19 March 2012

Robert Fitzgerald on Homer

It's easy for me to get caught up in the 'classicism' of Homer: I mean the questions about the oral-formulaic theory, the role of Homer as paidagogue of ancient Greece, the tradition of allegorical interpretation of the Homeric texts, and questions of that ilk. Recently, however, I was reading the story of the Odyssey (from Mary Pope Osborne's Tales from the Odyssey) to a group of third-graders (students approximately 9 years old, for those of you not familiar with the US system). There is nothing quite like such an experience for highlighting in one's mind more basic questions, like the geography of Ithaca, or the logistics of various key scenes. I became quite confused, for instance, in trying to explain and draw a picture of the bow-stringing contest in Book 21. Exactly how were the axes set up? And what part of the axes was the arrow supposed to pass through?

Enter Robert Fitzgerald. Although I was familiar with his name as a translator of the classical epics, I didn't really become interested in Fitzgerald until last summer, when I finally began studying Flannery O'Connor (I read the complete short stories--one a day--as well as some of the letters, a lecture on the Catholic writer in the South, and part of Ralph Woods's book on her). At that time, I was surprised to learn that she had lived with the Fitzgeralds at their rustic house in Connecticut for two years and been a godmother to their children. Brad Gooch's biography describes their relationship as being quite intimate:

Because of the prevailing familial tone--O'Conner dubbed the Fitzgeralds 'my adopted kin'--Robert was one of the only people she ever spoke with about her father's death; his father, too, had died when he was fifteen, and the loss had been equally devastating. 'Perhaps this ménage a trois plus provided her with an easier and freer family life,' Sally Fitzgerald surmised. [1]

Gooch also has a nice description of typical evenings with the Fitzgeralds during O'Connor's residence there:

When Fitzgerald returned from teaching, and the children were tucked into bed, the three adults re-created some of the mood of Yaddo [the writers' home in NY] by mixing a pitcher of martinis, sharing a meal, gossiping--Mary McCarthy and Randall Jarrell taught at Sarah Lawrence [the college where Robert taught], and were vital sources--and discussing books. The Fitzgeralds outdid even Flannery in the piety of their lengthy Benedictine grace, recited in Latin, as she ruefully recalled, 'while the dinner got cold'. They circulated among themselves volumes by Catholic writers--Lord Acton, John Henry Newman, a history of the Reformation by Father Philip Hughes. . . . 'They were our movies, our concerts, and our theatre,' wrote Robert Fitzgerald of these talks that often went on until midnight. [2]

At any rate, all of this was enough to get me interested in Fitzgerald, not merely as a translator, but as a man, and therefore, as a critic. I duly developed an ever-increasing craving for a copy of his Odyssey translation, first and foremost so that I could read his own postscript to it, a craving finally sated last week. As I anxiously opened the volume to the postscript, expecting to be immediately treated to deep thoughts on Homer's cultural significance and the virtues of this paradoxical story of travel and domesticity, I was surprised to find, first, the geography of Ithaca painstakingly discussed, and second, the question of the bow-stringing contest! Fitzgerald asks, 'How precisely are we to visualize the contest with Odysseus' hunting bow, announced by Penelope in Book XIX and carried out in Book XXI?...The Greek is ambiguous or sketchy.' [3]

I told the 3rd-graders that I supposed the axes had some kind of ring on them, but I couldn't begin to figure out how they would have been set up. Well, first of all, Fitzgerald points out, 'When we say "axe" we mean axehead and helve together. But it seems more likely that the word πέλεκυς to Penelope [when she describes the contest] meant "axehead" alone. In Book V when Kalypso gives Odysseus a πέλεκυς for cutting timber, she must complete the gift with a στειλειόν, or helve of olive wood (line 236).' Well then Fitzgerald goes on to point out, 'When Odysseus finally makes his prize-winning shot in XXI, 420 sqq., we hear that..."he didn't miss the πρώτης στειλειῆς of all the axeheads, ​and the arrow went clean through and out".' [4] Obviously, the word στειλειή is of a different gender to στειλειόν (feminine rather than neuter), and Fitzgerald tells us:

Professor Stanford thinks, and with excellent reason, that the difference in gender may be significant. He agrees with the twelfth century Archbishop of Thessaloniki, [Saint] Eustathius, that the feminine form, steileie, meant 'socket' as steileion meant 'helve'. What Homer intended to say was very simple: that Odysseus didn't miss the bull's eye, the first socket hole in the line of twelve. [5]

So, he's shooting through the socket holes on the axeheads! But how then are the axeheads set up? Fitzgerald translates XXI, 120 sqq., about Telemachus, as: 'first he set up the axeheads, after digging a trench through for all, a single trench, a long one, and he trued [it or them] to the line, and he pressed earth on both sides.' Obviously, to plant the axeheads in the trench would make it difficult to shoot in a line level with the sockets, but Fitzgerald argues that they weren't planted in the trench, but in the loose earth removed to make the trench. He points at that the 'verb νάσσω that appears here in the aorist active,... "pressed", had the sense "be piled" in the passive in later Greek. The very point of digging a trench could have been to supply enough earth for this purpose;....' [6] So Telemachus made a long mound of dirt, embedded one end of the axeheads in the mound, and 'trued them to the line', i.e., lined them up in a row using a stretched cord. Fitzgerald admits, 'It is a good deal to read into these lines, but I am willing to risk it because I see nothing else for it.' Finally, he asks:

One more question: if set up in this way, could the axeheads have been high enough for the bowshot from the door? Odysseus made the bowshot while seated on his stool. He held the bow horizontally in the usual ancient style. If he shot from the hip just above knee level in a flat trajectory, the axeheads as I seem them could have been at the right height. [7]

So Robert Fitzgerald has painstakingly worked out this problem that I tried unsuccessfully to explain to a group of 3rd-graders.

One last thing, while we're on the subject of the Odyssey. In his introduction to Homer, Barry Powell quotes Bk 9.5-11 as testimony to the rôle of the aoidos, 'analogous to religious leaders in other ancient societies', [8] in Homeric times. Fitzgerald renders the passage as follows:

There is no boon in life more sweet, I say,
than when a summer joy holds all the realm,
and banqueters sit listening to a harper
in a great hall, by rows of tables heaped
with bread and roast meat, while a steward goes
to dip up wine and brim your cups again.
Here is the flower of life, it seems to me! [9]

Well, Powell's analogy with 'religious leaders' reminded me strongly of John Senior's reference to this passage in his stirring The Restoration of Christian Culture:

Such a banquet in the Odyssey is in the secular order the pale reflection of an evening meal in the religious order here [at the Benedictine monastery of Fontgombault], which is not something like, but the perfection of life itself. It may be all the great events of our lives and of history--good and bad--take place at feasts. [10]

[1] Brad Gooch, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor (NY: Little, Brown & Co., 2009), p. 181.

[2] Ibid., p. 181.

​[3] Robert Fitzgerald, tr., The Odyssey, by Homer, (NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998), p. 475.

[4] Ibid., p. 476.

[5] Ibid., pp. 476-7.

[6] Ibid., p. 477.

[7] Ibid., p. 478.

[8] Barry M. Powell, Homer, Blackwell Introductions to the Classical World (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004), p. 28.

[9] Fitzgerald, p. 145

[10] John Senior, The Restoration of Christian Culture (Norfolk, VA: IHS, 2008), p. 102.​


Garrett said...

Interesting! I just picked up Fitzgerald's Aeneid a few days ago, but I was aware of neither his Greek translations nor his relationship with O'Connor. I have yet to read the postscript in the 'Aeneid,' but I very much look forward to it if it contains anything as enlightening as the explanation of the bow-stringing contest (something that slightly troubled me a long time ago but had since been expelled from my mind).

Have you explored Flannery's novels? They can't compete with the stories, of course, but both are quite impressive in their own right.

aaronandbrighid said...

Thanks for the comment, my friend! This response is the last thing I'm doing before shutting down for the night. I actually haven't read Fitzgerald's postscript to the Aeneid. I should make it a point to do that! Nor have I read Flannery's novels. Likely another summertime project. O'Connor makes good reading for a shady porch in June and July. Btw, although I can't name all of Fitzgerald's classical translations, I know that he also did Sophocles. Apparently, it inspired a self-inflicted blinding in Wise Blood.

James the Thickheaded said...

Read Fitzgerals's translations in college with a Greek Prof in the Classics Dept in college who made the text come alive. Small class (under 10) as I recall, and the Prof so loved the text, I can still remember his face, his voice, and the beauty and warmth conveyed - especially the scene with Penelope where she recognizes him... just barely... by reference to the tree-bed. Good luck with your class!

Kyle said...

Great post! I've found Fitzgerald's translation to the Aeneid to be my favorite. I had no idea about his connection to O'Connor, however.

aaronandbrighid said...

James> I just pray that I'm able to approach that in my teaching. Thank you.

Kyle> Glad you enjoyed the post. I quite liked Fitzgerald's Aeneid myself. I compared it somewhat with Humphries and pretty well preferred the Fitz.