Reading Homer on the Metra

οἳ δὲ πανημέριοι μολπῇ θεὸν ἱλάσκοντο
καλὸν ἀείδοντες παιήονα κοῦροι Ἀχαιῶν [Iliad I.472-473]

“And then all day they pleased the god with dance, the sons of the Achaeans singing a beautiful paean.”

Last year I spent some time (about 30 minute each morning on the train) making my way through the Iliad in the original Greek.  I had some notion I’d read the whole book this way – Nates will be glad to know that I ran out of steam midway through Book II, about 3 lines into the Catalog of Ships.

I’ve been trying to think of a way to turn this reading into an originalpositions blog project, but I can’t really come up with anything.  If I just presented my translation every day, that would be boring, and you could get a better translation elsewhere.  If I randomly analyzed the grammar of the words and scanned the lines, that would also be boring, and more or less a pointless exercise.

So I’ll just tell you a little bit about my experience just this once.

This week I picked my Oxford Classical Texts Iliad back up.  I must confess a lot of the fun of this comes from being able to read something in the Oxford Classical Texts series.  These books have the imprimatur of bygone scholarship: barely a word of English, introductions in Latin, a quite cryptic critical apparatus at the bottom, pages and pages of Greek, a pleasing navy blue binding and an also an equally pleasingly minimalist dust jacket.  Greek texts’ jackets are blue, Latin green.

Whoever owned my copy of the Iliad before me has (or more likely had) extremely tiny and super-clear handwriting.  They’ve penciled in the meanings of many words.

Beyond the physical book, the reading itself is a uniquely rewarding experience.  It’s actually a lot easier to read than any other Greek I’ve ever tried (and I’m really not that good at Greek).  Plato, for example, causes me huge problems and I give up.  But Homer has a rhythm and a sound to it – it is poetry after all.  And the formulaic nature of the words, phrases and lines, just as they must have given bards of old a mental pause while they rattled of a stock description of a boat, a ritual sacrifice, or the like – when I’m reading, those repeated words let me catch my breath, and give me the reassurance that I know something.

The Iliad is written in a meter called dactylic hexameter.  The “dactylic” part means it’s made up primarily of dactyls – which are metrical units of one long, followed by two short syllables.  there are also spondees – two long syllables.  “Hexameter” means each line has 6 feet.  Almost every line ends with a dactyl and a spondee – the rhythm in “shave and a haircut” (if you sing it) will give you a sense of that.  One in 20 lines or so ends with two spondees (“hair-cut, two bits”).  The rest of the line is either a dactyl or a spondee.

The process of reading a line and analyzing its rhythm is called scansion.  Back in high school, when we read the Aeneid (written in Latin, but in the same meter) I got good at following the rules to scan each line.  The rhythm is dictated by the length of the vowels. Each vowel is either long or short (like in English, but unlike in English, “length” refers to the duration of time taken to pronounce the vowel, not its sound).  A vowel makes a syllable either long “by position” (if it’s followed by 2 consonants, since they take longer to pronounce) or long “by nature” – in Latin, that’s tougher, but in Greek, at least for two of the vowels, they look different if they are long (omega vs omicron, eta vs. epsilon).  If a vowel ends one word and another vowel starts the next, you pronounce the second but not the first – this is called elision.  If elision doesn’t happen even though it looks like it should, that’s called hiatus.

That’s probably hard to understand if you don’t already.  And if you do already you probably object that I’ve oversimplified things.

I’ll demonstrate with the first line of the poem:

μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος

μῆνιν ἄ | ειδε θε | ὰ Πη | ληϊά | δεω Ἀχι | λῆος

This line can be split into 6 feet:

  1. μῆνιν ἄ (long-short-short – dactyl)
  2. ειδε θε (long-short-short – dactyl)
  3. ὰ Πη (long-long – spondee)
  4. ληϊά (long-short-short – dactyl)
  5. δεω Ἀχι ((long-short-short – dactyl) – you need to elide the ε and the ω – but then allow the ω and the Ἀ to stand – which I think is hiatus?)
  6. λῆος (long-short – spondee) – the o is long by position essentially by falling at the end of the line (there’s a natural pause between lines that allows a blurring of the long-short distinction in the final syllable).

