The prize-winning poet Alice Oswald celebrates the bewitching strangeness of Homer
By Alice Oswald
There is a stag on Circe’s island, only visible for about 30 lines of Homer’s Odyssey, but it is very disconcerting. The stag comes down from the woods to drink. It is huge with high antlers. Odysseus shoots it, the stag screams, then Odysseus and his men eat it. Perhaps the eeriness of this short passage comes from the stag’s size – four times in 30 lines we’re told how huge it is. Or perhaps from its context – this is after all the island of a woman who turns humans into animals. But the fact is, once you’ve read it, something desolate and other-worldly gets stuck in your mind, as if you’d seen an animal’s eyes in the headlights.
People read the Odyssey for all sorts of reasons and it is infinite enough to supply everyone’s needs, but what draws me back is this bright strangeness, this sense of being looked at by otherness. I can’t help following trails in the language, trying to work out how it’s done, even though the poem, like the stag, is a fugitive thing. My most recent trail sets out not from Circe but from Alcinous. It is Book 11. Odysseus has swum up the river and is telling his story to the Phaeacians: “When he’d spoken, everyone fell silent, stunned in that smoky room as if under a spell… then Alcinous said to him: you’ve told your story like a trained poet. There’s a certain morphe about your language.”
This word morphe means something like “shapeliness” or “form”. (The translation above is mine.) Plato distinguished it from eidos (idea); Aristotle distinguished it from hule (matter); Ovid invoked its power as Morpheus, god of dreams; Heidegger, several centuries later, said: “What is intended is not spatial figure but the whole characteristic form impressed on a being from which we read off what it is.” It’s all very well reciting definitions, but I’d like to know what Homer, who had no dictionary, meant by the word. He only used it twice, both times in connection with Odysseus’ way of speaking: “One man might be plain-looking and yet god puts morphe on his words so that everyone stares at him delighted.” What exactly is he saying? What is the morphe of Odysseus’ language? Something gifted, crafted, inspired, bewitching, shapely – what is it that can throw a smoky room into silence?
There’s an oblique answer in the Iliad. Helen, on the walls of Troy, is talking to the old men, pointing out different Greek soldiers. When she identifies Odysseus, Antenor remembers meeting him before: “When Odysseus got to his feet, he just stood there with his eyes fixed to the ground, making no movement with his staff either backwards or forwards, but gripping it like an idiot. You’d think he was completely witless… but when he let the voice out of his chest and spoke words like a storm of snowflakes, then no one on earth could compete with him.”
“He spoke words like a storm of snowflakes” – to understand this phrase, you need to read it alongside the other snowy similes in the Iliad: “As when Zeus snows and shows his arrows to the earth, pouring them down and putting the winds to sleep, until the tops of the hills are hidden and the jutting headlands, the grassy plains, all the careful work of labourers…” and so on. The landscape is bewitched and stilled, just like Odysseus’ listeners.
I treat these similes as reading-guides to the Odyssey. The Cyclops, the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, the conversations with the Dead, the lotus eaters, the Bag of Winds, the stag on Circe’s island – all those stories should affect us like snowfall, sweeping in and changing everything and then vanishing. Of course the irony is that Odysseus speaks in the same metre and style as Homer. In that speech by Alcinous, the poem seems, by praising Odysseus, both to praise itself and to offer us an image of what it is.
It is after all an oral poem, composed in performance, like snow, perfectly formed and ready to vanish. It is not a spatial text, but something temporal and sounded, which can only proceed as it were by melting. That was the crucial insight of Milman Parry, the scholar whose research in the Thirties transformed Homeric scholarship. The aim of the study, as his collague Albert Lord later described it, “was to fix with exactness the form of oral story poetry and to see whether it differs from the form of written story poetry.” Parry noticed that, without access to writing, singers had a different attitude to the stability of a song. They would learn its themes and then reproduce it creatively with the help of formulas, which he defined as: “a group of words which is regularly used under the same metrical conditions to express a given essential idea”.
