Greek and Latin Literature

Homer, The Iliad; The Odyssey
 [ca. 9th century BC]
      There are many memorable characters in these two works, but none have intrigued me so much as the author’s own character. He presented his creations with such vividness and apparent objectivity that he himself is hardly noticed. It used to be imagined that they were collective compositions of “the folk.” They did undoubtedly draw on folkloristic traditions and improvisational skills handed down by generations of poet-performers, but they show unmistakable signs of being finally shaped by a single and very profound personality. I don’t know any other artist except Bach who gives such a consistent impression of being the “voice of God” — he seems to present an all-seeing and all-embracing vision of the world while giving the most delicate attention to the minutest details.
      The Iliad is the first major work of Western literature, and it is still the greatest. Nowhere else do we find such a direct confrontation with life and death, so totally free from illusions or sentimentality. The clash of battle is presented in vivid, almost clinical detail, yet again and again the tumult is arrested and for a sublime moment time seems to stand still. A moment of comradeship, or of tenderness, or simply of mutual recognition — the only meaning, Homer seems to imply, that we will ever find within our journey to the end of the night.
      The Iliad, says Aristotle, is simple and is about suffering; The Odyssey is complex and is about character. It is also more relaxed than The Iliad, more mellow, more dreamy. In some ways it is more primitive and folkloristic (the fairytale world of monsters and sorcerers that Odysseus encounters), but in others it is more civilized, more sensitive, and more feminine. So much so that Samuel Butler wrote a book arguing that it was written by a woman (The Authoress of the Odyssey). That idea sounds rather far-fetched, but in the process of trying to prove it, Butler points out some remarkably subtle psychological and “domestic” insights in the work that do seem to reflect a feminine viewpoint. Robert Graves was convinced by Butler’s argument and wrote an entertaining novel to show how it might have happened: Homer’s Daughter. More recently the same thesis has been defended in Andrew Dalby’s Rediscovering Homer.
       I slightly prefer Robert Fagles’s translation of The Iliad. The versions by Robert Fitzgerald and Richmond Lattimore are also good, however, and Homer is certainly one of those authors who merit being read in several different translations. I recommend Fitzgerald’s translation of The Odyssey — it often gets just the right delicate touch. You can see sample passages from all three of these translators here, as well as from the recent Odyssey translation by Emily Wilson. I think that Wilson’s much-praised conciseness is at the expense of suppressing or distorting the book’s original tone and content. Her opening lines butcher the splendid characterization of the hero and his journey: “the man of many wiles” becomes “a complicated man,” which sounds like glib pop psychology; and “he saw the cities and learned the minds of many distant men” becomes a bland and uninformative “where he went, and who he met.”
      Just about all the books I’ve read about Homer have been pretty interesting, whether they deal with the social, psychological, aesthetic or historical qualities of the works. A recent one that I particularly recommend is Eva Brann’s Homeric Moments: Clues to Delight in Reading the Odyssey and the Iliad.
      [Rexroth essays on The Iliad and The Odyssey]

Greek Mythology
The ancient Greeks seem to have had the world’s richest and most fascinating body of myths. They are part of the essential background of Western culture — themes that have been endlessly drawn on, reworked and reinterpreted by everyone from Shakespeare to Freud. There are numerous scholarly references and fictional retellings. Edith Hamilton’s Mythology is concise and readable. Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths is much more detailed, with numerous alternative versions, but his anthropological interpretations sometimes seem rather far-fetched.

Sappho, Poems  [7th century BC]
      A tragically tiny amount of Sappho’s poetry has survived — two or three complete poems, a few dozen incomplete passages, and scattered fragments of no more than a line or two. Just enough to suggest that she may have been the greatest lyric poet who ever lived. Those of us who don’t know Greek have to take that judgment on faith, but we can perhaps get a glimmering of what she’s like by comparing several different translations. There are complete editions by Mary Barnard, Willis Barnstone, Anne Carson, Guy Davenport, Jim Powell, Diane Rayor, and Paul Roche, among others. Sappho’s most famous poem has been translated hundreds of times, either directly from the Greek or from Catullus’s Latin version. You can see 40+ examples here.
      [Rexroth essay on Sappho]

Kenneth Rexroth (trans.), Poems from the Greek Anthology
This superb little collection is the best starting point if you are unaware of just how lively and unstuffy these ancient poets are. There are several other more extensive collections: Dudley Fitts’s Poems from the Greek Anthology, Richmond Lattimore’s Greek Lyrics, Peter Jay’s The Greek Anthology, Guy Davenport’s Seven Greeks, Willis Barnstone’s Sappho and the Greek Lyric Poets, Diane Rayor’s Sappho’s Lyre: Archaic Lyrics and Women Poets of Ancient Greece.
       [Rexroth essay on The Greek Anthology]     
        [Selections from Rexroth’s Greek Anthology translations]

Greek Tragedies  [5th century BC]
      Many people have the impression that the Greek tragedies involve issues that are outdated and remote from our lives, and that they are dull and depressing. Actually, despite all the differences of time and culture, they deal with the same sorts of passions and entanglements that we all experience — pride, greed, fear, jealousy, anger — but presented in a purer, more concentrated and extreme form. They are not only gripping, they are sometimes even invigorating. How this can be has been debated ever since Aristotle, but a tragic story is not necessarily painful to see or read, as millions of fans of mysteries and thrillers are quite aware. Oedipus the King could in fact be seen as an ingeniously plotted detective story in which Oedipus little by little discovers the horrible truth about his own identity. Aeschylus’s Orestes and Sophocles’s Antigone are archetypal examples of people caught between contradictory necessities — the same sort of dilemmas that are vulgarized in countless melodramas and soap operas. In Euripides the plots become more ironic, modernistic, and even feministic — male-dominated Greek society is presented with stories in which women are the stronger characters and men’s usual rationales appear very lame indeed.
      The most basic selection of Greek tragedies would be Aeschylus’s Oresteia trilogy (Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides), Sophocles’s Oedipus cycle (Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone) and a few plays by Euripides (I suggest Medea, Electra, Iphigenia at Aulis and The Bacchae). The translations in the The Complete Greek Tragedies edited by Grene and Lattimore in the 1950s are excellent, but so are the translations in the newer series published by Oxford University Press. I recommend the latter series because it has more extensive introductions and very helpful notes.
      In addition to seeing any live performances that may come your way, try to see some of the film versions. Rexroth had particularly high praise for Michael Cacoyannis’s version of Euripides’s Electra, and there have been several other good ones since then — Antigone, Medea, Iphigenia at Aulis, The Trojan Women, etc. (In general I do not recommend cinematic adaptations of literary works. Most of them are gross distortions of the works on which they are supposedly based. Filmed versions of plays, however, tend to stick closer to the original due to the similarity of the two genres. Moreover, unlike a novel, which can be read by anyone at any time, a play is intended to be seen. But you may have to wait for years to see a particular play, and then it may be prohibitively expensive. So while there is nothing quite like a good live performance, a filmed version may be the next best thing.)
      H.D.F. Kitto’s Greek Tragedy and Brian Vickers’s Towards Greek Tragedy are good in-depth studies. Walter Kaufmann’s Tragedy and Philosophy also has some provocative observations.
      [Rexroth review of the Grene-Lattimore edition]
      [Rexroth essays on Sophocles and Euripides]
      [Rexroth praise of the film Electra]
      [Rexroth review of Kaufmann’s Tragedy and Philosophy]

Aristophanes, Comedies  [ca. 455-380 BC]
      The comic dramatist Aristophanes is also worth reading, but you have to be aware that his wild satirical humor is sometimes difficult to translate, and the topical references often require extensive notes. The original plays were as zany as Gilbert and Sullivan, but with far more bite. Try Lysistrata, about a women’s sex strike against war; and The Birds, whose protagonists set up a wacky utopian community in the sky (“Cloud Cuckoo Land”) .

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Catullus, Poems  [ca. 84-54 BC]
      Catullus is the Roman poet who continues to speak most directly to us. Like Robert Burns, he was bawdy and satirical yet also extremely sensitive. There are many different translations, none entirely satisfactory. Peter Whigham’s and Frank Copley’s are both pretty lively and colloquial, making him sound almost like e.e. cummings — which is probably appropriate, as Catullus’s sensibility is very modern in some ways. Bob Dylan’s “Positively Fourth Street,” for example, is similar to the exquisitely sarcastic putdowns that one finds in Catullus and some of the other Latin poets and satirists such as Martial or Juvenal.
      [Rexroth essay on translations of Latin poetry]

Petronius, The Satyricon  [1st century AD]
      Petronius was Nero’s master of festivities until he fell out of favor and was forced to commit suicide. Only a small portion of his bawdy satirical novel survives, but it’s a brilliant, scathing picture of Roman society at its most pretentious and decadent, with a verve and outrageousness reminiscent of Henry Miller’s Tropics. The Satyricon is unusually difficult to translate because it includes parodies of a wide variety of styles of speech and writing. I recommend the recent translation by Bracht Branham and Daniel Kinney.
      [Rexroth essay on The Satyricon]
      [Rexroth translations of Petronius poems]

Apuleius, The Golden Ass  [2nd century AD]
      In contrast to the fragmentary condition of The Satyricon, we are fortunate enough to have the whole of this marvelous picaresque fantasy, the adventures of a man who is transformed into a donkey. I recommend the lively translation by Robert Graves.
      [Rexroth essay on The Golden Ass

Abelard and Héloise, Letters  [12th century]
      Peter Abelard, the greatest philosopher of his time, was the secret lover of his student Héloïse until her outraged uncle had him attacked and castrated. The two then retired to separate monasteries, but continued to exchange letters. Betty Radice’s translation (Penguin) is probably the best. Helen Waddell’s Peter Abelard is a good fictional account. Étienne Gilson’s Héloise and Abélard is an in-depth examination of the subtle psychological and ethical issues involved in their story. James Burge’s Heloise and Abelard is a good recent biography.

Carmina Burana  [ca. 12th-13th centuries]
      These medieval Latin lyrics are the first surviving “underground” songs, celebrating the joys of “wine, women and song” while satirizing the Church and the established order. There are several different translations, including Helen Waddell’s Medieval Latin Lyrics, George Whicher’s The Goliard Poets, David Parlett’s Selections from the Carmina Burana, and P.G. Walsh’s Love Lyrics from the Carmina Burana. Waddell’s The Wandering Scholars is an interesting presentation of the background.
      There are numerous recordings of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, a powerful modern choral version of some of the songs. But try also to find some of the recordings that attempt to reproduce what the songs originally sounded like — there are multiple CD sets directed by René Clemencic and by Philip Pickett and several other one-disc collections.
      Here are some different versions of one of the most beautiful of the songs, Dum Diana vitrea.


Section from Gateway to the Vast Realms (Ken Knabb, 2004).

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