Saturday, May 06, 2006

The Language of Homer

Dear Reader,

Gilbert Murray's The Rise of the Greek Epic continues to impress.

A few samples of Homer:

They two in front of the high gate were standing like high-crested oaks on a mountain, which abide the wind and the rain through all days, firm in their long roots that reach deep into the earth.

. . .

So spake he, and the old man trembled and obeyed his word; and he went in silence by the shore of the many-sounding sea, and prayed alone to the Lord Apollo, whom fair-haired Leto bare.

. . .

And a herd he wrought thereon of straight-horned kine. The kine were wrought of gold and of tin, and lowing they wended forth from the byre to their pasture, by the side of a singing river, by a bed of slender reeds.

. . .

I look upon thee and know thee as thou art. I could never have moved thee, for the heart is iron within thy breast. Therefore beware lest I be to thee a wrath of god, on that day when Paris and Phoebus Apollo shall slay thee in thy valour at the Scaean Gates.

. . .

As riseth the screaming of cranes in front of the sunrise, cranes that have fled from winter and measureless rain, screaming they fly over the streams of ocean, bearing unto the dwarf-men battle and death.

. . .

As glorious as the language of the Iliad and Odyssey are, what makes these epics most astonishing is that they describe how the greatest heroes of the Greek heroic age essentially squandered everything they had over a domestic quarrel, and then screwed even that up over a temper tantrum. The Greeks exalted as very nearly their national bible a tale of how the best efforts of the best of men led to ruin, shame, and despair. They put their highest aspirations and deepest shames on display, and in their finest language painted a portrait of how their glorious ancestors destroyed their own civilization, collapsing the Aegean into a dark age that lasted for centuries.

The ancient Greeks taught their children from the Iliad! It is difficult for us as Moderns to fully believe there could ever have been a great people who put their own shame and weaknesses front and center, exalting them in their finest language. Of the many things they changed over time in this living traditional book of theirs, they never tried to obscure the domestic quarrel that launched the war, nor the petty squabble between Agamemnon and Achilles that forms the heart of the epic, and in tragedy after tragedy written about the consequences of that great war, the Greeks immortalized in art the terrible devastation awaiting each of the surviving victors. They did not write of these things for entertainment, or out of boredom, or to make money, or because they had run out of other things to say; they wrote of these things because for them art like every other facet of culture had to serve the purpose of anthropoculture--helping raise each new generation to be the best people they could--and that would only be possible if they learned from their mistakes.

I, too, wish to learn from my mistakes, and from our mistakes as a people.

Yours truly,

No comments: