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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Why Homer Matters

A History

Adam Nicolson




One evening ten years ago I started to read Homer in English. With an old friend, George Fairhurst, I had just sailed from Falmouth to Baltimore in southwest Ireland, 250 miles across the Celtic Sea. We had set off three days earlier in our wooden ketch, the Auk, forty-two feet from stem to stern, a vessel which had felt big enough in Falmouth, not so big out in the Atlantic.

It had been a ruinous journey. A mile or so out from the shelter of Falmouth we realized our instruments were broken, but we had been preparing for too long, were hungry to go, and neither of us felt like turning back. A big storm came through that night, force 8 gusting 9 to 10, west of Scilly, and we sailed by the stars when it was clear, by the compass in the storm, four hours on, four hours off, for that night, the next day and the following night. The seas at times had been huge, the whole of the bow plunging into them, burying the bowsprit up to its socket, solid water coming over the foredeck and driving back toward the wheel, so that the side-decks were like mill-sluices, running with the Atlantic.

After forty hours we arrived. George's face looked as if he had been in a fight, flushed and bruised, his eyes sunk and hollow in it. We dropped anchor in the middle of Baltimore harbor, its still water reflecting the quayside lights, only our small wake disturbing them, and I slept for sixteen hours straight. Now, the following evening, I was lying in my bunk, the Auk tied up alongside the Irish quay, with the Odyssey, translated by the great American poet-scholar Robert Fagles, in my hand.

I had never understood Homer as a boy. At school his poems were taught to us in Greek, as if they were a branch of math. The master drew the symbols on the green chalkboard, and we ferreted out the sense line by line, picking bones from fish. The archaic nature of Homer's vocabulary, the pattern of long and short syllables in the verse, the remote and uninteresting nature of the gods, like someone else's lunchtime account of a dream from the night before—what was that to any of us? Where was the life in it? How could this remoteness compare to the urgent realities of our own lives, our own lusts and anxieties? The difficulties and strangeness of the Greek were little more than a prison of obscurity to me, happily abandoned once the exam was done. Homer stayed irrelevant.

Now I had Fagles's words in front of me. Half idly, I had brought his translation of the Odyssey with me on the Auk, as something I thought I might look at on my own sailing journey in the North Atlantic. But as I read, a man in the middle of his life, I suddenly saw that this is not a poem about then and there, but now and here. The poem describes the inner geography of those who hear it. Every aspect of it is grand metaphor. Odysseus is not sailing on the Mediterranean but through the fears and desires of a man's life. The gods are not distant creators but elements within us: their careless pitilessness, their flaky and transient interests, their indifference, their casual selfishness, their deceit, their earth-shaking footfalls.

I read Fagles that evening, and again as we sailed up the west coast of Ireland. I began to see Homer as a guide to life, even as a kind of scripture. The sea in the Odyssey is out to kill you—at one point Hermes, the presiding genius of Odysseus's life, says, "Who would want to cross the unspeakable vastness of the sea? There are not even any cities there"—but hidden within it are all kinds of delicious islands, filled with undreamed-of delights, lovely girls and beautiful fruits, beautiful landscapes where you don't have to work, fantasy lands, each in their different way seducing and threatening the man who chances on them. But every one is bad for him. Calypso, a goddess, unbelievably beautiful, makes him sleep with her night after night, for seven years; Circe feeds him delicious dinners for a whole year, until finally one of his men asks him what he thinks he is doing. If he goes on like this, none of them will ever see their homes again. And is that what he wants?

In part I saw the Odyssey as the story of a man who is sailing through his own death: the sea is deathly, the islands are deathly, he visits Hades at the very center of the poem and he is thought dead by the people who love him at home, a pile of white bones rotting on some distant shore. He longs for life, and yet he cannot find it. When he hears stories told of his own past, he cannot bear it, wraps his head in his "sea-blue" cloak and weeps for everything he has lost.

It was Odysseus I fell in love with that summer as we sailed north to the Hebrides, Orkney and the Faroes: the many-wayed, flickering, crafty man, "the man of twists and turns," as Fagles calls him, translating the Greek word polytropos, the man driven off course, the man who suffers many pains, the man who is heartsick on the open sea. His life itself is a twisting, and maybe, I thought, that is his destiny: he can never emerge into the plain calm of a resolution. The islands in his journey are his own failings. Home, Ithaca, is the longed-for moment when those failings will at last be overcome. Odysseus's muddle is his beauty.

He is no victim. He suffers, but he does not buckle. His virtue is his elasticity, his rubber vigor. If he is pushed, he bends, but he bends back, and that half-giving strength was to me a beautiful model for a man. He is all navigation, subtlety, invention, dodging the rocks, storytelling, cheating and survival. He can be resolute, fierce and destructive when need be, and clever, funny and loving when need be. There is no requirement to choose between these qualities; Odysseus makes them all available.

