Tag Archives: Odyssey

At the start of this year, I wrote up some delusions about what I might read in 2017. Now that the halfway point is past, I am in the mood to find out how I have done.

Here is what I have read from that list, with associated posts:

Homer – Odyssey (Lombardo, trans.) – post
Virgil – Aeneid (Lombardo, trans.) – posts (collected)
Robert Frost – A Boy’s Willpost
Fernando Pessoa ­– The Book of Disquietpost1, post2, post3, post4, post5
Wu Yubi – The Journal of Wu Yubi – [no posts]
Henri Cole – Nothing to Declare – [contemporary poetry] [no posts]

Not altogether terrible, though certainly less than half of what I predicted. As I knew would happen, my reading took me down other rabbit holes. I give the highlights below; the full list would be a bore.

Pessoa’s succulent nihilism brought me to read A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe (Zenith, trans.), the Penguin Classics collection of his poetry. Whereas The Book of Disquiet is all in one voice (that of Bernardo Soares), the poetry here is in four voices: Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, Álvaro de Campos, and Fernando Pessoa himself. Of these, I felt the closest kinship with Reis, the melancholy Epicurean, whose compact odes find joy even in their resignation. Reis works in bulk: no single poem stands out, but together they form a powerful collection. In contrast, de Campos is a poet of the single poem, most especially the dazzling “Maritime Ode,” which defies description. At 31 pages, it is too long to leave here, so I leave instead the much more compact “Ah, a Sonnet…”—also by de Campos:

Ah, a Sonnet…

My heart is a mad admiral
Who quit his life at sea
And remembers it little by little
At home, pacing, pacing…

With this motion (the mere thought
Of which makes me shift in my seat)
The seas he once sailed still toss
In his muscles bored of inactivity.

Nostalgia’s in his legs and arms.
Nostalgia pours out of his brain.
His boredom turns into raving.

But if, for God’s sake, the heart
Was my theme, why is this poem dealing
With an admiral instead of with feeling?

I can never read enough translations of Virgil’s Aeneid, so, a couple months after finishing up Lombardo’s fine rendition, I began Sarah Ruden’s, which I think may be my favorite of the five I have read (Ruden, Lombardo, Fitzgerald, Mandelbaum, Fagles). It is a line-by-line, mostly blank verse translation—the sort of thing that will either succeed or fail on a large scale. It is hard to imagine such an attempt being middling. Ruden’s, happily, succeeds. Her lines are terse and forceful, and lack the somewhat stiff grandiosity that occasionally characterizes the blank verse translations of Fitzgerald and Mandelbaum. The compact lines serve Virgil better than the loose lines of Fagles, and she avoids Fagles’ tendency toward being too colloquial. Lombardo’s translation is the freest (though highly musical), and makes a nice pairing with Ruden.

The introduction to the Lombardo translation was written by W. R. Johnson. It was sufficiently insightful that it induced me to buy Johnson’s book Darkness Visible, a classic work of Virgil scholarship. Johnson’s book does exactly what I ask for from a book of criticism: it makes me a better reader. Johnson’s central concern in the work is to elucidate the way in which the world of the Aeneid constants hovers around darkness and chaos, always threatening to fall fully under their sway. He shows this by comparing passages in Virgil to passages in earlier authors, especially Homer. He convincingly demonstrates that where Homer’s passages are characterized by brilliant clarity, Virgil’s re-envisionings of these same passages make them deliberately, carefully murky. Thus Virgil captures a world beyond our comprehension and beyond our control. I had sensed this in my reading of Virgil—it is a major part of why I prefer Virgil to Homer—but I could not have articulated it without having read Johnson. I cannot recommend Darkness Visible highly enough.

Leaving behind poetry, I have been reading a number of the classics of Chinese Philosophy: Confucius’ Analects (Chin, trans.), the book of Mengzi (Lau, trans.), and the book of Zhuangzi (Palmer, trans.). Confucius and Mengzi make a nice contrast. Where Confucius is flexible, emphasizing situationally appropriate conduct (guided but not rigidly determined by the rites), Mengzi is rigid, the sort who might never talk to you again if you bow to him the wrong way. Even if I disagree with Confucius about the general shape of his program, I can feel the deeply humane impulse behind it. In Mengzi that impulse is more difficult to find. But I should be fair to Mengzi. Especially near the start of his work, Mengzi develops certain interesting philosophical themes. Concerning, for instance, the motivation to be ethical, he attempts to start from our natural sympathy for friends and families and to extend this as far as possible. This, I think, is a more plausible solution to the problem of moral motivation than that of the Mohists, who begin with universal love as an imperative. And, as Republicans in the Senate work to savage our healthcare system, Mengzi’s stern moral stance seems especially apt: “Is there any difference between killing a man with a knife and killing him with misrule? There is no difference.”

The real treasure, however, is Zhuangzi, whose laughter still resonates today. He is a relentless puncturer of pretensions, and as pretense is an eternal temptation of the human soul, Zhuangzi will never cease to be relevant. The book that accrued around his name is a hodge-podge, a collection of vignettes and perspectives that do not resolve into any single clearly articulable theme. One imagines Zhuangzi would not have it any differently. I leave, from this work, the following beautiful passage. I might have chosen any number of others.

Words are like the ebb and flow of the wind-blown seas: the purpose of them can become overwhelmed. The wind and seas are easily stirred, and what was attempted can be swamped and lost. (ch. 4)

Enough said about where I have been. Where am I going? I have no interest in predicting the remainder of this year in detail. I will only sketch a few paths that lay within my sight.

I have been reading, with great pleasure, The Poetics of the New American Poetry, a collection of commentaries on the aim and nature of poetry by American poets associated with the volume The New American Poetry 1945-1960 (which I have not read). The volume captures the ferment that surrounded the birth and development of vers libre, both their negative program of throwing off the shackles of forms that were imposed a priori and their positive programs, which were many and resist easy summation. I imagine that I will, upon concluding this volume, be drawn to further explore the poetry of this period, of which I have little firsthand experience. Already, H.D.’s Trilogy, The Selected Poems of Federico García Lorca, and Basil Bunting’s Complete Poems lie before me, and Bunting I have even begun. His “Villon” is a marvelous poem. Perhaps I will write about it here.

On a recent trip to the Pacific Northwest, I returned home with a number of used books (I visited at least eight bookstores in my six-day trip). Among these was Jay Garfield’s translation of and commentary on Nāgārjuna’s The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. I find the Buddhist notion of emptiness intriguing and appealing, and what I have read of this volume already suggests that it may tally with conclusions I have independently reached in my professional work in the philosophy of science. Such concordance may prove to be nothing in the end, but I am sure I will enjoy finding out, one way or the other.

On this same trip I also acquired a copy of Susan Howe’s new book, Debths. It is a short book (though >100 pages, much of each page is white space), and I have already made a first pass through it. But it will require more time. I expect I will be writing about it, one way or another, so I will not say more here. Happily, this will get me closer to meeting my goal of reading four works of contemporary poetry.

And beyond that? My shelves overflow with unread books—perhaps I will make some dents in this. I will not speculate as to the precise locations of these dents.

The transition between book six and book seven of Virgil’s Aeneid is the turning point of the poem. Crudely considered, it is the moment the Aeneid changes from a Roman Odyssey to a Roman Iliad. And Virgil marks this transition with an invocation of the muse Erato:

And now, Erato, who were the kings
And what was the state of ancient Latium
When this foreign army landed in Italy?
Help me, Goddess, your sacred poet,
Recall the prelude to the hostilities,
For I will tell of war’s horror, of pitched battle,
Heroes driven by courage to meet their doom,
Of Etruscan squadrons, and all Hesperia
Pressed into arms. A higher order of things
Opens before me; a greater work now begins.

Curiously, however, these are the 44th through 53rd lines of Aeneid book seven. Why the longish preamble?

A first pass at an answer might be as follows. Book six ends with Aeneas leaving the realm of the dead and sailing to Caieta’s harbor. From there, Aeneas must still make one last voyage to reach the Tiber, the main center of action for the remainder of the poem. That voyage must be described before the invocation of Erato is proper. Since that would make for an anticlimactic ending to book six, it functions much better as the intro to book seven.

All of that is true, but shallow. Virgil accomplishes much more in those forty-three lines than simply conveying a necessary plot point. The way he describes the voyage from Caieta’s harbor to the Tiber itself signals the conclusion of the first half of the story and the beginning of the second, in two ways.

First, before the voyage even begins, death claims one more member of Aeneas’ party: Caieta, who nursed him when he was an infant. (It is from her that Caieta’s harbor takes its name.) So far as I can recall, Caieta is the last remaining familial link between Aeneas and Troy. His wife Creüsa was lost in book two and his father Anchises in book three. There is, of course, still Iülus, but he represents the Aeneas’ future line in Latium, and is not so strictly tied to Troy. Caieta’s death thus symbolizes a complete break with Troy except as a memory. Much more than the invocation of Erato, her death declares that what follows is to be something different.

Only after she dies do they set sail for their final landing spot. One reason why this trip can be described so briefly (<40 lines) is because it conspicuously lacks drama. Virgil doesn’t hide this fact; rather, he makes sure we are aware of it:

And from those shores could also be heard
Lions roaring and snapping at their chains
Late into the night, the raging of bristled boars
And caged bears, and huge wolf-shapes howling.
All these were men whom Circe had cruelly drugged
And clad in the hides and faces of beasts.
But Neptune, to save the good Trojans
From these monstrous transformations,
Kept them from landing on those deadly shores,
Filling their sails with wind, and bearing them past
The seething shoals and out of danger. (7.19-29)

What is interesting in this episode is what does not happen: the Trojans do not land on Circe’s shores, are not turned into wild beasts. They reach the Tiber without incident. Where Caieta’s death signaled Aeneas’ break with Troy, this non-episode signals the Aeneid’s break with the Odyssey.

To see this, compare this scene to that in book three, in which Aeneas and his crew land in Sicily and pick up Achaemenides, a member of Ulysses’ crew left behind to fend for his own against the Cyclopes (see my posts here and here). One reason why that scene appears in the Aeneid is to draw a parallel between Virgil’s poem and Homer’s (and, of course, to use this parallel as a way also to highlight their differences).

By contrast, in book seven, Virgil draws attention to the fact that the opportunity for another such parallel was present, but not taken. It was not taken because it was no longer appropriate: the time had come for something new.

Only after these two severances—the breaking of Aeneas’ last living tie to Troy, and the breaking of the Aeneid/Odyssey parallel—was Virgil ready to begin his “greater work,” and to ask Erato’s aid in his task.


The last time I read book 3 of the Aeneid, I wrote about the strange episode where Aeneas and his crew flee from Polyphemus. The scene is strange for its lack of any real tension. It is not a thrilling escape from danger. Excitement was not Virgil’s intent in placing that scene in his poem. I tried to find another motivation in his sympathy for Polyphemus, whose eye Odysseus had gouged out.

But there is another reason for the scene as well, and that will be my focus here. Just prior to their flight from Polyphemus, Aeneas and his crew meet Achaemenides, a holdover from Odysseus’ crew. In their escape from Polyphemus’ cave, Odysseus and his men had apparently forgotten Achaemenides, and he had spent the next three months on the island, surviving on wild fruit and roots in the forest. On seeing Aeneas arrive, he approaches and, seeing that they are enemy Trojans, chooses to place himself at their mercy rather than condemn himself to continued existence in Sicily.

Now, surely, part of the reason why Virgil places this scene here is to take a swipe at Odysseus, the conniving and evil Greek. This serves two purposes: it gratifies Roman sentiment, and it establishes Virgil’s hero as superior to Homer’s. Aeneas would never leave a crew member behind out of negligence, after all.

But there is more to it than that. The Aeneid is, above all else, a book of exiles. Where the Odyssey is dominated by a morality of host-guest obligations, the moral fabric of the Aeneid concerns exiles and the community between them. Indeed, it might not even be a morality properly so called. It is less ordained by the gods than a natural consequence of empathy: those who have known exile are friendly to the wayward Trojans, and the Trojans are, in turn, friendly to the exiles they meet. (It was, of course, friendliness toward a pretend exile that caused the fall of Troy in the first place.)

The encounter with Achaemenides illustrates this. Even though he is a Greek who fought at Troy, and even though he is a former companion of hated Odysseus, Aeneas and the Trojans accept him into their ranks. This is doubly remarkable because the last time they showed sympathy to a Greek with a sob story, they were tricked into bringing the fatal horse inside the city walls. Yet they still accept Achaemenides as a “worthy suppliant” (3.770).

What we are to take away from this, I think, is that, in the world of the Aeneid, the status of being an exile creates a bond between all who share it. Who cares that Achaemenides was a Greek, and thus an enemy of the Trojans? That antagonism was between two established homes. When the homes are destroyed or otherwise lost, so too the grounds for hostility. Exileship trumps nationality.

Aeneas’ first appearance in Virgil’s Aeneid is hardly flattering:

Aeneas’ limbs suddenly went numb with cold.
He groaned and, lifting both palms to heaven, said:

“Three times, four times luckier were those
Who died before their parents’ eyes
Under Troy’s high walls! O Diomedes,
Bravest of the Greeks, if only I had been killed
By your right hand on Ilium’s plain,
Where Hector went down under Achilles’ spear,
Where huge Sarpedon lies, where the Simois rolls
So many shields and helmets caught in its current
And the bodies of so many brave heroes!”

(Aeneid bk. 1, lines 110-20, trans. Lombardo)

Aeneas is weary, miserable, on the verge of giving up, wishing for death—and this is the great hero who, we have just been told, is fated to found a new home in Italy, what will one day give rise to Rome and all its empire.

To be sure, Aeneas is in fairly dire straits when we meet him. He is sailing from Sicily to Italy with twenty ships when Juno persuades Aeolus to unleash the winds. It is because of these winds that “everywhere men saw the presence of death” (1.109). Still, is this Aeneas’ response to misfortune? Does he really despair so readily? We will later learn that this is far from his first misfortune, that it is only the latest in a long string—but, as I said, we only learn this later.

Why should Virgil introduce his hero in such a state? I think there is something quite appropriate about it, but to see why requires a rather large step backwards, to get a view of the Aeneid as a whole.

The Aeneid is sometimes described as half Odyssey (the first half), half Iliad (the second half). This isn’t wrong, but it overlooks the crucial difference between the Aeneid and the Odyssey. In the Odyssey, Odysseus is making a return journey. He is going back to an established home. To be sure, there is uncertainty, for that home is under threat from rapacious suitors, and Odysseus does not know whether Penelope has remained faithful to him during his extended absence. And yet there is not so much uncertainty and urgency that he cannot forget, for an entire year, where he is headed.

The Aeneid tells a very different story. Troy, Aeneas’ home, has been destroyed. No life remains for him there. His only option is to make a new home. And while he at least has the advantage of a divine mother who tells him his fate, still the goal is uncertain, a land he has never seen, full of people he has never met—a land whose only significance lies in its future promise, not in past experience. This story, the quest to make a new home in unknown territory, strikes me as better capturing the generic predicament of human life—or at least the very specific predicament of my life. (I am a Russian Jew whose ties to Russia were effaced before my birth by generations of my family living in the United States, and whose ties to Judaism were effaced by utter unbelief and a lack of stomach for cultural “Judaism.” Might I at least have an American identity? I spent my childhood in a southern state but was raised to be deliberately non-southern. That avenue, then, is also closed. Whatever home I find, it will be one of my own making.)

With such an exhausting, bewildering quest before him, it is only right that Aeneas should be glimpsed first in a moment of weariness, for it is out of precisely this weariness that he must emerge if he is to found his new home.

