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‘The First Poets: Lives of the Ancient Greek Poets’ by Michael Schmidt ****

Originally published in 2004, Michael Schmidt’s masterful The First Poets: Lives of the Ancient Greek Poets has been given a new – and handsome – lease of life thanks to Head of Zeus.  Deemed ‘exhilarating’ and ‘deeply engaging’ by the Washington Post, and ‘an important new study’ by The Observer, its republication will certainly delight history buffs in the English-speaking world.

Revered poetry professor Schmidt has focused upon our ‘cultural ancestors’; those individuals who provided the foundations for our poetic heritage, the legacy which they have left behind, and the lasting quality of their work.  As Schmidt explains, ‘Things that inadvertently shape us draw upon structures, forms, legends, and myths that have their origin in ancient Mediterranean cultures’.  Mythology and factual history have been merged most interestingly throughout, and Schmidt writes of figures we have heard of – Orpheus and Homer, for instance – as well as those who are rather more obscure, or who have been forgotten – Linos and Amphion, for example.9781784975975

Schmidt’s account is thorough, which will surprise nobody who has read any of his other work.  The majority is comprised of sections which focus solely on twenty-three poets (indeed, the chapter about Sappho is particularly enlightening), as well as essay-length inclusions which deal with the likes of The Iliad and The Odyssey.  The depth of literary criticism from peers of the poets here is surprising, and many of the profiles which have been included are both entertaining and memorable.  Several of the poets whom Schmidt has focused upon throughout his study have no lasting work, and very little of that by even the more famous poets is complete: ‘some writers are at best a scatter of phrases, preserved by grammarians’.  Despite this, he has wonderfully managed to fashion a six-hundred page tome from this subject matter, and every single page contains something of interest for the modern reader.

The entirety of The First Poets has been beautifully put together.  Schmidt’s writing is intelligent and lucid, but despite his credentials, it does not come across as a purely academic book; its very thoroughness, in fact, makes it accessible to everyone, whether experience with the works of the poets is held or not.  In fact, reading the work of any specific Ancient Greek poets mentioned here is not a prerequisite; verses and fragments have been included and analysed at intervals.  The First Poets is not firmly rooted in the ancient past; several more modern literary works have been referenced, including Alice’s Adventures in WonderlandThe First Poets is a wonderfully informative book, filled with an incredible amount of research.

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Classics Club #11: ‘Medea’ by Euripides ****

The only Euripides play which I had read before compiling my Classics Club list was The Bacchae, an incredibly interesting work which I read as part of my undergraduate studies at University.  As much as I was coveting the Oxford World Classics edition of Medea (pictured), I downloaded an older Oxford University Press copy to my Kindle instead so that I could take it on holiday with me as a last-minute read.

9780199537969One of Euripides’ earliest plays, and one which was translated into ‘English Rhyming Verse’ by Gilbert Murray in 1906, the edition has a wordy yet thoughtful introduction: ‘The Medea, in spite of its background of wonder and enchantment, is not a romantic play but a tragedy of character and situation.  It deals, so to speak, not with the romance itself, but with the end of the romance, a thing which is so terribly often the reverse of romantic for all but the very highest of romances are apt to have just one flaw somewhere, and in the story of Jason and Medea the flaw was of a fatal kind’.

Jason met Medea when the Argonauts looked certain to be just days away from destruction.  She was ‘an enchantress as well as a princess’, banished with her two children by Creon, who ‘helped him through all his trials; slew for him her own sleepless serpent, who guarded the fleece; deceived her father, and secured both the fleece and the soul of Phrixus’.  Medea also ‘formed at the least a brilliant addition to the glory of his enterprise.  Not many heroes could produce a barbarian princess ready to leave all and follow them in blind trust’.

