Month: July 2015

7. Selections from The Book of Poetry c.750 BC

Content : The Book of Poetry, or Shi jing, is a compilation of 305 Chinese folk songs, hymns and odes, and was one of the six Chinese classics believed to have been used by Confucius to teach his disciples. The poems themselves are thought to have been composed between the 11th and 6th centuries BC. While the songs were largely collected from rural river valleys, the odes and epics were mostly written by nobles in the imperial courts.
My copy is a selection of 50 of the songs and odes with accompanying paintings from earlier texts.
My thoughts : A very difficult book to review. Until now, the books I have read have been translated into English by native English speakers. This selection of poems has been translated into English by a native Chinese speaker, and at first, the attempts to create rhyme seems forced and even a little desperate. I wondered how much of the natural original beauty of the poems I was losing due to the translation. But after a while, I started to understand the method behind the poetry, and the choice of English words and rhyming jarred less.

The volume I read was heavily weighted towards the folk songs, where there was a definite theme of hardship and sadness in the poems. The farm workers struggling with their lot in life, the jilted lover, the lowly soldiers ….

There is much nature symbolism and background to many of the songs, which provides the artists with the opportunity to create paintings for specific songs in different editions of the work through the centuries.

The odes, epics and hymns are generally much more interested in praising the kings and nobles, and without the beauty and sadness of the common man’s experience, these are far less affecting and interesting.

Favourite lines/passages
I did like the following verses, despite their inherent sadness : the misery of the present day, the loss of youth and the realisation of the loss of youth and years

The cricket chirping in the hallcricket

The year will pass away
The present not enjoyed at all
We’ll miss the passing day

                         (from The Cricket)

The rabbit runs away
The pheasant in the net
In my earliest day
For nothing did I fret rabbit_and_bird_in_tree_15
In later years of care
All evils have I met
O I would sleep fore’er

                    (from Past and Present)

Diversions/digressions : Wondering how a young bride can have “a forehead like a dragonfly’s”
Personal rating : 4.5 /10  (5/10 for the folk songs, 1/10 for the odes and hymns)


Next : The Book of Poetry, or Shi Jing

Leaping across the expanse of Europe and Asia to the Middle Kingdom and one of the Five Classics : The Book of Poetry, or Shi jing. Over 300 poems is a big ask, so my copy is a selection of about 50 only, but in a beautifully illustrated copy published by China Intercontinental Press, titled Selections from the Book of Poetry : illustrated edition (ISBN 9787508508870). I will try to scan some of the paintings to go alongside my review in the next post.

shi jing

6. The Odyssey, by Homer c.750 BC

Plot : While a plague of arrogant young suitors camp in his house, feasting and laying waste to his flocks and vineyards; Odysseus is struggling to return home, and must face the giant flesh-eating Cyclops, the magical witch Circe, the besotted nymph Calypso, the spectres of the dead in Hades, the seductive song of the Sirens, and the twin threats of Scylla and Charybdis.
My thoughts : If The Iliad was a slug-fest war story, The Odyssey is an adventure story, a one man quest filled with magic and monsters. Ray Harryhausen must have loved it.
In some ways a sequel to the events of The Iliad (classical scholars are divided on which was written first), The Odyssey starts by describing the fate of many of the Greek leaders from that story, including Achilles, Agamemnon, Menelaus and Nestor ; in tandem with the shameful events in Odysseus’s own palace brought about in part by his prolonged absence. The central third of the story is told in flashbacks by Odysseus himself, describing the fantastical adventures he faced; before the climactic conclusion of his homecoming and defeat of the Suitors.
For my money, I found this a more interesting read than The Iliad, which was very repetitive despite its remorseless build towards a tragic end. I understand the repetition of phrases was a feature in being able to recite sections orally for an audience, but it does tire when on the written page. However, The Odyssey is more varied and kept my interest due in large part to the encounters with mythological beings as well as the Gods, and the buildup to his defeat of the gang of Suitors. Odysseus is more human and prone to mistakes, partly because he loses some of the glory and status he wore on the battlefield.
The Trojan Horse is also mentioned in passing, so my comments on that score in the Iliad review stand corrected.
My copy for this project was the Penguin Classics edition, edited by E. V. Rieu. (9780140449112), but there are many different versions available.
Favourite lines/passages
Achilles’ lament in Hades (Chapter XII) struck a chord, especially from a character who was the greatest hero of the Greeks in The Iliad:
“Spare me your praise of Death. Put me on Earth again, and I would rather be a serf in the house of some landless man, with little enough for himself to live on, than king of all these dead men that have done with life.”
Agamemnon’s fate is also the basis for later tragedies by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. There is obviously some value in reading literature chronologically, as now his back story as Leader of the Greeks and the reason for his own long absence is already known.
The mythological quest story will also reappear in our readings when Jason and the Argonauts go in search of the Golden Fleece, a legend set before the Trojan War but surviving in recorded form by a version after Homer.
There is also a more modern appropriation of The Odyssey (a term my teenage daughter taught me this week) in James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is years away for us yet.
Personal rating : 7.5/10
Kimmy the Lit-Terrier’s rating : Too much messing around in boats for Kimmy, but the bitter-sweet reunion scene with Odysseus’ old dog Argus in Chapter XVII redeems a little : 3/5

The Five Classics

While I am up to Homer’s Odyssey in my chronological journey, looking forward a little brings us to the Chinese Classics and as these may take some tracking down, I’ll post a quick note now.

The Five Classics were all written before 221 BC, and form part of the base of Confucianism. The five texts are :

  • The Book of Poetry (Songs), or Shi jing, a collection of over 300 songs and hymns,
  • The Book of Documents, or Shu jing, a collection of speeches from kings and other important personages,
  • The Book of Changes, or I Ching – a book used for divination, where the reader uses random numbers generated by yarrow sticks, or more recently, coin tosses, to receive guidance in decision-making,
  • The Book of Rites, or Li ji or Li jing, a series of texts describing social forms and ceremonial rites,
  • The Spring and Autumn Annals, a history of the State of Lu between 722 and 481 BC.

There was a sixth title, the Book of Music, which no longer exists.

Both for the literary content and my personal interest, and the ease of obtaining copies to read, I will only seek out the Book of Poetry and the I Ching for this project.

5. The Iliad by Homer (c.750 BC)

5. The Iliad by Homer (c.750 BC)

Plot :

For nine years, the massed armies of the Greeks and their allies have laid siege to the walled Trojan city of Ilium, seeking revenge for the abduction of their King’s brother’s wife Helen (she of the Face that launched the thousand ships). The Gods of Olympus are also divided in support of the two warring sides, and goad and support the fighters as the tide of battle ebbs and flows from side to side on the field between the beached Greek ships and the city walls.

Now in the tenth year, the greatest Greek fighter Achilles has withdrawn from the fighting after an insult from his KIng Agamemnon, and it seems as if the Trojans under the leadership of King Priam’s son Hector will succeed in driving the Greeks into the sea. What will it take for Achilles to resume the battle and save his side from defeat?

My thoughts: The first lengthy piece of literature surviving from ancient times, the Iliad starts fairly slowly with hosts of unfamiliar Greeks and Trojans, each briefly outlined with their various histories and successes, usually just before they meet a stronger foe on the battlefield and find themselves killed and on the way down to Hades. As the war turns in the Trojans’ favour and they have pushed the battle to the very brink of the Greek ships, the excitement of the fighting actually starts to impact on the reader, and the violence becomes very graphic.

Who is the hero of the story – Hector or Achilles, or even Patroclus? To Homer’s Greek audience, Achilles might appear the hero –  the doomed man who loses his best friend through his own pride and inaction. Yet he treats Hector’s corpse shamefully, and spends much of the story sulking near his tent. On the other side, Hector is fighting for his town and family, and the scene where he says goodbye to his wife and child are heartfelt, but his cowardice in running from Achilles for three laps around the walled city is not the modern concept of a hero. The truth seems to be that heroes or cowards are judged by their actions, not just in war but also sport and love, which is influenced very strongly by the whims of the Gods. So much of the action in the Iliad is directly or indirectly due to Their intervention – we are all playthings of the Gods indeed! In literature up until now, the Gods were beseeched for help, but did not appear on the stage in the way Homer has included them.

Several of the players are very well drawn in their characteristics. I can easily imagine old Nestor telling his long stories of his glorious youth and boring the grouped soldiers, Achilles nursing his pride and hurt, Paris’ vanity and the criticism from his older brother Hector.

The ultimate sacking of Ilium thanks to the Trojan Horse strategy is not reached by the end of this story, which seems odd. Why did Homer not include such a momentous conclusion? Is that part of the story a fabrication from a later age? Homer settles for the climactic battle between Achilles and Hector, and Achilles’ final softening to release Hector’s body to Priam.

Two of the survivors of the Trojan war will appear in later works : Odysseus’ long delayed voyage home is described in Homer’s other major work, The Odyssey, while Aeneas’s future is featured in Virgil’s Aeneid.

If Homer made his living telling this story in sections after banquets, he must have dined long and well pretty frequently.

Favourite lines/passages : When Hector breaks through the gates of the Greek defence, at the end of Chapter 12, exactly half way through the story:

He lifted up the rock … hit the doors full in the middle, and broke the hinges off on either side… as the panels were smashed to splinters by the impact….. Glorious Hector leapt inside, with a look like nightfall on his face. He held two spears in his hand and the bronze on his body shone with a baleful light. …. With fire flashing from his eyes, he turned and called on the Trojans … some swarmed over the wall, other poured in through the gate itself. The panic-stricken Danaans fled among the hollow ships, and hell was let loose.

Diversions/digressions : The Greek Gods (later adopted and renamed by the Romans) are certainly worth study. Bullfinch’s is a well known reference work, but also Graves’ 2 volume The Greek Myths gives both the myths and plenty of footnotes to explain.

Personal rating : 7/10

Kimmy’s the Lit-terrier rating : Lots of exciting action and roast meat, and camp dogs to play with. The noise and terror of battle costs the story a point : 4/5

Next : Homer’s other surviving work, The Odyssey

Books for August 2015

I am halfway through the Iliad by Homer (my copy is a Penguin edition edited by E. V. Rieu). but looking forward a little, I thought I would post the likely titles for August. In my order, they are

  • The Odyssey (Homer)
  • The Book of Songs, or Shih Ching (Chinese poetry, roughly contemporary to Homer)
  • The Book of Changes, or I Ching (Chinese book of divination)
  • The Upanishads
  • Theogony, and Works and Days (Hesiod)  c. 700 BC
  • Elegies (Theognis)
  • The Homeric Hymns (not written by Homer 🙂 )

That should be enough to be going along with for now. Happy reading, and watch for my review of The Iliad in coming days.