Approaching the Ancient Epic

Every college in the country has a course, often a core requirement for all students titled "Homer and Vergil: The World of Classical Epic Poetry" , proceeding for three weeks of careful reading in English translation and noting along with plot and storyline the similarities and differences. But since this is now read in English translation, it becomes a question of whose translation you prefer, as in this synthesized example:

CONTEST : Prof. X. and Poet-Laureate Y.

Then did the mighty Laureate Y. cast a sheaf of barb edged arrows
(Awful to behold) cutting the air with far darting precision
Against the weak shield of Prof. X.'s academic robery.
The air tingled as the arrows sought their mark. The sly Professor
Turning sidewise and showing to the speeding weapons
Slim paper personality, avoids the harmful tips altogether.

Now is his turn. He raises a mist of interlacing wording
Hurling it like a web (such as hunters sling over a stag
Or earth pawing boar, an inextricable and fatal tangle)
The work of allusions, doubled meanings and secret signing,
Words which like Janus look back and forward centuries .
The Laureate in return flings an armful of his royalties
Into the air hoping to slip under the net edge unnoticed.
Vain Hope indeed! Arms fail in the field, the Words have the day.

Humor aside, the overriding question becomes: What Translation do you read, and the first line of scrimmage is between the various translations which claim precedence and the best poetic interpretation. Once a book enters the College Textbook Market it becomes a serious earner in the academic world where students read not what they find interesting, but what the course requires. So there is a bottom dollar in all this, first for the publisher and then a small percentage for the translating author. The net result is that "Homer" and "Vergil" are now represented by one of the half dozen in-print translations which are read each semester by many tens of thousands of American students on their way to becoming educated and well-rounded. There is your Classical Reality !

But there is a more authentic reality behind the scene, one which is written in a dialect which has become foreign to the current world of educators and educatees. I am speaking of the Homer as the poems were written down in the Greek language around 500 B.C., and the Vergil whose words are all in Latin, since he is an author who knows no English at all. We do know by now that "poetry is what is lost in translation", but we make do with what we have in print. The alternative is to take things seriously and learn enough Greek and Latin to read the real Homer and the authentic Vergil. In a web-World where one reads three page summaries of books as result of the Information Explosion, a whole book is something of a serious undertaking. And to suggest learning to read in a foreign language, well, that's sort of simply out of the question, isn't it?

But there are a few who have faced up to this matter of authenticity, and are learning enough Latin to read Vergil slowly, with an oncoming tide of new Greek scholars who will be starting their reading with the Iliad. For these the translation is merely a useful crib, a help for understanding constructions and new vocabulary. Nobody who begins to read Homer's Greek will have much use for even the most critically acclaimed translation, which is a beast of another color and designed for another use. There is still hope for a minute fraction of our educated public to read the classics in their proper form, even if that percentage is a part of a hundredth of a percent of the reading public.

But there are problems of access here. It is not simply outlining the grammar and learning the words, then opening the book and reading the poetry. There will be loose stones to trip the foot, linguistic and cultural dead-ends which can defeat the most energetic learner, and I would like to talk briefly about a few of these. Obstacles are less of a problem if we know they are there, then we can devise a work-around to get past them, as they vanish in Lucretius' clear air of the enlightened mind.

In the turn of history it is remarkable that Homer was not recognized for his inestimable worth until well into the l8th century, while Vergil stood as subtle master of a Latin language which had persisted throughout the ages as common parlance of the educated. Vergil was seen after the Renaissance as the master of a supreme poetic mode. Dante's election of Vergil as the Master Poet was an unquestioned image for centuries.

Homer on the other hand seemed archaic and rough, lacking in finish and polish, perhaps an ancient Beowulf in Greek antiquity. But in l8th century England there arose a surprising new set of sensibilities. Blackwell in l734 had suggested that Homer was a poet of Original Genius, and the wide-ranging traveler Wood in l776 again spoke of Homer's special and original quality of poetry. In l775 Bishop Percy published his finding of Elizabethan manuscripts containing old balladish poetry, and none of this English ferment and pre-occupation with English antiquity escaped the notice of the German scholar F.A. Wolf, who knew enough English to publish work on Shakespeare. It was Wolf and close group of similar mind who established the idea of Classical Philology as a broad-based and wide-ranging academic study of classical documents, along with the social, historical and archaeological data which the German schools were accumulating.

When this surfaced in Wolf's groundbreaking study on Homer in l795, which stated that "Homer" was a synthesis or redaction of previous balladic poetry of great antiquity, the "Homeric Problem" jelled. It would be more than a century before the Divisionist attitudes toward Homer were compressed into an intelligible point of view, but in this period there was an unexpected excitement about Homer and his world. When British Prime Minister Gladstone published two books on Homer, it was clear that Homeric interests had affected the whole of the society from top to bottom. Chapman's Elizabethan translation was being compared with Pope's version in rhymed couplets, while Matthew Arnold's essay "On Translating Homer" pointed the way to bring Homer into the reading of the literary public. Homer's popularity for scholars and the reading public as well was at last being established. But this was just the beginning. By l880 the world was aflame with news of Schliemann at Troy, later how Evans unwrapped Knossos on Crete, and then Pylos revealed thousands of clay tablets with an unknown but presumably ancient Greek script. These ventures all outlined new ways of looking into the very world which Homer was describing.

By mid-20th century the Homeric Problem of Wolf was getting tired, but a new set of perceptions and interests appeared in the l930's as a result of Milman Parry's recordings of Yugoslavian folk-bards, whose chants about the Turkish Wars of the 15th century seemed to echo the epics of Homer. Thus toward the end of the century, there opened a new avenue of investigation, leading to a new understanding of folk poetry as part of a global Bardic Tradition. As that century ended "Homer the Bard" became an acceptable notion for the new field of Oral Poetry. At the same time patient scholarship was amassing a grand survey of the MS and papyrus evidence for establishment of the primary actual written text. Homer had become a prime focus of interests, based on a two century process of addition of new materials for analysis and growth, and the eagerness for Homeric study continues unabated. If a contest for popularity in the Epic were run, Homer would turn out as the clear winner, with a panting Vergil lagging several laps behind..

There are interpretational problems galore connected with Homer and little anticipation that final answers will be offered in the foreseeable future. If Homer was once thought to be the absolute start of the Greek art of writing, a common view at the middle of the last century, this is no longer a tenable point of view. There are clear connections with the world of the Near East where Troy was the leading edge of a Luwian or Hittite based culture. I have always had a suspicion that the Homeric poems show signs of translation from another language, the fixed phraseology suits some Near Eastern writing of the second millennium, and there is an archness or stiffness which would seem to come from a converting tradition rather than from a personal composer. There is much research going on at the present time on Luwian language and society, while the continuing Greek studies on Linear B may well bring forth a poetic fragment or a metrical clause which shows Homeric connections. Linear A is still a mystery but it seems impossible that it is unconnected with the Greek speaking world of 1200 B.C. We now face the matter of Homer as an oral poet, or the recipient of oral poetry traditions, while we survey the role of global oral poetry as a newly discovered art. Or are we to continue to read our Iliad in Martin West's new Teubner text as a written document? Since the first line of the Iliad says "chant me the account...." are we prepared to read the Greek aloud, can we deal with the metrical in streaming reading as we go? We can no longer scan on paper with little marks over the letters, we simply have to learn to read going forward. But are we ready to really "chant", perhaps in the mode of what we know about Near Eastern chanted prayer from Islamic and Hebrew older traditions? These are all new things to think about as we make our approach to the epic poetry of the Iliad and Odyssey, with thought for the future.

As Homer rose to the fore of classical study and interest, Vergil began to seem less interesting, less exciting and less worthy of intense study. Everything involved with the Vergilian corpus of writing had been more or less known since the Renaissance, there were no breaks in new information, no unplowed fields to search for artistic artifacts. Scholarship began to turn sideways and think of Vergil's place in the world in two very different dimensions:

First there was the Homeric connection, the obvious ways in which Vergil borrowed themes and imitative techniques from the Homeric writings. Schooled in Greek, the Romans were uneasily Hellenophilic, awed by the great Greek culture but at the same time aware of the difference between Greek and Roman thinking. Vergil was censured in his time for his hundred of "borrowings" from Homer, to which he replied that stealing a line from Homer was harder than stealing the club from Heracles. In fact he did not steal; he adapted and transformed, perfectly well aware that his world was not Homer's at all. But the Homeric mist which he spread over his new Iliad was an essential part of his formula, within which he felt free to practice a very different poetic art, which became the double language of words which could speak separately from their denotated meaning.

Secondly, there was the influence which Vergil had over successive generations of Roman poets, extending finally into later times and finally reaching into the Post Renaissance world. When one looks into Ribbeck's larger l9th century edition of Vergil, one finds elaborately detailed documentation for this two-way set of influences, standing Janus-like with Homer and the Greeks on one side and Statius with Lucan and Silius Italicus on the other. The Greek inheritance seems the area of choice for modern scholarship, but there is activity among professional Latinists in the transmission of Vergil through the ages, if often reminiscent of the alchemical transformation of gold into lead. All in all, professional Latin criticism has had a much dryer riverbed in which to flow its scholarly lucubrations, as compared to the mad rush of the successive waves of Homeric scholarship.

When accessing either Homer's Greek or Vergil's Latin there are linguistic matters which are involved and influence the angle of approach. As historical linguistics evolved in the l9th century, the history of the evolving development of Greek became very interesting, as we saw a clear thread of development from Homeric Greek to the early language of the archaic poets and on into the full flow of Attic usage. A student learning Greek from the Homeric end of this tradition finds a natural progression from early to late grammatical forms, and this makes Homer a good starting point for a modern student of Greek. The old way of learning Attic first and then studying the Homeric "exceptions" was always curious and is now seen as linguistically forced. Homer teaches the Greek language very well indeed, as well now as in the days when the Iliad was first reader for a thousand years of native speakers.

The Latin of Vergil is a very different story. There is still a large amount of Latin study in the schools in this country, although only a few percent of students get to reading at the Vergil level. One reason for this is that the language is verbally complex, and requires developed poetic insight to make the words come alive. School students, and many of their teachers, may not be ready for the intricacies of poetic analysis, especially when reading a foreign language. But there is another difficulty which hinders appreciation of the Roman poet. It requires a great deal of experience with the Latin language to be ready to work with Vergil's subtle shading of his words. The four years preparation in school before facing Vergil is grammatically sufficient, but it does not prepare for the literary grasp of the language which reading Vergil requires. Reading on into a doctoral program, one later becomes aware of the shadings and special meanings which Vergil's words employ, and many of us never got the full flavor of the Roman epic until a dozen years of further reading had passed. This makes Vergil difficult of access, a difficulty which is inherent in his kind of writing, but perhaps one which makes his poetry an excellent lifetime commitment going hand in hand with maturity. But it is also a fence which keeps many people at bay.

Of course Vergil was not just doing a Latin re-write of the Trojan War. Under encouragement if not contract from Augustus, he was outlining the origins of the Roman state, in terms which were nationalistic enough to serve the country as a unified historical documentary. For centuries after the Renaissance the emerging nations of Europe thrilled to the words of Nationalistic Rome, a superpower such as they had never known and could hardly imagine. Vergil's dream for Rome became part of the program for strong national states throughout Europe, with national heroes, a national sense of destiny and the future, vast armies for defense of the national heritage, and above all a glowing sense of national pride.

We have seen the results of nationalistic hypertrophy ending in the second World War, as Germany and Italy followed the thread to glory which had been instilled in their public mind from the days of the Latin lessons in the schools. It all seemed so natural and normal, "great and glorious to die for your country" as Horace put it, even as Hitler put it in the face of defeat in the last months of the War. I think most of us have had enough of this vein of thinking. National Pride is a trick that can get us quickly into unexpected war. I have always found Vergil's nationalism offensive, and I think that for many modern readers it is either annoying in tone, or overly histrionic in style. We often forget that Vergil in his youth was trained as a lawyer in the Roman system, which involved rhetorical working of an argument in the manner of the Controversiae of Seneca ofrQuintilian. There are passages in the Aeneid which are debate-team Declamationes, geared to proving a point with inexorable rhetorical skill. Many nationalistic passages are disfigured by the rhetorical boast of power and a grand Future, which can be a real problem for modern readers of the Aeneid.

Vergil lived through a time of devastating civil warfare, his age knew well about the reality of battles and death of thousands on the fields of battle. But few traces of the reality situation of the historical first century B.C show through in the Aeneid, where the maius opus of the latter half depicts a nationalistic warfare which has little war-psychology and scant sense of reality. Warfare in Homer is quite different, it is the bread and butter of a warrior class's living, played out in the normal state of border and trade friction, The warriors can be examples of bravery and personal honor, but there is little national honor involved. One can hardly say if the invading Argives are more honorable than the invaded Trojans; in fact the Trojans are the clearly the warmer and more human crowd. There is a thin mask of the Gods and their will determining the course of the war, but this is less of a religious matter than a fusing of traditional mythology with the course of an actual historical event. The Assyrian tablets which tell of the destruction of five cities because of the wrath of an offended Enlil, is quite different although this may have been an indirect model for the often genial Olympian overseers. The theme of personal honor, with an almost samurai style emphasis, runs through the world of the Iliad, while the Odyssey stresses survival skills in the face of odds almost as a counterfoil to arete. Compared to this, Vergil's scenes of war as background for a future rising Republic seem a bit like the painted backdrops used for early movies.

The later history of Vergil through the Middle Ages is most curious, all stemming from the really inexplicable wording at the start of the so-called Messianic Eclogue which even now the casual reader would have to admit seems to announce the coming of Christ as the Messiah. In the Christian world developing out of Rome, Vergil became known as a prophet, as a magician, as an alchemist, and finally as Dante's prophetic guide through the realms of Heaven and Hell. There are dozens of minor threads which stretch across the European continent during a period of six centuries, none of which has much to do with Vergil the poet of Augustan Rome. Most curious is the I-Ching like practice of opening a volume of Vergil and finding augury from the first word the random finger touches, something done only with Vergil and the Bible. Following this peculiar track may be interesting as a divergent path of intellectual history, but it draws the reader away from Vergil's actual poetry into a netherworld of strained imagination and blind superstition.

Latin continued through the Middle Ages as a written and spoken language along with the developing vernaculars of Europe, thus providing a continuous linguistic thread which could connect daily language with a library of thousand year old documents. So it was natural after the discoveries of the Renaissance for Latin writers to take the lead in popular reading, while Greek was hardly taught and fully understood until well into the 16th century. Homer didn't have the sense of history and tradition which Vergil automatically inherited, and it would be some centuries until the sense of Homeric roughness and barbarism was peeled off to reveal the polish of the highly cultivated Homeric epic. It is curious that Chaucer was also regarded as rough and crude until he was -re-discovered in the late l8th century along with the Homeric materials. Changes of taste of this magnitude are always surprising, a reminder of the depth of social evolution and intellectual perception as a continuous variable.

There are many interpretations of Vergil which stem from our habit of explaining an author by trying to locate him in the social and intellectual climate of his time. The older scholarship stressed Vergil's place in the Augustan circle of administrators and poets, his history as a result of the social wars, his dependence on imperial favor and the coloration which this dependence made on his writing. Were the nationalistic passages payment for financial support? Were the Georgics the returns for favors in support of a reformed agricultural policy? These considerations fleshed out a thin biography, one which had very little to do with the poets artistry in the Latin language, and now seem somewhat peripheral to the essentials of poetry.

As scholarship became interested in Greek philosophy and the Stoics, questions arose about the motivation of characters in the poetry, and Aeneas was strangely re-classified as a Stoic. This seems to have been based on nothing more than Dido's sexuality and pseudo-Epicurean lifestyle, which were rejected by the puritanical Aeneas in a fit of Stoic fortitude. Of course the terms Stoic and Epicurean were being used in wrong senses, but what is surprising is how often this Stoic argument appeared in the classical commentative literature. But better evidence points to Vergil's virtual infatuation with Lucretius both as poet and as conveyor of the Greek Epicurean tradition. The Donatan life specifically states that Vergil planned after finishing the Aeneid to retire and devote himself to Epicurean philosophy, which seems to have been the driving force behind his life from sixteenth birthday (the day Lucretius died of an overdose) and his stated plans shortly before his death.

There is a tendency in our criticism and teaching to treat characters in a literary work as real people with psychological insights drawn from our contemporary social setting. In the case of modern writing this may work fairly well, but as we shift the time frame back a generation or a century or more, we are on grounds as mutable as the Saharan sands. The double error of using our own psychological insights, which may be slanted or wrong in the first place, and then applying these to literary characters as if they were three dimensional living entities, is as regrettable as it is widespread. Modern Man is so firmly committed to a social interpretation of every human action, that he cannot think of a portrait or photograph or literary sketch without searching for the footnote to give the societal link. Some new work on Vergil goes so far as to use a Straussian interpretation for his social history, binding together with close reading of his words, a social-philosophical atmosphere in which he is supposed to have lived. This new philosophical and social-science Vergil is a far cry from the gay and girlish Maiden of Naples who fled into a alleyway to avoid being recognized in the street. His intellectual work was all on the interior face of his consciousness, which is why the words he exactingly manipulates are so important as the final summation of his poetic genius. Thinking history and social setting and socio-political notions, we move away from the stream of words and sounds which, with their secret and subtle involutions, are the core of the poetic art.

