Cashman Kerr Prince
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Poeta sovrano?: Horizons of Homer in Twentieth-Century English-Language Poetry
My title begins with a citation from Dante, quoted in the call for papers for this Homerizon conference, then the balance of my title moves away from the Italian Trecento and towards a radically different time-period, one as unimaginable to Dante as to the ancients. Comments on Dante’s understanding of Homer lay the groundwork for readings of much later uses of the figure of Homer. I have chosen to focus on twentieth-century poetic invocations (and incarnations) of Homer precisely because this is a span of time during which the connection between Classical and contemporary culture has become more denaturalized. The nineteenth-century passion for origins gives way to a more self-conscious relationship toward the Classical past; in twentieth-century poetry Homer signifies a wide array of meanings and it is this array which I shall trace herein. There is a tension between these two centuries, one amplified by the scholarship; according to Steiner, “The nineteenth century sharpened the dialectical tension between philology and poetics, between a scholarly and a literary ideal of translation.” For Hardwick this tension becomes, in the twentieth-century receptions she studies, “often a fruitful correspondence between key debates in Homeric scholarship and the literary and dramatic analysis involved in modern reception studies.” I will begin my analysis with comments on Matthew Arnold’s On Translating Homer, an influential nineteenth-century essay which provokes reactions well into the twentieth. Earlier Victorian theories of translation viewed the process as one inherently melancholic and characterized by loss; paraphrase with explanatory footnotes was the order of the day. Arnold did not break entirely free of this mold, but did argue for poetry to be translated into poetry. What Arnold began Pound finished; after Pound, translation is no longer a servile paraphrase or “crib,” but a creative production which is simultaneously a literary and a critical work in its own right. I have limited my enquiry to English-language poetry since the increasing linguistic dominance of English the world over means that there is an abundance of poems to study within this designated area. My intention is not to examine all the poems which fit these criteria (although I shall allude to many in passing) but to examine a major work, Pound’s Cantos, as paradigmatic of the array of significations of the figure of Homer in twentieth-century English-language poetry. My reading of Pound limns the seven significations of “Homer” for these later poets, to whit:
- all of ancient Greece (where Homer stands in metonymically for the culture which produced him and his poetry);
- the beginnings of poetry (and, at times, civilization);
- the poetry of war (both its humanity and its inhumanity), especially the Iliad;
- the poetry of journeys, such as Odysseus’ in the Odyssey;
- a poetic genius, acknowledged master of the craft and the mark against which all subsequent poetry is measured (especially the musical use of language);
- an epic poet; &
- a traditional poet, employing rhythm and metre as opposed to free verse.
I survey poems which support these readings, both of Pound and of the significations just attributed to Homer; under each rubric I have chosen examples with the objective of spanning time and space. While this survey must perforce be cursory, I have quoted from the poems to contextualize my claims as much as space allows. Of these meanings, arguably all but the last are applicable to invocations of Homer in poetry of earlier time-periods; with the rise of free verse (of which Pound himself was a proponent), Homer in the twentieth-century acquires this additional stratum of signification. This scheme is clearer in the abstract than in the actual poems, as was the case with Pound’s Cantos; the stratigraphy of Homers in the following examples is less clear-cut, with invocations of Homer being over-determined in many instances. These additional citations—typically three per signification, attempting to span the chronological delimitation of the twentieth-century—serve to bolster my claim that Pound’s use of Homer in the Cantos is paradigmatic.
By focusing on poetic invocations of “Homer” by name, I complement current reception studies of Homer (especially those focusing on translations of Homeric poetry) while also analyzing the wealth of meanings this name comes to bear. This reading enables us to assess the horizon of meanings inhering in the name “Homer” over the course of the twentieth-century. Homeric poems, indeed the figure of Homer, continue to circulate and have long since become loosed from their moorings in ancient Greece. Homer remains a potent figure, albeit a contested one. As my reading of Pound’s Cantos demonstrates, the phenomenon of Homer is now so complex and polyvalent that Homer can signify differently. From the fixed canon of ancient Greek literature, Homer now figures in ever-expanding literary horizons. Just as poets inherit these antecedent assumptions of Homer, so too do scholars (consciously or not). By tracing the horizon of expectations of Homer in twentieth-century poetic receptions, I have shown how Homer is altered yet persistent: the significations change, but the figure remains a constant. Now I invite scholars to contemplate the horizon of their understandings, and assumptions, of Homer.