Skip to content

Listening to the Dead.


Ezra Pound, 1913. (Coburn)

ONE OF THE MOST extraordinary passages in modern literature is that presented to us by Ezra Pound as his First Canto. Indeed, as the First Canto in what eventually became the very backbone of twentieth century poetry (Pound’s Cantos), strict chronology aside, there may be some argument for seeing Canto I as the opening salvo of modern(ist) literature.

What Pound does in Canto I is to provide his own tensely archaic translation of a sixteenth century Latin translation of part of Book XI of Homer’s Odyssey, the so-called Nekuia, the Book of the Dead – itself thought to be one of the earliest parts of the Odyssey. Already Pound is making a point. We see Homer (if we do), as refracted through the lenses of twenty-five (or more) centuries of Homeric reading and study and thought. But the meaning deepens when we consider the context of the Nekuia.

In the previous book of the Odyssey, Odysseus has been living in somewhat reluctant luxury with the enchantress Circe, reluctant because she is actually keeping him captive, when he what he really wants is to return to his home in Ithaka. Eventually Circe agrees to let him go, but Odysseus has first to sail to the land of the Cimmerians, a sunless land of mist and fog. There he and his companions will find the entrance to Hades, the domain of the dead, and there Odysseus is to consult the dead prophet Tiresias on his chances of a return to Ithaka. In Pound’s own translation, in Canto XLVII, Circe says this:

First must thou go the road to hell
And to the bower of Ceres’ daughter Proserpine,
Through overhanging dark, to see Tiresias,
Eyeless that was, a shade, that is in hell
So full of knowing that the beefy men know less than he,
Ere thou come to thy road’s end.
Knowledge the shade of a shade,
Yet thou must sail after knowledge
Knowing less than drugged beasts.

Circe forbears to mention that it is she who had turned Odysseus’ men into drugged beasts. Yet the general import is clear. In order to find his home, which is what he really wants, Odysseus must consult one who has more wisdom than the living, who are drugged beasts, one who is dead. And to get to the dead, he must travel a hard road, a journey distant in miles and in mentality from the intoxicating delights of Circe’s palace and bed.

And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and
We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,
Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also
Heavy with weeping, and winds from sternward
Bore us out onward with bellying canvas,
Circe’s this craft…

And when after carrying out due sacrifice and encountering one of their own dead companions, Odysseus does meet Tiresias, the news is not good. Through Neptune’s spite, thou shalt return, but ‘lose all companions’ (as, we might add, did Pound himself decades later, though no blame here to Poseidon). However, at the end of Canto I Pound does afford us a glimpse of Aphrodite ‘with golden girdles and breast bands, with dark eyelids bearing the golden bough’ of Hermes (who is the guider of souls to the underworld). So, in the midst of death, perhaps, for those who go down into Hades and are re-born, there may be love and fertility and the gifts of the Cyprian goddess.

To say that there is a message here, in so many layered a narrative, would be ridiculous. But let us just reflect on the idea that home can only be found by talking to the dead, and that after a difficult journey. Otherwise our state is that of drugged beasts. Of course, Pound’s own whole aesthetic was an attempt to listen the dead, and indeed to get them to talk once more. We are drugged beasts otherwise, in thrall not to Circe but to the clamour and mindlessness of the present. Without a sense of our roots, cultural and otherwise, we do not know who we are. We do not know where home is. Our minds and souls, and maybe our bodies too, are sterile. For all the ease we might find in our Circean palace, we are in a waste land.

WE HAVE HEARD A lot about the supposed iniquity of university and school courses being filled up with the works of dead white men. I was once attacked in print (by a professor of education, needless to say) for allegedly advocating a curriculum of the dead. Actually if we follow Pound’s and Homer’s lead, that is exactly what we should be advocating, a curriculum which puts us (and our children) in touch with those who have helped to form what we are, even as we forget these roots. Most of us find it easy to sympathise with uprooted people who want to discover or rediscover their origins, when they are the descendants of slaves or of those fleeing famine or persecution, and rightly so. But a recapitulation of the common heritage of western civilisation is met all too often with disdain or worse.

I have no wish to be polemical here. I want simply to suggest that, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, the most rewarding antidote to the mindlessness of the present, whether it be the insufferable complacency and narrowness of our leaders, or the banality and parochialism of the worlds of television and celebrity, is entry into the conversation which began with Homer – and which has continued (more or less) ever since, until perhaps now. Initially this may not be easy. The world of writers before our own time will initially seem strange and difficult to penetrate. They will have beliefs and practices alien to us, and even at times repugnant. We will have to undertake a journey of discovery in order to be in a position to listen to what the dead have to tell us.

But in reading and discussing Greek tragedy and Plato, and Virgil and Ovid and Horace, to say nothing of Augustine and Dante, and Chaucer and Shakespeare and Milton, along with Camoes and Cervantes, and Racine and Goethe, we will enter worlds and experiences otherwise unimaginable in 2010, and from which we could learn so much about ourselves, about our forbears, and about our true home – were we, like Odysseus, prepared to listen to the dead. And I can promise anyone who begins the journey that the riches and the enjoyment are unfathomable, and the fascination endless as one discovers more and more that one is participating in a conversation which has gone on for so many centuries, and, as we see with Pound, but not only with Pound, with so much commentary back and forth.

Anthony O’Hear is the director of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, a professor at Buckingham University, and an editor here. Readers who appreciate this article and who wish to enter “into the conversation which began with Homer” may find Prof. O’Hear’s The Great Books: A Journey through 2,500 Years of the West’s Classic Literature of interest.

Etext: Canto I [Academy of American Poets].

One Comment

  1. wrote:

    I have read for all but my first 10 years, and I’m 60 now. If I die today my only regret is that I will not have read and understood everything. Your essay reminds me why that is so. Thank you very much.

    Friday, 26 February 2010 at 23:53 | Permalink

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *