Miscellaneous Impressions of Homer, Sophocles and Ovid
Art Madsen, M.Ed.
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As the reader soon recognizes, Homerís poem is epic in nature, by virtue of its length, scope, tone, style, and content. I was struck, in absorbing this account of the Trojan War, by the beauty of the versification. In our English language version, no attempt is made to achieve and actual rhyme, and yet the cadence and overall effect of Homerís power and strength are readily communicated. The original Greek must have been spectacularly poetic, even musical.
After perusing the introductory and explanatory notes, I found myself asking as I moved toward the opening sequence dealing with the prayer of Achilles to Apollo for the release of his daughter, how magnificently Homer blends the Greek Gods, and the entire mythology for which his civilization is so famous, with aspects of war which were very real.
Throughout this narrative, Achilles turns to the Gods for support constantly, particularly when in battle. He kills his enemies mercilessly, even as he evokes his Gods for assistance. From a modern day perspective, I found this paradoxical, but very human.
As I moved toward segments focusing on the broadening of the war in The Great Gathering of the Armies, I began to see the scope and magnitude of this struggle. Not only was this Agamemnon versus Achilles, but battles over Troy, over neighboring lands, and even beyond the immediate theater of war were continuously raging. The implications of these battles for future generations were enormous (Book 2, Line 140), all the more so since, from his perspective within the war itself, Homer and his characters could see no end in sight, except perhaps upon sheer exhaustion after constant and universal destruction.
I was also struck by the flow of the narrative which simply ďwent on and on?from one battle or episode to the next. It was an uninterrupted string of events, always intermeshed with mythological figures, much the way we call upon God today to assist us in the midst of turmoil.
Unarguably, Homer excelled at description. I see flashing helmets (Book 6, line 135) and brotherly cooperation (Book 6, Line 120). There were meticulously crafted character portraits, as well, such as that of Hector later in the poem. Using detail, Homer blends action and emotions, combining them to form the near perfect poetic narrative that The Iliad has become over the ages.
Homeric narration, I noticed, also allows for a view of the ďbig picture.?lt;span style="mso-spacerun: yes"> We see the resurgence of one army and the defeat of another. There is a period when Agamemnon triumphs, and one for Achilles, sill another for Paris who ultimately kills Achilles (p. 631, note 19.494). Legends and mythology are fused, creating a magnificent tapestry.
Having praised this narrative poem, what valid questions might I ask? Homer generally answers most of them, as do his critics. I am left, however, as are some critics and scholars apparently, wondering how truthful this account actually is. What percentage of it is pure mythology and what percentage is verifiable history? That issue needs clarification, in spite of the universally recognized importance of this Homeric Epic.
The overwhelming emotions and intense pathos of the fate of Antigone and all those who surround her in this eternal Greek drama were central aspects of the play which struck me as I moved from scene to scene. The reader soon understands that Antigone, daughter of Oedipus, former King of Thebes, blind but now safe in Athens with Theseus, was finally free to travel back to Thebes to be with the son of Creon who loved her.
Trapped in a more elaborate thematic line, however, Antigone, incestuously conceived, was forced to confront the reality of the rivalry between her two similarly conceived brothers and soon realized that Creon, who was allied with one of her brothers, Etocles, had refused to bury the rival brother Polynices, killed in a fratricidal battle for control of Thebes. Antigone was outraged that Creon, in his victory and in his hatred for Polynices, had ordered that her brotherís corpse be left in the open to rot. Out of love for her brother, and respect for the Gods, she courageously defied Creonís decree and he imprisoned her. Antigoneís honor, sense of duty, and love of the Gods led to her suicide, and to the suicide of her suitor, Creonís son Haemon.
This initiated a predictable Greek chain reaction and the wife of Creon also killed herself because she was disgusted with her husbandís decision to allow the corpse of Polynices to remain unburied, thus, through Antigoneís suicide, resulting in the death of her son.
Only the Greeks could structure such a complex and interwoven thematic line. Some of it is certainly reflected in todayís soap operas and light dramas ?particularly in Mexico where we see many Ďtelenovelas?with convoluted plots ending in multiple deaths -- usually out of love, bitter rivalry or other strong human emotions. In Ancient Greece there was certainly an awareness of the complexity of human nature, but it was interwoven with fabulous and imaginary creatures such as the Sphynx, the all-knowing Oracle of Delphi, or Gods like Apollo who manipulated, foresaw and prophesied events to occur at a future time. These beliefs, employed as a backdrop in Sophocles?play Antigone, detonated many of the tragic events that occurred, although they may not have otherwise.
