Friday 21 May 2010

Homer Among the Postmoderns

Here is a postmodern metaphor. It's taken from Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America:

The sun was a like a huge 50 cent piece that someone had poured kerosene on and lit with a match and said 'Here, hold this while I go get a newspaper' and put the coin in my hand, but never came back.

It's postmodern, you see, because it's got lots of utterly unnecessary details like the match and the newspaper that don't help to describe the sun. It just keeps scuttling along for its own sake.

This is in sharp contradiction to how metaphors used to be used. Here is Homer describing a chap called Simoisius being stabbed:

...he was cut off untimely by the spear of mighty Ajax, who struck him in the breast by the right nipple as he was coming on among the foremost fighters; the spear went right through his shoulder, and he fell as a poplar that has grown straight and tall in a meadow by some mere, and its top is thick with branches. Then the wheelwright lays his axe to its roots that he may fashion a felloe for the wheel of some goodly chariot, and it lies seasoning by the waterside.

Which goes to show that time has no dominion and there is nothing new under the sun. The great thing about Homer is that there are so many translations that you can put poets into the ring and force them to fight for you amusement. Above was Samuel Butler's prose translation. Here is the same passage in Alexander Pope's version:

Short was his date! by dreadful Ajax slain,
He falls, and renders all their cares in vain!
So falls a poplar, that in watery ground
Raised high the head, with stately branches crown'd,
(Fell'd by some artist with his shining steel,
To shape the circle of the bending wheel,)
Cut down it lies, tall, smooth, and largely spread,
With all its beauteous honours on its head
There, left a subject to the wind and rain,
And scorch'd by suns, it withers on the plain
Thus pierced by Ajax, Simoisius lies
Stretch'd on the shore, and thus neglected dies.

And here it is in Chapman's Homer (which Keats first looked into):

Cut off with mighty Ajax' lance ; for, as his spirit put on,
He strook him at his breast's right pap, quite through his shoulder-bone,
And in the dust of earth he fell, that was the fruitful soil
Of his friends' hopes; but where he sow'd he buried all his toil.
And as a poplar shot aloft, set by a river side, 
In moist edge of a mighty fen, his head in curls implied,
But all his body plain and smooth, to which a wheelwright puts
The sharp edge of his shining axe, and his soft timber cuts
From his innative root, in hope to hew out of his bole
The fell'ffs, or out-parts of a wheel, that compass in the whole, 
To serve some goodly chariot; but, being big and sad,
And to be hal'd home through the bogs, the useful hope he had
Sticks there, and there the goodly plant lies with'ring out his grace:
So lay, by Jove-bred Ajax' hand, Anthemion's forward race...

Generally, I prefer Chapman's version; but I think in this passage the Twickenham dwarf wins by a nose.

The Inky Fool contemplating a hair cut


  1. I thank you for providing me with the equivalent (in small doses) of the English Literature degree I should have pursued.

  2. It's one of the greatest injustices of the world (and I include Stalin's purges) that English literature courses always leave off the translations.
    Almost every great classical text has been translated by a great English author but nobody seems to realise and penguin keep pumping out trashy new versions that don't live up to Dryden's Aeniad, Marlowe's Ovid Browning's Aeschylus etc etc. They're all available somewhere or somehow, and make for a cheery evening in the gulag.
    Maybe I should do a whole post on it.

  3. We Post Modern
    Fear of vision.

    Fear of wisdom.

    Fear of foolish


    Fear of witches

    and magicians.

    Fear of new

    and ancient system.

    Fear of crow,

    and altercation.

    Fear of slow




  4. The Antipodean23 May 2010 at 14:21

    Well, my English literature course left off the classics altogether. I did have options, I just can't remember if the classics were among them... I admit, at 18 they just didn't seem that important. (But Shakespeare, Austen and the Romantics did... go figure.)

    If this were to match my English literature course, it should include some Australian literature (no laughing down the back, thanks) and feminist theory / women's studies. If at all possible, you should combine the two and spend a year writing about them, you'll get Honours.

    Butler used the word 'seasoning,' whereas the other two speak of withering. To me, seasoning of wood implies a usefulness - that the wainwright (or someone else) may come back for it sometime. Obviously this wouldn't happen with Simoisius' body (one hopes), but was 'seasoning' similar to withering for Butler? Are the other two trying to be less post modern and trying to link Homer's (apparently) strayed thought back to the battlefield? What does the original say?

    OK, fine, I'll go look it up. Phht.