Category Archives: Classics

An Excess of Xenia: Some Thoughts on the Odyssey (trans. Emily Wilson)

Xenia, usually translated as “guest-friendship”  is an important part of the mores of the ancient Greeks during the Bronze Age;  a person is required to welcome travelers into his home as guests and the expectation is that the host provides a warm place to sleep, good food, a bath, wine and entertainment.  Emily Wilson, in the introduction to her translation writes, “Xenia acquired an extra importance in the era when Greek men were expanding their world.  Travelers, in an era before money, hotels, or public transportation, had to rely on the munificence of strangers to find food and lodging and aid with their onward journey.”

I view the Odyssey as a series of episodes, in rapid succession, that show men either correctly carrying out their duties of xenia or horribly violating the standards and expectations of this social code. It is a blueprint for Greeks on how to act and how not to act in terms of fulfilling one’s duties regarding xenia. Polyphemus, for example, perpetrates one of the most horrible, ugly and disgusting violations of the guest-friendship demands of xenia when, instead of feeding Odysseus and his men, he eats them for his own dinner.  This episode is oftentimes portrayed as a cute fairytale about a one-eyed monster who doesn’t know how to behave.  But in Emily Wilson’s incisive and skillfully efficient translation, the full horror of this episode is laid bare:

Leaping up high, he reached his hands towards my men, seized two, and knocked them hard against the ground like puppies, and the floor was wet with brains.  He ripped them limb by limb to make his meal, then ate them like a lion on the mountains, devouring flesh, entrails, and marrowy bones, and leaving nothing. Watching this disaster, we wept and lifted up our hands in prayer to Zeus.  We felt so helpless.

Another code of conduct that xenia covers is the mutual respect due to a host when one is a guest in another man’s home. A house guest is expected to be polite, grateful and provide a gift to the host. One of the most obvious violations of this concept of xenia in the Odyssey deals with the suitors who have placed a burden on Telemachus and Penelope by overstaying their welcome, eating all of their food and being rude to their hosts. The suitors are the ultimate bad house guests.  One of my favorite passages in the Odyssey is the Phaeacian bard’s tale of Aphrodite and Ares getting caught by Hephaestus in his own home.  The Greek, anthropomorphic gods are also capable of bad behavior, violating xenia and paying the price for it.   Ares is an awful house guest and, much like Paris himself, steals his host’s wife:

Then Ares took her hand and said to her, ‘My darling, let us go to bed. Hephaestus is out of town; he must have gone to Lemnos to see the Sintians whose speech is strange.’ She was excited to lie down with him; they went to bed together. But the chairs ingenious Hephaestus had created wrapped tight around them, so they could knot move or get up.  Then they knew that they were trapped.

And what of Odysseus himself as far as xenia is concerned?  Wilson’s translation of the Greek word polutropos as “complicated” which is used to describe Odysseus in the first line is brilliant.   He certainly relies on his trickery as well as the kindness of strangers to feed him, clothe him, and in the case of Calypso and Circe, sexually satisfy him.  Disguising himself as a beggar in his own home, he provides the ultimate moral test for his wife and son when he observes how they, and others in his household, treat a decrepit old man who is  most in need of food, clothing and shelter.  Penelope, who is the true hero of the epic in my opinion, treats the beggar with a gentle and respectful kindness.

Tricky, selfish, narcissistic, and, yes, complicated.  As a Homeric hero he certainly strives to be the good warrior, the good father, the good master, the good husband.  But even by Homeric standards his lying, cheating and elaborate falsehoods are difficult to see beyond.  Bernard Knox says of Odysseus:

For Achilles a lie is something utterly abhorrent.  But for Odysseus it is second nature, a point of pride. ‘I am Odysseus,’ he tells the Phaeacians when the time comes to reveal his identity, ‘known to the world/for every kind of craft’ (9.21-22).  The Greek word here translated ‘craft’ is dolos.  It is a word that can be used in praise as well as abuse.  Athena uses the word when, in the guise of a handsome young shepherd, she compliments Odysseus on the complicated lie he has just told her about his identity and his past, and it is with this word that Odysseus describes the wooden horse he contrived to bring Troy down in flames.  On the other hand, Athena, Menelaus and Odysseus use it of the trap Clytemnestra set for Agamemnon when he returned home, and it serves Homer as a way back from Pylos. But whether complimentary or accusing, it always imples the presence of what Achilles so vehemently rejects—the intention to deceive.

Is appealing for the privileges due under the umbrella of xenia respectful to one’s hosts when it is done under disguise and under false pretenses?  Yes, deception is oftentimes necessary for his survival.  But what about keeping his identity from his wife who is the last to know who he is?  Penelope brilliantly turns the tables on Odysseus by putting him through her own test and calling out his penchant for deception.   As a woman she has little control over what goes on with guests in her house, but she does have control over who sleeps in her bed—her secret, cleverly made bed.  Once again, Wilson’s translation of this passage is keen and trenchant:

Do not be angry at me now, Odysseus!  In every other way you are a very understanding man.  The gods have made us suffer: they refused to let us stay together and enjoy our youth until we reached the edge of age together.  Please forgive me, do no keep bearing a grudge because when I first saw you, I would not welcome you immediately.  I felt a constant dread that some bad man would fool me with his lies.  There are so many dishonest, clever men.

I have to admit that The Odyssey has not been one of my favorite ancient texts.  I’ve always greatly preferred the Iliad.   I had an intense seminar in graduate school on the Odyssey with John Peradotto and at that time, in my early twenties, translating and absorbing an entire book a week was too overwhelming for me.  But Emily Wilson’s literal and precise yet musical translation of the epic has given me a new appreciation of this text.  On a personal note, my thirteen-year-old daughter came home a few weeks ago with a copy of the Odyssey she took out of the library.  The translation was one of those that have been very popular in the past 20 years.  I quickly replaced it with Wilson’s translation.  I think it is an amazing thing that my daughter’s first impression of the Odyssey, and the standard by which she measures all subsequent renditions, will be that of Wilson’s.  She has been coming home every day and describing to me Odyssey’s latest adventures and her impressions of it.  She has asked if she can read the Iliad next.

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Love is Finite, We Grow Old


Pierre Bonnard. A Man and a Woman. 1900.

I put my reading of Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets on hold while on a delightful trip to London this past week. I’ve picked up Schmidt’s narrative again with his insightful description of Andrew Marvell’s poetry:

“Marvell’s verse delivers sharp surprises in part because of its quietness. Surprises emerge, they are insisted on. He seems always to be recognizing significance in what he sees. His whole mind is engaged along with his senses. His intensity is awareness; even as he speaks he is aware of things he might have said. The classics shaped his poems, but scripture is never far away. He doesn’t discharge his poems but launches them quietly.”

“His verse is urbane, detached, with recurrent motifs and words and a recognizable tone that distinguishes it from the work of other Metaphysicals. He has his own themes, too. Wise passivity marks some poems, which leads to closeness with the natural world as his imagination relaxes and receives. Other poems strive for contact through passion or activity, a kind of contact in which individuality is lost in the teeming variety of the world. Underlying these themes is the knowledge that in love or action time can’t be arrested or permanence achieved. A sanctioned social order can be ended with an axe, love is finite, we grow old.”

One of my favorite Marvell poems that came to mind and that I keep rereading because of Schmidt’s writing is “The Definition of Love”

My love is of a birth as rare
As ‘tis for object strange and high;
It was begotten by Despair
Upon Impossibility.

Magnanimous Despair alone
Could show me so divine a thing
Where feeble Hope could ne’er have flown,
But vainly flapp’d It’s tinsel wing.