As a female reader of Antigone, I empathized with this heroine completely. After assisting her father in his wanderings, she was condemned to relive much of the tragedy of her entire family. Her brotherly love for Polynices, her ill-fated romance with Haemon and the wrath of Creon all converged to cause her own destruction and the destruction of Creonís wife and Haemon. What forces, divine or earthly, were set in motion to lead to such a catastrophic disaster? What must have been going through Antigoneís mind as she saw, in flashback during her final moments, her whole life and that of her family?
It is also important to point out that I literally loved the role of the chorus that, in chant, illuminated and provided some of these answers and insights! There was no doubt that Antgigone loved the gods and needed to appease them through insistence on burial of Polynices, and ultimately through her own death. I feel that she was flawed in her own emotional response to this situation, but that she was extremely prideful and determined. These are qualities that should be recognized in Antigone.
Ovidís The Art of Love
When reviewing the assigned excerpts in Ovidís Art of Love, I couldnít help but think of our Penguin Editionís editor for this volume, Peter Green and his wife. The wife of our editor was important because Green claims she frequently assisted him with Latin-English translation. There are many locations in this sensual poem where it seems to me obvious that a womanís touch was used in the translation process. Or perhaps I am wrong and Ovid, himself, was capable of including these emotions and sensations. Upon further reflection, I am willing to accept that the truth may lie in Ovidís tremendously impressive grasp of amorous affairs, rather than in flowery translation.
This poem (Book 1 in particular) utilizes far more mythological imagery than do Ovidís Cures for Love. In fact, it is fairly well saturated with references to mythology. We learn of Perseus and Andromeda, of Romulus, but apparently not Remus, and of the early history of rape in Rome (lines 110-115), involving a number of mythological and historical figures. Book one enumerates, almost endlessly, the unfaithfulness of women and the seductive capacities of men. In contrast to Cures, which I liked, I found Ovid to be almost obsessive in the first book of The Art of Love.
In Book 2, we move through the well-known myth of Daedalus and Icarus, and Ovid somehow makes a hasty transition from that (seemingly irrelevant) myth to delusions and Thessalian witchcraft (lines 95 to 100); but he returns to his senses again later in Book 2 with truths and wisdom aimed mainly at men. He states that Ulysses was not handsome, but that he was eloquent and intelligent; these characteristics in Ulysses won the hearts of maidens (line 123). Book 2 seems to focus on the more serious figures, such as Homer, and less so on frivolity than Book 1. But that is merely my initial impression.
Book 3 turns primarily to advice for girls and women. In line 60, we see the ďgather ye rosebuds while ye may?theme; in other words, have fun while young because old age comes upon us rapidly. Ovid it said it centuries and centuries before the British poets, of course. And the tone in Book 3 is more charming and soft, it seems to me. I found a number of relevant passages that apply to love and infatuation even today, and I was impressed with the amount of detail in Ovidís accounts appearing in all three Books.
Initial Reaction Upon Reading Ovidís Cures for Love
Peter Greenís introductory remarks in our Penguin Edition give the reader a deep sense of Ovidís personal life, his academic background, his priorities, his sadness in exile far from Rome, and his love-life, within marriage and otherwise. Before reading either the Art of Love or one of its four components, Cures for Love, I felt that I had already mentally drifted into Ovidís frame of reference, one essentially bracketed by Julius Caesars?assassination and the beginning of the Christian Era.
Because of the topic discussed by Ovid in the Cures, it can be readily seen that this was apparently a rather loose age of moral decline and decadence. However, Ovid was a far more moral individual than many of his literary contemporaries and we see touches of humor, moral guidance, and solid wisdom in Cures.
Near the beginning of this poem he advises his readers that quenching the flames of desire is a ďprofitable objective?and that we should avoid falling into vices that may enslave us to a given path of behavior (lines 53-55). This seems to be sound advice even in contemporary times when temptations and various excesses can easily dominate our lives. Shortly thereafter, we are advised to stop at key thresholds of excitation (lines 80-81) and, still later, Ovid continues his thinking by suggesting that, when we are enamored of someone whom we cannot love for any number of reasons, we must break away from him or her through long journeys, placing physical distance between ourselves and the one to whom we are dangerously attracted (lines 214-219).
As I perused the poem, I found evidence of entire episodes that Ovid is narrating for his reader. For example, there is the distressed man who could no longer stand the sight of his mistress in his own neighborhood (lines 620-624) and toward the very end of this poem, Ovid uses Roman mythological or historical characters, such as Orestes and Hermione, to point out that competition for women is often the root of our problems. Avoiding the tendency to compete for women, or men, is, in itself one of the many cures Ovid suggests in his Cures for Love. I felt, as I read this final section, ďhow very true even today.?lt;span style="mso-spacerun: yes">