October 30, 2011

Review: "The Iliad" by Homer, Translated by Stephen Mitchell

Maybe Stephen Mitchell answers the question of "Why we should read the Iliad?" best in the 'Introduction' to his new translation of this epic poem--
We return to the Iliad because it is one of the monuments of our own magnificence.  Its poetry lifts even the most devastating human events into the realm of the beautiful, and it shows us how vast and serene the mind can be even when it contemplates the horrors of war.
Frankly, I'm not sure that I've ever before encountered such an eloquent or concise description of the relevance and true value of this great literary work to Humankind.

Some might say, "Do we really need another translation of the Iliad?"  I think the pertinent response to the question should be, "If the new translation advances our appreciation for Homer and deepens our understanding of the story he was attempting to tell and its impact on our lives today--then bring it on!"  This is, in my opinion, precisely what Stephen Mitchell has done with his new translation of The Iliad.

Mitchell's translation is based upon a re-working of the original Greek text by the scholar, Martin L. West.  West identified sections in the text that he classified as "probable interpolations by other rhapsodes" that were spliced into the poem over the decades and centuries after it was written down.  A "rhapsode" is the term for the classical Greek professional performer of epic poetry, i.e., kind of like a bard of the middle ages, and they were apparently common in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E., and perhaps even earlier.  West and other scholars believe that what happened was that as the poem was recounted, time and time again, modifications and adaptations were made, and that some of these were ultimately transcribed and included in the Greek text that has been handed down over the ages.  That this likely occurred is not particularly surprising to me, given that the Homeric tradition really was an oral tradition.  Stories told over time and by different story-tellers are quite likely to end up being somewhat different.

So, based upon West's work, Mitchell decided to omit these interpolated sections from his translation.  This has resulted in a translation that excludes something like 1,200-1,300 lines from a poem of approximately 16,000 lines, or just under ten-percent! The most noticeable deletion is Book 10 ("The Doloneia") which recounts the night-time raid by Odysseus and Diomedes into the Trojan camp.  The great majority of scholars confidently acknowledge that Book 10 was a later addition to the poem.  About his translation, Mitchell says--
I am under no illusion that I have translated the original text of the Iliad, as written or dictated by the anonymous poet called Homer--just the most intelligent attempt we have at getting back to an original, and a text that I could use as the basis for the most intense possible poetic experience in English.
Personally, I think Mitchell has succeeded in creating a beautifully spare, but powerfully compelling poem that seems to sing to the reader as though it had been originally composed in English.

Mitchell has generally utilized an iambic five-beat line as his meter.  In contrast with the earlier translations of Lattimore (six-beat), or Fagles (six- or seven-beat lines), Mitchell's poetry seems rhythmically cleaner and more lyrical.  In many respects, I think that what Mitchell has achieved is somewhat akin to the translation of Stanley Lombardo that endeavors to restore the Iliad to its proper place in the oral tradition.  In other words, Mitchell's translation, like Lombardo's, begs to be read aloud.  I am not saying that Mitchell's translation is better than those of Fagles, Lattimore, or Fitzgerald.  No, I am simply saying that it is noticeably different, and that I believe that this will aesthetically appeal to some readers.  Toward this end, I am going to provide an example by comparing a passage from the translation by Robert Fagles (1990), and then the same passage from Mitchell's translation, and you can be the judge of which you prefer.  The section I have selected is from the latter portion of Book 24, the last book of the Iliad, and describes the return to Troy of Priam as he accompanies the body of his slain son, Hector.  First, the Fagles' translation--
"Once they reached the ford where the river runs clear,
the strong, whirling Xanthus sprung of immortal Zeus,
Hermes went his way to the steep heights of Olympus
as Dawn flung out her golden robe across the earth,
and the two men, weeping, groaning, drove the team
toward Troy and the mules brought on the body.
No one saw them at first, neither man nor woman,
none before Cassandra, golden as goddess Aphrodite.
She had climbed to Pergamus heights and from that point
she saw her beloved father swaying tall in the chariot,
flanked by the herald, whose cry could rouse the city.
And Cassandra saw him too...
drawn by the mules and stretched out on his bier.
She screamed and her scream rang out through all Troy:
"Come, look down, you men of Troy, you Trojan women!
Behold Hector now--if you ever once rejoiced
to see him striding home, home alive from battle!
He was the greatest joy of Troy and all our people!"

(Fagles, Book 24, Lines 813-830)
And now the same passage from Mitchell's translation--
"And when they came to the ford of the swirling Xanthus,
Hermes left them and went to Olympus, as dawn
was spreading its saffron glow over all the earth.
With groaning and lamentation they drove the horses
on toward Troy, and the mule cart carried the body.
No one saw them at first, neither man nor woman.
But Cassandra, who was as lovely as Aphrodite,
from the top of Pergamus caught sight of her father
coming to Troy in the chariot...then the herald...
and then she saw him, on a pallet inside the mule cart.
She let out a scream and shouted to the whole city,
'Come and see Hector, you men and women of Troy,
if you ever were glad to see him return from the war,
so great a joy he was to our city and people.'"

(Mitchell, Book 24, Lines 686-699)
Personally, I think Mitchell's crafting of those lines is the more poetic--at any rate, it is poetry that has been structurally organized that very much appeals to me on an emotional and intellectual level.  For example, Fagles describes the coming dawn of the morning with--
Dawn flung out her golden robe across the earth
which, while a wonderful metaphor, is perhaps a bit formal and somewhat abstract.  In contrast, Mitchell keeps it simple and natural with--
as dawn was spreading its saffron glow over all the earth.
Now that is a sunrise that I can see in my mind's eye--the 'saffron-colored' low angled light of the rising sun.  This makes me think of beautiful sunrises that I've actually seen, and then I realize that this beautiful early morning light is actually illuminating and coloring a scene of profound sadness and grief--a father bringing his dead son home.  That is the power of great poetry, in my humble opinion.

In conclusion, this was a powerful and very impressive interpretation, and one that I look forward to carefully reading again and doing more side-by-side comparisons with the other translations that I own and cherish.  For me, I guess what it comes down to is that I'm not sure that there is any such thing as a bad translation of The Iliad, it is just that some are better than others.  Stephen Mitchell's translation is one of the better ones. It gets a solid five stars from me, and I highly recommend reading it.

By the bye, I am going to attend a reading and book-signing featuring Stephen Mitchell being held at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena, California on November 5th.  I'm very excited to hear more about his experiences with The Iliad over the past few years.  I may even have to buy another copy just to have one signed just for me! ;-)

Bonus Feature

If you're looking for some interesting and well-written fiction to follow your reading of Homer's The Iliad, I might suggest the following--

Helen of Troy by Margaret George (Viking, 2006) tells the story of the Trojan War from the perspective of Helen of Sparta who leaves her husband, Menelaus, and runs off with Paris to Troy.  George does a wonderful job of placing her reader in the Bronze Age of the Greeks and Trojans, and an even better job of creating and exploring the personalities of the various characters involved in the war. An easy and fun read.

Perhaps an even better written and more interesting novel is Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley (Simon and Schuster, 1987).  This is a decidedly intriguing and feminist perspective of the Trojan Prophetess, Kassandra (Cassandra).  Kassandra has always fascinated me, with her story in Greek mythology, and later treatment by the great dramatists, Aeschylus and Euripides.  Bradley expertly continues telling her story masterfully in Firebrand.


October 29, 2011

Sunday Musings: Where Do You Do Your Best Reading & Writing?

(c) David Allen Sibley, 2003
I love sitting at my desk and reading my books, catching up on your blog postings, or just doing a little writing myself. Sometimes though, something catches my eye and I find myself just relaxing and looking out the window and watching all of my little feathered or fur-covered friends cavorting about our backyard. I especially love the spring and fall seasons when migrating birds stop and investigate my yard with its trees, bushes, and flowers. For example, right now I have dozens of yellow-rumped warblers (Dendroica coronata) and western bluebirds (Sialia mexicana) moving through on their way south. They bathe in the little pools of water in the wells surrounding my trees; and they hop about looking for insects and seeds in the gardens and lawn. In a word--they are just beautiful, and I could watch them for hours.  I've always been an avid birder, and keep a battered copy of David Sibley's Field Guide to Birds of Western North America (2003) within reach on my bookshelf.

I like my workspace a lot (see photo at left).  It is very comfortable, and quite conducive to reading and thinking.  I have about one-third of my books near my desk in a large wall-sized bookcase which is really convenient (photo at lower-left).  For the rest of my books, I have to go into my wife's office where I have several large floor-to-ceiling bookcases (Thank you, IKEA!).  On the shelves next to my desk I keep my favorite collections of poetry, literature and poetry anthologies, style manuals, atlases, dictionary, thesaurus, and writing notebooks.  Even though I could carry my laptop around from room-to-room, I generally don't.  I enjoy the discipline of sitting at my desk when I write and/or read; not to mention that it is also an ergonomically comfortable environment to work in.

I think my most favorite time to be at my desk is early on a Sunday morning.  I love sitting at my desk with a nice steaming cup of coffee and watching the sun rising.  There's something about those first golden beams of low-angled morning sunlight streaming through the window across my desk that just starts the day off ever so nicely!  So, how about you--where do you like to read and write?  Do you have a nice little area that is all your own?

October 28, 2011

Review: "Isis" by Douglas Clegg

Fall is here!  It is the season for raking leaves, digging out the warm winter jackets and wool hats, and getting your pumpkin ready for the visits of your neighborhood's little ghosties and goblins on Halloween.  If you're looking for a spooky little literary 'treat' for yourself, look no further--I have a recommendation for you.

Two years ago, while wandering around my favorite bookstore, on a whim I picked up a hardcover edition of a novella by Douglas Clegg entitled, Isis.  This little book of just 113 pages is heartbreakingly good, and is profusely illustrated with beautiful and very detailed pen-and-ink line drawings by Glenn Chadbourne.  Honestly, I think the primary reason I purchased the book initially was because of the quality of the illustrations.  It really piqued my interest as soon as I picked it up and flipped through it.  

Isis is a gripping and truly macabre tale.  In essence, Clegg has given the reader a superb retelling of the ancient Egyptian Osiris and Isis myth.  Isis is set in Cornwall during the Victorian Period, and is a classic tragedy involving Love, Life, and Loss as experienced by a young woman, Iris Villiers, and her twin brothers, Harvey and Spencer.  The young people and their mother are staying at the decaying old mansion--Belerion Hall--that has been in the Villiers family for many, many years.  As befits a good scary story, there is an ancient and decrepit family burial ground next to the house that is known by the locals as "The Tombs", and the children are warned off of the place by the gardener, "Old Marsh".  While a quick read, Clegg's writing in this book is really quite good and deserves to be savored slowly.  Here's a little sample describing one of Iris's jaunts out across the Cornwall landscape--
"When the sun came out--for the summers at Belerion Hall were often long and pleasant--I saw the distant stone arches out along the tidal island that seemed to float atop turquoise waves.  I could sit near the cliff's edge on a beautiful summer's day and imagine the white sand below the cliffs to be full of pirate treasure.  My first governess told me of the seven stones in the old harbor to the west called "The Tin Men"; they had once been miners and had gone so deep into the earth that they were turned to rock itself.  Now they sat in the sea, having swallowed enemy ships that had attacked the port centuries before.  I loved the legends and tales, and in the village, where some of the folk spoke the old language, I began to learn a bit of it slowly and loved being able to say a word or two in Cornish."
Or, this wonderful description of Iris in her grandfather's library--
"On rainy days, I explored my grandfather's immense and musty library, with its volumes of strange and wonderful books. It had no windows at all, so I could forget the gray wintry world outside. Its ceiling looked like elegant chocolates from a London confectionery, and it had bookcases so high that I had to climb ladders to see it all. I crept over to the hearth rug with several books and lay there in front of the huge stone fireplace to begin my escape from Belerion Hall through the pages of novels and histories."
Clegg's writing (this tale, at least) reminds me a bit of some of George Eliot's earlier works, or that of Thomas Hardy, as there's always that hint of bleakness or forthcoming tragedy lurking in the background. Clegg also does a superb job of blending bits of Celtic or Druidic legend and myth in with his retelling of the Isis/Osiris story, and it all works really, really well.  I'm not going to say any more about the plot of the book, but suffice it to say that it has a series of twists that you probably won't see coming and that will both surprise and horrify.  This is probably not a tale for the very young either; it is dark, gritty, realistic, and terribly bittersweet, with some pretty significant moral lessons throughout.  This hauntingly beautiful novella is one to read while safely ensconced in a warm living room in front of a crackling fire with a nice steaming mug of hot apple-cider.  Have a Happy and Safe Halloween and do let me know how you liked Isis.

By Douglas Clegg 
Vanguard Press, 2009
Hardcover edition, 113 pages.


October 23, 2011

A Poem for the Day: "Autumn" by Christina G. Rossetti

Here is a poem by one of my favorite Victorian poets, Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-1894).  Christina was the younger sister of the PreRaphaelite poet and painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (at left, is his pencil and chalk portrait of his sister).  She was a prolific poet who, through the course of her life, wrote something over 1,000 poems, and is perhaps best known for her epic poem, Goblin Market (1859).  Also, about two years ago I read Jan Marsh's seminal biography of Rossetti entitled Christina Rossetti: A Literary Biography.  While it was tough to find a copy (my used copy came from Britain), it was well worth the effort (and money!) as it shed so much light on this lesser known, but very important poet.  If you're interested in learning more about Christina Rossetti and Marsh's wonderful biography, have a look at my book review in this earlier posting here.

The poem I'm posting is entitled Autumn and was written in April 1858.  I have always loved this poem for its introspection, vivid imagery, and similes.  For some reason, I have always kind of looked upon Rossetti's Autumn as being akin to Tennyson's The Lady of Shalott (originally written in 1832, but revised in 1842).  Obviously, Rossetti must have been very much aware of Tennyson's poetry (he was, after all, Poet Laureate during much of her life).  Anyway, without further ado, here is Christina Rossetti's poem--



I dwell alone--I dwell alone, alone,
Whilst full my river flows down to the sea,
Gilded with flashing boats
That bring no friend to me:
O love-songs, gurgling from a hundred throats,
O love-pangs, let me be.

Fair fall the freighted boats which gold and stone
And spices bear to sea:
Slim, gleaming maidens swell their mellow notes,
Love-promising, entreating--
Ah! sweet, but fleeting--
Beneath the shivering, snow-white sails.
Hush! the wind flags and fails--
Hush! they will lie becalmed in sight of strand--
Sight of my strand, where I do dwell alone;
Their songs wake singing echoes in my land--
They cannot hear me moan.

One latest, solitary swallow flies
Across the sea, rough autumn-tempest tost,
Poor bird, shall it be lost?
Dropped down into this uncongenial sea,
With no kind eyes
To watch it while it dies,
Unguessed, uncared for, free:
Set free at last,
The short pang past,
In sleep, in death, in dreamless sleep locked fast.

Mine avenue is all a growth of oaks,
Some rent by thunder-strokes,
Some rustling leaves and acorns in the breeze:
Fair fall my fertile trees,
That rear their goodly heads, and live at ease.

A spider's web blocks all mine avenue;
He catches down and foolish painted flies,
That spider wary and wise.
Each morn it hangs a rainbow strung with dew
Betwixt boughs green with sap,
So fair, few creatures guess it is a trap:
I will not mar the web,
Tho' sad I am to see the small lives ebb.

It shakes--my trees shake--for a wind is roused
In cavern where it housed:
Each white and quivering sail,
Of boats among the water leaves
Hollows and strains in the full-throated gale:
Each maiden sings again--
Each languid maiden, whom the calm
Had lulled to sleep with rest and spice and balm,
Miles down my river to the sea
They float and wane,
Long miles away from me.

Perhaps they say: "She grieves,
Uplifted, like a beacon, on her tower."
Perhaps they say: "One hour
More, and we dance among the golden sheaves."
Perhaps they say: "One hour
More, and we stand,
Face to face, hand in hand;
Make haste, O slack gale, to the looked-for land!"

My trees are not in flower,
I have no bower,
And gusty creaks my tower,
And lonesome, very lonesome, is my strand.

(Composed, April 14, 1858)


The painting that I've attached to the right of the poem is by the famous American landscape painter, Thomas Moran (1837-1926), and is entitled A Scene on the Tohickon Creek: Autumn and was painted in 1868.  Please, please do 'click' on the painting and enjoy the larger view of this exquisite work of art!

