Palmer's Odyssey

WHILE Mr. W. J. Stillman is cruising among the isles of Greece to detect the actual route of Ulysses or Odysseus, an American professor has published a book 1 which leaves us no excuse for not exploring the original narrative of that hero’s adventures. Bearing on alternate pages a sumptuous reprint of Homer’s Odyssey and a charming translation, the volume offers at once a treat to the eyes and an invitation into the still air of delightful studies. It surely should have appeared earlier in the season, for it is emphatically a summer book, deserving indeed to head one of those lists entitled For Summer Travel with which all enterprising publishers delight to greet what has this year scarcely been the warmer season. The much-wandering Odysseus is in reality the very chief and type of all itinerants; nobody ever went so far within a small space ; he was like Thoreau, who “ had traveled a great deal in Concord.” Nobody else ever extracted so much voyaging out of a limited sheet of water, nobody else ever stayed so long from home in order to do this, nor did any one else ever put his wife and son to so much trouble to find him. What are the trivial wanderings of Father Æneas to the two days’ swim of Homer’s hero ; what was Dido for an enchantress, beside Kalypso ? What eminent society, famous in the romantic records of all time, did this experienced traveler encounter ; sometimes conversing with gods or sailing with goddesses, and happening in as a stranger guest upon the restored domesticity of Menelaus and Helen. That traditional beauty of all the world, divine among women, δῖα γυναικῶν, did not indeed make him immortal with a kiss, as Marlowe’s Faustus demanded ; but she was for him the stately and gracious hostess : she bade her maids lay beautiful purple rugs for his couch ; and she poured into his wine a drug, known to her only, that quenched pain and strife, and brought forgetfulness of every ill. “ He who should taste it, when mixed in the bowl, would not that day let tears fall down his cheeks, although his mother and father died, although before his door a brother or dear son were cut off by the sword and his own eyes beheld.” What hostess of these days, whether at Newport, or the Isle of Wight, or Trouville,”has such a beverage to offer ?

This is the book which we have, one might almost say, for the first time in English, at the hands of Mr. Palmer. Not that it has not been more than twenty times rendered into our language, but it was reserved for Mr. Palmer to hit upon a mode of translation so admirable that he succeeds in preserving, in Homer, for the first time, certain peculiar qualities that others have missed. All previous versions have been made either in verse, or in that other form of language which Molière’s hero had spoken all his life without being aware of it. It was reserved for the present translator to hit upon a sort of rhythmic prose, constructed in loose iambics, which are sufficiently veiled to be unobtrusive, yet distinct enough to be effective ; thus giving us, just as Homer supplies it, narrative and poetry in one. This mode of rendering was first tested in public readings at Harvard College, and most successfully ; the exercises took place in the evening and were wholly voluntary, yet the attendance was large and the enthusiasm great. The general testimony was, both among the undergraduates and on the part of the general public, that they felt for the first time the real charm of Homer, when Mr. Palmer, seemingly in the most off-hand and colloquial manner, gave this fresh version of the immortal song.

Whether the result thus achieved has gained or lost by the printing may be seriously questioned. Mr. Palmer himself says, in his ample and admirable preface, “ I cannot expect that methods originally fitted to the ear will be equally well-suited to the eye” (page xiii.). It is possible, as he further suggests, that many who enjoyed the reading may have failed to recognize the covert rhythm, although they felt its influence. The careful scholarship of the book is best tested by the eye, no doubt; but the eye is more critical than the ear as to this new experiment in prose metres. Take, for instance, the two lines describing the grief of Penelope.

Τόσσα μιν ὁρμαίνουσαν ἐπήλυθε νήδυμος ὕπνος, εὔδε δ̓ ἀνακλινθεῖσα, λύθεν δέ οί ἃψεα πάντα.

(IV. 793-4.)

Mr. Palmer renders this, the marks of supposed quantity being our own : “ Tō hēr ĭn sūch ănxīĕty sweĕt slūmbĕr cāme ănd lyĭng bāck shĕ slēpt ănd ēvery jōint rĕlāxed.” Here the alternate short and long syllables evidently require a little forcing from the voice, but with that aid the hearer would not criticise, though the reader might. Again, the close following of the Greek arrangement of words, as attempted by Mr. Palmer, leads to a frequent inversion, which was charming when given as colloquial, but seems sometimes constrained in print. Once more, the demand of the rhythm leads occasionally to the insertion of undue particles in English, or to a slight stretching of the Greek particles; and this is more readily recognized by eye than by ear. Sometimes Mr. Palmer vibrates too visibly between a statelier and a more familiar vocabulary, according to the same rhythmic necessities. We can perfectly understand, therefore, in view of all these considerations that some of the more technical Grecians at Harvard College should have questioned these performances, as they would perhaps have questioned Homer’s own, had they heard them ; yet, after all, their loss is the world’s gain ; the rhythmic version gives a sense of wholly new enjoyment, and the result is, that Mr. Palmer has, to our thinking, come nearer the soul and spirit of the Odyssey than any translator before him. Whether his method would apply as well to the sterner strain of the Iliad may well be doubted ; but he must be judged by what he attempts.