Parry’s singers couldn’t always identify what was meant by a line of verse, but they could reproduce its tune spontaneously. This learnt skill must be a bit like skimming a stone: impossible to tell someone else how to communicate repetition to a stone, but anyone who has watched and practised will simply reproduce the formula without thinking. I can’t help wondering whether Alcinous, without knowing how to define them, was referring specifically to these oral verse patterns: “Odysseus, there’s a certain formula upon your language, you’ve told your story as if you were a trained poet.”
“Cloud-gathering Zeus”, “red-cheeked ships”, “all-giving earth” – these are some of the formulas used by Odysseus. Under Parry’s analysis, he would be varying these adjectives according to their case and place in the line, working from a repertoire of remembered metrical phrases, rather than from individual words. Sometimes, making his task even easier, he would be quoting whole lines. So for example, when he describes Dawn rising on the island of Aiaia, his line is one that occurs over and over again in both the Iliad and the Odyssey.
It’s a brilliant insight, and does explain something of the strangeness of the Homeric poems. There is no doubt, as the American philosopher Walter Ong and others have maintained, that the passage from an oral to a literate culture represents a fundamental shift of consciousness and we should bear that in mind when reading the Odyssey. I just wish Parry hadn’t used a term so infused with chemical and algebraic and disparaging or powdered milk connotations, so that, in spite of his provisos, the word “formula” has become a kind of prescription for dullness. It’s as if you should open the curtains on one of these green May dawns and say, “Ah yes! That rising sinking formula!”
I often think about an old man who used to live next door to us. Every morning he’d be standing at his window watching the sunrise. He had no fridge, so the windowsill was always piled with food and his face would float over it watching and he never looked bored. In fact, he looked so anxious and enraptured as the dawn rose that I began to identify him with Tithonus. The story goes that Dawn fell in love with Tithonus and asked Zeus to make him immortal but forgot to ask that he should keep his youth. So Tithonus grew older and older, while the Dawn went on being the same age and at last she locked him in a room, where he sat babbling to himself, waiting presumably, day after day, for the Dawn.
“As soon as Dawn appeared… pale hands… pink hands… petals… someone groping around… always the first awake… always re-beginning…” Homer’s line, which has so much melody in the Greek it can’t really be translated, offers the same dynamic as the Tithonus myth. Dawn goes on being erigeneia or early born; Odysseus, who has to endure 7,305 dawns between setting out from Ithaca and returning, is older at the end by 20 years. That pink-fingered or red-handed goddess, who has a reputation for carrying off young men (at least three of her victims are mentioned in the Odyssey), has carried off his youth.
The word “formula”, despite its usefulness, encourages a tired approach to the line, the assumption being that these ancient iterative forms are more limited than literature. I don’t think you can detect the scale of the Odyssey, its mighty open-endedness and the mystery of its creatures, until you’ve developed a sense of its different attitude to Time, as expressed in particular through this Dawn formula. You have to read its cyclical stuckness, its sideways movement, its minimalist music not just as a compositional aid but as something more like the neurotic patterning of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, in which Dawn (a crimson human torso with spreading hands) is a point of contact between two worlds – a prayer.
Nothing in literature offers such an exact expression of the choric presence of the natural world. What we need is a more lively word to describe it, a more fleeting and self-replicating word than “formula”. I don’t know what that might be – something with the energy of a skimmed stone perhaps, or a storm of snowflakes, as in these lines from the Iliad:
“Like when the wind shaking the shadowy clouds pours thick snow on the bountiful earth…”.
“Like the smack of the north wind coming straight from heaven, when out of clouds the snow or hail flies cold…”.
Alice Oswald’s Memorial, a version of Homer’s Iliad, is published by Faber.
Join Alice Oswald for a Telegraph How To: Academy course on how to read Homer’s Odyssey on May 31 at the Telegraph offices in Victoria. To book, visit howtoacademy.com