On First Looking Into Wilson’s Homer

odyssey-wilsonI have finally read Homer’s Odyssey. More precisely, I have read Emily Wilson’s Odyssey, which has been widely praised for its immediacy, accessibility, energy, and contemporaneity. These qualities–particularly the last–made it, I think, at once the best and the worst translation for my first experience with this classic text.

Yes, first. I have never so much as taken an undergraduate course in Classics. Everything I know about the Homeric epics has come to me indirectly, from other sources, mostly because I needed context for something else. For instance, I have often taught Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” which has meant poking around to get a sense of how Tennyson is interpreting the story and its characters; I have also taught other epic poems, such as Aurora Leigh, which has meant familiarizing myself with some basic ideas about epic form and conventions and the expectations that go with them. I also know, and feel as if I have somehow always known, bits and pieces about the stories I have now read for myself–about the Cyclops, for example, and Scylla and Charybdis, and the lotus eaters (though that’s also because of Tennyson again), and faithful Penelope weaving and waiting. This vague but wide-ranging familiarity testifies to Homer’s pervasive cultural influence.

an-odyssey-coverYet actually reading Homer for myself never felt like a powerful imperative. Perhaps it should have. I was part ashamed, part irritated when I saw this comment on Daniel Mendelsohn’s Facebook page, when he had kindly shared a link to my post on his wonderful ‘bibliomemoir’ An Odyssey: “amazing that he [sic] has never read the Odyssey (but teaches Middlemarch) and by all accounts, probably never will. Oy.” The list of things I haven’t read is always going to be longer than the list of things I have and I don’t think the Odyssey would even be a Humiliation contender these days — or would it? It’s not as if the ancient classics are part of the core curriculum any more–not, as far as I know, at any level. Still, I can understand thinking that someone with my job might have filled this gap by now, just as I can see why it might shock some people (oy!) that I have only ever read snippets of the Bible. These are foundational cultural texts: maybe it is not enough just to know about them, although I honestly can’t think of a way my own specific work has been the worse for it.

In any case, the buzz around Wilson’s new translation inspired me to fill this lacuna in my education. I actually bought the handsome paperback some months ago, but it wasn’t until this past weekend that I settled in to read it. I was a bit anxious about whether I would be up to the task (it’s always a bit intimidating, isn’t it, reading one of the Great Books for the first time?), which is one reason I had been putting it off, but I decided to take the same approach I did a few years back with Moby-Dick (it’s about whales) and let myself just read, not trying to “get” everything but rather just to get acquainted with it all. And all things considered it went really well! I could follow and enjoy the stories; the ‘ring’ structure was not, after all, very confusing; I frequently got caught up in the action and the drama; some of the trickery made me chuckle; the horrific violence made me shudder; the long-awaited reunions were worth the journey. moby-dick-penguin

I am pretty sure that I have Wilson’s translation to thank for the ease with which I engaged with the Odyssey at this fairly basic but still essential level. Nothing, in her version, really gets in the way of the story-telling: not diction or syntax, and also not notes–which are sparse (presumably because the introduction is very thorough) and kept at the end, for minimal distraction–or any other scholarly apparatus. The whole presentation is clean and crisp and transparent, like much of the language Wilson chooses. What more could a first-time reader ask for a tale so rich and various and strange than that it be made so rhetorically painless and thus so readily consumed?

But that same simplicity and directness, that commitment to an accessible contemporary idiom, meant that, for me, it was hard to get any sense of the poem’s greatness, or, to put it slightly differently, to recognize the Odyssey‘s greatness as a poem. A bit too often for my liking, the language crossed the line from clear and direct into mundane and banal. Sometimes the result was bathos; other times it was just incongruity. One example of many comes from Book 8, when Odysseus is challenged by the Phaeacians to participate in various sporting competitions:

                                 I am only
concerned that one of you may win the footrace:
I lost my stamina and my legs weakened
during my time at sea, upon the raft;
I could not do my exercise routine.*

waterhouse suitorsAnother example, less jarring rhetorically but more disorienting emotionally, came after the appalling violence of Book 22, which Wilson’s bluntness made remarkably vivid. Here is a bit of that, to show how powerful the translation can be–this is Telemachus overseeing the deaths of the women who “lay beside the suitors”:

As doves or thrushes spread their wings to fly
home to their nests, but someone sets a trap–
they crash into a net, a bitter bedtime;
just so the girls, their heads all in a row,
were strung up with the noose around their necks
to make their death an agony. They gasped,
feet twitching for a while, but not for long.

