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In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas corpora.

With these words, Publius Ovidius Naso begins one of the most famous and influential books of the ancient world, his Metamorphoses. 

“Now my spirit brings me to speak of changing forms into other bodies.” In the poem, he recounts hundreds of mythological stories, all to do with transformation. Nothing in his universe is permanent; everything seems to change into something else, women into birds, men into horses, gods into bulls. The poem recounts such tales with the wit and fizz of a supreme ironist. 

The Metamorphoses is a compendium of Greek and Roman mythology. It is the primary source for later writers who use it to retells the stories of Echo and Narcissus, Daphne and Apollo, King Midas, Venus and Adonis, Pyramus and Thisbe and Phaethon and the sun chariot. Some of the myths are found only in Ovid. He is primary source for Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden and hundreds of others, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, in his Wonder Book and Tanglewood Tales. 

He was popular in his time, largely derided as “pagan” in the early Christian centuries, rediscovered in the Renaissance, enjoyed in the enlightenment, again avoided in the Victorian era of high-mindedness and didacticism, and only again come out of the shadows after mid-Twentieth Century with a spate of new translations. (The most recent trend is away from him once more, in a “Me-Too” era that takes umbrage at all that rape and patriarchy.) 

With all that shapeshifting, it makes me think of how I manage to read the poem: in English. In the past year, I have read three different translations, plus I have re-read Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid. And I have loved every moment. 

And so, now my spirit brings me to speak of changing language into other words. Specifically, how can we translate from one tongue to another, from Ovid’s Latin to my English. It should be simple: Just take the ancient words, one by one, and turn them into English words. But if we do that, we get gibberish. “In now bring spirit change to speak forms bodies.” 

To say nothing of the multiple meanings of each of the Latin words. A few bits: animus can be “mind,” “soul,” “feelings,” “heart,” “spirit,” “courage,” “character,” “pride,” or even “air.” Corpora may mean “body,” but it also means “person,” “self,” “virility,” “flesh,” “corpse,” “trunk,” “framework,” or “collection.” So, which of each of these do you choose. A possible, but nonsensical translation, borrowing synonymous meanings from the words in the opening sentence, could read, “Within the extraordinary, pride wins a substitute for pleading a collection of patterns.” 

Huh? Of course, no on thinks that is what Ovid was trying to say. It is completely unidiomatic. But how do you make meaning in English from a language spoken 2000 years ago? 

One of the first translators into English was Arthur Golding. In 1567, he gave the first line as, “Of shapes transformde to bodies straunge, I purpose to entreate.”

The most famous translation, by John Dryden in 1717, makes it short and sweet: “Of bodies chang’d to various forms, I sing.” 

In 1899, Henry T. Riley gave it as: “My design leads me to speak of forms changed into new bodies,” which is fairly literal. 

“My soul is wrought to sing of forms transformed to bodies new and strange!”  Brookes More, 1922.

 Horace Gregory, in 1958 has it: “Now I shall tell of things that change, new being out of old.”

William S. Anderson, rather clumsily makes it nearly unreadable in 1978 with: “From bodies various form’d, mutative shapes my Muse would sing.” 

I have collected (a “corpus” of data) some 20 different versions of this single sentence, including Hughes’ “Now I am ready to tell how bodies are changed into different bodies.”

Ovid’s Latin is not only light and ironic, it is often self-consciously poetic, and other times comically demotic. Because of the different structures of Latin and English — the Latin being built of case endings, declensions and conjugations — it is impossible to recreate accurately the tone and content of the original. Parallels must be found, and those vary from age to age, mandating new and current translations. 

Outside of Hughes, who is near perfect but only translates barely a tenth of the whole, my current favorite is Charles Martin, which is easy to read, idiomatically English, but able to shift tones when needed. It is also in a swift pentameter, unlike those hexameters so many try to match Ovid’s own verse form, which is oddly ungainly in English. 

But, what I started out to say, before shifting off into all this about language, is that the same piling up of version in language has its counterpart in imagery. Ovid’s tales have been subject matter for countless painters and sculptors. 

So, now I am moved to write about verse changed into other art media. I wanted to take a single tale and decided, since I feel so European, I might consider the continent’s eponym, Europa. 

In the Metamorphoses, Jupiter, head god, gets the hots for the young woman, Europa, and seeing her among her herd of kine, plots to abduct her. 

“The great father and ruler of the gods — whose right hand is armed with the three-forked lightning, who shakes the world with his nod — puts on the appearance of a bull, and having mixed himself with the bullocks, he lows and walks about beautiful on the tender grass. 

“He is as white as the untrampled snow before the south wind turns it into slush. His shoulders brawny, his dewlap dangles on his broad chest. His horns are curved but as if they were hand made and flawless as pearls. 

“He seemed unthreatening and his eye filled with no anger; he was all peaceful. 

“And so Europa, the daughter of Agenor, wondered at him that he was so beautiful and gentle. At first she was afraid to touch him, even though he promised no threat, but she did approach him and held out flowers to his white mouth. The would-be lover rejoices and biding his time till he gets what he wants, he kisses her hands. It isn’t easy for him to hold back. 

“And so, he fawns upon her and gambols on the green grass, he lays down his snowy side on the yellow sands; her fear evaporates slowly. He offers his breast to be stroked by the virgin’s hand and his horns to be snared by her garlands. She dared then to sit on the back of the bull, not knowing who he really was. 

“The god by slow degrees plants his foot in the sand, leaving prints there, moving incrementally to the edge of the waves, and then suddenly he goes off farther through the waves into the wide sea. She trembles and being carried away, she looks back on the shore left behind, holding his horn with her right hand while the other was placed on his back. Her windswept garments shook behind her. And so, the god, having then changed back from his lying bull form, confessed himself to her.”

The story is later picked up in Book 6, in the story of Arachne, challenging Minerva to a weaving contest. Arachne weaves a picture of Europa “deceived in the form of the bull: You would have thought it a real bull and real waves in the tapestry. Europa is seen looking back to the shore she has left and calling to her companions, afraid of the surging water and nervously lifting her feet.” 

 It’s in little details, like the feet, that Ovid makes his stories palpable. 

I have now collected more than a hundred images of drawings, paintings, sculpture and relief depicting Europa and the bull, usually with the girl holding the animal’s horn and her clothes sailing off behind her. 

The earliest of these predate Greek mythology: There are Babylonian figures of a woman riding a bull, and others from the Middle East. 

And of course, there are all those images of bull umping in Mnoan Crete.

There is a depiction on red-figure Greek vases and on the walls of Pompeii

and numerous floor mosaics — The Rape of Europa seemed to be a popular image for Roman homes. 

But it was later, in the Renaissance and Baroque ages that Europa exploded with painters and sculptors. Every artist who was anybody did at least one version of the story, usually a vast mythological scene with the bull and the virgin, but also various putti and godlets swirling around. 

The iconography is fairly uniform: The bull is usually white, the girl hangs on for dear life to a bull horn, and her clothes sweep away in a grand gesture. In some, the shore features her distraught friends, in others she sits lovingly on the gentle beast, before the mad dash. 

There are modern versions, too. Some are by serious artists, such as Gauguin, Max Beckmann and Hans Erni.

Some are more kitschy or popular.

There are modern sculptures.

There are figurines by the dozen.

And there is at least one drawing that, compared with the Rococo version of Jean-Francois de Troy, make absolutely clear the brutality of the story as rape. 

It needs to be pointed out also, that the bull shows up over and over in mythology, like with Hercules and the Cretan Bull, or, closely paralleling the story of Europa, there is Dirce, who is punished by her twin nephews by being tied to a bull and ridden to her death. 

But I want to end with a version that may not have been intentional, but has a wonderful resonance as it makes a contemporary political point. It is the girl facing the bull on Wall Street. Called “Fearless Girl,” by Kristen Visbal, it was originally a kind of publicity gimmick for a Wall Street firm, erected in 2017, but became a symbol for feminism and anti-capitalist protest, as it was first positioned in front of the iconic 1989 “Charging Bull” by artist Arturo Di Modica. Complaints from De Modica and support from protesters and NY Mayor Bill de Blasio ended in a 13-month standoff, but eventually, the “Fearless Girl” was moved. 

I think of it as Europa gets her own. 

Click on any image to enlarge 

  

 

Strauss IIThe German conductor Hans Knappertsbusch summed up the personality of composer Richard Strauss. “I knew him very well,” he said. “We played cards every week for 40 years and he was a pig.”

And yet he wrote some of the most beautiful music of the late 19th and early 20th century. He may have been a careerist, and his relationship with the Nazi regime was equivocal — he clearly despised them, but he nevertheless accepted the job as head of the Nazi musical apparatus. He frequently wrote how he despised Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, calling him a “pipsqueak,” yet dedicated the orchestral song “Das Bachlein” to him in 1933 to enlist Goebbels support for extending his copyright from 30 to 50 years. Strauss was always looking after No. 1.Strauss I

When he took the job as president of the Nazi Reichsmusikkammer (State Music Bureau), Arturo Toscanini famously said, “To Strauss the composer, I take my hat off; to Strauss the man, I put it back on.”

In his youth, he wrote tone poems, lush in orchestration and hyper-romantic in emotional urgency. As the 19th century rolled the odometer over, he composed operas, beginning with Salome in 1905, which took his music in more Modernist and dissonant direction, then mellowing out and writing glory after glory, culminating in that most glorious of operas, Der Rosenkavalier.

But however effective the music at eliciting an emotion in the audience, there is often something reptilian about the music; Strauss is always cleverly manipulative and calculating; one never has the feeling that he is sharing an emotion, but rather that he is the puppetmaster who can control the feelings of others.

Something happened during the war that changed all that. Strauss clearly despised the Nazis — his daughter-in-law was Jewish; he continued to collaborate with Jewish librettists and as a conductor programmed banned music. But the war heralded a Gotterdaemmerung for German music and culture. Around him Strauss saw death, destruction, ruins and devastation. The music he wrote during and just after the war no longer seemed contrived and remote. There is an emotional immediacy to it that was new in his oeuvre. You can see the bombed-out city of Berlin in the soundscape of his Metamorphosen for 23 Solo Stringed Instruments, a profound and moving elegy filled with despair. In contrast, there is the modest, light and beautiful Oboe Concerto written for American oboist and soldier John de Lancie, who contacted Strauss during the occupation after the war and asked him for the piece. It is the masterwork of an aging master no longer needing to prove his genius, but simply expressing it.

But most importantly, there are the Four Last Songs, the final work Strauss composed before his death, at age 85 in 1949. No composer ever wrote a more moving farewell to life.

They were not originally intended as a group. He had written a song setting the poem “Im Abendrot” by Joseph von Eichendorff, and followed that two months later with three settings of poems by Herman Hesse. They were published as a set and ever since have been inseparable. It is impossible to engage with these songs and not feel the tears burn down your cheeks. This is emotion embodied perfectly in sound.

Before he died, Strauss requested that the premiere of the songs be given by soprano Kirsten Flagstad, and on May 20, 1950 at the Royal Albert Hall, she sang the songs, accompanied by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Wilhelm Furtwangler. A recording of that performance, in bad sound, is available.Norman 4

Much better is the overpowering performance on CD by Jessye Norman with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and Kurt Masur.

It is the marriage of music and text that give the songs their power. I felt an overwhelming urge to translate the poems myself, lingering over the German words — words that have such cultural resonance in themselves: “Augen,” “Traum,” Denken,” “Einsamkeit,” “Tod.”

These are words that appear over and over in German lied, German poetry.

I was unhappy with the translations I have come across, often versified in singing versions, so to match the syllabification of the the German and the music. This turns the poetry into doggerel. I wanted to recreate the poems for myself, to make them my own. I give them here, for better or worse.

VIER LETZTE LIEDER

SPRING flowering tree

1. Spring

When I was living through dark,

Rocky places, I longed for

Your forests and blue breezes

Your smells and birdsongs.

Now you have arrived

In all the gleam and equipage,

Swimming in green light

Like a miracle.

You know who I am once more,

And you call to me sweetly.

And I give a shudder

As you run through my veins.

SEPTEMBER twig

2. September

The garden mourns.

The cold rain drains into the flowers.

Summertime gives its rattle

and dies once again.

Leaf after leaf, the gold drops

From the tall acacia.

Summer smiles broadly,

Amazed, sapped,

At its own dying gardendream.

It lingers by the roses,

And doesn’t want to leave.

Yet its hesitation is really exhaustion.

Slowly it shuts its tired eye.

SCHLAFENGEHEN wall

3. Going to Sleep

It’s been a long day,

And I need for the night sky

To gather me up in its sparkling arms

Like I was a sleepy child.

Hands, stop your running around;

Head, forget your buzzing.

All my senses now want to sink

Into the cool pillow.

And my soul, in an unguarded moment,

Sets upward in free flight,

Till in the magic ring of night

It takes on another life, deep and

A thousand times over.

ABENDROT tree in fog

4. In the Red of Evening

Through good times and bad,

Anger and joy,

We have walked hand in hand;

And now we take a moment’s rest

With the world all before us.

And everywhere, the valleys dim away,

And the details gray out.

You can begin to see the lights below.

And overhead, two larks fly alone,

half-dreaming into the velveting air.

Come closer to me,

And let them fly over us;

Soon it is time for sleep.

And we must not let the darkness

Separate us from each other.

The peace is wide and still,

Deep in the redness of the western sky.

How tired we are of this need to keep moving.

Is that what death is?

adam and eve

OK, so then what is the “canon,” with which we should all be familiar?

There are scores of lists, put forth by scores of people, ranging from insightful critics to close-minded boobs (Yes, Bill Bennett, I’m talking about you). Such lists usually share the usual suspects: Here’s Hamlet, there’s War and Peace, and over there is the Recherche of Marcel Proust. All of them worthy of your deepest attention and capable of inciting the most delightful pleasure.

But as I’ve written before, the purpose of engaging with the canon of Western culture is to understand who your grandparents were, whose cultural DNA you were born to — the common inheritance of all of us in the modern world, our Adams and Eves.

Through most of my youth and into my adult life, my version of the list has grown and grown. I have, after all, at least 50 films on my Top Ten list. I could not do without hundreds of books I have read, paintings I have seen in the flesh, music I know by heart.

But, as I have grown old, I have jettisoned more and more baggage. “Simplify, simplify,” Thoreau said. I’ve given away books, CDs, DVDs. I’m tempted to dump even more. Those that were important, I have internalized; those I want to keep are those I reread and reread.

Under even those, however, is a foundation level, the cultural footings on which I have built my intellectual life, and that the civilization I have inherited was founded upon, almost as its Constitution.

So, I am proposing a canon. A very short one, but an essential one.

First, there is Homer. Everyone should have read the Iliad, at least. The Odyssey is initially more fun — or at least the chapters that chronicle the wanderings of Odysseus — but the Iliad is one of the founding documents of Western civilization and provides a necessary backdrop for everything that has come since.

I reread the Iliad about once a year. I try different translations, because any bit of ancient Greek I used to study has evaporated. The newest translations are usually the best, not because they are more literary, but because they speak the language I use. Older translations sniff of their age, smelling of linsey-woolsey or gaberdeen. I can sense the antimacassar oil on the Lang-Leaf-Myers translation. I sense the Cold War in the Lattimore.

So, the Robert Fagles translation is my standard, although the most recent re-read was in the even newer Stephen Mitchell version.

In Homer, you find the myths that have been re-used and re-energized in all the books written since, that outline the archetypes, give us the parameters of story and narration. The scope of Homer is the widest: from the bee’s tongue to the planet’s motions among the stars.

This is all beside the wonderful enjoyment gotten from reading it, 2500 years after he (or she) set it down.

The second book in my canon is the Bible. Not for any religious reason; I’m completely an atheist and have no use for religion. But the Bible is, like Homer, one of the founding documents and underlies all that has followed. I may wish otherwise, and may often wonder if the Bible wasn’t really authored by a group of people who have spent too long out under the desert sun. It may have been written by white bearded patriarchs under the influence of sunstroke, but they are our grizzled patriarchs.

There are two important considerations when approaching the Bible.

The first is the translation. The King James version is the primary one, and it is the organ-pipe tones of the KJV that underpin our own ideas of language, of majesty, of ritual and solemnity. It is the KJV you hear behind the sentences of Melville and Thoreau, behind the speeches of Martin Luther King.

But the King James is also miserably out-of-date, with usages that are no longer current and oftentimes either misleading or downright incomprehensible. So, a more modern translation may make the stories of the Bible easier to assimilate.

