Monday, December 15, 2008

he blinded me with library science!

Here we have Homer's Odyssey as translated by the celebrated Robert Fagles, who died this past March. He was the Arthur Marks '19 Professor of Comparative Literature Emeritus at Princeton University, where he had taught since 1960. (Wow.)

This is the 1996 Penguin Classics edition, with an introduction and notes by Bernard Knox--another well-known classicist, who taught at Yale for many years--who also did the intro for Fagles' Iliad and three Theban plays. I chose the Fagles on purpose--but let me backtrack for a moment.

It is something of a detour (heh) to read the Odyssey after Beowulf. We have a couple of reasons for this slight change of plans. After learning that the GRE would have more than just the English-language classics on it, we decided to add some Greeks to our list, things that either I hadn't read for Hum110 or have since grown fuzzy on (I have got to reread the Oresteia--I can never remember what happens in which part). The Odyssey, in fairness, I probably don't need to read; I have read and studied the Iliad, after all, and I'm very familiar with the story; we even read the condensed version in high school.

But then... we read the condensed version in high school. They gave Homer the Reader's Digest treatment. It just doesn't seem right! I don't want to live my life with the secret shame of never having read the real thing. In any case, I really wanted to read a Fagles translation, because as I mentioned before, we read the Lattimore for Hum110, and a lot of the geekier classics-heads were pretty irked that we read him instead of Fagles. (But Lattimore was PBK, which is a fun thing.) So I wanted to know what I was missing.

I haven't gotten very far in yet, so I'm not sure how I feel. I know I don't feel very good, though, about something Knox mentions in the introduction. He says that Fagles' Iliad ends with, "And so the Trojans buried Hector breaker of horses" (24.944). If I recall correctly (I think I do), Lattimore's ends with, "Such was the funeral of Hector, breaker of horses." Fiona says that she believes Greek to be a very active language, and maybe Fagles' translation is more accurate. Which is altogether possible; Lattimore, of course, does his best to approximate the poem's original meter (Oliver Taplin, in this 1990 review of Fagles' Iliad, says that Lattimore chose a "long, free six-beat line"), but he has also gotten a lot of praise for sticking closely to the text's original meaning. Fagles--says Taplin--uses between three and seven beats per line, but usually six. A more relaxed meter might allow him to translate more directly, but really I'm just speculating.

In any case. Fagles is very famous, and I've read Lattimore, so it's Fagles' Odyssey we're reading. I really loved Knox's introduction, and I want to share three exciting things that I learned from it:

1. The Odyssey, of course, is in dactylic hexameter, as are the Iliad and the Aeneid. Hexameter means six metrical units, obviously; Knox informs me that a dactyl is "a long plus two shorts" and spondees are "two longs." (Boring, but it's good to know about meter.) But! What I didn't know is that, "The syllables are literally long and short; the meter is based on pronunciation time, not, as in our language, on stress" (12). I guess that's something I should have known by now; I'm sure we must have discussed it in class. But as an English major--and one who focused on Shakespeare!--I never so much as entertained the notion of a metrical style based on something other than stresses. Exciting times, guys.

2. This is... this is kind of the best thing ever. In a discussion of whether Homer would have composed his works as oral poetry or in writing, Knox says,
We do not know when papyrus, the paper of the ancient world, was first available in Greece, though we do know that it came at first not from its almost exclusive source, Egypt--which was not opened to Greek merchants until the sixth century B.C.--but from the Phoenician port the Greeks called Byblos (the Greek word for book was biblion--our "Bible"). 21
Guys. That is awesome. tells the same story, but I would never have known if Knox hadn't told me. It also explains what libros are doing in the biblioteca. Oh, Bernard Knox, you blinded me with library science.

3. One more. Just one. On the subject of pirates, Knox mentions that "the young Julius Caesar was captured by pirates near the small island of Pharmacusa off the Ionian coast and held for ransom" (29). Caesar? Pirates? Ransom? Someone make a musical out of this! Or at least a bad Johnny Depp vehicle.

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