Moran is one of my favorite landscape painters, and is one of the artists from the mid-19th century American artistic movement known as the "Hudson River School".  Other artists in this 'school' included, for example, Frederic Church, Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, and Martin Johnson Heade.  The artists of the Hudson River School were influenced by Romanticism and the earlier artistic works of landscape painters like J.M.W. Turner and John Constable, as well as by the literary works of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Thomas Moran traveled out west with one of the early exploratory teams from the U.S. Geological Survey (the Hayden Survey, 1871) and made many beautiful sketches and paintings of the scenery that he encountered.  It was largely because of his landscapes and sketches being exhibited back east that Yellowstone National Park was created.  In fact, the U.S. Congress purchased several of his large canvasses that were then hung in the Capitol building for years (they are now in the Smithsonian Museum).  Some of Moran's paintings can currently be found in the Department of the Interior building, the Smithsonian, and in the Oval Office of the White House.

I have always very much admired the compositions and lighting conditions depicted in the landscape paintings of Moran, Bierstadt, Church, and Cole, and continue to strive to duplicate the qualities of those elements in my own photography.  Whether or not I have been successful is a determination I leave entirely to the judgment of the viewer.  If you're interested in taking a look at my current portfolio of landscape photography, please have a look here.


October 22, 2011

Review: "The War That Killed Achilles" by Caroline Alexander

Caroline Alexander says in her Preface to The War That Killed Achilles that "this book is about what the Iliad is about; this book is about what the Iliad says of war."

I loved this book!  It is extraordinarily well-written, and to the point at 225 pages in length (plus another nearly 50 pages of end-notes).  While scholarly, it reads very well.  Alexander takes us through the Trojan War's cast of characters in chapters that cover topics like "Chain of Command", the "Terms of Engagement", "In God We Trust", "Man Down", "No Hostages", "The Death of Hektor", and the last chapter "Everlasting Glory".  Alexander's book hones in on the seven or eight months that are covered in Homer's Iliad, and while it speaks to the historical context of Troy, Mycenaean Greece, and the Trojan War itself, I think the real message of her book is the psychology of the War and the psychology of the humans involved in it.

It is perhaps easy to come to the conclusion that the Iliad is really the story of the "rage" of Achilles.  I don't know if it is that simple though, and I don't think Alexander does either.  She spends a lot of the book discussing why Achilles is 'angry' with Agamemnon, and it is much more complicated than Agamemnon having forcibly taken Achilles' concubine, Briseis, from him.  She postulates that Achilles had reached the conclusion that Agamemnon is an inept and incompetent military commander, and that this war between the Trojans and Achaeans was unjust, and that he--Achilles--really 'doesn't have an axe to grind' in this fight.  All of this was very thought-provoking for me, and caused me to carefully reread the Iliad and rethink my feelings about Achilles' actions (or, inaction, as the case may be).

Alexander makes a strong case too, that both sides in this nasty little war were just plain worn out.  The Greeks and the Trojans had been fighting for nearly ten years, with little in the way of tangible results other than seeing hundreds of their comrades killed or maimed.  That can't be good for your overall mental health.  The psychological toll of losing friends in combat must have been huge, and anger and guilt (i.e., 'survivor's guilt'), and post-traumatic stress disorder must have, by this time, affected all of the combatants.  When Achilles' best-loved friend, Patroclus, is killed by Hektor, one can begin to understand how Achilles could have simply 'snapped' and just gone berserk with 'rage'.  Particularly as one knows from Homer that Achilles, in essence, facilitated Patroclus' death at the hands of Hektor (i.e., Achilles let Patroclus borrow his armor and lead the Myrmidons into combat against the Trojans).  Combat is violent, combat is horrific--whether it is in the Bronze Age on the Plain of Troy, or in 2011 in the Korangal River Valley in Afghanistan--and the human cost is always incalculably high.

Finally, Alexander finishes her book with a discussion about Achilles coming to terms with his own role in the Trojan War, and his acceptance of his own destiny and what Fate ultimately had in store for him, and the choices involved.  Could Achilles have really packed up his 2,500 Myrmidon warriors and sailed back home in his 50 'black-hulled' ships to a peaceful and quiet obscurity?  Could he have left without avenging the death of his beloved friend, Patroclus?  Alexander is compelling as she lays out the case that Achilles was able to, as Homer alludes to in the poem, sort through the pros and cons of what faced him, and was able to 'make peace' with himself.  Alexander, I think, believes that it was through Achilles reaching a resolution to these issues that freed him to fully embrace the warrior ethos of his time and meet his destiny and fate with honor and integrity--on the battlefield, or late at night in the parley with the Trojan king, Priam.  Maybe the great Lycian warrior, Sarpedon, a Trojan ally said it best in describing the warrior's code when he tells his friend, Glaukos--
"Man, supposing you and I, escaping this battle,
would be able to live on forever, ageless, immortal,
so neither would I myself go on fighting in the foremost
nor would I urge you into fighting where men win glory.
But now, seeing that the spirits of death stand close about us
in their thousands, no man can turn aside nor escape them,
let us go on and win glory for ourselves, or yield it to others."
That's powerful stuff, and this is a very powerful book that Caroline Alexander has written.  She's right too.  This book is about "...what the Iliad is about; this book is about what the Iliad says of war."  The War That Killed Achilles is a wonderful complement to a reading of Homer's The Iliad, and gets a solid 4/5 stars from me.

The War That Killed Achilles
By Caroline Alexander
Viking, 296 pp., 2009.


October 21, 2011

A Poem for the Day: "Autumn in King's Hintock Park" by Thomas Hardy

Staying with my fall theme, I'm sharing a favorite poem of mine by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928).  This is from his collection of poems entitled, Time's Laughingstocks and Other Verses first published in 1901.  I know I've said this before, but I really want to recommend Hardy's poetry to you.  He wrote nearly 1,000 poems, and there are very, very few that don't measure up.  This particular poem very much reminds me of one of my favorite Hardy novels, The Woodlanders (1887).  If you're at all interested in this novel, and I hope you will be, I encourage you to take a look at my review here.  The painting that accompanies the poem is entitled, Avenue of Poplars in Autumn, and was painted by Vincent van Gogh in 1884 (just three years before Hardy published The Woodlanders).

Autumn in King's Hintock Park

Here by the baring bough
   Raking up leaves,
Often I ponder how
   Springtime deceives,--
I, an old woman now,
   Raking up leaves.

Here in the avenue
   Raking up leaves,
Lords' ladies pass in view,
   Until one heaves
Sighs at life's russet hue,
   Raking up leaves!

Just as my shape you see
   Raking up leaves,
I saw, when fresh and free,
   Those memory weaves
Into grey ghosts by me,
   Raking up leaves.

Yet, Dear, though one may sigh,
   Raking up leaves,
New leaves will dance on high--
   Earth never grieves!--
Will not, when missed am I
   Raking up leaves.

(From Time's Laughingstocks and Other Verses, 1901)


October 20, 2011

"The Iliad" Redux--Which Translation?

I know, I know, you're probably getting mighty tired of my postings on The Iliad by now.  I'm almost done, I promise.  I only have one major translation left to read, and I'm not getting to it until early next week while I'm on a three-day business trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Having said that though, I thought I'd spend some time putting together a posting that compares and contrasts the translations that I have read, and also provide some suggestions for some pleasurable side reading.  This information may prove useful to readers who want to tackle Homer's epic poem, and are wondering which translation to read.  It may also be interesting to those who've read The Iliad and are considering reading a different translation at some point in time.  I am going to list the translations that I've read organized by date of translation and/or publication.

Richmond Lattimore (1951)--

This is, of the modern translations, probably the most classical, formal, and elegant rendition.  Lattimore uses what he calls a "free six-beat line" in his verse translation of Homer's dactylic hexameter verse of the original Greek.  Based upon all that I've read about these translations, Lattimore was ruthlessly faithful to the Greek spellings of places and names, and utilization of the formal epithets (e.g., "grey-eyed" for Athena, or "father of gods" for Zeus, etc.) when describing the cast-of-characters.  It is colorful and incredibly descriptive stuff to read.  If you love Homer, and specifically The Iliad, Lattimore's poetic interpretation is one that you should eventually read.  It is the 'Elder Big Brother' of modern 20th century Iliads.

Robert Fitzgerald (1974)--

Fitzgerald's translation reads easier, in my opinion, than Lattimore's.  This is a qualitative statement on my part, and is probably more a function of the kind of reader that I am these days.  Fitzgerald also doesn't include all of the repetition that the original Greek text has, as this is really a relict of The Iliad's oral tradition.  Fitzgerald chose blank verse as the meter for his translation, and it really does seem to correspond better to the dactylic hexameter of the Greek than using English hexameter or rhymed verse.  While Fitzgerald's blank verse reads very, very well, it still manages to sound traditional and is not flamboyant at all--it is simply good poetry.  I have to say that 'at the end of the day' I really enjoyed the Fitzgerald translation.

Robert Fagles (1990)--

The translation of The Iliad by Robert Fagles was the first one that I read cover-to-cover, and it really was a life-altering experience, and the beginning of my love-affair with Homer and all-things 'Iliadic'.  Fagles believed in the performance-driven aspects of The Iliad, and he did his very best to emphasize this element with his translation.  Fagles did a terrific job at translating the Greek into his lines of verse that maintain a lyrical and rhythmic five or six beats per line while maintaining a very sensible and readable text.  As I read his translation I found myself completely caught up in the beauty of the mythology, and fully able to experience the pathos, drama, and tragedy of this great story.  I have to say that by the time I was finished with this translation, my overall reading experience was something approaching the sublime.  I guess I'll probably always be partial to Fagles' translation as 'it was my first'.  Finally, I should note that the Introduction to the Fagles translation was written by Bernard Knox and is simply magnificent in its own right and a 'must-read' for any reader of Homer and The Iliad.

Stanley Lombardo (1997)--

Lombardo's translation was fun to read!  Apparently, Lombardo is very interested in restoring the oral tradition associated with people experiencing Homer and The Iliad and The Odyssey.  His translations very much lend themselves to being read aloud and hearing (and even feeling) the lyricism and rhythms of the words and verse.  In fact, it is my understanding that Lombardo does performances of various books of The Iliad on the stage for audiences (would I ever love to attend one of these!).  Frankly, Lombardo's translation begs to be read aloud and shared with others.  Trust me, it works in a similar fashion for the reader reading it alone too--it is a performance on every page!

I also really liked how Lombardo inset and italicized the similes in the poem (and there's gobs of 'em).  It makes it so much easier for the reader to relate each simile to section of the poem it applies to.  It was really quite clever (and makes it ever so much easier when reading aloud).  Lombardo is a firm believer that The Iliad is a living poem (after all, it has been translated into English approximately 150 times since the 17th century!), and that "living poetry means living speech".  I completely agree.  For new readers, or readers who might be unsure of whether they'd like The Iliad, this might be a great translation to start with.  If you're an Iliad junkie, like me, you ought to read it too.  Lombardo's translation is powerful and relevant.

Stephen Mitchell (2011)--

Stay tuned!  I do plan to provide a review of Mitchell's new translation (October 2011) some time in the next couple of weeks.  I have it sitting on the TBR shelf right now, and I plan on starting it early next week while on my business trip.  Apparently, Mitchell has utilized a relatively recent reworking of the Greek text by the scholar, Martin West.  If you're interested in this new translation by Stephen Mitchell, you can read about it in an earlier posting of mine here.  I'm pretty excited to read this and compare and contrast it with the other versions I've read.  It should be really interesting.

Bonus Material--

If you read The Iliad, any of the translations referenced above, or others, I also strongly recommend that you consider picking up the following books.  I think they'll add significantly to your overall experience with Homer and his epic poem.

The Odyssey--Obviously, if you've read The Iliad, you probably ought to go ahead and read The Odyssey.  All of the translators referenced above have translations of The Odyssey, with exception of Stephen Mitchell, and he's working on his rendition even as I write.

Ransom--This little book by Australian writer, David Malouf, is seriously one of the most gorgeous works of fiction I've ever encountered.  It focuses and expands upon events occurring in the last three or four books of The Iliad.  It is hauntingly beautiful and powerful prose that borders on poetic for much of the time.  If you're interested in Malouf's novel, you can check out my review here.

War Music, All Day Permanent Red, and Cold Calls--These little books of poetry by British poet, Christopher Logue, are his retelling of significant portions of The Iliad and are not to be missed.  Once you've read The Iliad, dip into War Music and prepare to be 'gobsmacked' up side the head!  If you're interested in Logue's poetry, have a look at my posting here.

The War That Killed Achilles--This non-fiction book by Caroline Alexander (2009) is superb, and places Homer's epic poem in historical context.  It is just over 200 pages, and is extremely well written.  I am so glad that I read this as it really shed a lot of light on the events associated with the Trojan War, as well as the psychology of the major players.

A Brief Iliadic Glossary--

Some interesting words and definitions that I've encountered during my reads:

androktasia = combat death description (these abound within The Iliad)

aristeia = display of martial prowess (e.g., Book 5 is the aristeia of Diomedes)

eris = refers to 'strife between heroes' (mortal or immortal)

teichoskopia = viewing from the walls (refers to Helen and Priam up on the walls of Troy looking down on the Greek commanders)


October 17, 2011

A Poem for the Day: "To Autumn" by John Keats

    To Autumn

    SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
        Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
    Conspiring with him how to load and bless
        With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
    To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
        And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
            To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
    With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
        And still more, later flowers for the bees,
        Until they think warm days will never cease,
            For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

    Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
        Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
    Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
        Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
    Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
        Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
            Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
    And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
        Steady thy laden head across a brook;
        Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
            Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

    Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
        Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
    While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
        And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
    Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
        Among the river sallows, borne aloft
            Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
    And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
        Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
        The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
           And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

    (September 19, 1819)


This is thought to be the most anthologized poem in the English language, and I can certainly see why.  It is a beautiful portrait of the fall season.  John Keats (1795-1821) wrote this poem in Winchester in mid-September 1819, and in a letter to his friend, J.H. Reynolds, on September 21st, he said--
"How beautiful the season is now--How fine the air.  A temperate sharpness about it.  Really, without joking, chaste weather--Dian skies--I never lik'd stubble fields so much as now--Aye better than the chilly green of the spring.  Somehow a stubble plain looks warm--in the same way that some pictures look warm--this struck me so much in my Sunday's walk that I composed upon it..."

(Letters of John Keats. A Selection, ed. Robert Gittings, 1970)
A lot of folks have interpreted this poem as an allegory of artistic creation, a meditation on death, or even some form of political statement; and maybe it is all of those things, I really don't know.  I just know that it is an absolutely beautiful poem that is pretty much perfectly constructed.  It is an example, in my humble opinion, of Keats' consummate skill in achieving poetic perfection in writing odes.  These three stanzas, each with eleven lines (versus the 'normal' ten lines), written in iambic pentameter, with a pair of rhyming couplets in each stanza just above the last line.  This is just classic from start to finish.  Read it a couple of times slowly.  Even better, read it aloud to yourself and fully experience the lyricism and rhythms.  You'll get it, and all of the sudden you'll determine that you want to read more of Keats' poetry.  You won't be disappointed, I promise.

The photograph I've attached to this posting is one I took a couple of years ago on a late-fall afternoon outside of Lincoln, Nebraska.  This photograph of the recently harvested Nebraska corn-field reminds me of the light of "..the soft-dying day..." touching "...the stubble-plains with rosy hue..." that Keats described so eloquently in this poem.  If you like, please do 'click' on the photograph for a larger view.  Enjoy the photograph and the poem!

October 13, 2011

Inquiring Minds Want to Know--Your Current Top-Ten Greatest Works of Literature?

A couple of times a year I make a list in my journal.  I ask myself the following question--
"If I had to list my top-ten greatest works of literature of all time right now, what would they be?"
Obviously, this list morphs and changes over time as I continue to discover and read books that are new to me.  Interestingly enough though, there are a couple of stalwart hangers-on that have continued to occupy spots on my list.  So, what's on my list at this particular moment?  Well, here 'tis--
The Iliad, by Homer
The Oresteia, by Aeschylus
Beowulf, by Anonymous
Complete Poems, John Keats
Villette, by Charlotte Bronte
Middlemarch, by George Eliot
Complete Poems, Emily Dickinson
The Return of the Native, by Thomas Hardy
Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy
Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier
Okay, there's my list.  I'll even share a little 'blurb' about each book telling you why it made my list, and why I hope you'll pick it up and give it a go sometime yourself.

The Iliad--More than three-thousand years old, these sixteen-thousand lines of poetry lyrically tell the greatest story ever told; and, at the same time, it is also quite possibly the greatest anti-war testament to be found in the canon of the world's greatest literature.  Spell-binding and compelling from start-to-finish, this epic poem by the itinerant bard, Homer, is a 'must-read' for any serious reader.  I highly recommend the translations of Robert Fagles (1990), Robert Fitzgerald (1974), and Richmond Lattimore (1951).  I am reading a translation by Stanley Lombardo (1997) that completely lends itself to the oral tradition of Homer, as Lombardo has created an interpretation that is meant to be recited aloud and listened to.  I have Stephen Mitchell's brand-new translation sitting on the shelf waiting for me too.  Stay tuned! 

The Oresteia--This trilogy of tragic plays by Aeschylus was first performed over 2,500 years ago in an outdoor amphitheater near Athens.  While it is something bordering on near-miraculous that it has survived nearly three millenia--the only surviving trilogy from antiquity--what is of even more import is what these plays say and what they document and may have set in motion for all of civilization.  These plays recount the grim and dark tragedy of the ancient Greek House of Atreus, and the shift from the "Code of Blood Vendetta, or Vengeance" to the "Rule of Law," introducing the new concept of a trial by jury and pronouncement of judgment and justice.  This is nothing short of monumental, and simply must be experienced.  I highly recommend the translations of The Oresteia by Robert Fagles (1977), Ted Hughes (1999), and Alan Shapiro and Peter Burian (2003), and while I've not yet read it, I hear that the translation by Peter Meineck (1997) is superb as well.

Beowulf--This was incredible!  Beowulf is an epic poem of nearly 3,200 lines that was first written down in old Anglo-Saxon--the 'Mother-Tongue' of English--about 1,300 years ago.  I have only read the Irish poet, Seamus Heaney's, translation (2000) and it is spare, sparse, and gritty, and is presented side-by-side with Anglo-Saxon original.  The plot of this elegiac poem was absolutely epic.  The horror of Grendel and his Dam was palpable; and the heroism of Beowulf and his spear-fellows timeless.  Finally, the ability to carefully study Heaney's translation, alliteration, and interpretation of the poem and then to be able to compare it to the old Anglo-Saxon bordered on surrealistic.

Complete Poems of John Keats--In my opinion, Keats was the "Bright Star" among all of the poets of the Ages.  I weep when I think of what the world lost when John Keats died of tuberculosis at the age of 26 on February 23, 1821, in Rome.  This poetic giant left humanity with a treasure of the likes of Hyperion, The Eve of St. Agnes, La Belle Dame sans Merci, Ode to Psyche, Ode on a Grecian Urn, Lamia, Endymion, and The Fall of Hyperion, and a significant number of other breathtakingly beautiful poems .  It somehow comforts me to imagine Keats, even now, scribbling away in poetic fervor, in the "western halls of gold" with Apollo, his voice joined with that of the nine Muses, and "We listen here on earth:/The dying tones that fill the air,/And charm the ear of evening fair."  Read Keats, and prepare to be left breathless, but, oh, ever so alive!

Villette--My short letter to Miss Charlotte Bronte upon finishing my first reading of her profoundly powerful last novel, Villette:
'This novel, this Villette, like an arrow fletched fair, flew true, oh so true, and pierced your beating heart; and from that mortal wound poured the secrets of your soul, your inner-most being; laid bare for all to see.  The incalculable loss of your older sisters, then Branwell, your dearest Emily, and finally quiet little Anne.  This towering testament to loneliness, to sorrow, swept me, your Reader, relentlessly through the unimagined torrent of your human emotions—your grief, your fears, your reserved passion, your quiet grace, steadfast loyalty, and your resolute strength and faith.

I felt guilty as I read, Miss Charlotte, looking over my shoulder at every pause; afraid that you should somehow find me picking the lock of your secret diary; spellbound as I turned the pages, one after the other, reading your most intimate, personal, and painful thoughts and the passionate feelings that poured forth onto the page. Intensely captivated by the dialog between your Passion and your Reason, the conversations between your Imagination and your Matter; but I read on. Until it simply became too much; I averted my eyes, and I wept.'
With each re-read, I find that this novel still affects me on a personal and an emotional level like no other work of fiction I've encountered to date.  Read Villette.

Middlemarch--At first blush, one has this sense of simply being immersed in a rather quiet and pastoral story, but there's really very much more going on here as one turns the pages.It is a story of rural England during the period of great reforms in politics, religion, agriculture, manufacturing, medicine, and even transportation.  Mostly though, it is the story of human beings, and what it means to be human.

This is a stately, sedate, sophisticated, and complexly elegant novel.  It really does demand the reader's full dedication and attention as it is read too, much like I found when I read her last novel Daniel Deronda.  Boy, was it ever worth the extra effort though.  When I finished reading this novel, for the first time  earlier this fall, I realized that I had arrived at a point in my reading and comprehension that I finally understood what Virginia Woolf meant as she described Middlemarch as "...one of the few English novels written for grown-up people."

Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson--My description of Dickinson and her work that I used in an earlier blog post (here) is still pretty much spot-on.  Emily Dickinson, the 'Belle of Amherst,' may have been quiet and even painfully shy, but there was a nuclear reactor's worth of power contained within this woman's genius that was able, through her brilliant use of a few simple joined and arranged words, to create a body of work of nearly 1,800 poems that perfectly pulsate and throb with the essence of Life.  As a companion to Dickinson's The Complete Poems, I highly recommend Helen Vendler's Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries (2010), in which she showcases Dickinson's "...startling imagination and the ingenuity of her linguistic invention."  All I can say is that Dickinson's poetry has resonated and stayed with me my entire life!

The Return of the Native--As many of you know, I love the novels and poetry of Thomas Hardy, and one of my very favorite Hardy novels is The Return of the Native.  The novel contains more than a superficial nod to the great choric scenes of the Greek tragedies, as well as the gatherings of commoners like many of Shakespeare's dramas.  The novel's primary characters are locked together in a tale of passion, drama, pathos, and tragedy where, in typical Hardyan fashion, only Fate, Chance, and Irony exert any control whatsoever.  Like a moth is drawn to a flame, the reader is inexorably drawn into the tale, and recognizes with growing horror that full release can only be attained through reaching and experiencing the novel's shocking climax.  The lyrical descriptions of the environment, the role of the humans in it, and the interactions between the characters quite reminds me of the great modern American novelist, Cormac McCarthy (the next author on my list!).  The Return of the Native is Hardy's Naturalism at its finest; and becomes an almost poetic homage to the interaction of the human species with one another as well as with the Earth Mother herself.

Blood Meridian--This ain't an easy book to read.  This is an uber-violent novel that paints a picture of the west like something done by Hieronymus Bosch.  I think Harold Bloom got it exactly right when he said,
"The violence is the book. The Judge [Holden] is the book, and the Judge is, short of Moby-Dick, the most monstrous apparition in all of American literature. The Judge is violence incarnate. The Judge stands for incessant warfare for its own sake."
All I can tell you is that I have read this novel several times, and each time I find myself somewhat ensorcelled, and in an almost evil or grimly terrifying sort of way, as I turn the pages.  It may be the bildungsroman of 'The Kid' and his adventures, but there is absolutely nothing nostalgic or romantic about the American West that McCarthy paints in this novel.  Somehow though, I think this novel is incredibly important, and only Cormac McCarthy could have written it.

Cold Mountain--With this novel I have come full circle with my list and return to Homer, if you will.  I completely agree with the widely held opinion that Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain is the American Odyssey. This is an extraordinarily beautifully written novel that tells the story of Inman, a Confederate soldier, who is physically and psychologically worn out from the horrific combat of the American Civil War, and undertakes a trek back to his home in the Appalachian Mountains of western North Carolina.  Frazier's ability to connect the reader with Inman, the people he encounters, and the environment through which he travels is amazing, and it is accomplished through some of the most poetic and lyrical prose I've read in a long, long time.  Simply put, this is just a gorgeous novel to read, and it fully deserved the National Book Award for Fiction that it received in 1997.

Well, there it is.  My current list of my top-ten favorite works of literature, and why I chose them.  Have you read any, or all, of these books?  If so, what did you think of them?  Also, the bibliophile (and 'list-maker') in me is very interested in your top-ten list.  I'd love for you to leave me a comment with the list of your top-ten favorite great books.

October 9, 2011

My 100th Posting!

This is my 100th posting to ProSe!  It seems hard to believe, at least to me, but I've been adding to this blog since August 2009.  I thought it might be worthwhile to spend a moment or two and look retrospectively at what I've done and ask myself several questions--
First, am I still being faithful to my original intent in creating this on-line 'writer's and reader's notebook'?

Yeah, I generally think I am.  I started ProSe because I wanted a place to journal about and discuss the great literature that I was reading.  If anything, I think that through my own use of this blog, and my interactions with other book-bloggers and readers, I have actually become a better writer, reader, and much more adept at critical thinking.  So, in retrospect, whilst the blog has matured, so have I as a reader and a thinker.  Those are very good things.

Secondly, what could (should) I do to improve the overall quality of ProSe, and my own personal on-line blogging experience?

At first blush, the obvious answer is to participate more consistently week-in, and week out.  When I look at my record of posts, it is a record of fits-and-starts.  I'll be really active for a few weeks, even a few months, and then I'll kind of go on an extended 'vacation' for two or three months.  I think I need to become a more disciplined writer and actually make the extra effort to maintain my on-line 'writer's journal,' i.e., this blog.  Hey, I don't ever stop reading great books for weeks or months on end, so why stop writing about them?  As I said above, maintaining ProSe has made me a more complete writer and reader.

I think another area in which I can improve is to make more of an effort to link subjects, topics, and discussions that I feature on ProSe with similar topics and discussions that I encounter among all of the rest of you.  It never ceases but to fascinate me when I encounter postings from other bloggers that are reading, or have just read, the same books that I am reading or just finished.  It is so cool to be able to read your experiences while still mulling over my own.  So, I think making more of an effort to bring your pertinent thoughts and observations into the discussion and connecting them with my own can only continue to make me a better reader and critical thinker.  Also, I would be remiss in not pointing out that it has been through my interactions with all of my fellow book-bloggers that I have been regularly turned on to some really terrific books over the past couple of years.  Thank you, my friends!

Thirdly, and this is a rhetorical question, why is it that postings about poetry are almost universally ignored?

Now, I am sure that this a gross over-generalization, but it seems to me that 99.99% of all the postings associated with literature that I am encountering on-line are about fiction and non-fiction books, and virtually nothing is being posted about poetry.  As most of you are aware, poetry is probably my favorite literary art-form, followed by fiction.  Part of my rationale for creating ProSe was to give me a forum to post and discuss some of my favorite poets and their works.  I am always somewhat amused though at just how little attention these poetry postings of mine receive.  I think there are only two conclusions that I can draw from this: (1) I am a terrible presenter and that my scribblings about poets and poetry are about as boring as watching paint dry; or (2) poetry is just not something that most readers are interested in these days.  Let me qualify that last observation by saying that I am most certainly not casting any aspersions, nor am I being judgmental.  It is what it is.  Rest assured, I plan to continue postings here that involve and feature poets and poetry, as it is a very near and dear art form to me.

Finally, I would like to invite all of you to grade ProSe and my performance as a blogger.  Are there particular things you'd like to see me change, or include?
Well, there it is--my 100th posting.  Personally, I'm proud of myself, and I'm proud of what ProSe has become over the past 26 months that I have been blogging.  This is the dawn of a new phase for me as an on-line writer, as a reader, and for ProSe, and I am hopeful that my next 100 postings will continue to show the growth in my writing, reading and critical thinking.  I also want all of you to know just how inspiring you have been, and continue to be, to me.  I have made some wonderful new friends, and found many, many of you that share many of the same interests that I do.  As I move forward into the future I am very much enjoying the ride, and hope that some of you will continue to join me.  Cheers!

P.S.  The photograph I've included with this posting is one I took at dawn on the shores of beautiful Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana.  I spent a lovely morning there with my wife and oldest daughter a few years back, and looking at it always brings back such great memories.  Please feel free to 'click' on it for a much larger view.

October 8, 2011

A Poem for the Day: Fragments from Antiquity

I thought I'd share some of the bits of this and that that I've encountered in the course of my reading recently.  I maintain a writer's journal, of sorts, where I jot down nifty things that I encounter in the books that I'm reading, and looking at it this morning I thought that posting some of these might be of interest, and even inspiring, to some of you.  All of the 'fragments' included here come from the various plays of the ancient Greek classicists that I've been studying of late.

First, I want to share some lines from Aeschylus' Agamemnon (first performed in 458 B.C.), the first play in the the great trilogy we know as The Oresteia.  The following lines have stuck with me for much of my life, and I always search them out in each new translation of The Oresteia that I encounter.  These were the words spoken by Robert F. Kennedy upon hearing of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968--
"For it was Zeus who set
men on the path to wisdom
when he decreed the fixed
law that suffering
alone shall be their teacher.
Even in sleep pain drips
down through the heart as fear,
all night, as memory.
We learn unwillingly.
From the high bench of the gods
by violence, it seems, grace comes."

[Agamemnon, Lines 200-210, translation by Burian and Shapiro, 2003]
And here are the same lines translated and interpreted by the late-British Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes, from his brilliant The Oresteia: A New Translation (1999)--
"I call God Zeus
And Zeus, or the greater one
Who wears Zeus like a mask for man to imagine,
Has given man this law:
The truth
Has to be melted out of our stubborn lives
By suffering
Nothing speaks the truth,
Nothing tells us how things really are,
Nothing forces us to know
What we do not want to know
Except pain.
And this is how the gods declare their love.
Truth comes with pain."

[Agamemnon, Ted Hughes, 1999]
No pun intended, but I do believe that there's a lot of truth in these words, unfortunately. I love the classical elegance of the Burian/Shapiro translation, but marvel at the power and visceral directness of the Hughes translation. They both speak to me on a very emotional level. Which do you prefer?

Now, staying with the theme of The Oresteia and the House of Atreus, I would like to share a few lines from Anne Carson's amazing translation of Sophocles' powerful play, Elektra (written between 440-420 B.C.?).  These nine lines are the response of the Chorus to Elektra's palpable and heartfelt grief and anger over the murder of her father, Agamemnon, by her mother, Clytemnestra--
"Not from Hades' black and universal lake
can you lift him.
Not by groaning, not by prayers.
Yet you run yourself out
in a grief with no cure,
no time limit, no measure.
It is a knot no one can untie.
Why are you so in love with
things unbearable?"

[Elektra, Lines 186-193, translated by Anne Carson, 2009]
While it may seem almost unfathomable to others (like the Chorus here), I think we all have either felt grief that is so all-encompassing and consuming, or know of those close to us who've experienced it, and the only cure is simply the passage of time and compassion from our fellow humans.  Carson's words caution us against being completely and utterly consumed by grief.

Okay, it is time to pick up the tone, and move out of the 'shade' over to the 'sunny side of the street.'  I want to share some beautiful lines of poetry from Euripides' moving play, Ion (probably written between 412-410 B.C.).  Ion, simply put, is the story about a mother and her son (and so much more, but that's for another posting...Note to Self).  This first bit is timeless, and something we can all relate to--
"Let the oracle be straight and clear
We've waited so long
For the great gift--Children

Lush endless happiness
Belongs to those who see
Shining in their children
Golden generations yet to come"

[Ion, Lines 456-462, translated by Di Piero and Burian, 1996]
Or this next simple, but ever so effective, little 'ode to joy' from Kreousa as she is reunited with her long-lost son, Ion--
"To heaven's bright unfolding,
my joy sings,
shouts high and far.
Joy I never imagined--
Where does it come from?"

[Ion, Lines 1398-1402, translated by Di Piero and Burian, 1996]
Isn't that just beautiful?  It is spare, minimalist, and almost reminds me of something done in Haiku--but we all know, from reading those few words, that Kreousa is full of joy!

And I want to close with the last lines from Euripides' Ion, because I think it circles around and addresses what Aeschylus was talking about in our first fragments above, but with a more upbeat take-home message--
"Goodbye, Apollo, Son of Leto and Zeus.
Now we have learned to give the gods their due
and to take heart when we're driven by disaster.
In the end, the good get what's good.
The bad, by nature, get what's bad."

[Ion, Lines 1588-1592, translated by Di Piero and Burian, 1996]
I think what I love the most about reading these plays is the joy of discovering all of this amazing poetry!  Sometimes I wish that I could read these lines in the original Greek, but for now I must rely upon the expertise and talents of the translators to do their best in preserving and interpreting the author's original intent as well as the aesthetics of the work as a whole.  For these reasons, perhaps the job of translator is even more difficult than that of author, I don't know.  I do know though that, for me, a new translation is much like a box of chocolates--you never quite know what you have until you've opened it and read it.  Some you just like better than others, and others just miss the mark entirely.  I now spend a lot of time researching various translations of works that I am interested in acquiring.  Using all of the book reviews of my fellow book-bloggers, and the reviews and discussions I access via my on-line book groups (i.e., Goodreads and Shelfari) has really allowed me to hone in on the right editions to purchase and read.  In fact, I think it is fair to say that most of what I'm reading these days (and for the past few years) is a direct result of my daily interactions with all of you, and for that I'll always be eternally grateful!

October 6, 2011

Literary Blog Hop, October 6-9, 2011

The "Literary Blog Hop" is a monthly feature of the ladies over at The Blue Bookcase.  This month's question comes from The Reading Life and is--
"If you could invite any three literary figures from different eras to Sunday dinner who would they be?"
What a great question!  The first thing that immediately came to mind was that this reminded me of that wonderful quotation from Virginia Woolf--
"Who would not spout the family teapot in order to talk with Keats for an hour about poetry, or with Jane Austen about the art of fiction?"
Well, okay, since Keats and Austen already have invitations to Ms. Woolf's party, I can't very well invite them to mine.  Who would I invite?  Hmm, decisions...

My Guest List--

Homer.  Yes, the Homer of The Iliad and The Odyssey fame.  That itinerant blind bard of ancient Greece that left the world some of the greatest stories ever told as the epic poetry that has been translated into so many languages and read and marveled over for nearly three millenia.  I'd love to learn more about his story-telling and the bardic oral tradition that ultimately resulted in these tales becoming such a significant part of the Human literary legacy.

Emily Dickinson.  The 'Belle of Amherst' may have been quiet and even painfully shy, but there was a nuclear reactor's worth of power contained within this woman's genius that was able to, through the use of a few simple joined words, create a body of nearly 1,800 poems that perfectly pulsate and throb with Life and showcase, as Helen Vendler puts it, Dickinson's "...startling imagination and the ingenuity of her linguistic invention."  This little woman's poetry has resonated and stayed with me my entire life!

Anne Carson.  My third dinner guest would just have to be the Canadian poet and translator, Anne Carson.  While I have only read Carson's translations of Aeschylus (Agamemnon), Sophocles (Elektra), and Euripides (Orestes) imaginatively conflated into her An Oresteia (Faber & Faber, 2010).  Her interpretation is modern, lyrical, and quite powerful. To me, Carson's Agamemnon is bleak, dark, and sinister; and one can't help but be astounded with the power and rage exhibited by Klytaimestra and the penetratingly prophetic and haunting voice of Kassandra.  I want very much to read Carson's translations and thoughts on the fragments of poetry by the ancient Greek female poet, Sappho, as well as Carson's own volume of poetry entitled, Glass, Irony and God (1995).  I love her voice, it just speaks to me.  From my own contemporary perspective, Carson is up there in the exalted 'thin air' with the likes of A.S. Byatt and Margaret Atwood.

Although not specifically asked for, my fourth dinner guest would be my oldest daughter who is finishing up her Ph.D. in English at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, Nebraska.  She is a brilliant, independent-minded woman with great ideas and a tremendous future ahead of her.  Now, I think I'll just serve the meal, pour the wine and sit back and enjoy the conversations.  Check back with me in a few hours.

October 3, 2011

Review: "The Greek Myths--Complete Edition" by Robert Graves

If you plan to read Homer's The Iliad or The Odyssey, or any of the great plays of the Greek classicists, I have a suggestion for a book that will prove to be indispensable to you on your journey through these great works of literature.  Robert Graves (1895-1985), the British poet, translator and novelist, produced some 140 works.  He is probably best known for his novel, I Claudius, and his historical study of poetic inspiration, The White Goddess.  In the late-1950s, he also completed a two-volume compilation and analysis of Greek mythology.  In this posting, I am reviewing the 1992 Penguin soft-cover edition entitled, The Greek Myths--Complete Edition.  It is encyclopedic in content, organization and structure, as well as size as it is nearly 800 pages in length.  It is my humble opinion that this really may be the very best desk reference on Greek mythology that is available.  I did quite a lot of research, on-line and in the bookstores, before I made the decision to buy a copy of Graves' book, and I really couldn't be more satisfied.

Graves starts off, rightly so, with the early Pelasgian creation myths that tell the stories of the creation of the Universe, the Titans, Titanesses, and the first man, Pelasgus.  Graves compares the early Pelasgian creation myths with the later Homeric, Orphic, and Olympian creation myths, and from there the reader is 'off to the races.'  Graves takes each myth--from the Creation through Odysseus' homecoming at the end of The Odyssey--and provides a synopsis of all of the variations, includes a comprehensive set of bibliographic citations associated with the source(s) for each myth and its variations, and then follows that up with detailed set of explanatory notes and comments.  Frankly, it is just this organizational structure that makes this book priceless, in my opinion.  Now, does the book lend itself to sitting down and reading it straight through, cover-to-cover?  No, not particularly.  I did, but then I wanted to read each myth--all 171 of them--as some of them I wasn't familiar with at all.  Having done that though, I can honestly say that I am completely convinced that Graves' organizational scheme in this reference book is nothing short of brilliant.  I am also completely comfortable navigating my way around the book, starting from either the table of contents or index, reading the actual myth(s), the source citations, and then exploring Graves' notes and comments.  In summation, I'd say that Graves has taken a scholarly approach in his presentation of the myths, documenting sources, and with his explanatory notes and commentary.  Having said that though, I also maintain that this is still an enjoyable and eminently readable book, and one that you could pick up and open to any page and start reading and just lose yourself for an hour or two.

There's another fascinating aspect of this work that I want to highlight.  While Graves, in this volume, has collected and compiled the myths and stories of the ancient Greeks, he is obviously very interested in the genesis and spread of these myths through time and across cultural boundaries.  Consequently, Graves spends a lot of time and commentary on an etymological analysis of words (no matter how arcane or archaic) in establishing relationships between, for example, some of the creation myths emanating from Sumer (e.g., the Epic of Gilgamesh), or the variations of similar myths found in Celtic regions of western Europe.  This makes sense to me too; as peoples, with their customs, beliefs and ideas, were surely moving about and interacting with one another.  Now, whether one buys into all of the notions put forth by Graves in his commentaries, I'll leave that up to each reader to make up his or her mind, but I think he's on to something here--like I said, it just seems to make sense.

I think that the myths of ancient Greece are important, and will continue to be.  They are some of the foundational building blocks of much of the great literature, art, and music that we all love and appreciate today; and, as such, they are an important part of our cultural and spiritual heritage as human beings.  They continue to provide artistic and philosophical inspiration to us in our lives, from the likes of John Keats' great poems Endymion and Lamia, or the Daphnis et Chloe ballet musical score by Maurice Ravel, to modern graphical renditions of Agamemnon's murder at the hands of his wife Clytemnestra while in his bath, such as that by 'baudelaire999' at left.  Graves' The Greek Myths--Complete Edition will help you make sense of these daily encounters with Greek mythology, and I hope will leave you looking for more.  I highly recommend having a copy of Graves' book on your bookshelf, right next to your dictionary, thesaurus, style guides, and poetry anthologies.  Its a keeper!  As the inveterate bibliophile that I am, I am now on the lookout for a hardbound copy of this wonderful book in two volumes, as it was originally published.

A Poem for the Day: An Excerpt from Euripides' "Ion"

As you rise early some morning while it is still dark out, go outside and sit quietly in your favorite spot and as the dawn comes you might have a moment like this--
"Dawn's gleaming horses raise
the blazing sun above the earth
up through air steeped in fire
where light on light routs
the faint lingering stars
into the sacred dark.

The peaks of Parnassos, untrodden,
flare, smolder, and take for us
this day's charge of sun.
Smoke of desert myrrh
rises to the rooftop,
shrine of bright Apollo.

Inside, the priestess sits,
at the sacred tripod,
crying to the Greeks
songs Apollo murmurs in her."
Ion (Lines 71-86), by Euripides, translated by W.S. Di Piero, 1996, included in The Complete Euripides: Volume III--Hippolytos and Other Plays, Oxford University Press, 2010.


Isn't this just lovely?  This bit of poetry is Lines 71-86 from Euripides' play Ion that was written between 412 and 410 B.C.  The lines are spoken by Ion, a temple servant in the Temple of Apollo in Athens.  Ion turns out to be the son of Apollo and the Athenian queen, Kreousa.  She abandoned the infant child after his birth, and he was spirited off by Apollo and placed in the temple.  There's much more to the story, as one can imagine, but I just wanted to share these beautiful lines about the dawning of a new day.

Post Script--

The photograph I've attached is one I took a couple of years ago just before dawn at Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park.  The polygonal structures in the foreground are a closeup of the thick crust of salt that covers this basin which is some 282 feet below sea-level.  Truly a weirdly beautiful landscape.  Please feel free to click on the photograph for a larger view.

October 2, 2011

Theater Review: "Trojan Women (After Euripides)"

In a posting on September 25th, I mentioned that my wife, Susan, and I were going to be attending a performance of Euripides' Trojan Women by the SITI Company at the Getty Villa in Malibu, California, on October 1, 2011.  It is my opinion that there may not be a better outdoor venue for the staging and production of classic theater anywhere in the United States.

In 1954, J. Paul Getty opened the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Malibu site.  Once the new Getty Museum was opened in 1997 in the Sepulveda Pass, the Getty Villa in Malibu was then completely renovated and ultimately reopened to the public in 2006.  It now houses the Getty's antiquities collections of arts associated with the cultures of ancient Greece, Rome, and Etruria.  The Villa itself is modeled after the Villa dei Papiri, a Roman country house in Herculaneum that was buried in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D.  I have to say that if you're in the Los Angeles area, I strongly recommend that you visit the main Getty Museum, the Getty Villa in Malibu, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).  These really are three of the best museums in the country, in my opinion.

On the property of the Getty Villa is the Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater.  It is an outdoor amphitheater just like those found among the ruins of the cities and towns of ancient Greece.  Each fall (typically September and early-October), the Getty Villa stages performances of classic theater in this amphitheater.  For example, recent classical performances have included productions of Aeschylus' Agamemnon, Sophocles' Elektra, Euripides' Hippolytos, and Aristophanes' Peace.  For its fall performance in 2012, the Getty is scheduled to put on Euripides' rarely performed play, Helen.

In preparation for seeing the play, I did take the opportunity to read a recent translation and discuss it with Susan.  I chose to read the translation by Alan Shapiro that is included in The Complete Euripides: Volume I--Trojan Women and Other Plays (Oxford University Press, 2010).  This is a powerful, hard-hitting and relentless tragedy that essentially forces the reader to acknowledge the absolute devastation of war and its utter futility.

In a nutshell, the plot of Trojan Women is as follows--
The Trojan War is over, the Trojans have been defeated and the Greeks are victorious.  All that remains for the Greeks is to load up the booty of war, raze the city to the ground, and sail for home.  Part of the 'booty' to be divvied up are the Trojan royal women, including the Trojan Queen Hecuba, and her daughters, Cassandra and Polyxena; Hector's wife, Andromache; and Paris' concubine, Helen (formerly the wife of Menelaus, one of the Greek chieftains).  The play covers the few hours of time as these women come to realize the full extent of the devastation that has been visited upon them and their beloved Troy, and as they learn what is to become of them as they 'farmed' out to the various Greek commanders.  Hecuba starts the play with a long lamentation, almost an ode to grief as she recounts the death of King Priam, the death of all of her sons, and the sack of Troy--and it just gets worse and more tragic from here.
We find out that Hecuba's daughter, Cassandra, the virgin prophetess/priestess of Apollo, has been awarded as a concubine to Menelaus' brother, King Agamemnon of Argos; and that Andromache is to be given to Neoptolemus, Achilles' son; Hecuba's daughter, Polyxena has just been sacrificed on Achilles' tomb; and that Hecuba herself is to be given as a slave to serve Odysseus.  We also learn that Helen--"the face that launched a thousand ships"--is to be returned to Sparta to meet her fate at the hands of her husband, Menelaus.  The final insult comes near the end of the play when the young son of Hector and Andromache is taken and hurled from the walls of Troy by the Greeks--thus extinguishing the royal line of Priam and Troy.  Hecuba now knows that even Hope itself is gone as she laments, "O child, O city--what's left to suffer? How much further/Can we fall into complete destruction?"
Last night was also the last performance of Trojan Women (After Euripides), and it was completely sold out.  Susan and I headed down to the Getty Villa late in the afternoon.  The weather was absolutely ideal too, with an evening temperature in the mid-70s.  Our plan was to arrive early enough to have a nice dinner on the veranda overlooking the amphitheater and take in the ambiance, and then be able to select good seats for the performance.  An added bonus was that while we were eating we were able to watch the actors and actresses come out onto the stage at the base of the amphitheater and practice their movements and warm up their voices.

The SITI Company's performance was directed by Anne Bogart, and used an adaptation of Euripides' play written by Jocelyn Clark.  The ensemble's acting during the performance was simply magnificent!  I especially wish to acknowledge the performance of Ellen Lauren in the role of Queen Hecuba.  Hecuba is on the stage during the entire performance, and she delivered her lines with passion, emotion, drama and pathos.  The pitch of her voice rose and fell with the tortured movements of her body as she delivered her lines and I was swept into the vortex of her lamentations, her overwhelming grief, and her palpable anger at the Greeks and her antipathy for Helen, whom she blamed for all that had befallen Troy and her family.  Lauren's performance was just stunning--from start to finish!

The characters and roles of Cassandra, Andromache, and Helen were generally solidly performed; although I thought the character of Cassandra, played by Akiko Aizawa, was perhaps a little 'watered down', from that of Euripides' original. Cassandra's foretelling of what befalls the House of Atreus--as well as herself and Agamemnon--is so significant and emotionally powerful, and is the source of several other superb tragedies by Aeschylus, Sophocles, as well as Euripides.  Cassandra's prophetic lines in Euripides' play injects that note of utter horror at what is out there looming on the horizon for Agamemnon, his wife Clytemnestra, and their children Orestes and Elektra (and I highly recommend a reading of Aeschylus' The Oresteia for this horrifying story).  I just didn't pick up on that as much in Clarke's adaptation as perhaps I would have liked.  What worked really well in the performance though was the 'debate'--almost an indictment and trial, if you will--between Hecuba, Menelaus, and Helen.  While Helen tried to foist the blame for all that has happened onto Aphrodite (the Goddess of Love), Paris, or even Hecuba herself, no one buys it.  The only question that is not answered by this adaptation, or even in Euripides' original, is what does finally happen to Helen (and that is left for other plays).

There were a several very apparent and intriguing deviations from Euripides' original that Clarke introduced in his adaptation.  The first was the use of Poseidon as a moving stage prop, if you will, during the entire performance.  In the original play, Poseidon provides an introduction and tells the audience about his founding of Troy, helping to build the city, and his rage that the other gods and goddesses have all conspired against him to bring the city down.  That was done here as well, but then Poseidon kind of lurks in the background, with an arm stretched out toward whichever woman happened to be speaking at the time.  It almost seemed to make Poseidon appear impotent and incapable of doing anything--and maybe that it is precisely what Clarke was striving for here.  Another deviation was that instead of Andromache giving up her son, Astyanax, to Talthybius (the Greek envoy, or Herald) to be hurled to his death from the walls, she smothers the infant to her breast and gives the little corpse to the Greeks to 'save' him from being killed at the hands of the Greeks.  Hmm, I need to think on this for a while, maybe it worked, but maybe it didn't.  Finally, Clarke's adaptation also included a role for Odysseus, who makes an entrance toward the end of the play, and makes pronouncements on behalf of the Greek commanders and kind of tidily wraps everything up.  All in all, I think that this worked well, and reinforced the kind of casual and impersonal way that the Greeks approached the sack of Troy and enslavement of the women.

Both, Susan, and I unhesitatingly gave this performance 4 out of 5 stars.  The acting was very, very good.  Jocelyn Clarke's adaptation was bold and audacious, and I think mates up well with Euripides' original.  The costuming was magnificent too; with the women in simple white gowns or robes, the Greek herald Talthybius is a black uniform like that of a SWAT policeman, and Menelaus and Odysseus in crisp, neatly tailored suits.  The staging of the play on the portico of the Getty Villa and on the slate stage of the amphitheater was just exquisite and just added ever so much to our overall experience.  While this play was written by Euripides in 415 B.C., and may have been written as a protest against Athenian militarism and hegemony during the Peloponnesian War, it still comes across as one of the great anti-war statements of all time.  If you have the chance to see any production of Euripides' Trojan Women, I highly recommend that you avail yourself of the opportunity.