We can abbreviate this as DDSDDS.  You can do all sorts of analysis about the rhythm of lines: their relative frequencies, their connection to the meaning, their use of traditional formulae, etc.

Reading a line out loud and discovering the rhythm of it, following those rules or just hearing it, is in and of itself pleasurable, even without knowing what it means.  The rare times where I’ve internalized the vocabulary just enough to actually hear its meaning as I read it, it’s awesome.

The formulae themselves are pleasant to discover – sometimes you come upon a phrase or line that has the ring of tradition about it (like the one with which I began this post).  It sounds like condensed, evolved shorthand for a process the bards of old must have worked through over many generations.  The formulaic phrases are often the most pleasant-sounding – their rhythm having been honed over many singers and listeners’ lifetimes.

The story itself is remarkably vivid, gritty and lifelike, though it’s punctuated, of course, by similes, metaphors and other figures of speech.  It doesn’t have the erudition you may have encountered, and perhaps come to dread, about Vergil.  Generally, each unit of meaning is 1-2 lines long (and usually it’s just 1).  So you can spend 10 minutes on a line, or 1, and you can do this in succession.

The first time through it, I used the Perseus Project website (here’s the start of the Iliad).  It’s got the Greek text, and each word is clickable, and brings you through to the Liddell and Scott dictionary entry, and also parses the grammatical form of verbs, nouns and adjectives.  I found my iPad really helpful for this: you could look at the line, or click through to a window in another tab.  That’s way better than using the dictionary.  At first I thought it would make me lazy, and not learn the words.  In fact, it’s still better to learn the words, to avoid the clicking.  But you can make progress much more quickly.

If you know enough Greek to make a go at it, you should – I committed myself to memorizing the first seven lines:

μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,
πολλὰς δ᾽ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν
ἡρώωναὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν
οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσιΔιὸς δ᾽ ἐτελείετο βουλή,
ἐξ οὗ δὴ τὰ πρῶτα διαστήτην ἐρίσαντε
Ἀτρεΐδης τε ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν καὶ δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς.

Here’s an overly literal translation, reflecting the order of the words probably more than their sense in English:

  1. Rage – sing – goddess – of The son of Peleus Achilles
  2. accursed, which many – upon the Achaeans – hardships brought,
  3. many – indeed – heroic souls to Hades it sent
  4. of heros, them food it made for dogs
  5. for birds also all, of Zeus but carried out was his will,
  6. from when indeed the first the two in strife fought
  7. The son of Atreus the lord of men and godly Achilles.

It’s really a great opening passage, right up there with Tolstoy, Dickens and Jane Austin – probably better.  It’s also way better in the original than my hackneyed translation.

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2 Responses to Reading Homer on the Metra

  1. Nates says:

    I find it fascinating that you find Homer easier than Plato, given all the archaic phrases buried in there!

    Just for fun, here are some of the more well-known translations of the opening lines of the Iliad’s Proem, with some amateur commentary:

    First, the famous George Chapman translation, finished in 1614:

    Achilles’ bane full wrath resound, O Goddesse, that imposd
    Infinite sorrowes on the Greekes, and many brave soules losd
    From breasts Heroique—sent them farre, to that invisible cave
    That no light comforts; and their lims to dogs and vultures gave.
    To all which Jove’s will gave effect; from whom first strife begunne
    Betwixt Atrides, king of men, and Thetis’ godlike Sonne.

    (Quite impressive for the first English translation of Homer. You wonder: did Shakespeare finally get to read Homer in his dying years?)

    Next, our own Thomas Hobbes(!), from 1675:

    O Goddess sing what woe the discontent
    Of Thetis’ son brought to the Greeks; what souls
    Of heroes down to Erebus it sent,
    Leaving their bodies unto dogs and fowls;
    Whilst the two princes of the army strove,
    King Agamemnon and Achilles stout.
    That so it should be was the will of Jove,
    But who was he that made them first fall out?

    (Hmm, I think Hobbes was wise to stick with philosophizing…)

    On to Alexander Pope (1720):

    The Wrath of Peleus’ Son, the direful Spring
    Of all the Grecian Woes, O Goddess, sing!
    That Wrath which hurl’d to Pluto’s gloomy Reign
    The Souls of mighty Chiefs untimely slain;
    Whose Limbs unbury’d on the naked Shore
    Devouring Dogs and hungry Vultures tore.
    Since Great Achilles and Atrides strove,
    Such was the Sov’reign Doom, and such the Will of Jove.

    (I like this a lot.)

    William Sotheby (1831:)

    SING, Muse! Pelides’ wrath, whence woes on woes
    O’er the Achæans’ gather’d host arose,
    Her chiefs’ brave souls untimely hurl’d from day,
    And left their limbs to dogs and birds a prey;
    Since first ’gainst Atreus’ son, Achilles strove,
    And their dire feuds fulfill’d the will of Jove.

    (Unlike with Pope, the couplets feel a little burdensome here.)

    Samuel Butler (1888):

    Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another.

    (I hadn’t heard of his translation, but it’s quite good.)

    Richard Lattimore (1951):

    Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
    and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
    hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
    of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
    of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
    since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
    Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus.

    (Very influential, but I’m not a huge fan.)

    Robert Graves (1960):

    Sing, MOUNTAIN GODDESS, sing through me
    That anger which most ruinously
    Inflamed Achilles, Peleus’ son,
    And which, before the tale was done,
    Had glutted Hell with champions—bold,
    Stern spirits by the thousandfold;
    Ravens and dogs their corpses ate.
    For thus did ZEUS, who watched their fate,
    See his resolve, first taken when
    Proud Agamemnon, King of men,
    An insult on Achilles cast,
    Achieve accomplishment at last.

    (Idiosyncratic, as you’d expect, but interesting.)

    Robert Fitzgerald (1974):

    Anger now be your song, immortal one,
    Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous,
    that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss
    and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,
    leaving so many dead men—carrion
    for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.
    Begin it when the two men first contending
    broke with one another—the Lord Marshal
    Agamémnon, Atreus’ son, and Prince Akhilleus.

    (I feel like I should like this one more, but it’s not working for me.)

    Robert Fagles (1990):

    Rage–Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
    murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
    hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
    great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
    feasts for the dogs and birds,
    and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.

    (This is the version we used when I taught the Iliad at Chicago. It’s my favorite–just beautiful to read. (The extended introduction by Bernard Knox is also a tour de force.)

  2. Josh says:

    I myself also enjoy the Fagles (and own an autographed copy!). Totally agree about the Knox introduction. That’s what got me interested in the Homeric question, Lord and Parry, etc. By the way I’m making my way through Parry’s collected papers (found used at Powell’s) and they’re pretty interesting.

    I do wonder if I’m just partial to the Fagles b/c it’s the most contemporary. Or if that’s a testament to his translation skills, that he’s therefore accurately brought the poem into the present.

    It’s interesting how different the translations are – one of the things that Greek can do that English can’t is case endings, which allow for the compression of meaning. For example “menin” in the first word – means “rage,” but it also means “rage” (direct object) – so you know that before you encounter the verb…

    Redfield said he liked the Lattimore b/c it was literal and consistent, though not that artful. Redfield has a fairly dogmatic “no translation is any good”-type stance. His argument was that in general, one should not read literature in translation. He in fact had never read ANY Russian novelists for this reason (or he claimed not to have at any rate). So he liked Lattimore because it got the least in the way of the literal meaning of the original (obviously presupposing that the original has a determinate meaning independent of translation).

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