Even so, I prefer mixing the King James and a modern translation with an interlinnear word-for-word translation that demonstrates how much any translation of the Bible is de facto an interpretation. I have valued greatly the Everett Fox version of The Five Books of Moses from the Schocken Bible. Any version of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles is a moving target.

The second thing is that you should read the whole Bible, not just the familiar parts. Some of it is heavy slogging, but you should have read the whole thing. It’s one of the best ways to counteract the baleful influence of all those fundamentalists that would have you believe only their way. You see how they pick and choose only the parts they want and that reinforce their prejudices. You will be astonished at how many things are held to be “an abomination.” You will scratch your head over most of them.

The Bible stories are the Semitic balance to the Hellenic myths and between the two, they are the parents of all that followed.

Finally, in my canon, are the plays and sonnets of William Shakespeare. Ideally, one should see them on stage, in an excellent production (since a mediocre production can be the kiss of death for someone whose language is a florid and baroque as Shakespeare’s), but the fact is that it is as text on a page that Shakespeare has most influenced the course of Western Civ. We read Hamlet, Lear, Othello, and their words continue to astonish the attentive reader with their fire, their brilliance, their wit, and their expansiveness. The “sirrahs” and “prithees” may certainly feel dated, but everything else is bursting with life.

It was after a long-ago divorce that I first decided that if I was going off into exile, I needed to pack only three books: The Iliad, the Bible and a complete Shakespeare, and that somehow, if the world were destroyed all around me, I could resurrect an entire civilization with just these three.

And we would see everything that followed.

patroclus and achilles

Why should the first book written in the Western tradition still be the best book ever written in the Western tradition?

I’m talking, of course, of the Iliad, a book so beautiful, so profound, and so inclusive, as to remain unsurpassed by Tolstoy, Proust or even Dave Barry.

I try to reread it at least once a year, and in different translations. It never fails to delight me. More, it never fails to move me deeply.

For the ancient Greeks, Homer was as close as they had to a bible. It seemed to them everything one needed to know was included in the two books he is credited with writing, and the hymns he is supposed to have composed.

It reminds one of Caliph Omar, blamed by some for burning the great library of Alexandria, who supposedly said that the library was not needed, because everything we need to know is in the Koran, and if the books in the library contradict the Koran, they should be destroyed, and if they agree with the Koran, they are superfluous.

Clearly, not everything is in the Iliad: It is a little thin on women, for instance. The Odyssey does better by that count. But it is astonishing how much actually is included.

And what is also astonishing is how clear-eyed Homer is: How unblinking in the face of both good and evil. It is all there, and narrated with hardly a nod to one side or the other. This is the world that is, not the world as we should like it to be.

There is, it is true, a good deal of the Hellenic world view that is foreign to us today, but that hardly matters. The book seems modern anyway, even cinematic. (Not that any movies made of the Trojan war are anything but embarrassing — blame that on Hollywood, not on Homer.)

He writes like a movie camera: Written details play in our minds as if we were seeing them on a screen.

In Homer’s Iliad, when the Trojan warrior Hector has killed one of his Achaean (Greek) enemies, he “planted a heel against Patroclus’ chest, wrenched his bronze spear from the wound, kicked him over flat on his back.”

That’s cinematic.

Critic Roger Ebert talks about a movie cliche he calls the “fruit cart,” when a falling kung-fu fighter or a careening car knocks over a table or fruit cart and spills produce all over the screen.

Odysseus killing the suitors, by John Flaxman

Odysseus killing the suitors, by John Flaxman

In Homer’s Odyssey, the hero comes home to find his estate infested with villains. He kills them all, starting with the head bad-guy.

“Odysseus aimed and shot Antinous square in the throat with the arrow’s point stabbing clean through to the nape of the neck and out the other side. Antinous pitched to the side, his cup dropped from his grasp as the shaft sank home, and the man’s life blood came spurting from his nostrils in thick red jets. His foot jerked forward and kicked the table and food showered across the floor, bread and meat soaked in a swirl of bloody filth.”

Fruit cart!

It is especially in the area of graphic violence that Homer anticipates Hollywood.

There was a time in movies when the bad guy got shot, grabbed his chest and keeled over. In 1967, Bonnie and Clyde turned death by gunshot into a slow-motion ballet of bodies jerked like marionettes punctuated by squibs popping like bubble wrap.