And yet I quickly might arrive
Where my extended soul is fixt,
But Fate does iron wedges drive,
And always crowds itself betwixt.

For Fate with jealous eye does see
Two perfect loves, nor lets them close;
Their union would her ruin be,
And her tyrannical pow’r depose.

And therefore her decrees of steel
Us as the distant poles have plac’d
(Though love’s whole world on us doth wheel)
Not by themselves to be embrac’d;

Unless the giddy heaven fall,
And earth some new convulsion tear;
And, us to join, the world should all
Be cramped into a planisphere.

As lines, so loves oblique may well
Themselves in every angle greet;
But ours so truly parallel,
Though infinite, can never meet.

Therefore the love which us doth bind,
But Fate so enviously Debra’s,
Is the conjunction of the mind,
And opposition of the stars.

 

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This Furious Influence: Ovid’s Banquet of Sense by George Chapman

Even at only a few hundred pages in, I’ve discovered so many literary gems from reading Michael Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets.  One of my favorite discoveries so far has been Chapman’s poem “Ovid’s Banquet of Sense.”  I have long been familiar with Chapman’s translations of Homer, but he is a brilliant poet when he is composing his own verses.

“Ovid’s Banquet of Sense” is a description of the Roman poet’s feast of  senses that is trigged when he see Corinna bathing naked in her garden.  Chapman explains that Corinna is a pseudonym for Julia, the Emperor Augustus’s daughter, who has walked into the courtyard where she proceeds to bath, play the lute and sing, all of which Ovid observes hidden by a arbor. His first sense that is stimulated by her is his sight:

Then cast she off her robe and stood upright,
As lightning breaks out of a labouring cloud;
Or as the morning heaven casts off the night,
Or as that heaven cast off itself, and show’d
Heaven’s upper light, to which the brightest day
Is but a black and melancholy shroud;
Or as when Venus strived for sovereign sway
Of charmful beauty in young Troy’s desire,
So stood Corinna, vanishing her ‘tire.

Then his sense of hearing is delighted as she sings a lovely song and plays the flute, “Never was any sense so set a fire/With an immortal ardour, as mine ears.” But my favorite piece of the poem is the description of Ovid’s sense of smell when it takes in Corinna’s perfumes as she bathes:

Come, sovereign odours, come
Restore my spirits now in love consuming,
Wax hotter, air, make them more favoursome,
My fainting life with fresh-breath soul perfuming.
The flames of my disease are violent,
And many perish on late helps presuming,
With which hard fate must I stand content,
As odours put in fire most richly smell,
So men must burn in love that will excel.

When Corinna is finished with her bath, she looks into a mirror and accidentally sees Ovid in the reflection. When he is caught spying on her he not only asks for forgiveness but convinces her to give him a kiss. All of his senses are so consumed with her by the end of the poem that he vows to write and dedicate his Amores to her.

Her moving towards him made Ovid’s eye
Believe the firmament was coming down
To take him quick to immortality,
And that th’ Ambrosian kiss set on the crown;
She spake in kissing, and her breath infused
Restoring syrup to his taste, in swoon:
And he imagined Hebe’s hands had bruised
A banquet of the gods into his sense,
Which fill’d him with this furious influence.

Although there are multiple allusions to the Metamorphoses, Chapman’s ability to capture the sensuality, atmosphere, and tone of the Amores is what impressed me the most about his poem. I was especially reminded of Amores 1.5 which I have been inspired to translate…

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Sappho Fragment 16

Sappho Fragment 16 (translation is my own):

Some men say that the best thing on this black earth is
a column of horses, others say it is an army of foot
soldiers, and still others say it is a fleet of ships.
But I say that the Best thing on this black
earth is to love someone. It is wholly easy to make this
idea understandable to everyone. For Helen, surpassing
all others in beauty, chose for herself the best man—
he who destroyed all the Majesty of Troy—and she made that
choice without consideration of her child or her beloved parents,
but she was swayed by Love and carried this love far away.
It always seems like a female trait to turn away or to
be light in one’s thoughts. And so now you do not
remember Anaktoria, or so it seems; she whose lovely steps and
whose bright radiance in her face you would like to behold
more than the armies or the hoplites of Lydia. We know that it
is not possible for men on this earth to be completely happy;
We must, however, pray to hold onto our shared memories rather
than to completely forget those experiences.