Miscellaneous notes on Aeneid book 1

[1] Dido’s “living passion”

Aeneas, in his quest to found a new home in Latium, is caught between his memory of his first home and visions of his second. There is a tension between these two: his memory can get in the way of his forward movement. One of the greatest qualities of the Aeneid is the way Virgil captures the way the same themes that characterize Aeneas’ journey play out in the lives of those characters who interact with his destiny without sharing it. One such is Dido. She, too, is an exile. Though her city was not destroyed, her home was: her brother Pygmalion murdered her husband Sychaeus. When Aeneas meets her, she is building her new city in Libya. In this case, her memory of Sychaeus is a strength: it keeps her from the distraction of a new lover, allowing her to focus all her efforts on Carthage. But Aeneas’ mother, Venus, schemes to ensure Aeneas’ safety, and sends Cupid (disguised as Aeneas’ son Iülus) to make Dido fall in love with him:

The boy, when he had hung on Aeneas’ neck
And satisfied the deluded father’s love,
Went to the Queen. And she clung to him
With all her heart, her eyes were riveted on him,
And she cuddled him on her lap. Poor Dido.
She had no idea how great a god had settled there.
Mindful of his Acidalian mother,
Little by little he began to blot out Sychaeus
And tried to captivate with a living passion
Her slumbering soul and her heart long unused. (1.875-84)

I think Virgil means for this passage to be ambiguous about the rightness of Cupid’s action. On the one hand, it is terrible: Dido’s resolve never to remarry, never even to love again, is being wrenched away from her against her will. And, later, we will see that this leads to her destruction, through no fault of her own. And yet Virgil also wants us to see that she has found her strength in a kind of death. Her love of Sychaeus is the love of a memory. It is a dead passion. She has made a new home, but there is something not quite wholly alive in her new “life.”

Ultimately, I think we must see Dido as one of the many more or less blameless victims of Aeneas’ destiny. She keeps company with the likes of Creüsa, Palinurus, and Turnus. And yet, what Virgil suggests about memory, and the tension between memory and forward movement in life, is profound.

[2] Juno the contract-breaker

We first meet Aeneas beset by a weariness he must overcome. We first meet Juno, by contrast, taking the action that will typify her throughout the epic: violating some contract or another to frustrate Aeneas. In this book, the contract she violates is the “chartered agreement” that lets Aeolus, king of the winds, know “when to restrain and when to unleash them” (1.79-80). But later we will see her violate a contract between Aeneas and Latinus in order to start the war between Trojans and Latins, and then again a contract between Aeneas and Turnus, in order to prolong that war. Even if events must proceed onward toward their destined end no matter what, they are hastened there by agreements between men and gods, and Juno is the great violator of such contracts.

Odysseus, already having suffered much on his long journey back to Ithaca, arrived at Aeaea, the home of the goddess Circe. Here, as everywhere, Odysseus runs into trouble. In this case, it is that Circe turns half of his crew into pigs. But then something strange happens. Odysseus goes to rescue them, relying on the advice of Hermes for how to escape Circe’s tricks. Since he needs Circe to transform the pigs back into humans, this rescue must involve her cooperation. Sheer antagonism, such as saved him from Polyphemus, will not do. What else, then, but to become Circe’s lover? And who would not like to lay with a goddess?

All well and good, only—Odysseus forgets his home. For an entire year. All the sorrow he has endured, attempting to return to Ithaca, the pain he felt on being so close, only to have Aeolus’ winds released by his mutinous crew—all of this forgotten in Circe’s embrace. I find it difficult to forgive. How much sympathy should I invest in Odysseus’ suffering at being kept from his home if he himself forgets it so easily?

But wait, you may say: do you not love Aeneas? For he, too, forgets his destiny in the arms of a woman. True, and true. But the cases are different. Let us leave to the side that my love for Aeneas is complicated. My admiration for him is adulterated. But no matter. The case of Aeneas and the case of Odysseus are different. Odysseus is returning home. Aeneas is venturing forth to make a new home. Odysseus is drawn back to Ithaca by established ties: his wife, his son, his house. Aeneas is impelled to Latium because the gods have decreed it will be so, and perhaps by the promise of a glorious future. (But why not a glorious future in Carthage? Again, because of the gods’ decrees, and because of these alone.)

It is a very different thing to forget the past than to forget the future. Odysseus’ lapse is careless to the point of arrogance. Aeneas’ lapse is human. I, engaged in my own search for a new home (of sorts), know well the uncertainty that attends such a search. I know the sweet voice with which false terrain tempts the seeker. Aeneas errs, but in a manner I can readily forgive. Odysseus, I cannot.