Hum 110 | Reed Classics | Reed Library | Reed | Perseus

Reed College Convocation
August 21, 2001; rev. 3/02
Ellen Keck Stauder


Parents and students, faculty colleagues, staff, members of the board of trustees and friends—we gather today for con-vocation, a calling together, that we use to mark the beginning of the academic year. For several years it has been the tradition at convocation to present a lecture by a faculty member on Homer’s Odyssey. In part the lecture is meant to give those of you who do not teach or take Humanities 110 at Reed a taste of what that experience is like. But I will confess to you at the outset that I mean to depart in a number of ways from the Hum 110 model. Hum lectures normally occur every Mon, Wed, and Friday from 9 to 9:50. I mean to take only about a half an hour of your time and hope, given the later hour, to keep you, if not on the edge of your seats, then at least awake. In addition, our regular lectures nearly always stay very close to the assigned text for the day whereas I am going take a significant detour by looking at Homer through a twentieth century lens. Finally, our Hum lectures are meant to demonstrate to students how to make an argument, how to use evidence and to suggest some of the approaches to texts that are peculiar to given disciplines and inter-disciplinary fields.

I do intend today to make an argument but I am approaching it in a way that I frankly never do in a regular lecture and that is to speak about my own scholarly interests, looking at Homer from my vantage point as a student of modern poetry. One of the ways that Reed is a distinctive college is the way it not only allows but encourages faculty to look at research in terms of its contribution to teaching and I want to be explicit about that connection this morning. I’ll be talking not about the translation of Homer in a general sense, as my title might suggest, but about Ezra Pound’s translation of a specific episode in Book 11 of the Odyssey, the underworld episode. The Greek name for this episode is the nekyia and I’ll use these terms interchangeably. Pound used this episode to begin his own 800-page epic work, The Cantos. I’ve chosen to take this approach because this occasion will allow me to talk more broadly about a Reed education, a process not merely FOR the students but a joint endeavor undertaken by the students and faculty together. William Trufant Foster, the first president of the college, said a Reed education was to be characterized above all by “the creation or fostering of an enthusiasm for the intellectual life” (Kerr, “Comrades of the Quest,” 1917, 3). Only those students and faculty willing to seriously undertake this process need apply. Those that do, are, in Foster’s words, “comrades of the quest.” In his ABC of Reading, Pound struck a similar note, saying: “Real education must ultimately be limited to men [and women] who INSIST on knowing, the rest is mere sheep-herding” (ABC 84). The trip to the underworld is pre-eminently a text about knowledge and about Odysseus’ quest for it, though whether he insists on it or tries to avoid it is a question I will leave until later.

I want to read Pound’s first Canto in a few moments so that we all have the text in ear and mind but before I do so, I want to give you a thumbnail sketch of his life and introduce some key ideas. Pound was born in 1885 in Hailey, Idaho. When he was four, the family moved to Philadelphia, where Pound eventually attended the University of Pennsylvania, though he completed his degree at Hamilton college. While at Penn, he met and was friends with Hilda Doolittle and William Carlos Williams. He began graduate work in Romance languages at Penn, held a brief teaching position at Wabash College and then left for Venice in 1908 where he published his first volume of poetry. He resided mainly in London from 1908 to 1921, during which time he began the imagist and vorticist movements, became foreign correspondent for Poetry magazine, worked as Yeats’s secretary for several winters, supported himself with voluminous amounts of literary, art and music criticism in magazines, and wrote a great deal of poetry, including the beginnings of what became the Cantos. In 1921 he moved to Paris where he helped edit T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, continuing to draft Cantos. Throughout most of the thirties he lived in Italy, becoming involved in fascism which later led to his wartime radio broadcasts from Rome on behalf of Italy. Following the war he was arrested and detained in Pisa and charged with treason. Eventually transferred to St. Elizabeth’s hospital in Washington, D. C., he was declared mentally unfit to stand trial and he remained there until 1958, when he returned to Italy. He was awarded the Bollingen prize for poetry in 1949 for the Pisan Cantos which he wrote while imprisoned in the detention camp there. He continued to publish cantos, prose and translations until his death in 1972, though he became increasingly silent, and his last poems face his failures quite squarely.

Pound’s importance as a twentieth century poet is still under vigorous debate. Some find the poetry irretrievably tainted by his fascism and anti-semitism of the thirties and forties. Others have wanted to shield the poetry from the politics. Both sides tend to agree that his influence on subsequent generations of poets has been immense, especially with respect to his practice of free verse. This is neither the time nor the place to take up these complicated political issues in any detail, except to say that the picture of Canto 1 that I want to argue for in a moment will suggest that the kind of visit to the underworld that Pound gives us there is one that recognizes the error of Odysseus’ ways in the very figure of the wandering process itself. The root meaning of error “is traveling or wandering” (Froula 153), something all epic presents to us in one or another way, whether it’s Adam and Eve, Aeneas, Dante, Achilles or Odysseus. Perhaps the difference between traditional epic wandering and the one Pound presents is that ultimately traditional heroes return home, a return that brings closure through a restoration of stable values that help the hero and the reader make sense of the wanderings themselves. In the Cantos, the wandering, despite Pound’s attempt to create a terrestrial paradise, is not given such closure. History remains stubbornly in the forefront of the poem without the assurance of transcendent redemption. But, as one critics has noted, “its failure to resolve into a story, paradoxically, is its story. The poem is the history and the history is the poem: a record of a world without epistemological certainty, which offers no rest from wandering-— world in which error is all” (Froula 154).

If you glance down at the text of the Canto in your programs, you’ll right away notice some differences between this and what you read in Book 11 of whatever translation you may have used. To begin with, this is much shorter. Pound has taken only the beginning of the book and has omitted the catalogue of most of the shades who approach him. A look at line one shows that Pound begins with no speaking subject and in the middle of a thought, “And then went down to the ships,” making us wonder what happened before the “And then.” As the first Canto rather than the eleventh book, we expect as epic readers to begin with an invocation to the muses and to begin in medias res, in the middle of the subject matter, with an implied promise that from whatever great distance we begin, some sort of return will come. To start in the underworld, in full confrontation with the dead, raises doubts immediately about whether such a return is even conceivable.

If you glance now at the end of the Canto, you’ll see that the ending material, from line 68 on, contains references that have no place in the Homer you’ve read. “Lie quiet Divus. I mean, that is Andreas Divus, / In officina Wecheli, 1538, out of Homer.” The narrative voice addresses Divus as if he is another character like Elpenor or Tiresias or Anticlea. So who is this Andreas Divus and why is he here? Pound’s translation is actually from a Latin version done by Andreas Divus in 1538 and it contained, in addition to the Odyssey, several of the Homeric hymns translated by Dartona. The last few lines of Pound’s canto draw on these Homeric hymns. You may well ask—why work from an obscure Latin translation? Why not go straight to the Greek original? Why the additional hymn material?

Pound had what we might call a pedagogical imperative; he aimed more broadly to create the conditions for an American renaissance of art and thought. In 1915 he wrote that “The first step of a renaissance, or awakening, is the importation of models for painting, sculpture or writing” (LE 214). By working from the Andreas Divus translation Pound illustrates a process of cultural and linguistic transmission. Just as the culture of the sixteenth century reached back through medieval Latin to its Greek roots, Pound reaches through his renaissance models, enlivening his own language in the process. In ordering Divus to lie still, the poet has made this figure as alive as Tiresias and as full of knowledge. Just as Tiresias can only speak Odysseus’ future, a future which is at the same time the reader’s past, after a blood sacrifice, so Divus’ prophecy is essentially a poetic one; it requires not literal blood sacrifice but the work of translation, doing homage through a reinvigoration of the language of modern poetry.
Pound came to have the Divus translation in an accidental way; his incorporation of the text makes of it a found object, in an almost Duchampian sense. Around 1910, standing before a bookstall in Paris, Pound had just enough money in his pocket to buy one of two Renaissance editions of Homer he found there, either the Iliad or the Odyssey. Like his friend and contemporary, Joyce, Pound chose the Odyssey, drawn in part by the sense of detailed specificity in the narrative movement and what he called the “melodic invention” (ABC 43) of the language. Pound noted that “the sheer literary qualities in Homer are such that a physician has written a book to prove that Homer must have been an army doctor. (When he describes certain blows and their effect, the wounds are said to be accurate, and the description fit for coroner’s inquest.) Another French scholar has more or less shown that the geography of the Odyssey is correct geography; not as you would find it if you had a geography book and a map, but as it would be in a ‘periplum,’ that is, as a coasting sailor would find it. The news in the Odyssey is still news” (ABC 43-44). This freshness of the Odyssey is unmistakably important for Pound and he believed that any translation must capture that freshness.

As I’ll explain further in a moment, Pound also believed that the descent to the underworld was the oldest part of the Odyssey so he created another sign of the grafting process by invoking the oldest part of the English language, Anglo-Saxon.

You may initially be struck by the archaisms rather than the freshness of Pound’s language so it may help you to know a little about how he invokes this sense of an originating linguistic moment. Roughly and simply, Anglo-Saxon uses an accentual meter and heavy alliteration, especially across the half-lines. Typically there are four strongly accented words in an Anglo-Saxon poem with an undetermined number of unaccented syllables in between. In addition, each line tended to break strongly at the mid-point, the two halves joined by alliteration. Alliteration is the repetition of the same sound at the beginning of words or in stressed syllables. Such repetition provides aural focal points that work almost like the formulaic repetitions of phrases in the Greek oral tradition. Before I read, let me look briefly with you at the sound of a few lines, bearing in mind that Pound’s adaptations are loose and that he employs other sounds repetition such as consonance and assonance to create a complex aural web. The first sentence fills the first seven lines:

And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and
We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,
Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also
Heavy with weeping, and winds from sternward
Bore us out onward with bellying canvas,
Circe’s this craft, the trim-coifed goddess.

As I’ve noted before, the poem is already in motion before it ever begins, coming midway in some action, “And then went down.” The first sounds are not alliteration but a tight consonance on the “n”s in “and then went down.” Line two is strongly divided in a typical Anglo-Saxon fashion though it’s not typically alliterated. I’m struck by the consonance of “keel” and “breakers,” and “set,” “breakers” and “sea” as well as by the “and” Pound sneaks in at the end of the line, catching the line as it is about to drop—wouldn’t most of us have concluded the line after “sea”?-- and pushing it on to the next action. Indeed the “and” seems not merely a conjunction in the usual sense but the axis that turns us from the initiating moment of the voyage to its central action. To leave Circe’s island, and the forgetfulness of home it entails, is necessarily to be pointed towards home, even if the homeward voyage requires a stop in another place of forgetting, the underworld. We feel these next lines gather movement, fully imbued with the bittersweetness of memory and forgetting: Listen to the modulation from “s” to “b” to “w” to “c” and listen to the way each line is counterpointed by other undercurrents of sound repetition. “We set up mast and sail on that swart ship, / Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also / Heavy with weeping, and winds from sternward / Bore us out onward with bellying canvas, / Circe’s this craft, the trim-coifed goddess.”

In an essay on early translations of Homer, written in 1918-1919, Pound wrote that there are two qualities of Homer that cannot be translated: first, his onomatopoeia, that is, the imitation of sound associated with objects; and second, “the authentic cadence of his speech.” However, Pound argues that the “quality of actual speaking is not untranslatable” (LE 250). I will leave to you to determine whether Pound’s complex layering of speech rhythms, welded into a design that leaves the very process of grafting open to the ear, partakes of the quality of actual speaking. Remember this may not be your actual speech but in what ways might it be the actual speech of a modern Odysseus?

Canto I
And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and
We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,
Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also
Heavy with weeping, and the winds from sternward
Bore us out onward with bellying canvas,
Circe’s this craft, the trim-coifed goddess.
Then sat we amidships, wind jamming the tiller,
Thus with stretched sail, we went over sea till day’s end.
Sun to his slumber, shadows o’er all the ocean,
Came we then to the bounds of deepest water,
To the Kimmerian lands, and peopled cities
Covered with close-webbed mist, unpiercéd ever
With glitter of sun-rays
Nor with stars stretched, nor looking back from heaven
Swartest night stretched over wretched men there.
The ocean flowing backward, came we then to the place
Aforesaid by Circe.
Here did they rites, Perimedes and Eurylóchus,
And drawing sword from my hip
I dug the ell-square pitkin;
Poured we libations unto each the dead,
First mead and then sweet wine, water mixed with white flour.
Then prayed I many a prayer to the sickly death’s-heads;
As set in Ithaca, sterile bulls of the best
For sacrifice, heaping the pyre with goods,
A sheep to Tiresias only, black and a bell-sheep.
Dark blood flowed in the fosse,
Souls out of Erebus, cadaverous dead, of brides
Of youths and of the old who had borne much;
Souls stained with recent tears, girls tender,
Men many, mauled with bronze lance heads,
Battle spoil, bearing yet dreory arms,
These many crowded about me; with shouting,
Pallor upon me, cried to my men for more beasts;
Slaughtered the herds, sheep slain of bronze;
Poured ointment, cried to the gods,
To Pluto the strong, and praised Prosperine;
Unsheathed the narrow sword,
I sat to keep off the impetuous impotent dead,
Till I should hear Tiresias.
But first Elpenor came, our friend Elpenor,
Unburied, cast on the wide earth,
Limbs that we left in the house of Circe,
Unwept, unwrapped in sepulchre, since toils urged other.
Pitiful spirit. And I cried in hurried speech:
“ Elpenor, how art thou come to this dark coast?
“ Cam’st thou afoot, outstripping seamen?”
And he in heavy speech:
“ Ill fate and abundant wine. I slept in Circe’s ingle.
“ Going down the long ladder unguarded,
“ I fell against the buttress,
“ Shattered the nape-nerve, the soul sought Avernus.
“ But thou, O King, I bid remember me, unwept, unburied,
“ Heap up mine arms, be tomb by sea-bord, and inscribed:
“ A man of no fortune, and with a name to come.
“ And set my oar up, that I swung mid fellows.”
And Anticlea came, whom I beat off, and then Tiresias Theban,
Holding his golden wand, knew me, and spoke first:
“ A second time? Why? man of ill star,
“ Facing the sunless dead and this joyless region?
“ Stand from the fosse, leave me my bloody bever
“ For soothsay.”
And I stepped back,
And he strong with the blood, said then: “Odysseus
“ Shalt return through spiteful Neptune, over dark seas,
“ Lose all companions.” And then Anticlea came.
Lie quiet Divus. I mean, that is Andreas Divus,
In officina Wecheli, 1538, out of Homer.
And he sailed, by Sirens and thence outward and away
And unto Circe.
In the Cretan’s phrase, with the golden crown, Aphrodite,
Cypri munimenta sortita est, mirthful, orichalchi, with golden
Girdles and breast bands, thou with dark eyelids
Bearing the golden bough of Argicida. So that:

Pound was drawn to book eleven for two fundamental reasons: first, his belief that it represented the oldest, most ancient material in Homer, capable of putting us in touch with the sensibilities of the earliest Mediterranean civilizations (see Letters 274); second, that the rites represented here, the descent and return from hell, perform the rituals of the earth, of disintegration and renewal. Classicists today probably would not agree with the idea that the nekyia episode, the underworld story, is the oldest part of the Odyssey; however, Pound derived his ideas from then well accepted ideas that came primarily from some of the Cambridge anthropologists such as Jane Harrison and James Thomson (Bush 126 ff). Harrison, for instance, connected the nekyia, especially the blood sacrifice to Tiresias, to ritual ghost raising that was practiced at hero’s tombs. The bloodletting that Odysseus practices here is a twofold act that at one and the same time affirms the participants’ connection to the Olympian gods and exorcises the below earth, chthonic gods. Thus in leaving off most of the long catalogue of shades whom Odysseus meets, Pound instead focuses our attention on certain archetypal recurrences, on the one hand, most primitive and on the other, essential for the modern individual who would be called back to these lost ideas, renewed in the face of modern experience. In this light, it is important to realize that Odysseus is not a blameless hero but one in need of purification in order that the ghosts would speak. The lines with which Pound begins his Canto 1 immediately affirm these overtones of necessary sacrifice through their connection with one of his most beloved and often quoted texts, Dante’s Divine Comedy. When Dante treats of Odysseus in book 26 of the Inferno, he writes: “When I parted from Circe, who held me more than a year . . . I put forth on the open deep with but one ship and with that company which had not deserted me” (Bush 133). This is an Odysseus whom Pound later characterizes as sailing “after knowledge / Knowing less than the drugged beasts” (Canto 47). Dante, and Pound with him, sees that Odysseus, for all his cunning sophistication, has not put his will in order and dangerously sacrifices his men for his own glory.

One of the ways Pound signals the continual wandering and error that his Odysseus must endure as the price of his lack of knowledge is signaled by the curious closing lines of the poem that I earlier began to discuss in relation to Andreas Divus. The Homeric hymn lines that close the poem were translated into Latin by Georgius Dartona and were included in the same book along with Divus’s Odyssey. Though the presence of these lines here seems accidental at one level, in another way their juxtaposition allows for a different understanding of knowledge and death than the Homeric lines alone would. In an article that first year students will shortly read by Jean-Pierre Vernant, entitled “Feminine Figures of Death in Greece,” he discusses the several different images of death used by the Greeks. One kind of death, Thanatos, a masculine figure, is not to be feared at all. Thanatos does not kill but receives the dead, often taking the form of the warrior, connecting him to the most glorious form of death in Homeric society, the so-called beautiful death that comes as a result of heroic action in battle. Such a death allows the warrior to live on in memory through the song of the epic.
The fearful and terrorizing side of death, one that is unspeakably and unthinkably horrible, comes in the face of several feminine forms, notably Gorgo and Ker. Far from immortalizing the hero, these forms of death transform the warrior into a rotting body that cannot be sung about or celebrated. As Vernant points out, in Hesiod’s Theogony, which freshmen will read immediately after the Iliad, the account of the gods is ordered such that the birth of Aphrodite, or Venus, immediately precedes the birth of Night’s children who are the various forms of death. Hence, Aphrodite and Ker or Thanatos take their place in the world order nearly simultaneously. Love or Desire and Death are shaped hand in hand. This partnership, one might almost say complicity, between the two is especially apparent in texts and vase paintings that show a relationship between martial combat and the erotic embrace. We still today use images of being undone by love. Greeks used the term “pothos” to describe the kind of desire that leads to undoing or death. Vernant writes: “Pothos is the desire for what is absent, a desire that is a suffering because it cannot be fulfilled; it is regret, nostalgia” (Vernant 101). Significantly, the term “pothos” belongs not only to the vocabulary of love but also to the vocabulary of mourning. Having “pothos” for the dead means that one tries continually to remember the dead, to be haunted by them. “By a long effort of evocation,” Vernant says, “they make him present, but only at the moment in which they see him before them in the form of his double, his eidolon [or image]” (Vernant 101).

The appearance of Aphrodite in the closing lines of the Canto partakes of just this doubleness of desire and death. She was in the first place a goddess who supported the Trojans against the Greeks so she is a death-bringer in Odysseus’ war context. But she is also clearly treated here with the honor that befits the seductive beauty suggested by her golden crown, and the images of lines 74 and 75, “Cypri munimenta sortita est, mirthful, orichalchi, with golden / Girdles and breast bands, thou with dark eyelids.” The first phrase means “held sway over the Cyprian heights,” while “orichalchi” refers to her copper earrings and eyes. “Venerandam,” in line 72, means “worthy of worship,” suggesting not only her divine status but the commanding nature of her beauty and love.

The doubleness of the figure of Aphrodite, as both bringer of death and bringer of love, is closely connected to the notion of eidolon. In the funeral context, the making of the eidolon, an image or double, at once restores the dead, makes him speak and irretrievably marks his absence. Pound’s canto is filled with conjured eidolons. Tiresias, Elpenor, Anticleia, are all summoned through the blood sacrifice, substituting the death of the sheep in order to revive and bring to speech the hidden shades. Significantly, Elpenor worries precisely over the fact that because he has not been buried, greeted in funeral form and sung everlastingly in epic, he is irretrievably lost, not only physically but in men’s memory. The appearance of Aphrodite at the end of this poem seems to be both the appearance of an unexpected muse (and she continues her appearance in other cantos), inspring in her calm beauty, but also as one whose beauty may make the one who gazes invisible as death makes one invisible. For the poet who has offered the ghosts his own translation as the image, the double, will the act of translation be a covering, a hiding , even a forgetting of the beloved text, in effect a death? Or has the speech act of translation in fact brought out the dead, made them speak as if living? The canto in effect poses this question but finally does not answer it and the complexity of the poet’s relationship to the past and to beauty continue to mark his wandering and his errors. The last words of the canto, “So that:” are nearly as mysterious as the beginning “and”; they point forward to possiblity and at the same time seem to deictically point to the present instance, the poem that has just preceded, as a kind of test case or example. In the larger Cantos, Pound does not return to his “so that” until the beginning of Canto 17. There, after yet another voyage through a modern hell, the poet-wanderer, emerges into a Dionysian terrestrial paradise, teeming with vitality and transformation: “So that the vines burst from my fingers.” Indeed, Pound would go on testing, ever at pains to make it new. For those students who begin their voyage here today I urge you to seek the kind of real education Pound spoke of and gave us in his work , one that INSISTS on knowing.
To all of you I say, “so that:”

Bush, Ronald. The Genesis of Ezra Pound’s Cantos. Princeton: Princeton U P, 1976.
Froula, Christine. To Write Paradise: Style and Error in Pound’s Cantos. New Haven: Yale U P, 1984.
Pound, Ezra. The ABC of Reading. New York: New Directions, 1960.
_____. The Cantos. New York: New Directions, 1972.
_____. Selected Letters of Ezra Pound, 1907-1941. Ed. D. D. Paige. 1950; rpt. New York: New Directions, 1971.
_____. Literary Essays. Ed. T. S. Eliot. New York: New Directions, 1968.
Vernant, Jean-Pierre. “Feminine Figures of Death in Greece.”

Hum 110 | Reed Classics | Reed Library | Reed | Perseus