Chapman Speaks Out Loud and Bold

September 27, 2009 § Leave a comment


The Odyssey (Homer, translated by Chapman, George)

In Oct 1816, upon reading this very translation of Homer’s Odyssey, John Keats wrote a sonnet. He said, in effect, that when he read this book, he felt as an astronomer would when a new planet swims into view, or as Hernan Cortes felt when he became the first European to see the Pacific Ocean (except of course that was Balboa, not Cortes; still, you know what he means).

And so, despite the fact that today, Keats’ “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” is more famous than Chapman’s Homer, I read the book myself to see what the fuss is about.  Chapman’s poetry is surprisingly accessible considering it was written in 1616 – but obviously the main attraction is the immortal and gripping Greek saga of Ulysses’ long trek back to Ithaca after the Trojan War, and having reached there, of his victorious battle against the evil suitors of his loyal wife, Penelope.

What I found most rivetting about the plot is Odysseus’s personality. He is not your common or garden variety of hero – valiant in battle, magnanimous in victory, stoic in defeat and gallant in love. He sacks ports and burns cities along the way. He is never above employing deceit to overcome an enemy, or jeering triumphantly at him from a safe distance after rendering him blind and helpless. He whines incessantly about his fate. He does pine for his wife, admittedly – but for all that, does not do nearly enough to resist the charms of Circe and Calypso along the way. He has a severe problem trusting anybody at all, doubting even the loyalty of his own wife on return – perhaps because of his knowledge of the reception that Agamemnon received on his return from Troy, but probably because he is himself so untrustworthy that he can’t see why anyone else should be telling the truth.

Oh, the lies. I know of no other major literary hero more instinctively inclined to untruth, nor one more convincing. To Polyphemus the Cyclops he says, “We are soldiers of Agamemnon, and my name is No-Name (Oudeis)“. To Goddess Athena, who meets him disguised as a shepherd, he fibs, “I have fled from Crete after having murdered King Idomen’s son, Orsilochus, on a Phoenician ship bound for Elis or Pylos, but instead, they dumped me here and returned to Sidon.” To the swineherd Eumaeus, he makes this up: “My Cretan father, Castor Hylacides, was wealthy and had many sons – but I was born to a concubine. When he died, his sons gave me very little, so  I became a soldier of fortune and fought in Troy. Later I was in Egypt, in Phoenicia, in Libya and Thesprotia, whence  I was bound for Dulichia but instead landed up here.”  To his own wife, he lets rip: “My name is Aethon – younger brother of King Idomen of Crete.” And later, to his own aged, grieving father, he starts off with the whopper: “I am of Alybande, my father Aphidantes, and my name is Eperitus. I was bound for the island of Sicania, but came here by mistake,”  before – finally, and for once, becoming ashamed of himself and identifying himself truthfully.

So wonderfully inventive is Odysseus that one is led to suspect that he has made up even more than we are told – perhaps the entire epic, in some way, is just one of his taller tales, and this time it is our turn, we poor, gullible readers, to drink in every word unquestioningly and admiringly.

While on the question of authorship of the Odyssey – I have referred in another post on Robert Graves‘ Greek Myths, to the theory that the Phaeacian Princess, Nausicaa was the secret author of the book – but there is a brief interlude, in King Antinous’ court, where the king calls for the blind poet Demodocus, who sings movingly of the Trojan War, a sequence that sounds exactly like the cryptic signature Homer would leave behind. He calls Demodocus, “the lovely singer…who past all men the muse affected, gave him good and ill, his eyes put out but put in soul at will.” If that isn’t a Hitchcock cameo, I don’t know one.

This sequence, incidentally, reminds me of the episode in the Ramayana where Rama meets Valmiki (who sings to him of the Lanka war), or the bit in Cervantes‘ Don Quixote where the Knight of La Mancha has a copy of Don Quixote in his library, or the story of Scheherezade appearing as one of the 1001 stories in the Arabian Nights.

Jorge Luis Borges explains best why I find this phenomenon so fascinating.

“These inversions suggest that if the characters in a story can be readers or spectators, then we, their readers or spectators, can be fictitious. In 1833, Carlyle observed (in Sartor Resartus) that universal history is an infinite sacred book that all men write and read and try to understand, and in which they themselves are written.”

Well, I’ve concluded that Keats was wrong. The pleasure of reading Chapman’s Homer was not at all anything like the unexpected discovery of something new and marvellous. It was in fact the opposite of that. Douglas Hofstadter has written about the aesthetics, for a scientist, of a well-written mathematical proof. He compares it with the pleasure of listening to an old favorite song. You know what the next line is going to be and how it is going to sound, but you still wait for it, and there is a certain tension built up as you approach the line, and this tension helps you enjoy it when the line actually comes. So it is when little children ask their parents to repeat a bed-time tale for the hundredth time, and still manage to look terrified, in a blissful way, when the familiar suspense builds up. And so it is with epics, and so it is with the Odyssey.

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