Posts Tagged ‘Homer’

Homer: Odyssey

November 21, 2022

Translated from the Greek by Robert Fitzgerald
(FS&G, 1998) [c.800 BC]
515 p.

…godlike in counsel,
he that in twenty years had borne such blows
in his deep heart, breaking through ranks in war
and waves on the bitter sea.
(Bk 13)


Theories about the authorship of the Homeric poems abound: they were the work of a solitary genius, or they were created by countless bards in a generation-spanning oral tradition, or they were adapted from an oral tradition by a solitary genius, and so on. But if you were to tell me that the (however construed) author of the Odyssey had nothing whatever to do with the author of the Iliad, I would believe you. From the first page of this poem, the world of the Iliad — the world of hard war, of bruised honour, of brandished spears and bristling helmets, of bellicosity and belligerence — all of that is gone, vanished like a dream, and we find ourselves in a domestic sphere, where slaves are wiping down tables, a fire crackles in the hearth, and a boy sits, daydreaming, when a mysterious stranger arrives at the door. The scale is intimate, and good manners are paramount. We are breathing new air.

Of course, all is not well. The home is troubled by ruffians who circle the lady of the house like wolves, and a great sorrow, a quiet, aching pain, sits stubbornly in the hearts of Penelope and her son, Telemachos, for Odysseus, the lord of the house, is absent, and may be dead. Nobody knows.

In my imagination the Odyssey survived, since I first read it many years ago, as the tale of one man, a sleek, stripped down story (especially compared to the enormous ensemble cast of the Iliad) that flew like an arrow from Troy to Ithaca, with the lion’s share of the story devoted to accounts of the numerous hardships he endured along the way. This, I am surprised to find, was actually quite wrong. The tale, as told, isn’t like a flying arrow at all, but instead like a tangled web of yarn, told us in a non-linear fashion that starts in the middle, and folds back on itself through flashbacks. Even the famous adventures of Odysseus — the cyclopes, the sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, the bag of wind, the sacred cows, the cannibals, and so on — are confined to just four (of 24) books.

The poem is really a family drama, with Penelope and Telemachos getting a significant share of the page-time. Indeed, although we hear briefly about Odysseus at the poem’s opening, and in particular about his longing to return home —

But such desire is in him
merely to see the hearthsmoke leading upward
from his own island, that he longs to die.

— we do not actually see him until Book 5, at which time the poet strikes the same note, stressing for us his desperate desire to return to Ithaca. He has been seven years on Calypso’s island, having no means of escape, and he sits on the shore, looking out:

in his stone seat to seaward — tear on tear
brimming his eyes.

This, then, is one of the leading emotional elements of the poem: homesickness. When a man is unable to go home, his heart is out of joint, and so too his family suffers, and his whole household. And what prevents him going home is not just outlandish danger, not just the wine-dark sea, not just the wrath of Poseidon, but also Odysseus’ own heart, frail against temptation. Again and again we see him beset by seductresses: the Sirens, Circe, Calypso, even, maybe, the youthful Nausikaa. Sometimes he resists successfully, sometimes he is overcome. But, always, too, his fundamental desire to see again his wife and child reasserts itself.

We know that he does eventually get home, with the help of Athena. (And I will note in passing that here, too, in the realm of the gods, the Odyssey is a much more intimate affair than was the Iliad. Athena is Odysseus’ special patroness, and Poseidon is, or becomes, his nemesis, but beyond that the gods play a limited role in the poem. The clamouring crowd of gods that so befuddled me before is silent now, and so much the better.) In the poem’s second half we see how Odysseus conducts himself upon returning home, adopting a disguise and plotting against the confounded suitors who befoul his house with their antics and their vices. And, of course, the plotting finally leads to a bloodbath in which Odysseus and Telemachos together avenge these wrongs. It is all superbly carried off. Homer winks our way when he has the suitors struggle to prepare the bow that will, we know, soon kill them. And when Odysseus, still in disguise, provokes general astonishment by stringing the bow himself, Homer gives us one of his most striking similies, comparing the bow to a lyre and Odysseus to the musician:

like a musician, like a harper, when
with quiet hand upon his instrument
he draws between his thumb and forefinger
a sweet new string upon a peg: so effortlessly
Odysseus in one motion strung the bow.
(Bk 21)

He begins to play upon it immediately, as the poem erupts in violence and cleansing wrath. Homer again uses a memorable image to convey the aftermath:

In blood and dust
he saw that crowd all fallen, many and many slain.
Think of a catch that fishermen haul in to a halfmoon bay
in a fine-meshed net from the white-caps of the sea:
how all are poured out on the sand, in throes for the salt sea,
twitching their cold lives away in Helios’ fiery air:
so lay the suitors heaped on one another.
(Bk 22)

Let me not be one to take joy in such carnage — and the poet, too, counsels us that “To glory over slain men is no piety.” (Bk 22) — but it would be fruitless to deny that I derived a certain satisfaction from this rough justice.

And justice it is. A central preoccupation of the poem is that there is a set of virtues proper to hosts and guests, and in such virtues the suitors are shamelessly derelict. Over and over the poem shows us contrasting examples of good hosts and bad, of good guests and bad.

Telemachos, in search of news about his father, comes to the houses of Menelaus and Nestor, and, before they know his identity, he is treated with all the honour and deference rightly due a guest. Calypso seems to be a good host, but then keeps Odysseus hostage for years. Circe seems to be a bad host, but then offers him essential aid. Odysseus finds a bad host in Polyphemus (who wants to eat him), and then himself becomes a bad guest (by injuring his host). Odysseus even protests against the cyclops’ incivility, linking it to a lack of respect for the gods:

‘We would entreat you, great Sir, have a care
for the gods’ courtesy; Zeus will avenge
the unoffending guest.’

But Polyphemus gives a belligerent reply:

‘You are a ninny,
or else you come from the other end of nowhere,
telling me, mind the gods! We Kyklopes
care not a whistle for your thundering Zeus
or all the gods in bliss; we have more force by far.’

It is a matter of more than just manners, therefore. And when Odysseus finally returns to Ithaca, he finds a gentle and generous host in the wonderful swineherd Eumaios, who, again, not knowing his identity, treats him right. When Odysseus, in disguise, encounters first Telemachos, and then Penelope, they are distinguished by their kindness to him, in sharpest contrast to the taunts and insults hurled by the doomed suitors. The treatment of strangers reveals character.


For all that the story is arranged like a puzzle, it is nonetheless, when we straighten it out, the story of a homecoming. This, I think, is part of what endears it to me so strongly, for I am inordinately fond of stories in which someone returns home, or is reunited with family after an absence. It is this quality that makes the Biblical story of Joseph so affecting for me, and it is this that brings a tear to my eye in the story of the Prodigal Son. So, too, here.

As in the story of Joseph, the reunion in the Odyssey happens in an asymmetric way: one party knows it is happening, and the other does not. Odysseus adopts, at Athena’s behest, the guise of an old, itinerant codger, and he encounters both Telemachos and Penelope without their being aware of his identity. This part of the tale calls for virtues of patience and self-control that are quite unlike those Odysseus needed during his tumultuous journey home. Upon arrival, Athena counsels him:

Patience, iron patience, you must show;
so give it out to neither man nor woman
that you are back from wandering. Be silent
under all injuries, even blows from men.
(Bk 13)

I was moved most, however, by the three occasions on which his self-control fails him. Unless I am mistaken, he weeps three times: on first revealing his true identity to his son, to his wife, and to his father. These last two occur in the poem’s denouement following the slaughter of the suitors.

Now from his breast into his eyes the ache
of longing mounted, and he wept at last,
his dear wife, clear and faithful, in his arms, longed for
as the sunwarmed earth is longed for by a swimmer
spent in rough water where his ship went down
under Poseidon’s blows, gale winds and tons of sea.
(Bk 23)

Pass the handkerchief.

I learned through background reading that the Greeks had a whole set of homecoming epics about the aftermath of the Trojan War, of which the Odyssey was just one. There was a poem about Agememnon’s return home and his murder by Clytemnestra (which would have made a great contrasting double-bill with this poem), another about Ajax’s drowning on his return journey, and yet another about the sojourn of Menealus and Helen in Egypt on their return home. All lost. Don’t put that handkerchief away just yet.


The bloody house cleaning finishes up in Book 22, and I’d like to reflect a moment on the two books which follow. The triumph of Odysseus over his challengers feels like the climax of the story in many ways, so what are the final two books doing?

I should first note that there is, I am told, a scholarly dispute about whether these last two books were part of the poem originally (whatever “originally” may mean in the context of an oral tradition). We need not let this detain us long, since these two books are part of the poem as we have received it, and we’re simply asking what purpose they serve, but I wanted to acknowledge the point.

