Odyssey, as fashioned through Pound's interpretions and my recorded reading, it would be a good time to go back and read the prefatory notes above, to see if these help in reestablishing the route of this poetic "nostos" as an approach to the world of the Odyssey.

While still thinking of Ezra Pound, I feel I should add a footnote of historical interest lest, as Herodotus notes, this detail should be lost forever. When I was a grad student working on my doctorate at Harvard around 1949, I became friends with Fred Locke who was a similar stage in Romance studies. Right after the war he had been at Catholic University in DC, and like many people working on modern literature he went often to see Ezra Pound and chat with him on the garden grounds of St. Elizabeth's Hospital where Pound was held after a court had determined that he was not mentally fit to stand trial on a treason charge. One day, as Fred told the story, he asked Pound when he was going to write more, to which the succinct reply was: "When this birdie gets out of the cage." He did continue the 1915 Cantos project which he worked on until his death in 1972 after returning to Italy where family friends supported him in privacy as he wrote. But he was by then less in the public eye, still known as founder of Modernism, also as a Fascist propagandist, and of course for the massive Cantos appearing up to the time of his death, which in their entirety few have read through, and fewer claim to have understood.



William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris