Thursday, August 10, 2017

Homeric Pictures and Words

Wilhelm Tischbein
Ajax protecting Odysseus
British Museum


Poured we libations unto each the dead,
First mead and then sweet wine, water mixed with white flour.
Then prayed I many a prayer to the sickly death's-heads;
As set in Ithaca, sterile bulls of the best
For sacrifice, heaping the pyre with goods,
A sheep to Tiresias only, black and a bell-sheep.
Dark blood flowed in the fosse,
Souls out of Erebus, cadaverous dead, of brides,
of youths and of the old who had borne much;
Souls stained with recent tears, girls tender,
Men many, mauled with bronze lance-heads,
Battle spoil, bearing yet dreory arms,
These many crowded about me; with shouting,
Pallor upon me, cried to my men for more beasts;
Slaughtered the herds, sheep slain of bronze;
Poured ointment, cried to the gods,
To Pluto the strong, and praised Proserpine;
Unsheathed the narrow sword,
I sat to keep off the impetuous impotent dead,
Till I should hear Tiresias.
But first Elpenor came, our friend Elpenor,
Unburied, cast on the wide earth,
Limbs that we left in the house of Circe,
Unwept, unwrapped in sepulchre, since toils urged other.
Pitiful spirit. And I cried in hurried speech:
"Elpenor, how art thou come to this dark coast?
Cam'st thou afoot, outstripping seamen?"
    And he in heavy speech:
"Ill fate and abundant wine. I slept in Circe's ingle.
Going down the long ladder unguarded,
I fell against the buttress,
Shattered the nape-nerve, the soul sought Avernus.
But thou, O King, I bid remember me, unwept, unburied,
Heap up mine arms, be tomb by sea-bord, and inscribed:
A man of no fortune, and with a name to come.
And set my oar up, that I swung amid fellows."

– from the Odyssey of Homer, book 11, translated by Ezra Pound for the Cantos (1951)

Pietro Testa
Aeneas on the bank of the River Styx
oil on canvas
private collection

John Flaxman
Apollo with Aegis preceding Hector and dispersing the Greeks
drawing, watercolor
Yale Center for British Art


So Hector spake; the Trojans roar'd applause;
Then loosed their sweating horses from the yoke,
And each beside his chariot bound his own;
And oxen from the city, and goodly sheep
In haste they drove, and honey-hearted wine
And bread from out the houses brought, and heap'd
Their firewood, and the winds from off the plain
Roll'd the rich vapour far into the heaven.
And these all night upon the bridge of war
Sat glorying; many a fire before them blaz'd:
As when in heaven the stars above the moon
Look beautiful, when all the winds are laid,
And every height comes out, and jutting peak
And valley, and the immeasurable heavens
Break open to their highest, and all the stars
Shine, and the shepherd gladdens in his heart;
So many a fire between the ships and stream
Of Xanthus blazed before the towers of Troy,
A thousand on the plain; and close by each
Sat fifty in the blaze of burning fire;
And eating hoary grain and pulse the steeds,
Fixt by their cars, waited the golden dawn.

– from the Iliad of Homer, book 8, translated by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1863)

Aniello Falcone
Battle Scene
before 1665
oil on canvas
Prado, Madrid

Aniello Falcone
Clash of infantry and cavalry
before 1665
oil on canvas
Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo, Brescia


Then on rush'd they, with weight and mass        like to a troublous whirlwind
Which from the thundercloud of Jove        down on the champaign plumpeth,
And doth the briny flood bestir        with an unearthly uproar:
Then in the every-brawling sea        full many a billow splasheth,
Hollow, and bald with hoary pate,        one racing after other;
So then the Trojans closely wedg'd,        one after other marching,
Sparkling in brazen panoply,        beside their leaders mustered;
And Hector, Priam's son, a peer        for Ares, pest of mortals,
Led them; and forward held his shield,        which equal was on all sides,
Compact with bull-hides: over them        thick plates of brass were welded,
And his resplendent helmet's plume        around his temples nodded.
This way and that he tried, amid        the foeman's ranks advancing,
If, as beneath his shield he mov'd,        perchance they yield before him.

– from the Iliad of Homer, book 13, translated by Francis Newman (1856)

Anonymous London Fan-maker
Hector's farewell to Andromache
ca. 1730-50
gouache on paper, mother-of-pearl sticks
Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Monogrammist FG after Primaticcio
Wounded Hector
British Museum


White-arm'd Andromache the wail began,
The head of Hector clasping in her hands:
"My husband, thou art gone in pride of youth,
And in thine house hast left me desolate;
Thy child an infant still, thy child and mine,
Unhappy parents both! nor dare I hope
That he may reach the ripeness of his youth;
For ere that day shall Troy in ruin fall,
Since thou art gone, her guardian! thou whose arm
Defended her, her wives, and helpless babes!
They now shall shortly o'er the sea be borne,
And with them I shall go; thou too, my child,
Must follow me, to servile labour doom'd,
The suff'ring victim of a tyrant Lord;
Unless perchance some angry Greek may seize
And dash thee from the tow'r – a woeful death!"

– from the Iliad of Homer, book 24, translated by Edward Stanley, Earl of Derby (1862)

Pietro Testa
Achilles dragging the body of Hector around the walls of Troy
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Roman Sarcophagus
Achilles with the body of Hector
AD 180-220
Getty Museum, Los Angeles


Then bespake him again God's angel, slayer of Argus,
"O good sire, not yet hath foul dog nor ravening bird
Made their prey of him: ev'n as he was, so lies he neglected
Hard by Achilles' ship i' the camp: and already twelve days
There hath lain, nor doth his flesh rot nor the corrupt worms
Touch him, that fatten on mankind nor spare the illustrious.
But when morning appears Achilles cometh and draggeth him forth
Trailing around the barrow builded to his old companyon.
Nor yet is injury done: thou mightest go thither, and see
How dew-fresh he lieth, how free from death's blemish or stain:
His blood bath'd away, and heal'd those heavy wounds all
Where many coward spears had pierc'd his fair body fallen.
Such care take the blessed gods for thy dearly belov'd son,
Yea, though he live no more; since they full heartily lov'd him."

– from the Iliad of Homer, book 24, translated by Robert Bridges (1916)

Peter Paul Rubens
Wrath of Achilles
ca. 1630-33
oil on panel (modello for tapestry)
Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Nathaniel Marchant
Achilles mourning Patroclus
late 18th century
plaster cast of intaglio
(original destroyed in the London Blitz, 1941)
 British Museum


In these terms Priam's son pled for his life,
but heard a voice of iron say:
"Young fool, don't talk to me of what you'll barter.
In days past, before Patroklos died
I had a mind to spare the Trojans, took them
alive in shoals, and shipped them out abroad.
But now there's not a chance – no man that heaven
puts in my hands will get away from death
here before Ilion – least of all a son
of Priam. Come, friend, face your death, you too.
And why are you so piteous about it?
Patroklos died, and he was a finer man
by far than you. You see, don't you, how large
I am, and how well-made? My father is noble,
a goddess bore me. Yet death waits for me,
for me as well, in all the power of fate.
A morning comes or evening or high noon
when someone takes my life away in war,
a spear-cast, or an arrow from a bow-string."

– from the Iliad of Homer, book 21, translated by Robert Fitzgerald (1974)

John Flaxman
Sketch for Shield of Achilles
British Museum

Bust of Achilles
AD 100-150
Prado, Madrid

Johann Heinrich Schönfeld
Alexander the Great at the tomb of Achilles
oil on canvas
Palazzo Barberini, Rome

What time does dwarf not and deform, corrupting!
Our father's age ignobler than our grandsires'
    Bore us yet more depraved; and we in turn
        Shall leave a race more vicious than ourselves.

– from the Odes of Horace, translated by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1869)