Since then, Hollywood has upped the ante, and the ballet of graphic gore has gotten more sophisticated, more precise and more messy. No one can be shot nowadays without a shower of blood spattering the wall behind him like spray paint.

In just 20 lines of the Iliad, Homer kills off half a dozen heroes in bloody style. Here’s a sampling:

“Thrasymedes stabbed Antilochus right in the shoulder and cracked through the bony socket, shearing away the tendons. Then he wrenched the whole arm out and down thundered Antilochus and darkness blanked his eyes. …

“Peneleos hacked Lycon’s neck below the ear and the sword sank clean through, leaving Lycon’s head hanging on his body by only a flap of skin. The head swung wide and Lycon slumped to the ground. …

“Idomoneus skewered Erymas straight through the mouth, the spearpoint raking through, up under the brain to split his glistening skull, teeth shattered out, both eyes brimmed to the lids with a gush of red and both nostrils spurting, mouth gaping, blowing convulsive sprays of blood. He was a corpse as he hit the ground.”

Tarantino is playing catch up.

But it isn’t merely in gore that Homer is realistic. He describes everything from the food to the landscape as if he were a gobbling camera, eating up the full existence of life. And not, like some novelist, in different chapters, but in a single sentence he can telescope from the entire battlefield down to the iris of a bee’s eye, and then back out again in the space of five or 10 words. It leaves one not with the grand view and not with the microcosm, but with a clear sense that they co-exist in a single space, a single comprehension.

Something else that should be said is that Homer survives translation. There are many great poets who live so completely in their native soil, they cannot be shipped overseas without loss of savor. Goethe in his mother tongue is the great poet; Goethe in English seems like the bearer of bromides and platitudes. Horace cannot survive the journey from Latin to English without sounding rather like Polonius.

But Homer works whether in a straight interlinear or in Pope’s heroic couplets or in Stephen Mitchell’s newest colloquial English translation. The power of Homer is in his sweep, not in his preciosity.

Pope Iliad

It is what Longinus praised in his On the Sublime.

He even works in the quaint antique style of George Chapman. In fact, Chapman is a great treat for someone who loves the Queen’s English.

Outside the King James Bible, there is probably no English translation of anything more famous than Chapman’s Homer.

But it is famous for being praised in John Keats’ sonnet, rather than for itself. Hardly anyone alive has actually read Chapman.

Chapman issued his translations, first of the Iliad and then of the Odyssey, from 1598 through 1615, overlapping the publication of the King James Bible in 1611. Like that Bible, it is written in a knotty Elizabethan-Jacobean style, when English was first stretching its muscles and testing its power. It is profligate in its verbal extravagance.

Keats wrote that Chapman speaks out “loud and bold,” and he certainly does.

 

“The man, O Muse, inform, that many a way

Wound with his wisdom to his wished stay; 

That wandered wonderous far when he the town

Of sacred Troy had sacked and shivered down.”

 

I love that: “sacked and shivered down.”

Of course, you lose something to gain something. Chapman’s word inversions, to fit his meter, make the words sound as archaic as the more obscure parts of King James, and can interfere with understanding the sense. You keep having to stop and reparse the sentence to understand just what he means to say.

On the other hand, there is a strength and nobility to the stylized expression.

Modern translations, even as wonderful as the recent one by Robert Fagles (which I recommend to first-time readers over Chapman), may be clearer, and it has its own felicities, but it doesn’t give us anything as palpable as that shivering city: “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy.”

The course between elevated style and easy comprehension has to be charted by each of Homer’s translators. Do you try to make him into an adventure novel, like W.H.D. Rouse, or do you look for the astonishing words that make poetry?

The opening of the Iliad has a line about how the anger of Achilles has caused the death of many men. An interlinear and literal translation says that the hero “prematurely sent many brave souls of heroes to Hades and made them prey to dogs and to all birds of prey.”

It is a grim image, of corpses littering the battlefield and being chewed on by animals.

Samuel Butler translates the same passage as “pushing brave men under the sod, feeding young men to dogs and to vultures.”

Alexander Pope, in one of the most enduring translations, gives that as:

 

“The souls of mighty chiefs untimely slain;

Whose limbs unburied on the naked shore,

Devouring dogs and hungry vultures tore.”