The story of Odysseus takes us back in many respects to the childhood of the world ; but instead of finding there only grossness and rudeness, we see rather a dignified propriety of moral standard, a fine courtesy of manners, and a respectful and even refined treatment of women. Nothing can be more marked in this respect than the picture of the domestic attitude of Helen, as already mentioned ; she moves among her household still a queen, and the recognized equal of her husband within the domain of home. The same is the case with the princess Nausikaä, the white-armed, Ναυσικάα λευκώλενον, who, although she goes with her maidens to the riverside to wash clothes, yet rides in her father’s best carriage, and plays ball, possibly lawn-tennis, when the work is done. The book is full of delicate touches of home life and high-bred courtesy, joined, it must be owned, with very hard hitting when the fight comes on. Homer is in truth as simple and straightforward in his blood-letting as in his love-making or his hospitality ; and the tortures inflicted by the red Indians are hardly worse than the manner in which Ulysses and his son Telemachus handle the offending suitors and erring maidens when the wanderer comes back to his own. Mr. Palmer’s version discreetly stops short before this carnival of vengeance, for he gives us only the first twelve books.

There is nothing finer, either in the original or in the translation, than when, at the beginning of the eleventh book, Odysseus visits the realm of the dead. Hardly less powerful than Dante’s vision, it is less grim; and it makes Virgil’s similar adventures seem remote and merely literary. “ Then gathered there spirits from out of Erebos of those now dead and gone, — brides, and unwedded youths, and worn old men, delicate maids with hearts but new to sorrow, and many pierced with brazen spears, men slain in fight, wearing their bloodstained armor. In crowds around the pit they flocked from every side, with awful wail.” (XI. 36—40.) Then follows a vision of fair women like Tennyson’s ; and at last comes the king of men. “ When then chaste Persephonê had scattered here and there those spirits of tender women, there came the spirit of Agamemnon, son of Atreus, sorrowing. Around thronged other spirits of such as by his side had died at the house of Aigisthos, and there had met their doom. He knew me as soon as he had tasted the dark blood; and then he wailed aloud and let the big tears fall, and stretched his hands forth eagerly to grasp me. But no, there was no strength or vigor left, such as was once within his supple limbs. I wept to see, and pitied him from my heart.” (XI. 386-95.) This is one of the few passages in the Odyssey where Homer gives us a softened, or, as we might say, a modern strain ; and we may indeed feel that the whole twelve books here translated do not together equal in depth of tenderness the two untranslated Greek hexameters in which Mr. Palmer inscribes the work to the memory of his own wife. After all, something has been gained since the days of the glory that was Greece.

It is hardly to be expected that a rhythmical translation, even in prose, should be as literal as one free from all such effort ; yet after the comparison of many pages with the original, we should say that, even in the precision of single phrases, Palmer surpasses the translation of Butcher and Lang, his only real competitors. When, for instance, in the opening lines he renders ἑταίρων by “ his men,” it is more literal as well as more vigorous than the phrase “ his company,” twice used by Butcher and Lang. For the Greek word is plural, not a mere noun of multitude, and it is closely followed by a plural pronoun referring to the same party ; and though it might be claimed that it carries a meaning of comradeship which is better represented by the word “ company,” yet the constant use in army and navy of “ his men ” or “ my men,” in the sense of subordinate companions, renders that word equally applicable as well as more terse. Again, in the early lines, the Homeric phrase ΝΎΜΦΗ ΠΌΤΝΙ’ (I. 14) is rather inadequately rendered by “ ladynymph,” in Butcher and Lang, while the statelier phrase “potent nymph” of Palmer is more satisfying. In the same line Kalypso is also called δῖα θεάων, and this the English translators render lightly as “ fair goddess,” while Palmer’s “ heavenly goddess ” is surely better. This suggests a rather amusing discrepancy between the two versions, in a later passage. Where Odysseus describes, with his usual grave dignity, an intrigue between the god Neptune and the mortal maiden Tyro, the English translators describe her as “ lady ” when the god is wooing her, but make him address her curtly as “ Woman ! ” when he leaves her; while Palmer precisely reverses this arrangement, making her a “ woman ” when she is sought, but “ Lady ! ” when the successful lover makes his parting address. The Homeric word is in both cases the same, γυναῖκα (XI. 244), γύναι (XI. 248) ; and it involves the delicate question whether a woman is entitled to more or to less courtesy after she is won. Mr. James or Mr. R. G. White might easily devise an “ international episode ” from this probably accidental divergence of the English and American translators. These authorities might also charge it as an undue cis-Atlantic familiarity, when Nausikaä appeals to her kingly father as “ Papa dear; ” but when we consider that the original phrase is Πάππα ϕίλ̕ (VI. 57), the equivalent English is unmistakable ; and when we observe that the young princess was standing very near her father, ΜΆΛ̓ ἌΓΧΙ ΣΤᾶΣΑ, and possibly, though Homer does not mention it, had her hand on his shoulder, — we should no more wish to miss this touch of familiarity than the fact that she asked for “ the high wagon with good wheels ” (ὑψηλὴν εὔκυκλον) to transport herself and her attendants.

We do not propose, however, to discuss the comparative details of translation, where both competitors are so excellent. Mr. Palmer’s Odyssey must stand or fall by the success of his rhythmic experiment, and the more poetic flavor that he has tried — successfully, as we think — to secure. If this success is less than when tested by the ear only, it is still very great, and we hear with much regret that the work is not to be completed. He has attained what Newman vainly attempted by his ballad-metre version of the Iliad; he has restored to us Homer the bard ; and his strains are as fascinating as if “ sung but by some blind crowder,” — the phrase used by Sir Philip Sidney in speaking of Chevy Chase, — or as if we sat listening to the harp beside some cottage door in Scio’s rocky isle.

  1. The Odyssey of Homer. Books I.-XII. The Text, and an English Version in Rhythmic Prose. By GEORGE HERBERT PALMER, Professor of Philosophy in Harvard University. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1884.