These two books contain three main things: first, are the reunion scenes, or, maybe better, the revelation scenes, between Odysseus and Penelope, and then between Odysseus and his father, Laertes. I’ve already remarked on how moving I found these scenes, and they are, it seems to me, essential to the emotional arc of the poem. Without them, the homecoming would feel incomplete.

A second element, in Book 24, takes place in Hades. We see the shades of Achilles, Agamemnon, and Ajax, heroes of the Trojan War, conversing as they witness the souls of the slain suitors arriving in the underworld. At first I thought this a very odd addendum, but it does provide Homer an opportunity to sing in fulsome turn the praise of Penelope, the faithful wife. What better way than amid a parade of those unworthy suitors whom she rejected? And the praise comes from the mouth of Agamemnon, who, because of his own (let us say) marital woes has the best cause to admire a good wife:

‘O fortunate Odysseus, master mariner
and soldier, blessed son of old Laertes!
The girl you brought home made a valiant wife!
True to her husband’s honor and her own,
Penelope, Ikarios’ faithful daughter!
The very gods themselves will sing her story
for men on earth — mistress of her own heart, Penelope!’
(Bk 24)

So this, too, though it feels less essential, still fits, and puts an exclamation mark on one of the poem’s central themes.
The third and final piece feints at a return to the violence of the earlier books. The families of the slain suitors descend on Odysseus, Telemachos, and Laertes looking for revenge. But things don’t progress far before Athena interrupts, and, by her godlike power, declares peace. Though it highlights the importance of Athena to Odysseus’ affairs, a constant theme throughout, this nonetheless is, for me, the least satisfying thing about the final book. A dea ex machina is, almost by definition, artistically unsatisfying. That is how my expectations have been trained. It would be very interesting to understand whether and why it was more satisfying to an audience in ancient Greece.


When I read the Iliad, I kept myself alive in part by entertaining a rotating door of translators. No such problem here, so I stuck throughout with Robert Fitzgerald’s 1974 translation. It was a happy choice. I have previously read Fagles’ somewhat later version, but I didn’t bother to make side-by-side comparisons.


What an encouraging experience this has been! I was so dispirited after reading the Iliad. I was tormented at night by hard questions. Am I a person who hasn’t the wherewithal to appreciate Homer? What does that say about me? Should I abandon this Greek reading project in its infancy? Should I give up reading books altogether? Maybe watch television instead? Maybe lie down on the train tracks at night? Well! The Odyssey turned all that around. I loved it. I’m a Homer man after all.


And now the big question arises: basking in the Odyssey‘s afterglow, is it time to pick up that long-languishing copy of Joyce’s Ulysses and read it? Has the time finally come?


Homer: The Iliad

October 18, 2022

The Iliad
Translated from the Greek by Four Illustrious Translators
[c.800 BC]
c.500 pages. Second reading.

When first I attempted The Iliad, many years ago, it was a sad and dispiriting affair, and I struggled through it without any enjoyment. Now, with quite a few other, if lesser, ancient epics under my belt, I felt sufficiently buoyed up with hope and girt about the loins to try again. Alas! Let me not say that I fared no better, but let me also be honest: it was a sad and dispiriting affair.

The problems for me were principally two, I think. One was the diffuse structure of the poem. I understand the basic shape: the Trojans prevail in battle so long as Achilles sits in his tent, but, stirred to action, he turns the tide and triumphs in the epic confrontation with Hector. But within that basic framework the poem felt aimless to me: there were so many characters, gods and men, churning back and forth in endless succession, speechifying, throwing spears, world without end. Like a great Trojan warrior dragging the body of his foe through the dust, I was dragging my own battered self from one episode to the next, bereft of hope.

The second problem for me was all the fighting. Maybe it’s churlish to complain of fighting in a poem about war; the criticism is just. But, just as I tend to yawn and drift away in films when giant action scenes play out, so here I struggled to maintain attention through all the rock throwing and spear hurling and sword swinging. True, the gruesome deaths Homer grants certain characters reward a certain morbid fascination, but for the most part I found the sword-play immoderately tedious. This bothers me some, because I believe the poet intended those bits to be exciting, and maybe in performance they would have been, but I couldn’t maintain enthusiasm for them.

It was not that I found nothing to like. The siege of Troy, for instance, was motivated by the Greeks’ desire to recover Helen, absconded with Paris and now held securely within the city’s walls. But the poet tells us, early on, that she and Paris have grown cool to one another as the war has played out on the plain before the city, a revelation that casts a pall of pointlessness over the whole affair. This is dramatically effective. I also appreciated the evenhandedness of Homer, who is a Greek writing about a Greek triumph, but who generously grants the Trojans the same heroism and dignity that he lavishes on the Greek warriors.

As the battles raged, I was sometimes tempted to abandon the poem, but I held on in anticipation of the tale of the Trojan horse, which I expected would provide a change of pace and a straightforward storyline. Imagine my chagrin when, inching closer and closer to the end, it gradually dawned on me that the episode of the Trojan horse is not part of the Iliad after all. Ah well.


My first acquaintance with the Iliad, years ago, was through the translation of Richmond Lattimore, made in the early 1950s. This is still a well-regarded translation, often chosen for courses on Homer because it attempts to follow the Greek line as closely as possible: the metre is Homer’s own dactylic hexameter, and Lattimore tried to keep each line of English more or less aligned with the corresponding line of Greek. But personally I found, and find, that the hexameter line is awkwardly long for English verse, giving the poem a baggy, sprawling feel.

This time out I wanted to explore another approach. There are literally dozens of translations available, so I had to choose.

In the 1970s Robert Fitzgerald made a translation in blank iambic pentameter, and this, too, has maintained a good reputation; I was curious to peer into it. A popular version in the past few decades has been Robert Fagles’ translation, written in an irregular metre of five or six beats and said to be vivid and exciting. I was also curious about the 18th century translation, in rhyming couplets, by Alexander Pope; it might be rude to force Homer into a mold so foreign to him, but perhaps a genius could manage it?

In the end, I decided not to decide: I read all four — Lattimore, Fitzgerald, Fagles, and Pope — in rotation, Book by Book. I lost the continuity of a single poetic voice, but I gained a diverting variety, and diverting variety was what I needed.


In fact, I found it a cheering exercise to pause occasionally to compare translations of specific passages, and I’ve chosen a few to present here. Homer is famous for his heroic similes, so I’ve picked one of those; the Iliad is famous, as I’ve already said, for its gory death scenes, so I’ve chosen one of those; and, finally, I selected a charming domestic scene involving Hector and his family, which was a personal favourite.

Let’s begin with the simile. In this one, taken from Book 13, the charging Trojan army is compared to a boulder propelled by a raging torrent. Here is how Lattimore renders it:

The Trojans came down on them in a pack, and Hektor led them
raging straight forward, like a great rolling stone from a rock face
that a river swollen with winter rain has wrenched from its socket
and with immense washing broken the hold of the unwilling rock face;
the springing boulder flies on, and the forest thunders beneath it…

I’m not sure about the “immense washing”, but I like the image of the “springing boulder” and of the forest “thundering” as the boulder crashes through.

Here is Fitzgerald:

Trojans massed and running
charged them now, with Hektor in the lead
in furious impetus, like a rolling boulder
a river high with storm has torn away
from a jutting bank by washing out what held it;
then the brute stone upon the flood
goes tossed and tumbling, and the brush gives way,
crashing before it.

I much prefer this shorter line, and I like also the alliteration of “tossed and tumbling” and the slightly oblique description of the river as “high with storm”.

Now Fagles:

Trojans pounded down on them!
Tight formations led by Hektor careening breakneck on
like a deadly rolling boulder torn from a rock face —
a river swollen with snow has wrenched it from its socket,
immense floods breaking the bank’s grip, and the reckless boulder
bounding high, flying with timber rumbling under it…

Exclamation mark! I think we get a strong sense of motion and drama in this version: “pounded down”, “breakneck”, “reckless”, “bounding”, “flying”. Too much of this could get exhausting, but it serves this particular simile quite well.

Lastly, Pope:

Thus breathing death, in terrible array,
The close compacted legions urged their way:
Fierce they drove on, impatient to destroy;
Troy charged the first, and Hector first of Troy.
As from some mountain’s craggy forehead torn,
A rock’s round fragment flies, with fury borne,
(Which from the stubborn stone a torrent rends,)
Precipitate the ponderous mass descends:
From steep to steep the rolling ruin bounds;
At every shock the crackling wood resounds.

