Homer and the timeless, beating heart of western culture

A new study of Homer explains his importance and enduring relevance through the ages – an attempt that’s most successful in describing the way the poetry reaches across the centuries.
Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus by William Turner. The Odyssey has a central importance in western culture.
Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus by William Turner. The Odyssey has a central importance in western culture.

Every age and every author that makes a serious study of Homer does so for their own purposes, reading much of themselves into the poetry and concentrating on the features and themes that appear most salient.

For Jorge Luis Borges, not only was this tendency inevitable, but it was something to be celebrated. In his 1932 essay Some Versions of Homer, the Argentine warned against “the superstition of the inferiority of translations”. “The concept of the definitive text,” he explained, “bears no relation to anything except religion or ­fatigue.”

Instead of looking for an urtext, Borges used Some Versions of Homer to embark on a virtuoso reading of six English versions of The ­Odyssey, works he described as “ a library of works in prose and verse”.

“I mention mostly English names,” Borges explained, “because English writers have always gravitated toward this epic of the sea, and their many versions of The Odyssey would be enough to illustrate the history of their ­literature.”

Borges was writing about Butler, Cowper, Chapman and Pope, but 82 years after the publication of his essay, the same analysis now fits the most recent English Homerist in this illustrious tradition.

As Adam Nicolson explains in his latest book, The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters [Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk], not only did he find himself drawn to The Odyssey but it was the sea that led to his Homeric epiphany.

After his first teenage encounter with the poetry, in Greek, when it read “like someone else’s lunchtime account of a dream from the night before”, Nicolson decided to try again while sailing his own boat, the Auk, through the North Atlantic. “But as I read, a man in the middle of his life, I suddenly saw that this was not a poem about then and there, but now and here. The poem describes the inner geo­graphy of those who hear it.”

As the words suggest, Nicolson’s take on the poetry is full of self-identification. He reads The Odyssey not as the tale of a character lost in the Mediterranean but as one “sailing through the fears and desires of a man’s life” and comes to see Homer as a guide to life, describing it as a kind of “scripture”: “As The Odyssey knows, to live well in the world … you must stay with your ship, stay tied to the present, remain mobile, keep adjusting the rig, work with the swells, watch for a wind-shift, watch as the boom swings over, engage, in other words, with the muddle and duplicity and difficulty of life.”

While this may sound like the musings of a man experiencing a full-blown midlife crisis, Nicolson isn’t the only reader to experience a life-changing moment of Homeric revelation or to see the work as a kind of sacred text for secular times.

The University of Warwick classicist James Davidson recently described Homer as “our very own qibla, our inscrutable black stone” and it was a night spent reading a previously unknown translation that inspired the poet John Keats to write his famous sonnet On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer. That night is now recognised as a crucial moment in Keats’ development as a poet, a moment that made him feel “like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken”.

Despite some purple passages, Nicolson is too sophisticated a thinker and too much in love with the material to want to commodify it or to dumb it down, which leaves The Mighty Dead mercifully free of the kind of cod philosophy that defines books such as How Proust Can Change Your Life.

For Nicolson, Homer’s characters are not role models and his poetry offers no easy answers or consolation. What it provides, instead, is access to “Homeric wisdom” and “a reservoir of understanding” that “tells us how we became who we are”.

Thankfully even Nicolson is aware of quite how “new age” this sounds and, conscious of the fact, he offsets these moments of introspection with readings of the poetry whose subtlety and brilliance dazzle. As Sam Leith explained in his review of The Mighty Dead in The Spectator: “To read it is to have a fat pair of Homeric jump-leads attached from Adam Nicolson’s sparking and crackling faculties of appreciation to your own.”

For Nicolson, two questions lie at the heart of The Mighty Dead: where does Homer come from, and why does Homer matter? Nicolson believes these issues are interconnected and in attempting to answer both provides an invaluable and nuanced primer that can benefit the experienced reader as well as those who are approaching Homer for the very first time.

Nicolson covers the history of Homeric translation and the 19th-century debate about whether Homer was one man or many; he even embarks on a fascinating digression into what etymology can tell us about the possible proto-­Indo-European origins of the work.

While some experts look to the archaeological record to locate the events of The Iliad in the middle to late Bronze Age, Nicolson believes that the poem contains memories of a moment, almost 700 years earlier, when the peoples, cultures and technologies of the Mediterranean met with those of the Central Asian steppe. For Nicolson, the poems tell us about not only this ancient meeting of north and east but also the origins of the Greeks themselves and the culture we now understand as European.

Whether you agree with this theorising or not, The Mighty Dead can be understood as a most eloquent summa of the history of Homeric translation and of Homer’s appreciation in English.

There is also the joy to be had in reading Nicolson’s own words.

As Alice Oswald explains in the foreword to Memorial, her poetic “excavation” of The Iliad, the ancient Greeks praised Homer’s “enargeia”, a quality she describes as “bright unbearable reality” and the word used “when gods come to earth not in disguise but as themselves”.

For the ancient Greeks, enargeia was a necessary aspect of ekphrasis – a type of description Nicolson translates as “telling out” and for him it is this pairing, of ekphrasis and enargeia, that defines the Homeric ideal. For Nicolson, Homeric poems are radiant “hymns to present being” and the greatness of the poet’s corpus is, he explains, “in its telling out of the embedded vivid, the core of life made explicit. Homer is not Greek; he is the shining light of the world”.

There are times, such as this, when The Mighty Dead veers perilously close to being rather too writerly, but at its best, such as when Nicolson visits the great grasslands of northern Ukraine, the book takes on a radiance all of its own: “As I walked through them, green grasshoppers danced up like the bubbles off a newly poured glass of champagne. In the binoculars there was nothing but glow and haze, a slow motility in the distant air, as if the world itself were simmering. I have never been anywhere filled with such languorous, labile beauty. Bugs skittered over the puddles, but everything else slowed in the heat. Cattle grazed in the distance, their legs dipped and narrowing into the pool of haze.”

As an attempt to locate Homer in history, Nicolson’s book may be idiosyncratic, but it is also an intoxicating addition to four centuries of Homeric analysis and appreciation. Lyrical and vivid, The Mighty Dead stands as testimony not just to Homer’s millennia-spanning influence, but to the alembic power of poetry and to one man’s life-changing relationship with literature. As such it is a book that deserves to be read.

Nick Leech is a freatures writer for The National.


Published: July 31, 2014 04:00 AM


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