Like Shakespeare and the Bible, we all know his stories in advance, but one in particular struck me that summer sailing on the Auk. We had left the Arans late the evening before, and George had taken her all night up the dark of the Galway coast. We changed places at dawn, and in that early morning, with a cup of tea in my hand and the sun rising over the Irish mainland, I took her north, heading for the Inishkeas and the corner of County Mayo, before turning there and making for Scotland.

The wind was a big easterly, coming in gusts over the Mayo hills, the sun white and heatless. George and my son Ben, who had joined us, were asleep below. There were shearwaters cruising the swells beside us, black, liquid, effortless birds, like the sea turned aerial, and a fulmar now and then hung in the slot between the headsail and the main, flying with us on the current of air. The Auk surged on the wind that morning, heeling out into the Atlantic, churning her way north, horselike in her strength. I don't know when I have felt so happy.

Steering across the swells, holding the wheel against them as they came through, releasing it as they fell away, I tied the great Robert Fagles translation of the Odyssey on the compass binnacle, holding it open with a bungee cord against the wind. That morning I read the story of the Sirens. Just as we do, Odysseus knows he will be exposed to the songs that the strange, birdlike creatures sing to mariners and with which they lure passing ships onto the shore, wrecking them there and then leaving the men to linger until they die. The only way Odysseus can get past the Sirens is to cut up a round cake of beeswax, knead it in his hands, softening the wax in the heat of the sun, and then press plugs of it into the ears of the sailors. Once they are deafened, he has himself lashed to the mainmast, so that any desire he may have to steer toward the delicious honeyed voices can have no effect on his men. Only if he is powerless can he listen to them singing from their meadow, as Robert Fagles described it, "starred with flowers."

That meadow of death is the most desirable place any man could imagine. It is yet another island into which a man might long to sink and die. A dead calm falls on the sea. The men brail up the sail and then sit to their oars. The Sirens, just within shouting distance of the ship, taunt Odysseus as he passes. They can give him wisdom if he will come to them and listen. If he will let them, they will make him understand. They press on him the comfort and beauty of what they have to offer. They sing to him, and Odysseus longs for them, his heart throbbing for them, as Fagles says, and with his eyebrows gestures to the crew to set him free. But the crew won't respond. Deaf to all persuasion, they bind him tighter and row the ship through and past.

Never is Homer more rapid. Like Odysseus's "sea-swift" ship, the whole scene sweeps past in forty lines. Rarely can something so brief have spread its ripples so wide. But the point is this: the song the Sirens sing is not any old crooning seduction tune. It is the story of the Iliad itself.

"We know all the pains that the Greeks and Trojans once endured

On the spreading plain of Troy when the gods willed it so—

All that comes to pass on the fertile earth, we know it all."

The Sirens sing the song of the heroic past. That is the meadow of death. They want to draw Odysseus in with tempting stories of what he once was. And Odysseus, after his years of suffering and journeying, of frustration in the beautiful arms of Calypso, whose name means "the hidden one," the goddess of oblivion, longs to return to the active world, the world of simplicity and straightforwardness he had known at Troy. The Sirens are wise to that; they know the longing in his heart. The prospect of clear-cut heroism summons him, and he struggles to escape his bindings. But his men, like the poem itself, know better, and they tie him tighter to his ship. They won't be wrecked on the illusions of nostalgia, the longing for that heroized, antique world, because, as the Odyssey knows, to live well in the world, nostalgia must be resisted; you must stay with your ship, stay tied to the present, remain mobile, keep adjusting the rig, work with the swells, watch for a wind-shift, watch as the boom swings over, engage, in other words, with the muddle and duplicity and difficulty of life. Don't be tempted into the lovely simplicities that the heroic past seems to offer. That is what Homer and the Sirens and Robert Fagles all said to me that day.

I can still see the sunlight coming sheening off the backs of the swells that morning, as they made their way past and under me, combed and slicked with the sea-froth running down them, every swell the memory of storms in the Atlantic far to the west, steepening to the east and then ruining themselves ashore. The Auk sailed north with the shearwaters, and the morning became unforgettable. It was when this book began.

I thank God I met Homer again that summer. He was suddenly alongside me, a companion and an ally, the most truly reliable voice I had ever known. It was like discovering poetry itself, or the dead speaking. As I read and reread the Odyssey in translation, I suddenly felt that here was the unaffected truth, here was someone speaking about fate and the human condition in ways that other people only seem to approach obliquely; and that directness, that sense of nothing between me and the source, is what gripped me. I felt like asking, "Why has no one told me about this before?"

The more I looked at the poems in different translations, and the more I tried to piece bits of them together in the Greek with a dictionary, the more I felt Homer was a guidebook to life. Here was a form of consciousness that understood fallibility and self-indulgence and vanity, and despite that knowledge didn't surrender hope of nobility and integrity and doing the right thing. Before I read Pope's Preface to the Iliad, or Matthew Arnold's famous lectures on translating Homer, I knew that this was the human spirit on fire, rapidity itself, endlessly able to throw off little sidelights like the sparks thrown off by the wheels of an engine hammering through the night. Speed, scale, violence, threat; but every spark with humanity in it.

Copyright © 2014 by Adam Nicolson