This brutal work done (and Melanthius also punished as a collaborator by having his genitals ripped off and fed to the dogs–yikes!), Telemachus turns to his nurse Eurycleia and asks for her help gathering what he needs to “fumigate the house”:

She answered with affection,
‘Yes, dear, all this is good. But let me bring
a cloak and shirt for you. You should not stand here
your strong back covered only with those rags.
That would be wrong!’

It’s a reasonable concern, I guess, but not only is her indifference to the suffering he has just caused chilling (though suggestive, I suppose, as a signal about its possible righteousness) but her lines are so bland they trivialize an otherwise climactic moment. They made me burst out laughing at what is surely not supposed to be a funny moment, and that happened pretty regularly as I read through the poem.

There are certainly passages of great eloquence and high drama, and a few that are melodious and even beautiful, such as this bit of Book 7, from the description of “the house of King Alcinous”:

Outside the courtyard by the doors there grows
an orchard of four acres, hedged around.
The trees are tall, luxuriant with fruit:
bright-colored apples, pears and pomegranate,
sweet figs and fertile olives, and the crop
never runs out or withers in the winter,
nor in the summer. Fruit grows all year round.
The West Wind always blows and makes it swell
and ripen: mellowing pear on mellowing pear,
apple on apple, grapes on grapes, and figs.

“Mellowing pear on mellowing pear”: I like that, maybe because it sounds like something Tennyson would write! I liked a lot of the poem, really–maybe even most of it. Flipping back through it to choose my examples I paused at a lot of passages that drew me quickly back in. But I also ran right back into ones that fell flat: Penelope saying “since a god / has made you speak out about these future labors, / tell me what they involve. I will find out / eventually, and better to know now”; Laertes telling Odysseus that if he’d only had a chance to fight the suitors himself, “I would have brought so many of them down, / you would have been delighted!” There’s nothing wrong with these lines, of course, or anyway not anything definitive, but to me they sound like ordinary conversation, not extraordinary verse.

aurora-leigh-oxfordI commented on Twitter that reading this translation made me think of Wilde’s quip “Meredith is a prose Browning, and so is Browning.” I also noted that as an admirer of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s self-consciously contemporary epic Aurora Leigh I am on shaky ground when it comes to complaining that poetry is too prosaic. “There are cases,” noted an early reviewer of Aurora Leigh with some acerbity, “in which Mrs. Browning has broken loose altogether from the meshes of versification, and run riot in prose cut up into lines of ten syllables.” “Is that poetry?” demanded another; “Assuredly not. Is it prose? If so, it is as poor and faulty a specimen as ever was presented to our notice.” EBB’s mission statement for her own epic comes in Book V of Aurora Leigh. “If there’s room for poets in this world,” she declares (“I think there is”),

Their sole work is to represent the age,
Their age, not Charlemagne’s,—this live, throbbing age,
That brawls, cheats, maddens, calculates, aspires,
And spends more passion, more heroic heat,
Betwixt the mirrors of its drawing-rooms,
Than Roland with his knights at Roncesvalles.

Her solution, that is, to bringing the epic up to date is to claim it for herself: not to translate it but to transform it. Wilson is up to something different and perhaps more difficult: to bring an epic from another age into our own in language that (as her Translator’s Note thoughtfully and convincingly explains) reflects at once her modernity and Homer’s strangeness, to bring the Odyssey as close to us as possible while also reminding us of its difference and distance from our world:

My use of contemporary language–is meant to remind readers that texts can engage us in a direct way, and also that it is genuinely ancient.

