Unbearable Brightness: Fixated by Homer since the Age of 16, Alice Oswald Has Now Written Her Own Version of the Iliad. Translating the Greek Master's Vivid Imagery Hasn't Been Easy

By Oswald, Alice | New Statesman (1996), October 17, 2011 | Go to article overview

Unbearable Brightness: Fixated by Homer since the Age of 16, Alice Oswald Has Now Written Her Own Version of the Iliad. Translating the Greek Master's Vivid Imagery Hasn't Been Easy


Oswald, Alice, New Statesman (1996)


If you put a real leaf and a silk leaf side by side, you'll see something of the difference between Homer's poetry and anyone else's. There seem to be real leaves still alive in the Iliad, real animals, real people, real light attending everything. Goethe put it like this: "Ancient writers represent real existence, whereas we usually present its effects." All the Iliad translations I know are full of silk leaves, dictionary leaves. Plenty of them tell the story well or give vivid equivalents of Greek phrases, but they don't translate the Iliad's manifest reality.

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How might that be done? How is Homer's kind of poetry made? Is it only oral poems that can carry the living powers of things, or might a literary poem (or a literary version of an oral poem) learn how to do it? I've been trying to answer those questions for years.

When I was 16,1 was taught by a wonderful teacher who let me ignore the Greek syllabus and just read Homer. On Friday afternoons, we'd meet in a tiny room and spend 80 minutes reading the Odyssey. Then I'd go home and see how far I could get by the following Friday. Perhaps it was the exhilaration of being allowed to plan my own lesson, but what impressed me was the unbossiness of Homer's language, an absence of authority that allowed everything in the poem to be strongly and strangely itself Compare the trees on Kalypso's island:

  Alder and black poplar and sweet-smelling cypress Where long-winged
  birds have their beds Little owls and hawks and honking sea-crows
  Whose families work the waters...

to the ones that appear in Paradise Lost

... the roofe

  Of thickest covert, was inwoven shade Laurel and Mirtle, and what
  higher grew Of firm and fragrant leaf; on either side Acanthus, and
  each odorous bushy shrub

I love Milton, but his trees are Miltonic. They are shaped by the prevailing wind of the poet managing his breath across the subject. Homer's trees, even in the original hexameter, still have some of their own spirit. According to their position in the line and their case-ending, they will come accompanied by an adjective that fits the rhythm, but it won't be the outcome of one poet's mind; it won't be marked by one poet's accent.

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An oral poet - and Homer was one (or several) - works in chorus with his predecessors, learning from them a repertoire of rhythmical phrases that enable him to compose spontaneously in metre. The tendency of his grammar is therefore cumulative, like a cairn. Each clause is a separable unit. It might be placed loosely on another and held there with a quick connective, but it never loses its essential singleness; which is why you often find that one end of his sentence turns away from the other. In the earlier excerpt, the trees barely notice the birds, the birds are focused on fish, the sea has no awareness of the trees - it's as if the eyes of the clauses are looking outwards, elsewhere. But in Milton's passage, the control is absolute, and the clauses' eyes are exchanging glances. There are no loose nouns, always the right number of finite verbs; and the result is that the trees don't move, don't live. They seem to be stuck into position in a kind of poetic cement.

This might sound a bit technical, but it's just a question of patterns. As a teenager, I couldn't get Homer's self-regulating patterns out of my head. When I walked out of that tiny classroom, along the streets to the station, then uphill through the woods, past the barking dog and the old buses, past the church, past Miss Waters hanging out her rectangular underwear, down the wet field home avoiding the ram, through the iron gate that always groaned when opened and into my mother's flower-governed garden, everything I saw seemed to be powered by its singleness. Everything stood next to something else but had its eyes turned away.

All my poems have been translations of that pattern, but a couple of years ago I decided to confront it head-on by translating the Iliad. …

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