Beside the tumbling sea December 8, 2008Posted by Jenny in Ancient Greece, classical studies, Homer, literature.
Tags: Homer, Iliad, Trojan War
This post follows from my earlier one, Wild animals of the Iliad.
The Trojan War had already been going on for ten years, with its ebbings and flowings, its brutal assaults and exhausted retreats, its whimsical interventions by meddlesome gods, when arrogant Agamemnon provoked the wrath of Achilles. And so the Iliad begins its story:
“Anger be now your song, immortal one,
Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous,
that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss
and crowded brave souls into the undergloom…”
And so came dark days for the Greeks. This episode of the war was triggered by the capture of a girl who was claimed as booty by Agamemnon. Her father, an elderly priest named Kryseis, came down to the Greek ships carrying ransom for his daughter, saying, “O captains / Menelaos and Agamemnon, and you other /Akhaians under arms! / The gods who hold Olympos, may they grant you / plunder of Priam’s town and a fair wind home, / but let me have my daughter back for ransom / as you revere Apollo, son of Zeus!” And Agamemnon’s comrades said to him, “Behave well to the priest. Take the ransom!”
But Agamemnon harshly orders the priest away: “Let me not find you here by the long ships / loitering this time or returning later, / old man; if I do, / the staff and ribbons of the god will fail you. / Give up the girl? I swear she will grow old / at home in Argos, far from her own country, / working my loom and visiting my bed.”
And the priest turns and walks away. “…The old man feared and obeyed him, / in silence trailing away / by the shore of the tumbling clamorous whispering sea…”
In those three words—“tumbling clamorous whispering”—the minds of the poet and the translator have perfectly fused. The Greek is all in a galloping three-beat rhythm, while the English has gone from two beats to three beats just for those words, just so that we can see the waves tumbling on the shore. Since they are waves created by Homer, they carry one of his epithets, “poluphloisboio,” translated flatly in the Greek-English lexicon as “loud-roaring,” translated by Robert Fitzgerald as “clamorous.” The “tumbling” comes from “para thina,” which means “the heaping of sand on the beach.” The waves tumble, then whisper with the hiss of the foam as the water slides back.
And so the grieving priest walks back beside those living, murmuring waves, and the gods hear his words, and they become angry. And when Phoibos Apollo gets angry, terrible things are about to happen to mortals….