Saturday, September 27, 2008

Reading "The Iliad" Books 1 and 2

With a group of colleagues, I am reading The Iliad, translated by Richmond Lattimore. Not having made any close comparisons, I think the Fagles translation is more direct and muscular, whereas the Lattimore is more fluid. Lattimore also uses a longer verse line than Fagles does. Lattimore opens with these lines:

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.

"Hurled" in line three is a main verb, but I read it first as a participle modifying Achaians; that confusion does not seem productive, and I wonder if the ambiguity is in Homer. Lines 4 and 5 do not reproduce Homer's chiasmic "spoils for dogs, for birds feast"; the preposition "of" in "feasting/ of dogs, of all birds" is also a pale substitution for the more forceful "for."

Anger, the note struck in the first line, resounds in Book One, in, first, Apollo's wrath against the Achaians, then, in the human realm, in the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles, and, finally, in the realm of the gods, in the unhappiness between Zeus and Hera.

The theme, with its alien ideas about honor codes, moves me less than some incidental details of that world. Odysseus is charged with returning Chryseis to her father, together with a hecatomb (100 cows to be sacrificed to Apollo).

These when they were inside the many-hollowed harbour
took down and gathered together the sails and stowed them in the black
ship,
let down mast by the forestays, and settled it into the mast crutch
easily, and rowed her in with oars to the mooring.
They threw over the anchor stones and made fast the stern cables
and themselves stepped out on to the break of the sea beach,
and led forth the hecatomb to the archer Apollo,
and Chryseis herself stepped forth from the sea-going vessel.


I find these lines tremendously poignant. The step-by-step narration of ordinary actions brings back a world lost irretrievably. After I have forgotten what insults Achilles and Agamemnon hurl at the other, I remember those anchor stones and stern cables. Perhaps I am influenced in this by Melville's Moby Dick, which I am reading at the same time. I love the way Homer presents at the end of the sequence of actions Chryseis, the reason for this voyage, who is the more anxious to reunite with her father, the more she is delayed.

The sacrifice is also described with loving detail.

So he spoke in prayer and Phoibos Apollo heard him.
And when all had made prayer and flung down the scattering barley
first they drew back the victims' heads and slaughtered hem and skinned
them,
and cut away the meat from the thighs and wrapped them in fat,
making a double fold, and laid shreds of flesh upon them.
The old man burned these on a cleft stick and poured the gleaming
wine over, while the young men with forks in their hands stood about
him.
But when they had burned the thigh pieces and tasted the vitals,
they cut all the remainder into pieces and spitted them
and roasted all carefully and took off the pieces.
Then after they had finished the work and got the feast ready
they feasted, nor was any man's hunger denied a fair portion.
But when they had put away their desire for eating and drinking,
the young men filled the mixing bowls with pure wine, passing
a portion to all, when they had offered drink in the goblets.
All day long they propitiated the god with singing,
chanting a splendid hymn to Apollo, these young Achaians,
singing to the one who works from afar, who listened in gladness.


This holy feasting contrasts sharply with the "delicate" feasting of the dogs and birds in the Book's beginning, and with the luxurious banqueting of the gods in the Book's conclusion; its structural and thematic significance is clear. What touches the heart, perhaps even before the mind is touched, is the human detail. The wrapping of the thigh meat in a double fold of fat.

No comments: