Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Horses Of Achilles

I suspect that my recommending Matthew Arnold's On Translating Homer (a series of lectures he delivered at Oxford in 1860) is not likely to move it to the top of your reading list.  I, too, resisted it for years.  But I relented after coming across a passage of The Iliad translated by Arnold.  He included the passage in one of the lectures in order to illustrate his views on Homeric translation.

                      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)


George said...

I have to say that I eminently do not understand Matthew Arnold. Eminently rapid in a hexameter mostly of dactyls? Or perhaps he means in the movement of the work; he can be very quick, and he can also give a whole book to listing the ships. Eminently plain and direct, when modern scholarship since Milman Parry has related his work to the ways of Balkan bards, and the reliance on "winged words", epithets that can be added in where needed to round out a verse? I cannot say about his thought; I think Gautier's remark, that it was very foreign, about people who painted themselves, is correct. About eminently noble, I also can't say. Homer writes about about a brutal world. The books called the "aristea" of so-and-so are about his feats in battle.

I have found my copy of Robert Fitzgerald's Spring Shade: Poems 1931-1970, which has his translation of the last dozen or so lines of Book VIII of The Iliad. At hand is also a copy of Iris Origo's Images and Shadows, which includes a passage of Italian from the poet and translator Pascoli, which has combines the description of the plain at the end of Book VIII and the approach to Achilles's huts from early in Book IX. Pascoli's version is in prose, or at least printed as prose (my scanty Italian isn't up to saying whether it might scan as verse). I think that both are much preferable to the bit of Arnold you gave. That might mean in part, that I speak a language much closer to Fitzgerald's American English, and think "as though/pure space had broken through" good, where "saw them bewailing" and "said in his own bosom" bother me. Yet did one in Matthew Arnold's day see any one bewailing or speak in his own bosom? I don't know about Pascoli, except to say that in the snippet given he keeps his subjects before his verbs, where Arnold reverses that order twice in seven lines.

I suppose that I should read Arnold's piece. My impression, though, is that he can be much better at criticizing wrongs than at plainly defining what he considers right.

Stephen Pentz said...

George: I have no dog in this fight: being without Greek (as I noted in my post), I am not qualified to opine. Thus, I am in ignorant bliss: I like the translations by Arnold (although he only translated 4 or 5 passages), Chapman, Pope, and Cowper, and I like the translations by Lattimore, Fitzgerald, and Fagles in our time. They all have something to recommend them. Or perhaps that simply means I have no standards. If forced to choose, I would probably opt for Lattimore (who, by the way, uses an hexameter-approximating 6-beat line, and thus is in agreement with Arnold, at least on that point).

The passage I quoted from On Translating Homer may unfairly depict Arnold's overall presentation, premises, and argument. It is one paragraph from over 100 pages. The entire text is worth a visit. I also recommend having a look at the response of Francis Newman (the "Mr. Newman" referred to by Arnold) to Arnold (available on the Internet Archive): "Homeric Translation in Theory and Practice," as well as Arnold's response to Newman: "Last Words on Translating Homer."

As far as Arnold's word choices and syntax: as you know, every translation reflects its age. Have Lattimore, Fitzgerald, or Fagles made Chapman, Pope, and Cowper irrelevant? Of course not.

As you and I both know, there are no "last words" on translating Homer (or anybody else).

As always, thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts.

George said...

Probably, as you imply, every age needs its own translation. Guy Chapman looked at several translations in the essay "Another Odyssey", collected in The Geography of the Imagination. It concludes "It is plausible that Professor Lattimore's Odyssey may weather our age and the next while translations more interesting to us at the moment will soon begin to sound like William Morris. But posterity is one audience, and we here and now are another. Homer, in defiance of Heraclitus, remains."

It is also probable, in fairness to Matthew Arnold, that the audience to which he spoke knew Homer far better than we can hope to, and could weigh his assertions and conclusions as we cannot.

Stephen Pentz said...

George: Thank you very much for the follow-up thoughts. As to every age needing its own translation: there is never any dearth of aspirant translators, is there? And, even though we have "modern" translations, there are times when I feel like reading an Elizabethan-sounding translation (Chapman) or an 18th-century-sounding translation (Pope and Cowper).

I have a copy of The Geography of the Imagination, so I looked at Davenport's essay after you referred to it. He can be every bit as harsh as Arnold, can't he? The disputes over the merits of various translations of Herodotus, Dante, etc., etc. are, as you know, as contentious as the disputes over Homer, aren't they? The past few weeks, I have returned to Cavafy, and I have been referring to six different translations (which only scratches the surface).

I agree with you regarding Arnold's audience: I imagine that many (if not most) of the attendees of his Oxford lectures were conversant with Greek. Not a representative sample of the UK populace, I know, but still quite different from the situation today. After all, Gladstone published translations of Homer (not to mention Horace and Dante), as well as his three-volume Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age. Not likely with any prime ministers (or presidents) in our time. A different world.

Again, thank you for the additional thoughts.

Bruce Floyd said...

"On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" by John Keats

Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken; Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

In his book "The Life of the Poet" Lawrence Lipking begins his book with this sentence: "Just as the sun rose, one October morning in 1816, a talented apprentice without a named became the poet Keats." This son of a stable keeper discovered what he was do with his life. A poet is born.

That October night Keats and Cowden Clark read until dawn from Chatman's Homer. On Keats's walk home images flooded his mind, "in the teeming wonderment of this his first introduction." At ten o'clock when Clarke walked down the stairs for breakfast, he found Keats's ode on his table.

It was Keats's first great poem. Lipking says that Keats at age twenty was no different from a clutch of would-be poet, but just short of twenty-one, "he left all the rest behind." What Keats discovers about himself as he writes the sonnet is that his sense of wonder is equal to that of Herschel's discovery of a new planet or Balboa standing speechless on a hill, "wild with surmise."

Keats has learned to couple his imagination with a body, which materializes in words. Keats for some time had dreamed he'd be a great poet. He found out in his reading of Chapman's Homer that it is more wonderful than he ever dreamed it would be, but in writing the poem he finds out that his own dream is true. He breathes "the pure serene."

Keats wanted to dream himself a great poet. He awoke and found it true. When he awoke from this dream, roused from his slumber by Chapman's Homer, he not only finds his dream of being a great poet has come true he also discovers the "fact" of his finding himself a great poet goes beyond his wildest dreams. He had transcended his imagination, moving beyond what would be commensurate with his dreams. When the poem was finished, we can imagine what "surmise" beat about the young poet's mind.

When Keats read Chapman's Homer, he understood he could be a great poet. He has written his first great poem. I won't argue the merit of Chapman's Homer, but I will honor it because of how it inspired a young man to awake and find his dream true.

Anonymous said...

I surmise that George is correct when he says that most of those who read Arnold could read Homer in the original Greek and therefore needed no go-between them and Homer. I don't know Classical Greek, but I know two persons who do, and both of them have told me that no translation, from that of Chapman or Pope, of Fagels or Fitzgerald, can equal the beauty and the precision of the original Greek. No doubt the readers of "First Known When Lost" are, by the certificates and credentials of our culture, educated, but I fear that could we find ourselves alone with Matthew Arnold we would, in contrast to the great polymath, think ourselves ignorant--or worse: arrant frauds.

For most of us, we concede, translations of poetry in languages other than English will have to do, though it's obvious poetry in translation is ipso facto inferior to the original. For example, my son lives and works in Brazil. He is fluent in Portuguese. When I read the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, in translation of course, and asked my son about the translations, he found them woefully inadequate, devoid of the nuances and "poetry" of Pessoa. We poetry lovers will not give up reading poetry in translation, but we should be aware we are reading a mere simulacrum of the original.

Monophthalmos Rex said...

George may be correct about Arnold the critic of others' translations being better than Arnold the translator, but Arnold's appreciation accords well with my experience of the Greek, at least. Homer's hexameters, with more of the quicker dactyls than the slower spondees, does read rapidly: before you know it, you've gone through twenty lines, even of Nestor's ramblings or descriptions of battlefield gore or even the descriptions of ships. In spite of the formulas and the epithets (which actually add to the rapidity, since the tongue gets to know them well enough to zip right through them), the language is quite direct, more so, certainly, than the tragedians or the orators (and sometimes even the historians). That directness is also the result of the way in which Homer allows the actions and characters to speak for themselves without editorial comment: the reader is allowed to come to his own conclusions about the nature of the character or what the characters do. The nobility is an off-shoot of that, too: it is because they are noble that these words and deeds need no help from Homer other than to relay them. As you say, Stephen, the whole work is worth reading, since Arnold makes his case better than I ever could.

For what it's worth, A. E. Housman, whose opinions on Greek and Latin texts, while not without their detractors, were certainly grounded in a thorough familiarity and appreciation of the whole ancient corpus, had this to say about Arnold. (This is from his introductory lecture as professor of Latin and Greek at University College in London in 1892, is also well worth reading in full, and can be found here:

"And while on the one hand no amount of classical learning can create a true appreciation of literature in those who lack the organs of appreciation, so on the other hand no great amount of classical learning is needed to quicken and refine the taste and judgment of those who do possess such organs. Who are the great critics of the classical literatures, the critics with real insight into the classical spirit, the critics who teach with authority and not as the scribes? They are such men as Lessing or Goethe or Matthew Arnold, scholars no doubt, but not scholars of minute or profound learning. Matthew Arnold went to his grave under the impression that the proper way to spell lacrima was to spell it with a y, and that the words andros paidophonoio poti stoma kheir' oregesthai meant `to carry to my lips the hand of him that slew my son.' We pedants know better: we spell lacrima with an i, and we know that the verse of Homer really means `to reach forth my hand to the chin of him that slew my son.' But when it comes to literary criticism, heap up in one scale all the literary criticism that the whole nation of professed scholars ever wrote, and drop into the other the thin green volume of Matthew Arnold's Lectures on Translating Homer, which has long been out of print because the British public does not care to read it, and the first scale, as Milton says, will straight fly up and kick the beam."


Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Floyd: Thank you very much for the meditation on Keats and Chapman. It is a lovely poem, isn't it? Chapman's work stands on its own, of course, but Keats made it immortal. And your thoughts on the relationship between Chapman's creation and Keats's calling as a poet are lovely. Thank you again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you for your thoughts on the limits of translation, all of which I agree with. But ultimately, as you say, we would be limiting ourselves if we refused to read translations. Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Nathaniel: Thank you very much for your thoughts on these topics. I envy your ability to read Homer in the original, and I value your thoughts on Arnold's views in light of having access to the original language.

And thank you as well for the excerpt from Housman's lecture (and for the link to the full text): I hadn't seen it before. Given Housman's sometimes prickly high standards, I'm surprised to find him so effusive about Arnold and about On Translating Homer. The image in the last sentence of the excerpt is wonderful. I do now recall reading (I forget where) that Housman did greatly admire Arnold -- both the poetry and the criticism -- so perhaps I shouldn't be surprised. In any case, the passage is very apt, and I appreciate your sharing it.

It's nice to hear from you again. As ever, thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts.

Anonymous said...

The Horses of Achilles by George Meredith

So now the horses of Aiakides, off wide of the war-ground,
Wept, since first they were ware of their charioteer overthrown there,
Cast down low in the whirl of the dust under man-slaying Hector.
Sooth, meanwhile, then did Automedon, brave son of Diores,
Oft, on the one hand, urge them with flicks of the swift whip, and oft, too,
Coax entreatingly, hurriedly; whiles did he angrily threaten.
Vainly, for these would not to the ships, to the Hellespont spacious,
Backward turn, nor be whipped to the battle among the Achaians.
Nay, as a pillar remains immovable, fixed on the tombstone,
Haply, of some dead man or it may be a woman there-under;
Even like hard stood they there attached to the glorious war-car,
Earthward bowed with their heads; and of them so lamenting incessant
Ran the hot teardrops downward on to the earth from their eyelids,
Mourning their charioteer; all their lustrous manes dusty-clotted,
Right side and left of the yoke-ring tossed, to the breadth of the yoke-bow.
Now when the issue of Kronos beheld that sorrow, his head shook
Pitying them for their grief, these words then he spake in his bosom;
'Why, ye hapless, gave we to Peleus you, to a mortal
Master; ye that are ageless both, ye both of you deathless!
Was it that ye among men most wretched should come to have heart-grief?
'Tis most true, than the race of these men is there wretcheder nowhere
Aught over earth's range found that is gifted with breath and has movement.'

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you for sharing Meredith's translation: I was not aware that he had translated portions of The Iliad. This particular scene appears to attract the attention of poets, doesn't it?

Thank you again.

Anonymous said...


Your readers, and you too, might find it interesting to read eight translations of the same passage from Homer. When Achilles is angry at his horses for not staying with the bodies, the horses, given the power of speech by Hera, remind Achilles of the whim of the gods. In addition the horse predicts the death of Achilles before too long. The passage comes from the end of Book 19 of Homer's great epic.

George said...

What I know of the sound of hexameter, I have learned from Libri Vox. How sound or how bad the readings are I can't say. But from what I have heard or their recordings, neither "Menin aeide thea" nor "Arma virumque cano" rushes off the tongue like "Now is the winter of our discontent". That is what I mean when I question the rapidity. The nobility of the deeds seems to me to vary considerably. One can find a definition that encompasses Agamemnon taking Briseida so that the other princes would learn not to talk back with him, or Diomedes and Achilles killing prisoners. Does that definition still convince us?

Stephen, you are in no danger of creating a heavy demand for "On Translating Homer". It is not easily available on-line that I can see, except in page images. I suspect what Barnes & Noble offers of being those terrible editions done by OCR and not checked.

Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you for the link to the various translations. It is helpful to be able to compare them side-by-side.

Stephen Pentz said...

George: Thank you for the follow-up thoughts. With respect to nobility, I'm not certain that Arnold is referring to the deeds that occur, but rather to Homer's presentation of them. There is no denying, despite our tendency to at times romanticize it, that the ancient world was a harsh and brutal place. Again, I am without Greek, but I think that Homer pulls no punches in showing us that harshness and brutality, but he does it -- or so Arnold asserts -- in a noble fashion. But I may be misinterpreting your comment.

As for the availability of On Translating Homer as an actual book, I am not a shill for the company, but Advanced Book Exchange (ABE) has some copies from the late 19th and early 20th centuries available. If you are interested, you may wish to look for one of the editions that has Arnold's lectures, Newman's reply to the lectures, and Arnold's response to Newman ("Last Words").

Again, thank you very much for your additional thoughts. This has been an enlightening discussion.