Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Notes on Homer

Homer's The Odyssey


By Book 17 of The Odyssey, Odysseus has finally returned to Ithaca after ten years at war and ten more years in slow return due to Poseidon's wrath.  He has appeared in disguise as an aged beggar (through the aid of Athena) and has been welcomed by his loyal swinherd, Emaeus.  This aspect of the plot may seem strange as Odysseus appears somewhat cold and calculating. Why doesn't he embrace his son and wife, overcome by emotion, after not seeing them for so many years? Odysseus has been shown to be wily and crafty many times in the epic, and his indirect approach is in keeping with this aspect of his character. Also, the text makes reference several times to Agamemnon and his troubles. As Homer's audience would have known, Agamemnon comes home to a wife who has taken up a lover and stealthily kills him. Things change as time passes, and after 20 years, Odysseus can't be too careful. 
One morning as he is out walking with Emaeus the following touching scene occurs:

"Now, as they talked on, a dog that lay there
lifted up his muzzle, pricked his ears . . .
It was Argos, long-enduring Odysseus' dog, 
he trained as a puppy once, but little joy he got
since all too soon he shipped to sacred Troy.
In the old days young hunters loved to set him
coursing after the wild goats and deer and hares.
But now with his master gone he lay there, castaway,
on piles of dung from mules and cattle, heaps collecting
out before the gates till Odysseus' serving-men
could cart it off to manure th eking's estates.
Infested with ticks, half-dead from neglect, 
here lay the hound, old Argos.
But the moment he sensed Odysseus standing by
he thumped his tail, nuzzling low, and his ears dropped, 
though he had no strength to drag himself an inch
toward his master. Odysseus glanced to the side
and flicked away a tear. Hiding it from Eumaeus,
diverting his friend in a hasty, offhand way:
'Strange, Eumaeus, look, a dog like this,
lying here on a ding-hill . . .
what handsome lines!'" 

[as the conversation continues they leave]

"With that he entered the well-constructed palace,
strode through the halls and joined the proud suitors.
But the dark shadow of death closed down on Argos' eyes
the instant he saw Odysseus, twenty years away."

The Odyssey of Homer, trans. by Robert Fagles, Penguin Classics, 1996. pp 363-64, lines 317-360.


Kathy's Corner said...

Hi James, thanks for this post on Homer. I've never read him or I am ashamed to say any of the ancient classic poems and plays. Fear keeps me away, that the translation will be hard to decipher. I know I am missing out though, particularly with Homer because literature pretty much begins with him but as with all great works it can sometimes take a little effort and perseverance but its worth it.

Brian Joseph said...

This is indeed a powerful and meaningful part of the epic. It has also has had such a big impact upon homecoming storytelling for a very long time. The passages involving Argos always moved me.

James said...

Thanks for your comment. The translation by Robert Fagles that I am using for my current reading is quite accessible with beautiful poetry. I would highly recommend it. While the central figure is Odysseus, there is also the coming of age tale of his son, Telemachus, and the story of his wife, the beautiful Penelope who is both patient and wise.

James said...

I am not a dog owner, but I can appreciate the bond that can develop between a boy and his dog. Homer makes clear how important this is when Argos is the first to recognize Odysseus in spite of his disguise. Fagles' translation helps make this moment memorable.

RT said...

"ding hill"? Hmmmm. Well, I'm long overdue for a Homeric excursion. I do prefer Odyssey over Iliad. I would wager I'm not alone. At any rate, thanks for reminding me that Homer and I ought to get together again.

Cleanthess said...

It's a little known fact that Homer lived on for thousands of years under many names, including Joseph Cartaphilus and Argos. A certain blind Argentinian librarian once recorded the following exchange with The Immortal Homer:

Argos stammered these words: "Argos, Ulysses' dog." And then, also without looking at me: "This dog lying in the manure". We accept reality easily, perhaps because we intuit that nothing is real. I asked him what he knew of the Odyssey. The exercise of Greek was painful for him; I had to repeat the question.
"Very little," he said. "Less than the poorest rhapsodist. It must be a thousand and one hundred years since I invented it."

James said...

Thanks for your comment - I'm delighted to have spurred you to renew your interest in Homer.

James said...

Thanks for sharing the quote from the bind Argentinian. He is also a favorite of mine. Thousands of years have gone by and the stories of Odysseus, his wife, his son, and even his dog retain a cultural interest for those who cherish the spirit of humanity.