Myths in Crisis

Myths in Crisis coverI have a chapter in Myths in Crisis: The Crisis of Myth, a new collection edited by José Manuel Losada and Antonella Lipscomb. Prof. Losada embodies the highly energetic centre of mythic activities in Madrid, which include a biennial conference, Amaltea, an open-access journal of myth criticism, and the ongoing work of Asteria: International Association of Myth Criticism. The book, Myths in Crisis, like the journal, conference, and websites, is trilingual – Spanish, French and English.

The book contains an impressive array of work on the presence of myth since 1900. As I understand the double crises of the title, the book addresses both the declining status of the mythical in contemporary life, and – where myth is found – its utilization as a colourful garnish, stripped of substance.

My chapter is called ‘Poetic Re-enchantment in an Age of Crisis: Mortal and Divine Worlds in the Poetry of Alice Oswald’, and looks in particular at Oswald’s collections Dart and Memorial. Oswald seems to me to be at the confluence of poetic concerns with classical mythology and with ecology, so she fits the theme perfectly. Some people I spoke to were put off by the ready populism of her verse, but I’m quite taken by the spare and lucid renderings of lines from Homer’s Iliad in Memorial. Compare these versions of the great, astral epic simile which concludes Iliad VIII.

ὡς δ᾽ ὅτ᾽ ἐν οὐρανῷ ἄστρα φαεινὴν ἀμφὶ σελήνην
φαίνετ᾽ ἀριπρεπέα, ὅτε τ᾽ ἔπλετο νήνεμος αἰθήρ:
ἔκ τ᾽ ἔφανεν πᾶσαι σκοπιαὶ καὶ πρώονες ἄκροι
καὶ νάπαι: οὐρανόθεν δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ὑπερράγη ἄσπετος αἰθήρ,
πάντα δὲ εἴδεται ἄστρα, γέγηθε δέ τε φρένα ποιμήν:
τόσσα μεσηγὺ νεῶν ἠδὲ Ξάνθοιο ῥοάων
Τρώων καιόντων πυρὰ φαίνετο Ἰλιόθι πρό.
χίλι᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἐν πεδίῳ πυρὰ καίετο, πὰρ δὲ ἑκάστῳ
εἴατο πεντήκοντα σέλᾳ πυρὸς αἰθομένοιο.
ἵπποι δὲ κρῖ λευκὸν ἐρεπτόμενοι καὶ ὀλύρας
ἑσταότες παρ᾽ ὄχεσφιν ἐΰθρονον Ἠῶ μίμνον.

Chapman (viii. 486-497) translates: The Trojans sat,

And spent all night in open field. Fires round about them shinde.
As when about the silver Moone, when aire is free from winde
And stars shine cleare, to whose sweete beames high prospects and the brows
Of all steepe hils and pinnacles thrust up themselves for showes
And even lowly vallies joy to glitter in the their sight,
When the unmeasur’d firmament bursts to disclose her light
And all the signes in heaven are seene that glad the shepheard’s hart;
So many fires disclosde their beames, made by the Troyan part,
Before the face of Ilion and her bright turrets show’d.
Fiftie stout men, by whom their horse eate oates and hard white corne,
And all did wishfully expect the silver-throned morne.

Oswald (Memorial, 65):

Like little campfire stars lit round the moon
No wind at all
Under an upturned glass of air
Exact black rocks show clear
And the world simplifies into cliffs and clefts
On nights like this
Light is unspeakable it is breaking out of heaven
And every star openly admits to god
Making the shepherd glad.

Chapman’s Homer is unassailable, but where translators often euphemize the Greek aspetos as ‘unmeasured’, ‘endless’, or ‘boundless’, Oswald opts for the dictionary form, unmediated: ‘unspeakable’, ‘unutterable’ (the dictionary being the Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek-English Lexicon). The decision to forego poetic licence invigorates Homer’s language in English and conveys the terrible awe of the numinous.