Pope’s Translation of Homer’s Iliad: Books I, VI, XXII, XXIV

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve wanted to read more of Pope’s translations of Homer and I was glad to have a chance with this little academic book that chose four books from the Iliad and added notes and an introduction. I have to say that the heroic couplet looks fun when you read a few lines here and there, but for a sustained piece of epic poetry, it became cumbersome and got in the way of the story. Yes, there was a rhythmic flow, but after awhile, all I could hear was the rhythm, not the content. Further, as many have noted, Pope embellished upon Homer, adding things that just weren’t in the text. It makes for a good yarn but after having read the Iliad several times, I felt that it didn’t need these extras to make it good.

I’m glad I’ve read it and now I can go back to other translations and explore new ones. I’m looking forward to reading Caroline Alexander’s recent translation of the Iliad (2015).

The Poetical Works of Alexander Pope: With His Last Corrections, Additions, and Improvements

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A good collection of most of Pope’s works, including original work, critical pieces, translations and imitations. One has to love Pope if only for his sense of humor and biting satire. I found a great Pope quote in the preface: “For what I have published, I can only hope to be pardoned; but for what I have burned, I deserve to be praised” (p. xviii). I laughed out loud and smiled inside.

While he is mostly known for his satire and his Homer translation, he also can speak plain truths. One I found touching was in his Ode for music on St. Cecilia’s Day: “Music the fiercest grief can charm, / And fate’s severest rage disarm: / Music can soften pain to ease, / And make despair and madness please” (Stanza VII: 118-121; p. 101, vol. i).

This collection includes some of the phrases he coined, primarily from his Essay on Criticism. These include “A little learning is a dangerous thing: / Drink Deep; or taste not the Pierian spring: / There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain / And drinking largely sobers us again” (lines 215-218; p. 129). A little more complex and complete than what we usually here of that phrase today. Later, in the same essay, we find “to err is human, to forgive divine” (line 525, p. 131) and “for fools rush in where angels fear to tread” (line 625, p. 135).

Overall, his work is so intertwined with the classical world: translating, imitating, analyzing and critiquing so many of the ancient authors including Homer, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Statius, etc. I was taken by his translation of the first book of Statius’s Thebaid. I didn’t like his translations of selections from Ovid: the Fable of Dryope (Metamorphoses, Book 9) and Vertumnus and Pomona (Metamorphoses, Book 14). They were too verbose for me and seemed to embellish more than necessary. Part of it relates to keeping his meter and rhyming scheme going. [For Ovid, I really enjoyed Charles Martin’s very recent translation.] No doubt, Pope would have been a hip-hop star today for his cutting analysis and unbelievable rhymes. But for some of the classics he’s translated, there are better authors (past and present) to choose from. For satire and critiques, Pope’s a good source. For knowledge about who’s who in the times, he is invaluable, especially with his great Dunciad.

I wondered if we lack today what Pope had, i.e. a concentrated classical education that “everyone” pulls from and binds us together. Pop culture provides us with that somewhat, but it’s a shallow and ephemeral form of knowledge. Then again, this shared cultural base I saw in Pope, and indeed something I’ve been educated in myself, is not really universal or widespread. It’s a rarified form of culture, generated, consumed, and often valued by a very small portion of the population: primarily white, educated, upper class men. While I value this core of knowledge and indeed immerse myself in it, one thing I know is that it isn’t the only knowledge and it isn’t a preferred knowledge, just one base of many to explore.

I am very happy to have worked through his works and am sure I will return to portions of it in the future.

The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan

The Book of the City of LadiesMy rating: 3 of 5 stars

An interesting read that I was turned on to by a BBC 4 In Our Time podcast, which showed that there were strong woman’s voices present in the literature in the early 15th century. Why I never heard of Christine de Pizan before is a personal and structural embarrassment. Perhaps because there was a little proto-feminism in her writing, although tempered by the times social and religious strictures? Regardless, a work worth reading and keeping on your shelf for future reference.

While laden with christian arrogance and some antisemitism, the book highlights many women throughout history, mythology and fiction who stand in stark contrast to the dominant male views of woman as weak, unintelligent, subversive, evil, cunning, shallow, etc. This book will serve as a great reference when encountering women in myth, fiction and history to see a different point of view of them. You will come across the Greek gods, Penelope and Odysseus, Achilles, Hektor, Dido, Aeneas, Ovid, Sappho (though sanitized and hetero-normalized), and many others.

Essays in Criticism: Second Series by Matthew Arnold

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this collection of Matthew Arnold’s critical essays more than his poetry. This volume wasn’t as good as his lectures on translating Homer, but I enjoyed my time. In each essay covering a particular writer, he first dissects the praise directed at them, trying to show that they are great writers but maybe not for the reasons they have been praised in the past. He takes on Milton, Thomas Gray (a favorite of mine), Keats, Wordsworth, Byron, Percy Shelley, Tolstoy and Amiel.

