What are your favorite poems?

What are your favorite poems? Is an epic poem too long to count as an answer to this question?

I hope not — but I’ll play it safe and split the difference. My favorite pair of poems are… drumroll, please… Homer’s epic The Odyssey and a related more-or-less modern follow-up, Tennyson’s “Ulysses.”

The mystery is why so many of my Weston students dislike The Odyssey. My guess is that they may have been too young when they read it: perhaps you can’t truly appreciate it as a ninth-grader. Of course I’m looking at it through my own lens, as it wasn’t until eleventh grade that I read the entire poem in English and large parts in the original Greek, more or less simultaneously. If you want to get a more adult view of The Odyssey than you would have in ninth grade, I recommend (with reservations) Peter Gainsford, the Kiwi Hellenist, a New Zealand scholar of Greek (as you probably already guessed from his chosen nickname). Each of his video lectures clearly explains one or more themes in some portion of The Odyssey. For example, the third lecture discusses hospitality, and the fifth talks about the Odysseus’s wanderings, two themes that you probably remember from your own reading of the epic. You may wonder why I recommend this series “with reservations.” It’s because of presentation, not content: Gainsford is very much a university professor, not a video producer, so his lectures are on the dry side without much in the way of production values. In these days, when we’re doing everything over Zoom, you can appreciate the difficulties he might have in holding viewers’ attention, but be generous and give him your full attention anyway. The content is great.

The image above, in case you haven’t figured it out, is of the opening ten lines of The Odyssey in the original Greek. Even though you may know no Greek, you can still probably make correct guesses about two of the words in the first two lines, based solely on capitalization and your knowledge of certain Greek letters from math and physics: the fourth word in the first line means “Muse,” and the third word in the second line means “Troy.” There, that wasn’t too hard, was it? You may even be able to guess that the third word in the third line has something to do with human beings.

Anyway, enough of that. Go back and reread The Odyssey in a good modern translation. A lot of different ones are available. You’ll appreciate it more, now that you’re an adult.

So what about my second choice, Tennyson’s “Ulysses”? As you know, Homer takes Odysseus through his multi-year wanderings from Troy back to Ithaca (no, not that Ithaca, although the name is not a coincidence). Tennyson picks up many years later, when Odysseus is restless and bored, being stuck at home when he’s yearning to go out. (Does that sound familiar? Was there a pandemic at the time? Not that I know of, but can you imagine Odysseus as a right-winger demanding his “rights” and his “freedom”? Perhaps you can.) Tennyson’s poem is fairly short, a mere 70 lines, so you can just click on the link and read it right now. Here are the the first four lines, just to whet your appetite:

It little profits that an idle king,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

Categories: Books, Linguistics, Travel, Weston