14 January 2009

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 winds from sternward
Bore us out onward with bellying canvas,
Circe's this craft, the trim-coiffed goddess.

This is how the Cantos begin. Isn't it brilliant? The sense of a beginning quite literally portrayed in the images of setting forth on a sea voyage, although starting with "And" - already in the middle of something. The language is simple, almost monosyllabic, but rich with internal assonance and alliteration reminiscent of middle-English verse. Unembarrassed repetition of "and". And then the reference to Circe takes us into Greek mythology.

The journey takes "us" to "Kimmerian lands". May need to come back to what they are. There are sacrifices made and prayers offered, apparently in appeasement of the dead, who demand more and more animal offerings.

Then "But first Elpenor came, our friend Elpenor." He is described in Wikipedia as a good friend of Odysseus, so it's clear that this is an episode from the Odyssey - as other commentators note. This means the narrative "we" is the voice of Odysseus. The Wikipedia entry gives the story. Elpenor is dead and asks Odysseus to give him a burial. It's not clear (to me) if the incident in this canto is immediately after the death of Elpenor or later, when Odysseus returned.

Odysseus then encounters Anticlea and Tiresias. Tiresias seems to be predicting future wanderings and travails:
Shalt return through spiteful Neptune, over dark seas,
Lose all companions.

(One thing I know about Homer is that the sea is often described as "wine-dark".)

And then suddenly these lines:
Lie quiet Divus. I mean, that is Andreas Divus,
In officina Wecheli, 1538, out of Homer.

So we're moving into a renaissance timeframe, and the language moves into 3rd person:
And he sailed, by Sirens and thence outward and away
And unto Circe.

And the canto ends with an even more impenetrable four lines, in which the word "golden" appears three times, and the final words of the final line are "So that:"

The canto ends as it began, mid-sentence.

What can we make of it? We seem to be in the middle of a retelling of the Odyssey, but we're moving into an examination of the process of retelling, of translation, perhaps. We've had enough of the story (which I've not recounted) to make it interesting as a pure narrative: there's been a vigorous start, a conflict and (I think) a prophecy.

1 comment:

emigrant said...

what exactly is trim-coifed?
(I am trying to transalate this to amother language)