Friday, July 29, 2016

Poetry Friday: The Odyssey

My daughter and I have been reading the Odyssey together this summer,  and we finished it yesterday.  Just as the Iliad is mostly about all the different ways to get killed in battle, the Odyssey, we learned, is mostly about eating sides of meat.  Until the end, that is, when Odysseus kills the suitors and piles up all their corpses - then it becomes about all the different ways to get killed in battle, just like the Iliad.

Seriously, though, we really enjoyed reading this 24-book poem aloud to each other.  I picked a part to share with you, and I think it's appropriate because it's about stories.  Odysseus is constantly telling stories, most of them largely untrue, but here, he's in Alcinous' court, listening to the bard entertaining the dinner guests (as they eat sides of meat), and it turns out the story is about him, even though Alcinous and the other guests don't know who Odysseus is, just that he's a stranger they are taking in.

We read from the Fagles translation, and this is Book 8, lines 559-600.


Stirred now by the Muse, the bard launched out
in a fine blaze of song, starting at just the point
where the main Achaean force, setting their camps afire,
had boarded the oarswept ships and sailed for home
but famed Odysseus' men already crouched in hiding -
in the heart of Troy's assembly - dark in that horse
the Trojans dragged themselves to the city heights.
Now it stood there, looming...
and round its bulk the Trojans sat debating,
clashing, days on end.  Three plans split their ranks:
either to hack open the hollow vault with ruthless bronze
or let it stand - a glorious offering made to pacify the gods -
and that, that final plan, was bound to win the day.
For Troy was fated to perish once the city lodged
inside her walls the monstrous wooden horse
where the prime of Argive power lay in wait
with death and slaughter bearing down on Troy.
And he sang how troops of Achaeans broke from cover,
streaming out of the horse's hollow flanks to plunder Troy -
he sang how left and right they ravaged the steep city,
sang how Odysseus marched right up to Deiphobus' house
like the god of war on attack with diehard Menelaus.
There, he sang, Odysseus fought the grimmest fight
he had ever braved but he won through at last,
thanks to Athena's superhuman power.

That was the song the famous harper sang
but great Odysseus melted into tears,
running down from his eyes to wet his cheeks...
as a woman weeps, her arms flung round her darling husband,
a man who fell in battle, fighting for town and townsmen,
trying to beat the day of doom from home and children.
Seeing the man go down, dying, gasping for breath,
she clings for dear life, screams and shrills -
but the victors, just behind her,
digging spear-butts into her back and shoulders,
drag her off in bondage, yoked to hard labor, pain,
and the most heartbreaking torment wastes her cheeks.
So from Odysseus' eyes ran tears of heartbreak now,
But his weeping went unremarked by all the others;
only Alcinous, sitting close beside him,
noticed his guest's tears.


Incidentally, the bard in this scene is blind, and I wonder if Homer was writing about himself.  That would be kind of meta - Homer the bard writing about Odysseus listening to a bard singing about Odysseus.  Even though both the Iliad and the Odyssey are in many ways very macho, it's always interesting to me how in tune Homer is to the fate of women in war (and what theme could be more modern?).  Homer constantly reminds us that everyone has a story.

Here's today's roundup.

13 comments:

Brenda Harsham said...

What an undertaking to read the Odyssey. Great excerpt.

Tara Smith said...

What a meaningful summer undertaking, Ruth. I love your wry notes on what can be gained by reading the Odyssey and the Iliad - so much killing in those stories! And thanks for sharing this passage - a moving one of the great hero falling apart quietly.

Linda B said...

You make me nostalgic for sharing a read aloud with someone. My daughter and I read to each other through till she left for college, enjoyed it very much, that memory-making. I've never read either of Homer's works, but enjoyed your sharing, "thanks to Athena's superhuman power". Yes, everyone does have a story.

Tabatha said...

Precious time shared together, Ruth -- something you will remember. I read your conclusion to my daughter, who studied the Odyssey last year.

Julieanne said...

To read this together is a gift you both will treasure. Everyone has a story. In fact, everyone has multiple stories, depending on how closely you are looking.

Heidi Mordhorst said...

That translation actually makes me want to read the whole thing (ways to die notwithstanding). My son and I have agreed to finish one last book before we may have to let our reading ritual go. I'm sad. Perhaps Frances will cheer me up. Can't go wrong with the Hobans!

Donna Smith said...

I read the Iliad and the Odyssey when I was in 9th grade. I wish I'd had your summation to read before I'd started!
So nice that you got to share a reading time with your daughter. We tried a Hobbit sharing over the miles, Maine to PA, but it isn't the same as being there.

katswhiskers said...

Like Linda, I haven't read either of Homers' works. Reading your summary may suffice, for me. :)

I too love your last line. So true - everyone has a story.

SW said...

Great post. I'll have to read this again as it has been a long time.

Mary Lee said...

I'm wishing I'd had a mother who would have read the Odyssey aloud with me, and if I'd have had children, I hope I would have been that kind of mother. You're amazing because you are that mother wished for and wished to be. Lucky daughter. I hope she realizes her luck!

Sally Murphy said...

Thanks for sharing your Odyssey odyssey!

Karen Edmisten said...

Ruth, every time I visit here I feel so at home and want to come have coffee with you. Mothers and daughters reading together ... this is my life and a thing I love so fiercely!

What a great post -- I love your opening observations. :)

Love the excerpt, too, and your conclusions and reflections. I had never thought about how much Homer is in tune with women in war. What an astute observation.

I was also touched by Mary Lee's comment to you -- that you are "that mother wished for and wished to be." How beautiful is that?

Bridget Magee said...

Holy wow, what an undertaking, Ruth. I am beyond impressed by you and your daughter. =)