Brooke Clark's Foolproof Four-Step Method for Learning Homeric Greek
I REMEMBER PRECISELY when it occurred to me that I should think about trying to learn ancient Greek. I was in my last year as an undergraduate, and I was reading Chapter 6 of ABC of Reading, where Pound discusses a reading program for those who know only English:
I don’t know how they can get an idea of Greek. There are no satisfactory English translations.
A Latin crib can do a good deal. If you read French you can get the STORY of the Iliads and of the beginning of the Odyssey from Salel and Jamyn, or rather you could if their books weren’t out of print. (I know of no edition more recent than 1590.) Chapman is something different. See my notes on the Elizabethan translators.
A couple of years before I read that, I came to the realization that the English writers I most admired (mainly the poets of the 17th and 18th centuries) had, in their turn, most admired Latin and Greek authors. This was expressed monumentally in Dryden’s translations of Virgil and Pope’s Iliad, and on a smaller scale in the simple fact that pretty much every English poet, at one time or another, took a crack at an ode of Horace, an elegy of Ovid, a satire of Juvenal, or, at the very least, a couple of epigrams of Martial. But more subtly, the classics were simply there; it was unspoken but understood, right up until the time of Pound and Eliot, that Greek and Latin were the foundation of any understanding of Western literature.
Fantasies of self-education being one of my besetting sins, I made my way through various translations of Homer, Virgil, Horace, Ovid and Catullus, among others. I learned something about the contents of classical literature, no doubt, but I was left feeling—though it seemed like sacrilege to admit it even to myself—unimpressed.
That little paragraph by Pound clarified the problem. When you translate poetry, what you’re really translating is the narrative, or the content of the poem (“the STORY”). What is lost is the very quality I was seeking, the quality that made classical literature endure through the ages and brought so many authors to their admiration of Latin and Greek: the poetry.
The realization came too late. I was just finishing a degree in English, and I couldn’t go back and start again in Classics 101. At my first job after I left school, however, I met two émigrés—or perhaps I should say refusés—from university classics departments, who agreed to tutor me in Latin, as a first step towards Homer.
One taught me the grammar, the other introduced me to the poetry, and about a year later I was reading Catullus, and then Horace, and then Virgil.
When I got through Virgil and was ready for Greek I was on my own, but I can explain how I went from Virgil to Homer quite simply: Clyde Pharr. Pharr is the editor of the almost unbelievably reader-friendly edition of Aeneid 1-6, and even better, he is the author of the aptly titled Homeric Greek: A Book for Beginners, which uses the first book of the Iliad to teach you to read Homer’s Greek from scratch. This makes him the author of two of the most useful books for self-taught readers of Latin and Greek that I have encountered, and I hope that, if I ever meet his ghost somewhere, I will have the courage to emulate Odysseus meeting his mother’s spirit in the Underworld, and hug him.
After Pharr I went on to Selections from Homer’s Iliad, by Allen Rogers Benner, another excellent book originally aimed at students but ideal for self-taught readers. These books must have seemed, at the time they were first published (in 1918 and 1903), part of the ongoing flourishing of classical learning in America, designed to help students master the Homeric language and experience Homeric poetry. (Benner’s preface begins, “This edition of the Iliad includes the books commonly required for admission to American colleges,” which is either hilarious or heartbreaking, depending on whether you take a comic or tragic view of life.) That world is long gone, and in retrospect it’s clear that these books were among the final products of a centuries-old tradition about to enter its death agony.
And yet the books remain, and remain in print. If you want to learn Greek, the means are there.
WHAT DO YOU get from reading Homer in Greek? As a start, you get what no translation can offer you: the thing itself. Writing in general, and poetry in particular, is, at its most basic level, a matter of word choice. It’s impossible to say you truly know a work that you have read only in translation because you don’t know the actual words that the author chose to write.
The question of the “authorship” of the poems ascribed to Homer is, admittedly, a vexed one. But regardless of that, when you read Homer in Greek, you are reading the same words that were read by Plato and Aristotle, by Virgil and Horace, words that inspired Milton and Byron and Whitman, and also words that have been discovered by innumerable anonymous readers and students. Simply by engaging with the actual words of the Iliad or the Odyssey, you are taking your place in a tradition of readership that stretches back more than two thousand years.
You also get a more profound understanding of what makes these poems great. Anyone who has read even a prose translation of the Iliad will remember the key moments: the quarrel in Book 1, Hector and Andromache on the wall in Book 6, the speeches of Achilles in the embassy scene in Book 9, the meeting of Priam and Achilles in Book 24—these are pinnacles of Western literature. In the original, however, they are even more powerful. In Achilles’s speeches rejecting Agamemnon’s conciliatory offers, for example, the rhythm of the lines, and even the sound of the words, add to the meaning until, as a reader, you get the dizzying sense of looking down into a gyre of despair and nihilism that Achilles’s anger has opened. In their mingling of sound and sense, those speeches approach—or perhaps define—the limit of what can be expressed in literature.
