Sunday, September 05, 2004
Surge and Thunder
As one that for a weary space has lainSome might find this sonnet, first published less than a hundred years ago, almost as hard to understand as Homer's Greek itself. We have lost the habit of reading or appreciating or even understanding such poetry, and we are the poorer for it.
Lulled by the song of Circe and her wine
In gardens near the pale of Proserpine,
Where that Aegean isle forgets the main,
And only the low lutes of love complain,
And only shadows of wan lovers pine,
As such an one were glad to know the brine
Salt on his lips, and the large air again, --
So gladly, from the songs of modern speech
Men turn, and see the stars, and feel the free
Shrill wind beyond the close of heavy flowers,
And through the music of the languid hours,
They hear like ocean on a western beach
The surge and thunder of the Odyssey.
Lang's sonnet consists of a single sentence, appropriately cast in the form of a Homeric simile. A simile compares two things or situations -- as is A, so is B. Below are two similes from Homer (tr. Richmond Lattimore).
Iliad 16.482-486 (death of Sarpedon at the hands of Patroclus):
He fell, as when an oak goes down or a white poplar, / or like a towering pine tree which in the mountains the carpenters / have hewn down with their whetted axes to make a ship-timber. / So he lay there felled in front of his horses and chariots / roaring, and clawed with his hands at the bloody dust.Odyssey 5.488-491 (Odysseus makes a bed of leaves for himself):
As when a man buries a burning log in a black ash heap / in a remote place in the country, where none live near as neighbors, / and saves the seed of fire, having no other place to get a light / from, so Odysseus buried himself in the leaves.In Lang's sonnet, the first part of the comparison starts with "as" in the first line, the second part with "so" in the ninth line. What are the two situations being compared? Lang is saying that just as Odysseus was glad to escape from the island of Circe, where he was held captive, to the open sea (octet, lines 1-8), so we moderns are glad to escape from our anemic contemporary poetry to the surge and thunder of Homer's Odyssey (sestet, lines 9-14).
Circe was a goddess who entrapped men and turned them into swine. Odysseus avoided that metamorphosis with the aid of a secret herb (moly) given to him by the god Hermes. The "pale of Proserpine" is the region of Proserpine (Persephone in Greek), goddess of the underworld and consort of Hades. Homer tells the story of Odysseus' sojourn on Circe's island and his visit to the underworld to get advice from the dead prophet Tiresias in books 10-12 of the Odyssey.
Lang collaborated on a prose translation of Homer's Odyssey with Samuel Henry Butcher (1850-1910). David Martin Gaunt borrowed the last line of Lang's sonnet for the title of his book Surge and Thunder: Critical Readings in Homer's Odyssey (London, Oxford University Press, 1971).