The feeling is entirely different. I’m a sucker for rhyme, and I confess I find this translation congenial, though I can certainly see that it is least faithful from a metrical point of view. Still, it is fascinating to see how Pope is able to fit in all of the essential details, even if taking a few extra lines to do it.


Next let’s look at a death scene. In Book 14, the Trojan Ilioneus runs into the Greek Peneleus, and it doesn’t go well for him. Lattimore puts it this way:

This man Peneleos caught underneath the brow, at the bases
of the eye, and pushed the eyeball out, and the spear went clean through
the eye-socket and tendon of the neck, so that he went down
backward, reaching out both hands, but Peneleos drawing
his sharp sword hewed at the neck in the middle, and so dashed downward
the head, with helm upon it, while still on the point of the big spear
the eyeball stuck.

So Ilioneus’ head was first skewered, then severed, but the eyeball remained fixed firmly to the spear’s tip. Fitzgerald gives us a slightly different picture:

Peneleos drove his spearhead
into the eye-socket underneath the brow,
thrusting the eyeball out. The spearhead ran
straight through the socket and the skull behind,
and throwing out both hands he sat down backward.
Peneleos, drawing his long sword, chopped through
the nape and set the severed helmeted head
and trunk apart upon the field. The spear
remained in the eye-socket.

Where Lattimore had the head “dashed downward”, Fitzgerald has it more gently “set apart”. I notice also that for Fitzgerald the spear remains in the eye-socket, rather than directly in the eye-ball, which strikes me as more plausible. In any case, here is Fagles:

… the one Peneleous lanced beneath the brows,
down to the eyes’ roots and scooped an eyeball out —
the spear cut clean through the socket, out behind the nape
and backward down he sat, both hands stretched wide
as Peneleos, quickly drawing his whetted sword,
hacked him square in the neck and lopped his head
and down on the ground it tumbled, helmet and all.
But the big spear’s point still stuck in the eye-socket —

I like the “lanced” and “lopped” and “tumbled”, and I note with approval the spear-transfixed eye-socket again. Finally, Pope:

Full in the eye the weapon chanced to fall,
And from the fibres scoop’d the rooted ball,
Drove through the neck, and hurl’d him to the plain;
He lifts his miserable arms in vain!
Swift his broad falchion fierce Peneleus spread,
And from the sprouting shoulders struck his head;
To earth at once the head and helmet fly;
The lance, yet sticking through the bleeding eye,
The victor seized…

It is interesting that Fagles echoed Pope’s “scoop”, which seems an odd verb to describe a spear’s action. Again, I rather like this rendering, though I acknowledge that certain details, like the weapon that merely “chanced” to find its mark, or the “sprouting shoulders”, aren’t quite apt.


Lastly, let’s take a peek at Hector at home as he plays with his son, little Hectorides. This is from Book 6, and is one of the few passages in the poem not actively flexing its muscles. We’ll take the translators in the same order, beginning with Lattimore:

So speaking glorious Hektor held out his arms to his baby,
who shrank back to his fair-girdled nurse’s bosom
screaming, and frightened at the aspect of his own father,
terrified as he saw the bronze and the crest with its horse-hair,
nodding dreadfully, as he thought, from the peak of the helmet.
Then his beloved father laughed out, and his honored mother,
and at once glorious Hektor lifted from his head the helmet
and laid it in all its shining upon the ground.

The helmet in question, I guess, might have been something like this, and who would blame the child for being a little frightened at it? Next, Fitzgerald:

As he said this, Hektor held out his arms
to take the baby. But the child squirmed round
on the nurse’s bosom and began to wail,
terrified by his father’s great war helm —
the flashing bronze, the crest with horsehair plume
tossed like a living thing at every nod.
His father began laughing, and his mother
laughed as well. Then from his handsome head
Hektor lifted off his helm and bent
to place it, bright with sunlight, on the ground…

I like that “bright with sunlight”, and I find the verse, in this metre, has an appealing poise and stability. Now Fagles:

In the same breath, shining Hektor reached down
for his son — but the boy recoiled,
cringing against his nurse’s full breast,
screaming out at the sight of his own father,
terrified by the flashing bronze, the horsehair crest,
the great ridge of the helmet nodding, bristling terror —
so it struck his eyes. And his loving father laughed,
his mother laughed as well, and glorious Hector,
quickly lifting the helmet from his head,
set it down on the ground, fiery in the sunlight…

I find this a little too intense: “recoiled”, “cringing”, “screaming”, “terrified”. Poor kid. But “fiery in the sunlight” is good. Finally, Pope:

Thus having spoke, the illustrious chief of Troy
Stretch’d his fond arms to clasp the lovely boy.
The babe clung crying to his nurse’s breast,
Scared at the dazzling helm, and nodding crest.
With secret pleasure each fond parent smiled,
And Hector hasted to relieve his child,
The glittering terrors from his brows unbound,
And placed the beaming helmet on the ground.

This is a model of brevity, while still capturing the details we find in the others. I would hazard a bet, also, that little Hectorides would prefer the rhymes.


In the end, my first choice among these translations is Fitzgerald’s. His metre is a good one for an epic in English, giving the verse a noble sense, and his version felt sturdy and steady. Lattimore I thought too spindly and diffuse, and Fagles felt too emotionally volatile after a while. My second favourite was actually Pope, despite the obvious deviations from Homer’s style; the rhymes provided a steady beat that kept me moving forward, and I actually felt that the going was easiest when reading his version.

It’s disappointing, of course, to struggle, again, to appreciate such a great poem. I’d like to have had a more substantial encounter this time out, but it was what it was. I expect to have a better time with the Odyssey, and I’m looking forward to it.

Thomas: Why Bob Dylan Matters

October 10, 2018

Why Bob Dylan Matters
Richard F. Thomas
(Dey Street, 2017)
368 p.

Book publishers know their business, and no doubt the title of this book will succeed in drawing readers. It worked for me, and it is apropos: certainly the author believes that Bob Dylan does matter. But a more informative title might have been Dylan and Greco-Roman Poetry, or even Intertextuality as a Literary Device in the Works of Bob Dylan. But books bearing such titles might remain on the shelf, unread, and that would be a shame.

The principal argument of the book is that Dylan’s penchant for drawing on traditional songs in his own songs — a practice well established and recognized as part of his art — has expanded, especially in the last two decades, to an engagement with the poets of classical antiquity, and especially with Ovid, Virgil, and Homer. It’s a startling claim on first blush, perhaps, but Thomas makes a convincing case, and he knows whereof he speaks: he is George Martin Lane Professor of Classics at Harvard, an accomplished Virgilian, and trustee of the Loeb Classical Library. (In a fit of distraction, I wondered if, given his interest in popular music, he might prefer to be George Martin Penny Lane Professor?)

The evidence comes from the last three collections of original songs: “Love and Theft” (2001), Modern Times (2006), and Tempest (2012). This in itself makes the book interesting and valuable; it is the only book on Dylan of which I am aware (though, admittedly, there are many that have escaped my notice) that focuses principally on this period.

Thomas first suspected that Dylan might be taking an interest in the classics when he heard “Lonesome Day Blues”, from “Love and Theft”, in which one of the stanzas is:

“I’m gonna spare the defeated
I’m gonna speak to the crowd
I’m gonna teach peace to the conquered
I’m gonna tame the proud”

which reminded him of a passage from Book VI of the Aeneid, in which Virgil writes:

“Remember, Roman, these will be your arts:
To teach the ways of peace to those you conquer,
To spare the defeated peoples, tame the proud.”
(Aeneid, Bk VI)

It can’t be a coincidence, and it was intriguing enough that he began listening to the new songs with ears open to further allusions to classical poetry. These efforts were bountifully rewarded with Modern Times. By his estimation, the songs on that record make over 30 references to the exile poems of Ovid. And on the most recent record, Tempest, Thomas finds numerous references to passages in Homer’s Odyssey woven into the fabric of the songs. The same record has a song, “Early Roman Kings”, that leans toward making an interest in antiquity overt.

Given this evidence, a few questions arise. One, perhaps, is a doubt: is it possible that, on the principle that one wielding a hammer sees nails, a classics professor might hear echoes of antique poets that are not really there? If there were but one or two examples, this doubt might be worth entertaining, but having reviewed the evidence Thomas provides, I think it is beyond reasonable doubt that Dylan is actually doing this.

Indeed, among the most interesting aspects of the book is Thomas’ further argument that this interest in antiquity is not new for Dylan. The evidence extends beyond the texts of his songs. For instance, we learn that back in Hibbing, MN, when young Dylan was still Robert Zimmermann, he was a member of his school’s Latin Club, and in 1963, on his first trip to Europe to play for the BBC, he afterwards took a flight to Rome, where he stayed for a few days, plausible evidence that he had a special interest in the city. There is even an early, unofficial song called “Goin’ Back to Rome” (in which, winsomely, Dylan contrives to rhyme “Colosseum” with “always see ’em”).