My wish for language with more of the qualities she deliberately rejected (“grand, ornate, rhetorically elevated”) reflects on me, on my expectations and desires and, no doubt, my limitations more than anything else. I hoped for a transcendent experience, a thrilling one; I got an interesting and engaging and surprising one, and also, occasionally, a disappointing one. Maybe one day I’ll read the Odyssey again in another translation and see if I like that experience better or worse. As George Eliot says in Middlemarch, every limit is a beginning as well as an ending: at least now I’ve started on this voyage.

*June 12 update: Coincidentally (or possibly not, as someone tagged her in a related tweet to me yesterday, something that, just by the way, I personally avoid doing with authors, for my sake and theirs), the same day I posted this Emily Wilson wrote a thread on Twitter about her translation of this line. It is, as you’d expect, interesting and convincing about her reasons, though it does nothing to change my skeptical response to the line’s poetic affect (or lack thereof).

This Week In My Classes: The Radicalism of Aurora Leigh

aurora-leigh-oxfordIn my seminar on the Victorian ‘Woman Question,’ we started work last week on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s 1856 verse-novel Aurora Leigh. It’s usually kind of hard going for the students: although it does have many of the familiar features of a Victorian marriage plot novel, it also includes (among quite a bit of more miscellaneous material) long meditations on, and also arguments about, the nature and purpose of poetry in the modern world — and its 9 books of blank verse add up to a total of approximately 15,000 lines of iambic pentameter, which, let’s face it, is not the easiest reading even when the verse itself is thrilling … which, frankly, for long stretches Aurora Leigh is not.

And yet, having said that, there are plenty of things that are thrilling about Aurora Leigh. The challenge is just helping students to get excited about some of them before they’ve completely disengaged from the effort to tramp through EBB’s often ungainly poetry. One of them is the sheer bravado of the exercise itself: an epic poem, on the scale of Paradise Lost, but about the life of a nineteenth-century woman poet. This is probably the single most daring thing about Aurora Leigh, that it insists on, not just the importance, but the epic potential of contemporary female life, at a time when such a thing seemed both artistically and socially inconceivable. “The critics say that epics have died out,” says the eponymous narrator in a famous passage in Book 5; “I’ll not believe it,” and in particular she refuses to accept that her own age offers no heroic subjects suitable for epic treatment:elizabeth-barrett-browning_engraving

Nay, if there’s room for poets in the world
A little overgrown, (I think there is)
Their sole work is to represent the age,
Their age, not Charlemagne’s,–this live, throbbing age,
That brawls, cheats, maddens, calculates, aspires,
And spends more passion, more heroic heat,
Betwixt the mirrors of its drawing-rooms,
Than Roland with his knights, at Roncesvalles.

“Never flinch,” she advises the modern poet,

 But still, unscrupulously epic, catch
Upon a burning lava of a song,
The full-veined, heaving, double-breasted Age:
That, when the next shall come, the men of that
May touch the impress with reverent hand, and say
‘Behold,–behold the paps we all have sucked!
That bosom seems to beat still, or at least
It sets ours beating. This is living art,
Which thus presents, and thus records true life.’

The whole poem is an extraordinary appropriation of epic conventions in the pursuit of revising gender conventions — and, as that excerpt shows, it does have some moments of great poetic vigor.

EBB works out her theory of poetry in other fascinating and sometimes exhilarating ways across the course of the poem — I get particularly excitable about the sections of Book VII in which Aurora begins to draw connections between her initially very high-minded idealism and the more material kinds of social reform which the poem also advocates but she at first disdains:

                                            Thus is Art
Self-magnified in magnifying a truth
Which, fully recognized, would change the world
And shift its morals. If a man could feel,
Not one day, in the artist’s ecstasy,
But every day, feast, fast, or working-day,
The spiritual significance burn through
The hieroglyphic of material shows,
Henceforward he would paint the globe with wings,
And reverence fish and fowl, the bull, the tree,
And even his very body as a man,–
Which now he counts so vile, that all the towns
Make offal of their daughters for its use…

But usually, and understandably, Aurora’s (and EBB’s) developing theory of poetic double-vision is less engaging to students than Aurora’s resistance to the traditional marriage plot. (The two aspects of the poem, as I hope they realize by the end, are of course connected.) It is very common for the first proposal in a 19th-century novel to be rejected, but Aurora’s reasons are not common — and neither is the explicitness with which she lays them out to her hapless suitor. He appeals to her to give up her idle fantasy (as he sees it) of writing poetry and (St. John Rivers-style) join him in his work of social reform. “Men and women make / The world,” he says earnestly, “as head and heart make human life”;

                                  ‘Women as you are,
Mere women, personal and passionate,
You give us doating mothers, and chaste wives.
Sublime Madonnas, and enduring saints!
We get no Christ from you,–and verily
We shall not get a poet, in my mind.’

For its time, it’s a perfectly conventional vision of the sexes and their separate spheres, but Aurora is having none of it:the-tryst

With quiet indignation I broke in.
‘You misconceive the question like a man,
Who sees a woman as the complement
Of his sex merely. You forget too much
That every creature, female as the male,
Stands single in responsible act and thought
As also in birth and death.’

She insists, that is, on her autonomy, on her right to an independent identity defined not by her relationship to any man but by her own choices and actions: “I too have my vocation–work to do” she tells him defiantly, “Most serious work, most necessary work / As any of the economists.'” And (having also rejected his attempt to give her financial support for this “necessary work”) off she goes to London, to live as a single woman supporting herself by her writing.

As if that’s not radical enough, Aurora Leigh also unabashedly takes on the plight of ‘fallen women’ and the sexual double standard that shames an unwed mother while shrugging off men’s culpability. “God knows me, trusts me with the child; but you,” exclaims the “murdered” Marian Erle, “You think me really wicked?” It is hard to grasp today how boldly EBB defied propriety with this plot line, something she has Marian herself call attention to, along with the hypocrisy that propriety relied on:

‘Enough so!–it is plain enough so. True,
We wretches cannot tell out all our wrong,
Without offence to decent happy folk.
I know that we must scrupulously hint
With half-words, delicate reserves, the thing
Which no one scrupled we should feel in full.’

She not only tells Marian’s story, but insists on Marian’s untainted purity, again, in defiance of Victorian norms. Something I expect we’ll talk about is why she does this — what strategic and political purpose it serves — but also what the limits are of this approach to the fallen woman.

ebbgordigiani1That Aurora Leigh has not lost its radicalism — that we are still fighting on some of the same fronts — was made unexpectedly clear to me this past weekend, as with so many others I watched the story of Donald Trump’s now-infamous bus tape break, and then one pontificating man after another denounce it in the name of his daughters (or his wife or his great aunt or whatever). For some men — too many men — women are still seen primarily as complementary, their value uncomfortably entangled with ownership (all those possessive pronouns!), their right to respect and dignity somehow contingent on their belonging to someone else (someone else male, of course). My tweet quoting that excerpt of the poem got liked and retweeted more than any other tweet of mine that I can remember. Emphasizing the arguments of the poem, though, as I have also done here, while wholly consonant with some of EBB’s aims, is not meant to reduce her achievement to a social or political one, one with purely ideological value. This genre-bending work also offers what, to me at least, are some really wonderful poetic moments. Appropriately, as the love story and the aesthetic theory reach their convergent culminations in the final volume, it’s there that the verse itself rises to its most ecstatic heights:

But oh, the night! oh, bitter-sweet! oh, sweet!
O dark, O moon and stars, O ecstasy
Of darkness! O great mystery of love,–
In which absorbed, loss, anguish, treason’s self
Enlarges rapture,–as a pebble dropt
In some full wine-cup, over-brims the wine!

For once, our Victorian heroine (like her author) ends her story without compromise — and with poetry too.