Of the cunning hero,
The wanderer, blown off course time and again
After he plundered Troy’s sacred heights.
Of all the cities he saw, the minds he grasped,
The suffering deep in his heart at sea
As he struggled to survive and bring his men home
But could not save them, hard as he tried—
The fools—destroyed by their own recklessness
When they ate the cattle of Hyperion the Sun,
And that god snuffed out their day of return.
Of all these things
Speak, Immortal One,
And tell the tale once more in our time.
By now, all the others who had fought at Troy—
At least those who had survived the war and the sea—
Were safely back home. Only Odysseus
Still longed to return to his home and his wife.
Book I, Lines 1-18 of Homer’s Odyssey (Stanley Lombardo’s translation).
These lines were composed in the 8th century BCE. Other than the Iliad, the work which these words set off is the oldest extant work of Western literature.
As a reminder to those who’ve forgotten their 10th grade English curriculum, the Iliad is the story of the final few weeks of the Trojan War. The Odyssey is the decade-long tale of its hero, Odysseus, as he returns home to his wife and son in Ithaca, where he is king. Odysseus is noted for his brilliance, perseverance, and cunning; he devised the Trojan horse, the winning ruse which, after ten years of warfare, led the Greeks to “plunder Troy’s sacred heights”.
The larger narrative of the Iliad and Odyssey is an immortal one, vibrating with harsh and immediate lessons for our own age. Philosophically, it relates the pitfalls of pride, the capriciousness of fate, the pulls of romantic love, and the truth of Oscar Wilde’s great dictum to be careful what you wish for — you may get it. On a practical level, however, it tells of war’s horrors and pities, its moments for heroism and glory, and the fact that, oftentimes, the settling of the dust marks only half the battle, because it’s the return home that often proves most perilous. It was true in the day of Patroclus, and true in the age of PTSD. As Chris Hedges noted, in his New York Times review of the Lombardo translation, “every recruit headed into war would be well advised to read the Iliad, just as every soldier returning home would be served by reading the Odyssey.”
Some brief notes about SPEAK MEMORY:
The opening words are essential. Homer’s poems would not have been codified on tablets or parchment; instead they were orated to an audience and set to some form of rhythmic music, such as the slow beat of a griot’s drum. For this reason, it’s important to try to hear his words spoken, either by yourself or by a performer such as Stanley Lombardo, who penned the above translation and reads them in the video below.
“Speak Memory” is also crucial because although we don’t know whether Homer was an actual person, folklore tells us that he was real and that he was also blind. So the “memory” part was something he would have only been able to express through his tongue. What’s more, like Shakespeare, he may never have existed; like Milton, he may never have actually seen the works over which we now pore.
Third, “Speak Memory” is notable because it is also the title of Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir. In a strong field, one of the most compelling titles I know of for an autobiography.
Watch Lombardo perform this portion of the Odyssey, as well as an extended discussion about the work, here: