by Matthew Cobb
I knew the name E.V. Rieu from my battered old copy of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which he translated. On reading the Times Literary Supplement this morning, I came across this children’s poem he wrote, ‘Cat’s Funeral’. I thought it was rather good:
Bury her deep, down deep,
Safe in the earth’s cold keep,
Bury her deep-
No more to watch bird stir;
No more to clean dark fur;
No more to glisten as silk;
No more to revel in milk;
No more to purr.
Bury her deep, down deep;
She is beyond warm sleep.
She will not walk in the night;
She will not wake to the light.
Bury her deep.
According to Wikipedia (back on line after the SOPA blackout), Rieu (1887-1972), was the initiator the Penguin Classics series, as well as being a classics scholar and a translator. I first read the Odyssey, in Rieu’s translation, on the Greek island of Patmos (also the place where Saint John allegedly wrote the Book of Revelations, with all its Dylanesque weirdness).
It appears that Rieu was the originator of the phrase ‘wine-dark sea’. In 1983-4, the meaning of this was the subject of a long correspondence in Nature, when a series of writers discussed what exactly was meant, and how we could tell. Sadly, it is all behind Nature’s paywall, so unless you have a personal subscription or work somewhere that has access, the links in the following paragraphs will lead nowhere. Blame Macmillan Publishing.
The opening salvo suggested that the geology of the Peloponnesus meant that water was sufficiently alkaline to make the wine blue (someone later pleaded for this to be tested experimentally). This was scotched as Homer also said cattle were ‘wine-dark’ (but clearly not blue), and it was suggested that it was something to do with the sea at dusk.
A few months later a series of criticisms were put forward, including the argument that the original Greek had no colour connotation at all, and the suggestion that Homeric Greek divided the spectrum to four parts (white/black/red/yellow) (later support for this came in the shape of the doubtful suggestion that Nigerians cannot distinguish various colours), or that the phrase was referring to albedo rather than colour, or that it was a more tribute to vengeful Poseidon. Classics lecturers argued that Homerian wine can be black as well as red, and that therefore it could just be a phrase referring to a dark sea.
It was finally argued that the whole thing was Rieu’s fault, and that the original Greek could be better rendered as ‘wine-faced”, i.e. like the surface of wine. Astronomers even tried to get in on the act, pointing out that Homer described Sirius as a red star, whereas in fact it is white/blue. (A later correspondent pointed out that only Pliny and Ptolemy describe Sirius as ‘red’. Other roman writers, as well as Eygptian and Chinese astronomers, referred to Sirius as white or blue.)
After coming to no real conclusion, the correspondence was finally closed with a note from one Hilton Stowell in the ERBP Laboratory in Georgia. He wrote:
“the literati used to believe that the last word came from Stephen Dedalus [in Joyce's Ulysses] when he spoke the winged words ‘snotgreen and scrotum-tightening sea’.”