August 3, 2013


A Winelike Sea (Caroline Alexander, Lapham's Quarterly)

          But Achilles,
weeping, quickly slipping away from his companions, sat
on the shore of the gray salt sea, and looked out to the wine-dark sea.
--Homer, The Iliad

The famous likening of the sea to wine has endured through ages, from at least the late eighth century BC, the composition date of The Iliad, and the phrase "wine-dark" is now so securely lodged in our collective consciousness as to be known even by people who have never read Homer. It is not The Odyssey, Homer's sailor's saga, but the earlier, land-bound Iliad, set on Trojan soil, that first launched one of the best-known of all Homeric epithets on the world. The phrase occurs here only six times, the same incidence as "tumultuous" or "loudsounding," while the less vivid "gray-gleaming" is used a dozen times. Yet it is "wine-dark" that has stuck with us, and it is clear why. The phrase is alluring, stirring, and indistinctly evocative. It is also, strictly speaking, incomprehensible, and for all the time the phrase has been relished, readers and scholars have debated what the term actually means. In what way did the sea remind Homer of dark wine? And of the myriad ways to evoke the sea, why compare it to wine at all? A translator's task is to render into English both the plain meaning and the sensibility--the felt meaning--of a Homeric phrase or word, and so it is a duty, albeit a perilous one, to plunge deeper into this celebrated sea phrase, and grope for clarity. Impertinent questions must be floated: what does it mean--and is there possibly a better rendering?

In ancient Greek, the phrase is oínopa pónton--oi´nopa being a compound of oínos, meaning "wine," and óps, meaning "eye" or "face"--literally, "wine-faced," and thus "wineish," or "winelike." The enduring "wine-dark" was established in the Greek-English Lexicon famously compiled by Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott and first published in 1843. Liddell, vice chancellor of Oxford University, dean of Christ Church, and one of the most famous Greek scholars of his day, was also the father of Alice Liddell, the muse for Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. (One imagines the two men busy at their different labors across the quad, the dean seeking to mine and render with exquisite exactitude the innermost meanings of the vocabulary of the ancient Greeks, Carroll plumbing the English language for the inspired nonsense of "Jabberwocky.") According to Liddell and Scott, oínopa means "wine-colored" and is used by Homer, in both The Iliad and The Odyssey, only of oxen and the sea. When used of the sea, the authors suggest, it is best rendered "wine-dark," meaning, within its broader context, "the color of dark wine." They do not hazard what Homer meant by this phrasing, and a survey of principal modern English translations provides neither consensus nor clarity. Richmond Lattimore, in his landmark version of 1951, used, inexplicably, "the wine-blue sea." Robert Fitzgerald in his translation of 1974 tweaked the dictionary to the collapsed "winedark," while Robert Fagles stayed true to Liddell and Scott.

Posted by at August 3, 2013 5:40 PM

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