For Vergil too there are serious problems of access and interpretation. The Donatan life makes it clear that the Aeneis was sufficiently unfinished at the time of the poet's final illness that he ordered it burned. This clearly states that we have an unfinished and unrevised edition as our standard text of the Aeneid, but we do not see the evidences of this. Have we become so used to the text we have that we have mentally manicured it into perfection, ignoring the rough edges? The half lines would seem to indicated unfinished sections which could not be sutured without adding filler lines, but we can also take them as sigh-ful pauses and dismiss the problem they cause. M. V. Agrippa blamed Vergil for mixing poetic wording with common and vulgar expressions, he was quite specific about this as an example of "tastelesness", but we have so little knowledge of common parlance Latin that we cannot find these passages. They were probably not errors of taste but intentional conflations of levels of speech, perhaps an experiment much like Eliot's Prufrock. Then there is the problem of reading Vergil aloud, and we must read him aloud since we know he was very particular if not picky about Maecenas' court reading which he had to stop and do himself. Yet he is stated to have a countrified mien and slow manner of speaking as if uneducated (Donatus again). We can no long write marks above the words in our book and fumble about how to read the metrics of the dactylic line, we have to be able to read the lines in a continuous real-time stream with some careful acoustic artistry. But then we have the problem which modern recorded recordings show, we read the Latin with the sounds of our native language. An Italian professor reads Latin like Italian, a Frenchman as French, and as Americans we find we can't understand their Latin at all. Can we erase our native sounds and read in an artificially contrived Latin, is it worth the effort, and can it actually work? Then about Vergil's biography and background, he is described as being swarthy or "aquilus", and his mother Polla Magia has a Carthaginian name, as does Mago the Carthaginian author on farming whom Vergil surely read before writing his Georgics. If his ancestry came from a Carthaginian left over from the over-land invasions, could his obvious interest in Dido and Book IV have a personal value, making the North African part of the Aeneid the most vivid and finely constructed? These and more questions indicate that we have not reached the end of the possibilities for new approaches to Vergil, which will color our thinking about the Aeneid one way or another.

But in the last analysis it is not the history or the background but the actual Words which demand out attention,. But they cannot be read quickly and discarded as we sift off the denotated meanings, as we read a newspaper or a light novel. Here we have a serious problem, since teachers of literature in the American education system do not have at hand workable tools for analysis of the musical and acoustic phonetics of written material,. They incline regularly to the easier task of stripping away the sounds and meters from a passage of prose or poetry, preserving the "meaning" as the point of the passage. There is much written material which can be handled in this way, one would not wish to read the daily newspaper with close phonetic attention since it was not written for that kind of reading and will not support the results of such analysis. But all poetry and a great deal of the world's artistic prose is grounded in sound, just as speech itself is at base an acoustic phenomenon with much investment of sub-meaning in the articulation and management of the sound stream.

Approaching the Ancient Epic as a high mark in the history of the poetic tradition, we must eventually deal with the base level of the actual words in the original language, and grasp the dual nature of languages as consisting of FORM which is phonetic sound and the rhythmics of meter beside MEANING, which is the commensurate other side of the coin. It is no longer possible for the school and college student to do this on their own, since they must rely on translations for the general sense of what they are reading. But that makes it all the more important for the teacher, as the intermediary between the primary material and the secondary reader, to have at least elementary experience with the language base along with some form-based interpretational skills, in order to bridge the gap between the Bard Poet and the academic reader at this far distant end of the stream of time. In the case of Homer and Vergil, this is essential, otherwise the fabric of the writing disappears in a casual recount of the storyline with a smattering of literary history.

This is not the place for a full discussion of these things, so I will give a few links to other papers which go into further detail.

  • The Problem of Form vs. Meaning A critical look at Form as FORM, as against the sequencing of chunks of meaning.

  • How to Read a Poem A guide to poetic Microstructure, in three easy lessons.

  • The Poet and the Spectrograph

  • Metrics in Music and Poetry .........a dangerous limitation to mind and imagination.

  • William Harris
    Prof. Em. Classics
    Middlebury College