First acted in 431BC, and set in Corinth, where Creon is living, Medea is an incredibly absorbing play.  So many emotions are brought to the fore, and the whole is rather dark from its very beginnings.  Each of the characters has been beautifully and believably developed.  The Nurse says the following, for example: ‘Rude are the wills of princes: yea, / Prevailing alway, seldom crossed, / On fitful minds their moods are tossed: / ‘Tis best men tread the equal way. // Aye, not with glory but with peace / May the long summers find me crowned; / For gentleness – her very sound / Is magic, and her usages’.  Medea herself, in a later Act, gives the following, rather stirring speech, which exemplifies the position of women in Euripides’ world: ‘Women of Corinth, I am come to show / My face, lest ye despise me… / Oh we are drifting things, / And evil!  For what truth is in men’s eyes, / Which search no heart, but in a flash despise / A strange face, shuddering back from one that ne’er / Hath wronged them?’

The monologues within Medea are nothing short of exquisitely crafted, and the dialogue between various players is both striking and thought-provoking.  Each and every character, no matter the number of lines which they have to utter, has a distinctive voice.  The whole is well textured, both geographically and historically, and the social constructs within it are fascinating, particularly when seen from a modern viewpoint.  In Medea, Euripides successfully adds another layer to the myth of Jason and Medea, and probes their relationship in an engaging and absorbing manner.

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‘The King Must Die’ by Mary Renault ***

Mary Renault is one of the authors whom I chose for mine and Yamini’s wonderful 50 Women project.  I have read a couple of her novels before, and must admit that I was a touch disappointed.  I had heard that her work set within Ancient Greek was marvellous, however, and when I discovered that Hilary Mantel is also an advocate of her work, I wanted to give her another go.  I decided to choose a book which I already owned, The King Must Die, which is the first in a series about Theseus.

First published in 1958, the gorgeous new Virago reprint (#684) has an introduction by Bettany Hughes.  The book’s blurb states that within the book, Renault has focused upon ‘weaving legend and historical research… [and] breathes new life into the Theseus myth’.  In The King Must Die, Theseus’ paternity is ‘shrouded in mystery’.  His mother eventually reveals to him that he is the son of Aegeus, King of Athens, and his sole heir to boot.  Theseus then ‘undertakes the perilous journey to his father’s palace, escaping bandits and ritual sacrifice in Eleusis, and slays the fearsome Minotaur’.

It is clear from the outset that Renault has a passion for the Classics; she takes already well-known myths, puts her own spin on them, and makes them her own.  Everything here – from the history of the Athens to her descriptions of the setting – has been well considered, and the novel is both rich and easy to read.  Places and scenes are nicely evoked, and the personification of the elements particularly is a definite strength.

Whilst all of the above elements are positive, the problem I had with The King Must Die was solely with regard to Theseus’ first person perspective.  His voice did not feel quite realistic to me, and I do not believe that he was quite masculine enough.  Renault’s control of his voice was good, certainly, but I feel as though it perhaps could have come across a touch more believably.  I rarely say this in reviews, fan as I am of first person narratives, but I believe that a third person omniscient perspective would have worked far better in this instance; in using Theseus’ voice, there is an unmistakable tinge of modernity which does not quite ring true, or suit the overall tone of the piece.

Sadly, The King Must Die was not as engaging as I had hoped, either; I had a feeling before I began that I would probably love the book, what with its use of mythology and history, but I simply did not, and this disappointed me somewhat.  The pace is nice, as is some of the phrasing – ‘My heart paused in its beating.  A secret as long kept is like a lyre – string stretched near breaking, which a feather will sound, or a breath of air.  Silence held me, as it had before the earthquake’ – but I am afraid that it just did not grab me quite enough to warrant a more positive review.  The King Must Die is an admirable work, and I can certainly understand why Renault wanted to add depth to the myth of Theseus, but I must admit that I far preferred Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles.

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Classics Club #27: ‘Antigone’ by Sophocles ****

Sophocles’ Antigone is the third and final play in the Oedipus series, and the first of which I read.  I believed – quite rightly with regard to my out-of-order trilogy reading this time – that each play could be treated as an individual entity, as the outstanding elements of the plot which were of relevance were covered before it began.