There is not much evidence from Dylan’s early and middle career that he was thinking of things Greek or Roman. We have “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, which is set in Rome, and Thomas informs us that in draft “Changing of the Guards” has a stanza that seems to have Virgil’s famous fourth Eclogue in mind, but beyond that the pickings are slim.

Yet, consistent with the book’s overall thesis, the evidence picks up since 2000. Dylan has chosen Rome as the site for a number of major press conferences in these years and, even more interesting, the playlists for his concerts in the city have differed radically from those he played in other cities. There does seem to be something special about the place for him. The image on the cover of Tempest is of a statue of Minerva; this same statue is on stage with Dylan on his recent tours. In interviews he has hinted that his most recent work might be rooted further back in history than the folk traditions of American music that everyone associates with him, making references to “the ten hundreds”, or times when “people had only one name”. As always with Dylan, his interviews are elliptical performances, very much part of a cat-and-mouse game with the reporters and fans, and hard to interpret, but it is plausible, at least, that he might be dropping clues for those who have ears to hear.

The bigger question is: why is he doing this? The first part of an answer has to be that, in a sense, this is nothing new for him. His songs have always been in conversation with the folk tradition, with the blues, and with the Bible; fragments of old songs have been worked into his own songs from the beginning. This is an act of creative appropriation of the tradition. We don’t think of his songs as pastiches because he has made these sources his own, and his own artistic voice can be heard through them. A good recent example is “Tryin’ To Get To Heaven”, which, as Thomas makes clear, is a veritable tapestry of references to Woody Guthrie songs and old folk songs collected by Alan Lomax, yet the result is a powerfully unified original song. As T.S. Eliot said, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” In these songs, Dylan steals.

So, granted that he has an established history of creatively stealing from other sources, why has he begun to steal from the Greco-Roman poets? Here, I think, any answer has to be tentative. Perhaps, as Thomas argues, the exile poems of Ovid that pervade the songs on Modern Times appeal to Dylan because he feels himself to be in exile in the world, cut off by his celebrity and his itinerant life from normal relationships and a home. Likewise, perhaps the Odyssey is important to him because he, too, travels the world with nowhere to rest. Perhaps. Or perhaps it is simply that, having spent his life writing verse and song, he has felt an attraction to returning to the original sources of the poetic tradition within which he has worked. In any case, I find it heartening to think that Dylan is grappling with the legacy of these poets, absorbing and transmuting them through his own distinctive artistic pursuits.

I have said that Thomas is a distinguished classicist, and evidently he is also an avid Dylanologist. The great danger to such enthusiasts, that uncritical acclaim I call Dylanitis, is occasionally in evidence, as when he describes Dylan’s widely panned film Masked and Anonymous as “hugely underrated”. But, on the other hand, people who don’t love Dylan don’t write books about him, so we simply keep a few grains of salt on hand, and take one when, for instance, we read that Dylan compares with Eliot in his genius for appropriating the Western tradition.

There is plenty of backward and forward in the book’s argument, which is not presented as neatly as I’ve tried to make it here, and not all of the book’s contents are straightforwardly related to its thesis. At times Thomas pursues a particular line of inquiry at a length beyond what would be perfectly judicious by classical standards. At a few points the book’s argument seems to circle back on itself, with the same evidence coming up again. The result is a book that feels a bit of a jumble, but a jumble of good things. There is a fascinating section, for instance, on the wonderful song “Highlands”, which is obviously in conversation with Robert Burns, but also, Thomas argues, with Dylan’s own “Tangled Up in Blue”. There is an excellent analysis of Dylan’s “autobiography” Chronicles, Vol.1, which, following Clinton Heylin, Thomas considers to be a cunningly constructed blend of truth and fiction, and there is a very good discussion of Dylan’s Nobel speech (which, given the attention it pays to Odysseus, could also be marshalled as evidence of Dylan’s interest in the classics).

When I picked up the book I thought I would simply glance through it, but once I began reading I became interested in the argument, and was happy to read the whole thing. Perhaps the best thing about the book is that it has convinced me to listen again to the most recent albums, which, with the exception of Time Out of Mind, I have not loved. I approach them now with fresh ears.


For an envoi, here is the song that sparked this line of thinking: “Lonesome Day Blues”.