I have immersed myself in this beautiful and, at times, maddening Ancient Greek fragment for the last two days. I used the longer version of the Ancient Greek text with the last few lines, in particular, reconstructed. I realize this isn’t the standard version with which most are familiar. I see in this poem a stark contrast between male and female, which begins in the first three lines with a primael. Men choose war—cavalries, armies and ships, but women choose love. The best example of this is Helen—she chooses Love in the form of Paris, because, to her,  he is the best (aristov).

As the poem concludes, Sappho turns to Anaktoria who left her (some speculate to marry). Sappho, unlike Helen, doesn’t have a choice. But as memory fades the one option for her is to remember their shared experiences. Her beloved, no longer present, can quickly become a case of “out of sight, out of mind”; the poet must make a conscience choice to remember their time together. But as her memories fade and her lover is no longer present, she can just as easily choose to let her go.

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Go, litel bok: Lives of the Poets by Michael Schmidt

With Lives of the Poets, Michael Schmidt takes up the daunting task of tracing the history of English poetry from the Middle Ages to the present. His engaging style of writing has immediately drawn me into this wonderful book. He writes:

Poems swim free of their age, but it’s hard to think of a single poem that swims entirely free of its medium, not just language but language used in the particular ways that are poetry. Even the most parthenogenetic-seeming poem has a pedigree. The poet may not know precisely a line’s or a stanza’s parents; indeed may not be interested in finding out. Yet as readers of poetry we can come to know more about a poem than the poet does and know it more fully.

Schmidt’s point about pedigree and influence was proven for me almost immediately in his book with the chapter on Chaucer. The early English poets of the fourteenth century were struggling to break free from the literary supremacy of both Latin and French but, by including the introduction to Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, Schmidt shows that although he chooses to write in English, Chaucer’s Latin ancestors are never far from his mind:

Go, litel bok, go, litel myn tragedye,
Ther God thi makere yet, or that he dye,
So sende might to make it som comedye!
But litel book, so making thow n’envie,
But subgit be to alle poesye;
And kis the steppes, where as thow seest pace
Virgile, Ovide, Omer, Lucan, and Stace.

The references to Ancient Epic authors is quite obvious, but there is also a hidden allusion in these lines to Catullus that Schmidt doesn’t mention. Catullus was not widely read in this period, but the discovery of his manuscript in 1300 does make it slightly possible that Chaucer know about Catullus’s own libellum (little book) and his introductory poem which is also self-deprecating. In Carmen 1, Catullus begins his collection of poetry(translation is my own):

To whom should I dedicate my new, charming, little book
that I just polished with my dry pumice stone? To you,
Cornelius, you who used to think that my petty scribblings
were actually worth something.

I’ve always suspected that Catullus knows the worth of his talent and that this modesty in the dedication is feigned. Schmidt’s discussion of Chaucer has me wondering the same thing about the English author and his “litel bok.”

I took a British Literature course which was required when I was in high school and I credit this course with making me the reader I have become as far as classic literature is concerned. The first work we read in the class was Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales which captivated my 16-year-old attention. I haven’t read Chaucer, unfortunately, since I was a teenager, and a pleasant side effect of Schmidt’s book is the rediscovery of old favorites. My plan is to read Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde as well as Gower’s Confessio Amantis from the same time period.

Last week when I translated Catullus Carmen 1 with my Latin students, I also read to them Chaucer’s lines from Troilus and Criseyde. Not a single student knew who Chaucer was; British Literature is not a required course. So sad…

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