 

The text most often taught in colleges is Richmond Lattimore’s. He gives that same passage as:

 

“hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls

of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting

of dogs, of all birds.”

 

The American poet Robert Lowell has it:

 

“threw so many huge souls into hell,

heroes who spilled their lives as food for dogs and darting birds.”

 

So you can see there is quite a wide latitude of possibility in translation, to make the sense clear and to make the imagery potent.

Here is Chapman’s opening:

Chapman's Iliad

To give a sense how Chapman fits into all this, we should look at the opening of Book XI of the Odyssey.

It tells about Odysseus (Chapman uses the Latin version of the name, Ulysses) and his men setting off from the island of the witch-goddess Circe.

A.T. Murray’s nearly literal translation for the Loeb Library offers:

 

“But when we had come down to the ship and to the sea, first of all we drew the ship down to the bright sea, and set the mast and sail in the black ship, and took the sheep and put them aboard, and ourselves embarked, sorrowing, and shedding big tears.”

 

It is a passage translated by T. E. Lawrence — yes, that is Lawrence of Arabia — as:

 

“At length we were at the shore where we lay the ship. Promptly we launched her into the divine sea, stepped the mast, made sail and went: not forgetting the sheep, though our hearts were very low and big tears rained down from our eyes.”

 

Pope lets these words fly quick and smooth:

 

“Now to the shores we bend, a mournful train,

Climb the tall bark, and launch into the main:

At once the mast we rear, at once unbind 

The spacious sheet, and stretch it to the wind;

Then pale and pensive stand, with cares oppressed, 

And solemn horror saddens every breast.”

 

Pope has expanded the passage to make it fly gracefully. Chapman goes the other way, with his crabbed, organ-tone Elizabethan style:

 

“Arrived now at our ship, we launched, and set

Our mast up, put forth sail, and in did get

Our late-got Cattle. Up our sails, we went,

My wayward fellows mourning now the event.”

 

Over and over, in Chapman, you come across the gnarly masticated consonants that act as rocks in the clear stream of vowels. Reading him can be like walking barefoot on gravel.

But at its best, it makes you taste each word as you utter it. You cannot speed-read the poetry: You must measure each syllable.

There are parts where Chapman seems to be on auto pilot, and when his poetry ventures into the banal, but at his best Chapman gives us a view of Homer as sublime, the version of Homer that Longinus praised, as being bigger and more awesome than our ordinary course of experience.

Oh, but what might have been. There is a passage of Homer that accomplishes what Chapman did, only more so, and with a sweeping poetic power that no one has ever matched.

One wishes, though, that Ezra Pound had finished a full translation of Homer. That cranky, crazy, fraudulent genius has given us the best, most noble, most poetic, and at the same time most comprehensible translation of parts of the Odyssey in his opening section of The Cantos.

It has the best of Chapman and the best of Pope, with a 20th Century irony and an Anglo-Saxon vocabulary that dances and sings. How I wish he hadn’t gone all loony and filled his Cantos with Chinese and economics and instead have spent that same time giving us all of Homer.

 

“And then went down to the ship,

Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and

We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,

Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also

heavy with weeping.”

 

Well, if we can’t have a full Pound, Chapman will more than suffice.

Homer bust

 

Blake_ancient_of_days

I’ve always been interested in the way things translate from one language to another. Of course, that also means from one culture to another, and, as in the case of Bible translation, from one era to another. Time changes, language metamorphoses, and our world-views alter with our understanding of the world around us.

There is no question that the most powerful translation of Genesis can be found in the King James version, but words that meant one thing in the era of Shakespeare may very well mean something different now. And the verse forms of ancient Hebrew are different from our expectations of poetry, now.

So, I’ve always wondered, what does the original Hebrew mean in the Torah? Is there a way to make a translation that hews closely to the original meaning, the tribal meaning of the language?

I’ve gone through several interlinear translations, several translations in clear text, and lots and lots of footnotes to come up with something that gives me as close as I can tell, what the original Creation story meant in its Hebrew iteration, uninflected by several millennia of religious interpretation, sectarian wars and violence, pogroms and anathemae.

In the interests of disclosure, I should admit up front that I have no stake in this game: I am not a believer (when asked, I usually say I have no religion, I’m not even an atheist), so I’m not trying to persuade anyone that the Bible is true, or not true, or that this or that dogma is the “true” one. This is just my attempt to understand what metaphors and language was used in the ancient Middle East as they slowly came to terms with what would become their religion.

