Homer’s Visual World

Posted: December 3, 2017 in Chat
Tags: , , , , ,

I was just flipping through excerpts from Homer’s Iliad – as we all do in those idle moments, of which we are inundated – and I noticed just how effective the imagery was. And also, apologies, just how unintentionally and grimly funny some of it was.

Maybe, I thought, it is the translation/translator’s unconscious input to ‘image the English’ this way. And so I tried several translations. You will have guessed by now I have not even a little Latin, and certainly less than no Greek, to quote Robert Greene on Shakespeare.

Take, for instance, one of the later dreadful moments before the gates of Troy. Hector is outside, all the other Trojans having just been chased in by the Greeks. King Priam sees Achilles racing across to challenge his son, Hector, who is below.

Robert Fagles gives us:

And old King Priam was the first to see him coming,
surging over the plain, blazing like the star
that rears at harvest, flaming up in its brilliance –
……………………………………
that star called Orion’s Dog – brightest of all
………………………………………
So the bronze flared on his chest as on he raced –

Robert Fitzgerald’s version:

And ageing Priam was the first to see him
sparkling on that plain, bright as that star
in autumn rising, whose unclouded rays
shine out ………………………..
the one they call Orion’s dog, most brilliant
……………………………………..
……………….. So pure and bright
the bronze gear blazed upon him as he ran.

And we see it.

The immediacy is in the imagery, its tactile and visual appeals; Priam’s shock and dread provides a platform for what is being visualised so clearly. There are literary tropes and elements in profusion, of course, as we know from Hesiod, but the translators here both resort to the same cognitive palate. Was this ‘Homer’s’ cognitive palate, too?

There is something about this imagery I recognised from exercises in visualisation, in art, and especially in ‘drawing from the right side of the brain’. The imagery here in the above passages is focused on the subject, and yet relaxed sufficiently for extraneous detail to be noted. Visualisation techniques, in their early stages, foreground their subject, and relegate all other detail to background. The effect is of creating, say, a huge central figure/image. Much as Achilles is presented in the whole passage.

I have seen similar effects in sleep experiments, where REM dreaming creates a further distorting effect. And more importantly, we have all done it – not just every night we go to sleep, but as kids in staring games: the fixed eyes exaggerate their focus, the other’s face distorts, a well-known face becomes unrecognisable.
I have watched this in action as Alzheimers affected cognitive function: ‘That is not your face.

Ok, that is somewhat different – the point I am making here is that the cognitive appeals in the above passages denote an internal visualisation of the scene, that is then held in the mind’s eye, whilst it is described/written down.
No easy task.

On another scale there is how Gaelic poets composed – by lying, in subdued light, quiet – isolated – with a stone/small rock held against the stomach.
I can appreciate the need for this: the stone/rock centres the attention, provides tactile input, becomes the prompt to the act of composition. Why was this method noteworthy? It helped in their manipulation of strict forms, of intertexuality; of a hundred and one rules, appeals, concerns, to be addressed. It was the calm, timeless quality of the setting, of the quality of enduring stone/rock, that provided the context for the frame of mind, of being, that the poetic composition demanded. The rock connected one to one’s time, to the world, to earth; it provided a point of contact between inner visualising/mentation, and outside demand/input. It grounded the imagery.

Grim humour?

Well, I couldn’t help but notice, later on in this passage…

(Priam pleading with Hector to come indoors)
 ……………….. Ah for a young man
all looks fine and noble if he goes down in war
…………………………………………………
……………………………………………………
…………………….When an old man’s killed
… the dogs go at the grey head and the grey beard
and mutilate the genitals -………….

Or, as Robert Fitzgerald has it:

………………………….Everything done
to a young man killed in war becomes his glory
…………………………………………………
………………………………………………..
………………. But when an old man falls ,
the dogs disfigure his grey head and cheek
and genitals…………………

And if that wasn’t enough:

And his mother wailed now…………
………………………loosing her robes with one hand
and holding out her bare breast with the other……………
…………………………………………………………………..

……………………………. – have some respect for this! (sic)

 

Comments
  1. viennafamous says:

    What a fascinating read! Thoroughly enjoyed it.

  2. Fascinating about the Gaelic poets. Hadn’t come across that before. Thanks.

  3. I read Homer at an early age and was transfixed by the imagery — like you, when older, I thought it was a construct of the translation (I have no latin or greek), so now am the possessor of several translations. And its Homer (she, he or them).

    I’m now debating whether to get the latest translation of the odyssey….

Leave a Reply to From Hill to Sea Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s