September 21, 2009

Endless Lists of Ancient Names

Plenty of people who read this blog will have struggled through the parts of the Bible or Homer that just list page after page of names. Whether they are place names or the endless series of begats it is often difficult not to be incredibly frustrated by an author who wilfully seems to want to tell us that Macedemus fell in this fight without telling us anything else about him or her!

A rather interesting article in the Bryn Mawr Book Review journal reviews a book that attempts to get to the bottom of these lists and why the poets included them. Some of the suggestions are ingenious and leave you impressed by the skill that poets like Homer and Virgil demonstrated. For example both of the above poets say at one point in their poem that a group of soldiers scatttered- from them on for a page, the names of those soldiers are literally scattered through the text in irregular ways without pattern. They use names to slow the tempo, to demonstrate the running forwards of time or to give a context to vast numbers. Catalogues can also deliver clues- when Ascanius son of Aeneas is introduced by Virgil, his placed between two dense lists one of the Trojans (of whom in a way he is the last), the second of the Latins (whom in a sense he will give a foundation to).

The artistry of ancient poetry is something I've been aware of ever since a Greek teacher at school pointed out to me that Homer's line that tells you that Nausicaa is taking Odysseus home to her palace sounds like a carriage running along a street. The beauty of the rhythm of Homer or the terseness of Tacitus is something that you cannot appreciate in modern translation as much as in the original and I suspect these catalogues like 'Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter, Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester' sounded better in their native tongue than in translation. As a consequence we ought to be more charitable to translated works, particularly in languages we shall never hear again, things that seem ugly to us might not have been to them, things that seem meaningless to us might not have been to them. Perhaps I should give those begats another chance.