Believe me, I don’t claim this is a good translation of the first Creation story in Genesis. But it is a defensible one.

King James is still the king, but its rather archaic feeling — which, of course, was not archaic when it was written — has unfortunately become the default diction and rhetoric of belief. (So much that Joseph Smith’s “Book of Mormon” is written in a botched imitation of the sound of KJV, albeit with lousy grammar and many gross lexical misunderstandings).

There are many points in the Hebrew text where scholars either disagree, or throw up their hands and say, “We just don’t know what is being said here.” They give it their best guess, like the bit about the stars being created for calendar use. The original Hebrew is obscure.

Anyway, here’s my version:

Genesis, the beginning

When it all started up, and the gods were arranging the sky and the ground,

When the earth was emptiness with darkness over the ocean,

the wind of the gods hung over the face of the water

The gods said:

“Let there be light,” and light happened.

And the gods said, “We did a good job.”

the gods split up the light and the dark,

calling the light “Day,” and the dark, “Night.”

There was a sunset; there was a sunrise — One Day.

The gods said:

“Let there be a bowl over the water and let it split up water from water.”

The gods made the bowl

and separated the water that was below the bowl

from the water that was above the bowl.

It Was.

The gods called the bowl, “Sky.”

There was a sunset; there was a sunrise — Two Days.

The gods said:

“Let the water under the sky be brought together in one place

and let the dry land be seen.”

It Was.

The gods called the dry part “Ground,” and the collected waters they called “Sea.”

The gods saw the craftsmanship was good.

The gods said:

“Let the ground sprout with growing sprouts —

plants that seed-forth seeds, fruits trees that fruit, according to their type.”

It Was.

The ground grew growing sprouts, seeding plants seeding seed plants, fruiting fruit trees.

The gods recognized they were well made.

There was a sunset; there was a sunrise — Three Days.

The gods said:

“Let there be lamps in the bowl of the sky to split up the day from the night, that they may be signs (Hebrew “difficult”) for a calendar, and let them be lamps in the bowl of the sky to provide light on the ground.”

It Was.

The gods made two big lamps:

The bigger lamp for ruling the day; the smaller lamp for ruling the night.

And the stars.

The gods placed them in the bowl of the sky to provide light on the ground and to rule the day and the night.

The gods liked what they saw.

There was a sunset; there was a sunrise — Four Days.

The gods said:

“Let the water swarm with a swarm of beings, and let the birds fly across the bowl of the sky.”

The gods created huge sea serpents and all the crawly things that crawl about, with which the water swarmed, after their type, and all the birds, after their type.

And the gods saw they looked good.

And the gods blessed them, saying:

“Grow fruit and be many and fill the water of the seas and let the birds be many.”

There was a sunset; there was a sunrise — Five Days.

The gods said:

“Let the ground bear creatures in types, herd-animals, crawling things, wild things of the earth, all divided by type.”

It Was.

The gods made the wild things of the earth, divided by type, and the herd animals, divided by type, and the crawling things in the dirt, divided by type.

The gods saw it was working out well.

The gods said:

“Let us make people in our shape, looking like us.

Let them rule over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, all the earth, all the crawling things that crawl on the ground.”

So the gods made people in their shape, so they looked like the gods,

male and female, the gods created them.

The gods blessed them and said to them:

“Grow fruit and be many and fill up the earth and conquer it. Have rule over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky and all the crawly things that crawl on the ground.”

The gods said:

“Here, we give you all the seeding plants that seed that are on the face of the earth, all the trees in which fruits fruit. For you they will be for eating. And also for all the living things of the earth — all the birds of the sky and the crawly things that crawl about on the ground — all green plants for eating.”

It Was.

Then the gods looked at all they had done with exceeding satisfaction.

There was a sunset; there was a sunrise — Six Days.

So, everything was finished — sky and earth, with all their entourages.

The gods had finished, on the seventh day, the work they had done

Then they stopped on the seventh day, all the work they had done.

The gods gave the seventh day their blessing and made it sacred, for on that day, they stopped working on all that they had done.

This is how it all began, the sky and the earth and all history.