He praises Milton and he is very fond of Gray, who wrote too little poetry. He praises who Keats could have become, seeing in him a love of beauty. I can’t agree as to Keats potential as I’m just not a fan of his, preferring the storytelling and arrangements of Byron or the political force of Shelley. Interestingly enough, Arnold says something I’ve often said about Byron, that while he isn’t the greatest or most engaged poet, and certainly one who doesn’t develop his characters in any major way, you viscerally experience his works. You feel like you were there and the scene just washed over you. I was pleased to see that Byron had the same effect on Arnold as he has on me. Arnold loves Wordsworth, who I liked at my first meeting, but haven’t enjoyed as much upon revisiting. At least Arnold notes that Wordsworth’s best work was between 1798 (Lyrical Ballads released) and 1808. Much that came before or after was just not up to snuff.

I feel Arnold misses much about Shelley, focusing more on the man and his relationships with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and William Godwin rather than Shelley’s poetry. In Shelley, I see a revolutionary, a man who cares deeply about people and ideas and who makes strong political points with his writing. Unfortunately, his writing isn’t the greatest and I think his points can get lost by those who aren’t held by the words long enough for the ideas to take seed in their minds.

The Tolstoy part was primarily on Anna Karenina and closes with Tolstoy’s religious writings. I skimmed through this chapter. But, I was interested a bit in the work on Henri-Frédéric Amiel, a Swiss philosopher, poet and critic whom I’d never heard of before. I was taken by a statement he made about America in the 19th c. that is still spot on today in 2017:

For the Americans, life means devouring, incessant activity. They must win gold, predominance, power; they must crush rivals, subdue nature. They have their heart set on the means, and never for an instant think of the end … They are restless, eager, positive, because they are superficial. To what end all this stir, noise, greed, struggle? It is all a mere being stunned and deafened!” (p. 328).

I’d like to give this volume a 3.5 stars, if I was allowed. It’s better than the books I’ve rated at 3 stars for 2017 but it’s not quite up to the ones I’ve already rated 4. Perhaps I should have read this book earlier in the year.

Selected Poems of Matthew Arnold

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I love Matthew Arnold’s critical writing and his essays on translating Homer are among the best I’ve read on the key needs of translation. But, his poetry isn’t my favorite.

Arnold’s poem “Sohrab and Rustum” reminds me a bit of a young Byron (e.g. The Giaour, The Bride of Abydos, The Corsair and Lara) and definitely invokes Homer, but Arnold lacks Homer and Byron’s finesse and passion. I did like The Strayed Reveller (probably for its Homeric root) and I was taken with “Calais Sands”.

Hesiod and Theognis, transl. by Dorothea Wender

Hesiod and TheognisMy rating: 5 of 5 stars

Classicist Dorothea Wender’s translation of Hesiod is spectacular. Even while she says his
“Theogony” is a bit boring and not written in the wonderful style of “Works and Days”, I think her talent as a translator makes this piece on a creation myth shine. Now, I’m a huge fan of mythology and the origins of various beings, so I would have liked the Theogony no matter what. But, Wender used her skill to make it enjoyable and not simply a seemingly unending onslaught of names.

When she turns her eye to Hesiod’s “Works and Days,” she is magnificent. Just reading the first stanza, I can immediately tell that this is a much stronger piece of poetry, as Wender stated in her introduction. Hesiod stressed the need to be prepared and work hard. I enjoyed his description of the five ages of man: Golden, Silver, Bronze, the demi-gods, and Iron (us). The demi-gods were the race of heroes who have great epics and stories written about them, including those who fought in the Trojan War.

Hesiod offers advice and guidance throughout. He sagely writes: “But he who neither thinks himself nor learns / From others, is a failure as a man” (p. 68, lines 96-97). Valid then, even more valid in our present times. His advice on farming is tied to astronomy, so that one can tell when to plant, harvest, etc. based on which planets and constellations are rising or setting, visible or not, in the sky. He tells sailors when to avoid voyages, saying “Gales of all winds rage when the Pleiades, / Pursued by violent Orion, plunge / Into the clouded sea” (p. 78, lines 619-621). He marries my love of astronomy and mythology with tidbits like this.

Turning to Theognis, I could have done without him. I didn’t like what he had to say, and it had nothing to do with the translation. To quote from Wender’s introduction to his Elegies, “Unfortunately, as his personality is revealed in the poems, Theognis is not at all likeable. He seems to have been a savage, paranoid, bigoted, bitter, narrow, pompous, self-pitying person” (p. 92). I cannot help but agree with her.

Wender’s notes were wonderful and illuminating. I know she probably upset some stodgy white male classicists sitting in their cloistered rooms with her tone, but her skill and passion as a translator brought life to these words without changing the meaning of the original text. I enjoyed reading her comments, alternate translations and understandings about the text.

Overall, I’d give the Hesiod a 5, the content (not the translation) of Theognis’s Elegies a 1, the Notes a 5 and to Dorothea Wender, a 5+. Well done and well worth my time.