A quick overview of the plot here is of importance.  Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus, the late king of Thebes.  In defiance of Creon, who has taken over his rule, she decides to bury her brother, who was slain during the attack upon Thebes.  Creon inevitably finds out about this and, not willing to listen to Antigone’s explanation, decides that she should be imprisoned within ‘a rock-hewn chamber’.  Haemon, Creon’s son, to whom she is betrothed, pleads for her life, and succeeds.  As is the norm in such plays, Antigone is quite unaware of this, and hangs herself.  Haemon is then found by her side after his own suicide attempt.

9780199537174

As a character, Antigone is incredibly well developed.  Her own musings about her impending death and what it will mean are the perfect balance of sensitivity and bravery: ‘Friends, countrymen, my last farewell I make; / My journey’s done. / One last fond, lingering, longing look I take / At the bright sun. / For Death who puts to sleep both young and old / Hales my young life, / And beckons me to Acheron’s dark fold, / An unwed wife’.

Antigone is rather a slim play, and accordingly has rather a select cast.  As is, almost without exception, the case in Ancient Greek plays, the entity of the Chorus set the scenes and backgrounds.  Here, they do so wonderfully.  They seamlessly move the story along, and place the action of the play within a very well-constructed whole.  The Chorus are an incredibly moral group; they are essentially overseers who add their own judgements and sense of right and wrong to proceedings.  This, too, gives the whole a wider scope.

The translation which I read, by an oddly anonymous translator, was rather old-fashioned in terms of both rhythm and the vocabulary used, but I very much enjoyed the way in which the text had been interpreted.  The rhyme scheme works perfectly, as does the urgency and intensity of some of the scenes: ‘Antigone, so young, so fair, / Thus hurried down / Death’s bower with the dead to share’.  Emotions have been well considered throughout.

Antigone is not my favourite play, but it is a most interesting and enjoyable one nonetheless.  In it, Sophocles provides us with a fascinating window upon the ancient world.

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Classics Club #84: ‘The Histories’ by Herodotus

I originally added Herodotus’ The Histories to my Classics Club list because I am fascinated by Ancient Greece.  I hadn’t read anything of – or even about, really – Herodotus at the time of choosing books, and he seemed an incredibly good choice to include.  I had not factored in, however, how enormous The Histories is.  I checked it out of the library without considering the sheer length of it; the Oxford World’s Classics edition runs to 590 pages, with almost 150 pages’ worth of notes.  The text which has been used is rather small, and the whole is incredibly dense.

The Histories thus seemed rather daunting to begin, particularly with just a three-week timespan in which to read it.  I liked the premise, however, and thought that I would start by reading the introduction and a little of the book proper before deciding if I wanted to continue.

The Oxford World’s Classics translation has been undertaken by Robin Waterfield.  One gets the impression that he was incredibly comfortable with the original material, and his flawless translation reflects this.  The volume’s introduction and extensive notes have been written by Carolyn Dewald, a Professor of Classical and Historical Studies at Bard College in New York.

Herodotus is known as ‘the father of history’, and The Histories was the first known work of its kind in the world.  Dewald’s introduction states that: ‘the magnitude of Herodotus’ achievement as the first historian is hard to appreciate… precisely because the genre that he invented became so important a contribution to our own thought world’.  She believes that the purpose of Herodotus’ writing of The Histories is ‘to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time’.

The Histories is centered upon ‘the clash between a few scarcely united Greek city states and the huge invading army of the Persian empire at the beginning of the fifth century BC, a clash from which, against all the odds, the Greeks emerged Victorians.  The moment was critical, and paved the way for the Golden Age and its far-reaching influence on modern culture’.

Throughout, Herodotus addresses the Greek Enlightenment which occurred in Athens in the mid-5th century BC, and encompassed such elements as great leaps in knowledge and pioneering professional secondary school education: ‘We ultimately owe to this remarkable period many of our most basic ideas about democracy, about the importance of the individual, the importance of rational political discourse, about how we think education works and what it is for, as well as many of our basic genres of literary expression: drama, philosophy, rhetoric – and, thanks to the achievement of Herodotus himself, the writing of history’, Dewald states.

Whilst I did not finish The Histories, what I did read of it was interesting enough.  It is perhaps worth mentioning that the library copy which I borrowed was rather old and a little shelf-worn, but the spine had not been cracked, and I am not quite convinced that any other borrowers made it all the way through either.  There was nothing within it which really grabbed me enough to want to persevere, and time constraints certainly played a part in this too.  If the work had been considerably shorter, I imagine that I would have given it more of a chance.  I may come back to The Histories in future; for now, it becomes the first failure upon my Classics Club list.

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‘The Song of Achilles’ by Madeline Miller

Since visiting Olympia in Greece whilst on a Mediterranean cruise in June, I have been trying to get my hands on as many modern day stories of Greek mythology as I could.  The first which I plumped for was Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, a novel which I have heard only good things about.  When I saw that April also written an incredibly favourable review of the book, I felt I just had to read it.  Whilst my review below is rather mixed, I did very much enjoy the novel; it just hasn’t quite reached the heights of ‘favourite’ status for me personally.

Achilles tending Patroclus wounded by an arrow...

Achilles
tending Patroclus wounded by an arrow, identified by inscriptions on
the upper part of the vase. Tondo of an Attic red-figure kylix, ca. 500
BC. From Vulci. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In The Song of Achilles, Miller has presented the story of Achilles and Patroclus.  I knew the story from reading the wonderful Penguin Book of Mythology (edited by Jenny March) earlier in the year, but I tried to discount all knowledge and enjoy the book for what it was – a love story set amongst the heat of Ancient Greece.  Rather than make her telling of the tale stolid and old fashioned, Miller has given a modern feel to the entirety of the book.  In consequence, it felt as though Achilles and Patroclus’ tale was presented in an entirely fresh way.  I was surprised at how easy it was to read, particularly for rather a lengthy novel.  I must admit that I wasn’t quite expecting the style or tone which Miller presented, but once I got used to it, I felt that it matched the plot perfectly.

With regard to the characters, the way in which the author captured their changing emotions was skilfully done.  I liked the fact that as the boys grew, so did their friendship; a friendship begun merely on the foundation that Achilles found Patroclus ‘surprising’.  Whilst going through their teenage stage, their relationship was often awkward and almost unsettling, and this technique echoed the often tumultuous field of puberty rather well.  The first person perspective throughout worked marvellously, and I loved being able to see the story through the eyes of one who was so involved in it.  The speech between the protagonists and the minor characters too was, like the narrative, rather modern in its style.  This has been criticised in a couple of the reviews I’ve read since, but on reflection, I honestly don’t think that it takes anything away from the story.  Had the language used in conversations and asides been more old fashioned in their style, I feel that it may have bogged down the tale.  It would also have clashed horribly with the modern feel of the narrative.  Miller achieved a good blend between the modernity of the telling and language used and the antiquity of the story.  She also wove in a good deal of historical detail to set the scene and ground the story.  The intertwined storylines which she used also added to this.

 

Ахиллес, оплакивающй Патрокла - Ге Николай Ник...

Ахиллес, оплакивающй Патрокла – Ге Николай Николаевич. Achilles and the body of Patroclus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Miller’s writing was lovely at times, and my favourite aspect of the novel was the way in which she wove in sensory detail.  This was particularly effective when the senses overlapped, and descriptions like the following were introduced: walls which ‘rasped softly as I traced them with my fingertip’.  Her use of music was also a lovely touch.  The Song of Achilles is a novel which I struggled to put down at times, but I must say that I enjoyed the first half of the novel far more than the second.  As soon as the battle scenes came into the story, I felt that Achilles and Patroclus were suddenly fading into the background – almost as though they had become second best for the author.  From here onwards, the development of their relationship was rather stifled and unrealistic. Whilst it had been well paced up until this point, it felt as though the ending was somewhat rushed and not quite developed enough as a result.  To summarise then, The Song of Achilles is a wonderful take on an incredibly interesting myth, but if only Miller had carried on in the way in which she had begun, I feel that it would have been a far more enjoyable novel.