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A Soldier's Homer

If President Eisenhower were to publish a new translation of The Odyssey, it would hardly be a very good one; Greek not being his strongest subject and his English little better than the next ex-West Pointer’s. Neither would it be a very bad one; he would naturally have hired first a team of researchers to rough it out for him, as Alexander Pope did for his version, and then a Professor of Classics to revise the final draft. At all events, the book could be counted on to sell a million copies, because he is President Eisenhower. I might even buy a copy myself from curiosity.

This is by way of inquiring whether Colonel Lawrence’s Odyssey has any particular virtue other than his heroic name on the title page. And I believe it has, if only because though he wrote it for money, he was an honest man and a good Greek scholar, and this is all his own work.

When translating a poem into English from the Greek or Latin, one is always faced by the problem of what level of language to use. I am told that this problem does not occur in French, because the Academy recognizes no more than one way of writing the language: “c’est à dire, correctement.” There being, however, no simple, correct English, but only innumerable precedents of arguable validity, a moral choice faces the translator: shall the language be chosen to fit the subject, or shall the subject be induced to fit the language?

Now, anyone who has a go at The Odyssey should first disabuse himself of the traditional view that it stands to The Iliad as, say Paradise Regained stands to Paradise Lost—a sequel written by the same blind bard, or at least by one of his legitimate sons—sacrosanct minstrels of the exclusive Homeric guild. The Odyssey is plainly supposititious; as Lawrence comments in the foreword: “This Homer lived long after the heroic age.” While the traditional view could still be held, it was natural to force The Odyssey into the mold of English used for The Iliad, using the same vocabulary, syntax, length and balance of sentences; though this practice did obvious violence to the story.

Indeed, The Iliad lies about as far away from The Odyssey in time and provenience as . . . let us say, The Morte d’Arthur does from . . . say, Charlotte Brontë’s The Spell. These dots represent a long pause in my critical thinking: an attempt to make as exact a comparison as possible. And I must confess myself pleased, on getting the volumes down from their shelves, to find how well it works out. The following is the sort of English which would give The Iliad its proper semi-barbaric flavor; this, and not Pope’s elegant couplets, nor the flowery tropes of the Elizabethan translators, nor slabs of Victorian neo-Gothic:

“Alas,” seyde sir Trystram, “that sir Palomydes were nat crystynde!”

So seyde kynge Arthur, and so seyde all that behylde them. Than all people gaff hym the pryse as for the beate knyght that day, and he passed sir Launcelot othir ellys sir Trystram.

“Well,” seyde sir Dynadan to hymselff, “all this worshyp that sir Palomydes hath here thys day, he may thanke the quene Isode: for had she bene away this day, had nat sir Palomydes gotyn the pryse.”

Ryght so cam intoo the fylde sir Launcelot du Lake, and sawe and harde the grete noyse and the grete worshyp that sir Palomydes had. He dressed hym ayenst sir Palomydes wyth a grete speare and a longe, and thought to have smyttyn hym downe.

Here, on the other hand, is the sort of English that best suits The Odyssey:

Mary retired to her chamber; she sat down, leant her white face on her whiter hands, and for half an hour continued utterly motionless. At length a low tap came to the door. She made no answer but it opened and in sailed the figure of a tall gentlewoman clothed in rustling black silk. . . .

“My dear lady.” said the matron. “You have been vexed I see, or you would not be angry with me for coming at the Duke’s command to tell you he desires your company in his dressing-room.”

“Dressing-room again,” replied the Duchess, “how often is that word to be sounded in my ears? I say he is not in his dressing-room, and Temple, I wonder you should bring me messages with which you were never charged. He does not wish to see me.” The young Duchess burst into tears, she sobbed and wept, and reiterated two or three times, “I won’t go, he never sent for me, he hates me.”

The Morte d’Arthur was written by Sir Thomas Malory, an old, unhappy knight who drew on heroic legends of an earlier day; The Spell, by a lively, well-brought-up country girl with literary ambitions and a keen sense of humor. About the same length of time—three and a half centuries—separates the original “Wrath of Achilles” Iliad from The Odyssey, and though both are written in Greek hexameters, and both refer to the Trojan War, this is just about where their resemblance ends. The Odyssey is a first novel—not only a first novel, but as I am glad to find Lawrence noting, the first novel in European literature. It is, like The Spell, amateur in construction, crazy, careless, tongue-in-cheek, often infuriating, but it has energy, humor, and immense charm. The charm is domestic and largely irradiated by the royal family who welcome Odysseus to Phaeacia: the high-spirited Princess Nausicaa, her father Alcinoüs whom she loves and teases, her wise and tactful mother Arete. Samuel (Erewhon) Butler first suggested two generations ago that The Odyssey was written in West Sicily, and that Nausicaa was a self-portrait. Nobody paid any attention at the time, and it is only this year that Professor L. G. Pocock of Canterbury University has substantiated Butler’s contention that Odyssean geography defies analysis unless a West Sicilian who had never visited Ithaca or the mainland of Greece cooked it up from local features. And it is now slowly being acknowledged that, if one postulates an 8th- or 7th- Century Sicilian Nausicaa as the authoress, no other alternative makes such sense of the textual cruces: if only because Nausicaa is the one character in the story over whom real trouble has been taken, and whose princessly point of view is maintained throughout. That the Phaeacians, who prided themselves on being the most Western people of the Greek world, are thinly disguised fictional, not legendary, characters seems proved by the uniqueness of their names, which occur nowhere else in the whole corpus of Greek myth.

It is a hundred to one that President Eisenhower, abetted by his researchers, would play safe with his translation. It can be envisaged as a formal one with no surprises, keeping as close as possible to Butcher and Lang’s version:

Nausicaa awakened and straightway marvelled on the dream, and went through the halls to tell her parents, her father dear and her mother. And she found them within, her mother sitting by the hearth with the women her handmaids, spinning yarn of sea-purple satin, but her father she met as he was going forth to the renowned kings in their council, whither the noble Phaeacians called him. Standing close by her dear father she spoke, saying: “Father, dear, couldst thou not lend me a high waggon with strong wheels, that I may take the goodly raiment to the river to wash, so much as I have lying soiled? Yea and it is seemly that thou thyself, when thou art with the princes in council, shouldest have fresh raiment to wear. Also, there are five dear sons of thine in the halls, two marrieds but three are lusty bachelors, and these are always eager for new-washen garments wherein to go to the dances; for all these things have I taken thought.”

This she said, because she was ashamed to speak of glad marriage to her father; but he saw all and answered, saying:

“Neither the mules nor aught else do I grudge thee, my child. Go thy ways, and the thralls shall get thee ready a high waggon with good wheels, and fitted with an upper frame.”

Therewith he called to his men, and they gave ear, and without the palace they made ready the smooth-running mule-wain, and led the mules beneath the yoke, and harnessed them under the car, while the maiden brought forth from her bower theshining raiment.

This she stored in the polished car, and. her mother filled a basket with all manner of food to the heart’s desire, dainties too she set therein, and she poured wine into a goat-skin bottle, while Nausicaa climbed into the wain. . . .

But Colonel Lawrence never played safe: he was willful and daring, with no Party to consider. In 1919, he had written a fine, workmanlike account of his services in the Arab Revolt, which (as the subject permitted) owed something in style to Charles Doughty, author of Arabia Deserta, and William Morris, the mediaevalist. Growing dissatisfied with the book, he “lost” it, re-wrote it from memory, and spent several years primping, patching and gilding the new chapters to transmogrify them into works of art. He ambitiously called the result The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, instead of My Experiences of the Arab Revolt; but at least had the good sense to realize, when it was published, that he had failed to do what should never have been attempted.

His translation of The Odyssey is a more modest task, though he did spend four years over it; and the need for keeping to the script restrained him from mischievous vagaries of his own. He records his critical impression that

. . . in this tale every big situation is burked, and the writing is soft. The shattered Iliad makes a masterpiece, while The Odyssey by its ease and interest remains the oldest book worth reading for its story. . . . Gay, fine and vivid it is, never huge or terrible. The pages are steeped in a queer naïveté and, at our remove of thought and language, we cannot guess if the author is smiling or not. The author’s generation so rudely admired The Iliad that even to misquote it was a virtue.

This is well said as far as the last sentence, where he goes wrong, I think. The author, or authoress, was nearly always smiling, and often quotes The Iliad very naughtily: using Homer’s tragic lines about the water that Achilles heated for washing Patroclus’ corpse to describe Odysseus’ comfortable warm bath when he got safe home to Ithaca; and putting Hector’s touching farewell speech to Andromache into young Telemachus’ mouth when he priggishly forbade his mother Penelope to interfere in male affairs. Charlotte Brontë’s The Spell is similarly strewn with mock-heroic tags.

By rejecting Samuel Butler’s view, Lawrence got one or two other things wrong. For instance, he took seriously Nausicaa’s caricature of what he calls “infuriating male condescension towards inglorious women.” Yet Lawrence was so girlish in spirit himself—despite immense learning, practical talents, and adventures rivalling Odysseus’ own—that his version of the passage I have allotted to President Eisenhower comes surprisingly close in style to The Spell. In fact, this is an almost ideal translation:

Nausicaa, waking, wondered aft her dream and went straight through the house to tell her dear father and mother. She found them within. Her mother sat by the hearth with her serving woman, twirling on the distaff yarn which had been dipped in sea-purple dye: while her father she crossed in the doorway as he went out to consult with the illustrious princes of the people—a council to which the noblest of the Phaeacians had summoned them. She went near to this father she loved, that she might softly say:

“Dear Father, will you not let me have the deep easy-wheeled waggon, that I may take all the good soiled clothes that lie by me to the river for washing? It is only right that you, whenever you go to sit in council with the leaders, should have clean linen to wear next your skin: while of your five sons begotten in the house only two have taken wives: and the three merry bachelors are always wanting clothes newly washed when they go out to dances. Thinking about all these things is one of my mind’s cares.”

So much she said, too shy to name to her dear father the near prospect of her marriage: but he saw everything and answered in a word: “My child, I do not grudge you mules, or anything. Go: the bondsmen will get you the tall, light waggon with the high tilt.”

As he spoke he called his men, who obeyed. They brought the easy-running mule cart to the outside of the palace and led forth the mules and yoked them to it, while the girl was carrying down the gay clothes from her bed-chamber and heaping them into the smooth-sided cart. The mother packed tasty meats in a travelling-box; all sorts of good things to eat, including relishes: and filled a goat-skin with wine. . . .