But it isn’t only the big moments. The beauty of Homeric poetry is such that even the small details—the waves breaking on the shore, the tongues of wolves lapping up water—will be etched in your mind. The care you have to invest in reading in another language will be repaid in the way the images stay with you.
Homeric Greek also gives you a basis for reading Greek poetry outside Homer. The first thing that might strike you about ancient Greek poetry is the sheer diversity of subject matter: the range of material that the ancients considered worthy of being turned into poetry is quite dazzling. This is especially true in contrast to contemporary poetry in English, which is still very much the inheritor of Romanticism in the sense that it mainly consists of the lyric voice: poets speaking about their own feelings and experiences. Of course lyric has its roots in ancient Greek poets like Sappho and Alcaeus as well, but the co-existing traditions of narrative poetry, epigram, satirical poetry, didactic poetry (about subjects like farming and hunting) and odes of praise have all largely disappeared from the contemporary English tradition. Personal lyric is so dominant it’s even turning backwards and colonizing Homer: thus we get a book like Alice Oswald’s Memorial, a “version” of the Iliad not without a certain stark power, but so in thrall to current fashion that it presents only the snippets of the poem that can be made to sound like contemporary lyric. Learning Greek will remove the filter of the contemporary and let you see the full spectrum of ancient literature for yourself.
BUT WHAT, FINALLY, is Homeric poetry actually like? For a contemporary reader, one of the most striking qualities is its directness and simplicity. This is poetry that strives, most of all, to communicate clearly and move the story forward. Even in the so-called “epic similes”—extended comparisons that digress from the narrative and are perhaps the most self-consciously “literary” aspects of the poem—the ornamental element is balanced by the desire to illuminate some aspect of the poem by comparing it to something else.
Once you abandon rhyme and metre, the question of what makes a particular utterance or piece of writing “poetry” becomes a pressing one, and much of modern poetry can be read as an attempt to answer it. The Homeric poems display none of this anxiety. Features like diction, figurative language, similes and so on are among the things that make the Homeric poems “poetic,” but at the most basic level—on a line-by-line basis—what makes them poetry is their metre. They are quintessentially formal: the language of the poems is made beautiful by the music of repetition and variation lent to them by the dactylic hexameter in which they are composed. The dactylic hexameter line, which consists of dactyls—a long syllable followed by two short ones—interspersed with spondees—two longs—allows the poem to vary between a rolling, forward-moving energy and an austere, almost frieze-like stillness of the kind we associate with classical statuary. This is poetry confident in the form it has chosen, poetry that feels no need to try to “sound poetic” because the arrangement of words in a rhythmic pattern already achieves that.
But in trying to describe Homeric poetry, I find myself running up against the unsayable. I can say, “Homer is beautiful in Greek,” but I can’t really describe it; I can say that it is, but not what it is. The only way is to actually hear it for yourself.
Luckily Stanley Lombardo, who has translated Homer, has also recorded the first book of the Iliad in Greek, which you can listen to here. A few minutes will be enough to let you hear the music of the language, which is more than I can do by writing about it.
PERHAPS HEARING IT will inspire you to learn Greek yourself. (I still remember hearing one of my Latin tutors recite the opening of the Iliad in Greek, standing in an antiseptic office tower at 5:01 waiting for an elevator: the beauty of it was utterly captivating.) With a little patience and determination, it can be done. It sounds crazy to say, but if your Latin is good enough to get you through Virgil, then you won’t find Homeric Greek that difficult. And, because the Iliad and Odyssey are two of the most famous books in the world (and continue to occupy a central place in our culture), there is nearly endless help in the form of lexicons, editions, notes, commentaries, and translations, much of it now available online.
So if you happen to feel inspired, here’s a road map:
1. Wheelock’s Latin
2. Pharr’s Aeneid 1-6
3. Pharr’s Homeric Greek: A Book for Beginners
4. Benner’s Selections from Homer’s Iliad
By about Chapter 7 of Homeric Greek, you’ll be reading actual sections of the Iliad, and by the time you get through the selections in Benner, the (ancient Greek) world is your oyster: you can continue into the Odyssey, try Sappho, Alcaeus and the other lyric poets, some Euripides, some Herodotus, maybe a little Plato….
BROOKE CLARK edits an epigrams website (assesofparnassus.tumblr.com) and writes about references to Canada in books by non-Canadians (wowcanada.wordpress.com). His work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Queen's Quarterly, Literary Imagination, and elsewhere.