Zeus and the Horses of Achilles
And with pity the son of Saturn saw them bewailing,
And he shook his head, and thus addressed his own bosom: --
"Ah, unhappy pair, to Peleus why did we give you,
To a mortal? but ye are without old age and immortal.
Was it that ye, with man, might have your thousands of sorrows?
For than man, indeed, there breathes no wretcheder creature,
Of all living things, that on earth are breathing and moving."
Matthew Arnold, On Translating Homer (1861), pages 94-95. The passage appears in Book 17 of The Iliad at lines 509-516.
Zeus gave two immortal horses (Balius and Xanthus) to Peleus as a wedding gift when Peleus married the goddess Thetis. Peleus and Thetis were the parents of Achilles. Peleus in turn gave the horses to Achilles, who took them with him to Troy. Achilles permitted his friend Patroclus to use the horses in the battle that led to Patroclus's death at the hands of Hector.
Algernon Cecil Newton (1880-1968), "The Avenue" (1944)
In On Translating Homer, Arnold compares his translation of the passage with those of George Chapman, Alexander Pope, and William Cowper. Arnold finds that Chapman's version lacks Homer's "nobleness," that Pope's is "too artificial," and that Cowper's is "too slow."
I am not qualified to comment on the niceties of Homeric translation given my lack of Greek, ancient or modern. I hasten to add that Arnold does not claim that his own is the best. Rather, his aim is to identify those distinctive characteristics of Homer that a translator ought to capture. To wit:
"When I say, the translator of Homer should above all be penetrated by a sense of four qualities of his author; -- that he is eminently rapid; that he is eminently plain and direct, both in the evolution of his thought and in the expression of it, that is, both in his syntax and in his words; that he is eminently plain and direct in the substance of his thought, that is, in his matter and ideas; and, finally that he is eminently noble; -- I probably seem to be saying what is too general to be of much service to anybody. Yet it is strictly true that, for want of duly penetrating themselves with the first-named quality of Homer, his rapidity, Cowper and Mr. Wright have failed in rendering him; that, for want of duly appreciating the second-named quality, his plainness and directness of style and diction, Pope and Mr. Sotheby have failed in rendering him; that for want of appreciating the third, his plainness and directness of ideas, Chapman has failed in rendering him; while for want of appreciating the fourth, his nobleness, Mr. Newman, who has clearly seen some of the faults of his predecessors, has yet failed more conspicuously than any of them."
Matthew Arnold, On Translating Homer, pages 9-10.
Dear reader, I fear that I may be transporting you, against your will, to a stuffy lecture-hall in nineteenth-century Oxford, dust-motes swirling in the sleep-inducing afternoon sunlight that seeps through the high windows. So you'll have to take my word for it: there is a great deal to be learned about Homer, and about the art of translation, from Arnold's lectures.
Whatever one feels about Arnold's opinions, we must remember that he is motivated by admiration and love:
"For Homer's grandeur is not the mixed and turbid grandeur of the great poets of the north, of the authors of Othello and Faust; it is a perfect, a lovely grandeur. Certainly his poetry has all the energy and power of the poetry of our ruder climates; but it has, besides, the pure lines of an Ionian horizon, the liquid clearness of an Ionian sky."
Matthew Arnold, Ibid, page 104.
Algernon Cecil Newton, "A Gleam of Sunlight" (1966)
But enough of that. It is the weeping immortal horses and Zeus's apostrophe on the sorrows of humanity that bring me here. Given his keen sense of the antique world (he seems to dwell simultaneously in the present and in a vanished past -- though not vanished at all for him), together with his instinct for emotionally revelatory moments, it comes as no surprise that C. P. Cavafy would fasten upon this particular scene in The Iliad.
The Horses of Achilles
When they saw Patroklos dead
-- so brave and strong, so young --
the horses of Achilles began to weep;
their immortal nature was upset deeply
by this work of death they had to look at.
They reared their heads, tossed their long manes,
beat the ground with their hooves, and mourned
Patroklos, seeing him lifeless, destroyed,
now mere flesh only, his spirit gone,
defenseless, without breath,
turned back from life to the great Nothingness.
Zeus saw the tears of those immortal horses and felt sorry.
"At the wedding of Peleus," he said,
"I should not have acted so thoughtlessly.
Better if we hadn't given you as a gift,
my unhappy horses. What business did you have down there,
among pathetic human beings, the toys of fate.
You are free of death, you will not get old,
yet ephemeral disasters torment you.
Men have caught you up in their misery."
But it was for the eternal disaster of death
that those two gallant horses shed their tears.
C. P. Cavafy (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard), Collected Poems (Princeton University Press 1992).
Cavafy's poem closely parallels Homer's text, but it is not intended to be merely a translation. There is -- I'm sorry that I cannot come up with a better description -- a Cavafian feel to it (which is evident even in an English translation of Cavafy's modern Greek interpretation of Homer's ancient Greek).
Algernon Cecil Newton, "Moor Scene with Rock Face" (1910)
I confess that what interests me in The Iliad are the eddies and the asides to the main action, not the battles and the oratory, not the "epic" storytelling. Perhaps this shows that I don't correctly appreciate Homer.
"He that's well tinctur'd with philosophy needs but a short receipt: a common cordial will keep up such a man's spirits, and expel the cold from his heart. A verse or two out of Homer will serve for a hint, and do his business. Let the poet speak.
Men are like leaves in verdure and decay,
As Spring supplies what Autumn blows away,
So mortals fade, and flourish in their turns.
You see how slenderly humane felicity is put together, your children are but leaves upon the matter, a little blast may take them from you. The freshest laurels wither apace, and the echoes of fame are soon silenced; and which has some comfort, so is censure and reproach too. All these matters like leaves have their Spring for growing, then a puff of wind sends them packing, and quickly after the wood is new furnish'd again."
Marcus Aurelius (translated by Jeremy Collier), Meditations, Book X, Section 34, in Jeremy Collier, The Emperor Marcus Antoninus, His Conversation with Himself (1702), page 199 (italics in original).
The source of the passage from Homer is Book 6 of The Iliad. These lines were the subject of a post last October, in which I included translations by Pope and Cowper. I was delighted to discover Marcus Aurelius putting the lines to use in such a lovely fashion.
I am certainly no Marcus Aurelius, but I do understand how this aspect of Homer appeals to him. It is the small, simple things that matter. In Homer, as in all else.
Algernon Cecil Newton, "The Surrey Canal, Camberwell" (1935)