Wednesday, December 22, 2004


Penelope and Ulysses

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967), Penelope:
In the pathway of the sun,
In the footsteps of the breeze,
Where the world and sky are one,
He shall ride the silver seas,
He shall cut the glittering wave.
I shall sit at home, and rock;
Rise, to heed a neighbor's knock;
Brew my tea, and snip my thread;
Bleach the linen for my bed.
They will call him brave.
"He" is of course Odysseus, Penelope's husband, who spent twenty years away from home (ten fighting the Trojans, ten trying to get back to Penelope). The Latin form of Odysseus' name is Ulixes, whence English Ulysses.

Ovid wrote a series of poems called Heroides, which are supposed to be letters from mythological heroines whose lovers have abandoned them. The first is from Penelope to Ulysses. The Latin original and English translations by James M. Hunter and A.S. Kline of Penelope's letter to Ulysses are available on the World Wide Web.

Fr. Ronald Arbuthnott Knox (1888-1957) composed a Latin poem in the form of a letter from Ulysses to Penelope, written when Ulysses was hidden inside the Trojan horse. It first appeared in 1921 in the Salopian, a magazine from Shrewsbury School, where Knox had previously taught. Here's a rough translation of this clever bit of donnish humor:
This letter I send to you from the Trojan shore. A patched-up engine of war holds me, wife. The crooked writing, the line that wavers rather often, are due to the fact that my elbow was pressing against Demophoon. Don't fear that the ink was made from my blood. His leg, not mine, produced this liquid. To be sure, I'm hidden in a big horse (Epeus recently made it, weaving its frame from oak). We chose by lot selected bodies of men and placed them in here. Would that the bodies selected were less hard than these! Not otherwise do Sardinian fishes, a scaly tribe, hide crammed together in the confines of a pot. The crest of Thoas' helmet is tickling the nose of poor me. Thessander's whole quiver of arrows is pinching my side. The Trojans from this place and that rolled the horse into the middle of the city. I was always a bad sailor, alas, as you well know. Now the Trojans are testing the sides of the horse with their spears. I'm afraid the spears will any minute now stick in my breeches! Farewell, Penelope. If the kindly Fates carry me out of here, I'll travel on foot from now on.

Hanc tibi Troiano chartam de litore mitto:
  machina me belli sutilis, uxor, habet.
Quod prave scribo, quod linea saepius errat,
  urgebat cubitus Demophoonta meus:
neve atramentum timeas de sanguine factum,
  hunc laticem illius, non mea, crura dabant.
Scilicet in magno (nuper fabricavit Epeus
  intexens costas ilice) condor equo:
corpora lecta virum sortiti immisimus illuc;
  lecta utinam minus his corpora dura forent!
Haud secus angustae conferti in finibus ollae
  Sardinii pisces, squamea turba, latent.
Titillat nasum misero mihi crista Thoantis,
  Thessandri pungit tota pharetra latus:
hinc illinc mediam volverunt Troes in urbem;
  pessimus, heu, semper (scis bene) nauta fui;
nunc etiam missis tentant hastilibus alvum:
  haesura in bracis iam puto iamque meis!
Penelope, valeas; hinc me si fata benigna
  protulerint, ibo tempus in omne pedes.
Much could be written about this specimen of modern Latin verse, but I'll confine myself to a few observations. Line 9 (corpora lecta virum sortiti) recalls Vergil, Aeneid 2.18 (delecta virum sortiti corpora). The Sardinian fishes in lines 11-12 are of course sardines. One of the spears thrown at the Trojan horse (line 17) was cast by Laocoon (Vergil, Aeneid 2.50-53). All of the names mentioned by Knox (Demophoon, Epeus, Thessander, Thoas) appear in ancient accounts of the Trojan horse.

Petri Liukkonen is the author of a good short biography of Knox on the World Wide Web, which contains however the odd sentence "He never married." Certainly not, since celibacy is a requirement for the Roman Catholic priesthood!

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