I 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.
Yet 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.
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.*
Another 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.
I 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).