I was emotionally stirred when reading George Steiner’s beautiful second chapter in his book Errata in which he describes his initial experience with reading and translating Homer as a six-year-old boy: “My father, in broad strokes, had told me the story of the Iliad. He had kept the book itself out of my impatient reach. Now he opened it before us in the translation by Johann-Heinrich Voss of 1793. Papa turned to Book XXI.” Steiner’s father goes on to read Homer’s account of Achilles’s murderous fury and his killing of the Trojan youth Lycaon who begs for his life in vain.
Steiner’s father then opens the passage in Ancient Greek and as a very young boy he gets his first taste of the language:
My father read the Greek several times over. He made me mouth the syllables after him. Dictionary and grammar flew open. Like the lineaments of a brightly colored mosaic lying under sand, when you pour water on it, the words, the formulaic phrases, took on form and meaning for me. Word by sung word, verse by verse. I recall graphically the rush of wonder, of a child’s consciousness troubled and uncertainly ripened, by the word “friend” in the midst of the death-sentence: “Come friend, you too must die.” And by the enormity, so far as I could gauge it, of the question: “Why moan about it so?” Very slowly, allowing me his treasured Waterman pen, my father let me trace some of the Greek letters and accents.
…Papa made a further proposal, as in passing: “Shall we learn some lines from this episode by heart?” So that the serene inhumanity of Achilles’ message, its soft terror, would never leave us. Who could tell, moreover, what I might find on my night-table when going back to my room? I raced. And found my first Homer. Perhaps the rest has been a footnote to that hour.
Steiner further discusses what effect classic works like those of Homer, Tolstoy and Dante have on us. He ends the chapter with this personal reflection: “Exposure, from early childhood, to these ordinances of excellence, the desire to share with others the answerability and transmission in time without which the classic falls silent, made of me exactly what my father intended: a teacher.”