Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Odyssey in the 21st Century

Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Loretta reports:

Well into the 19th century (and later, in many places), a gentleman’s education—to the extent he had one—consisted mainly of studying Greek and Latin.* This is why, when we read 18th and 19th C books written by men, we come upon untranslated chunks of Greek and Latin. An educated gentleman, it was assumed, would easily understand material he’d learned by rote in school. In a number of my books, I mention this emphasis on Latin and Greek.

All the same, very few people, even in the 19th century, read Homer’s Odyssey in the original Greek. For centuries, scholars and poets have tackled the work, making that tricky ancient Greek accessible, not only to those without a classical education, but also educated persons who found Homer very hard going.

My epigraph for the Prologue of Dukes Prefer Blondes is the beginning of The Odyssey as translated by William Cowper in 1791:

Muse, make the man thy theme, for shrewdness famed
And genius versatile

These are the first lines of the Invocation of the Muse, which we later learn the hero is trying to construe from the Greek. As young Oliver Radford realizes, there’s more than one way to read the poem. Here’s how T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia) began:

Odysseus and the Sirens 1829
Goddess-Daughter of Zeus
              Sustain for Me

This Song of the Various-Minded Man…

Wikipedia offers a very long list of English translations, beginning with  George Chapman’s of 1615:

The man, O Muse, inform, that many a way
Wound with his wisdom to his wished stay;

We go on to find Odysseus described as “that prudent Hero,” “The man for wisdom’s various arts renown’d,”  “the crafty man,” “the man full of resources,” and on and on. If you want a sense of how not easy it is to translate Homer’s epic, please do scroll down the Wikipedia page to the section on The Odyssey.

A short time ago, Susan sent me the opening of a a new translation of The Odyssey, by Emily Wilson, the first English translation by a woman.

Robbing the cattle of Helios
Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy;
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered in the storms at sea, and how
he worked to save his life and bring his men
back home. He failed to keep them safe; poor fools,
they ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god
kept them from home.  Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.
Find the beginning.

After reading these lines, I ordered the book. Though I’m saving a full read for my late winter sojourn in the South, it’s been hard for this Nerdy History Girl to resist dipping into it. The introduction is an eye-opener, the perfect prelude to the new translation, which IMO is a knockout. As to the story itself, as translation after translation demonstrates, it never gets old.
Waterhouse, Circe Invidiosa 1892

*This isn’t to say that boys and men learnt nothing else. Indeed, a gentleman, not having a job to go to every day to support his family, had the leisure to investigate a wide variety of subjects. Many gentlemen were true polymaths. They were adept in multiple languages, performed agricultural and scientific experiments, attempted to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs, developed early forms of photography, and so on.

Images: Book cover for The Odyssey by Emily Wilson; Pellegrino Tebaldi, The companions of Odysseus rob the cattle of Helios 1554-1556; Bruckmann, Alexander, Odysseus and the Sirens 1829;
J.M. Waterhouse, Circe Invidiosa 1892 from the collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia (this image via Wikimedia Commons).

Clicking on the image will enlarge it.  Clicking on the caption will take you to the source, where you can learn more and enlarge images as needed.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

A Backward Letter from Jane Austen, 1817

Sunday, January 21, 2018
Susan reporting,

Whenever I'm in New York, I always try to stop by The Morgan Library to see what treasures from their extraordinary collection have been rotated onto display. As usual, I wasn't disappointed. Among the current exhibits are a score by Mozart, a Gutenberg Bible, a proclamation from George Washington, letters from Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton (!!!), and this wonderful short letter from Jane Austen. These items and others are part of the current Treasures from the Vault exhibition, on display through March 11, 2018.

At first glance, the words appear to be beautifully written gibberish. But there's a trick to reading it: each word is spelled backward. According to the Library's placard, the letter was written by Austen to her eight-year-old niece Cassandra Esten Austen, the daughter of her brother Charles. The code is a bit challenging, but not so difficult that a clever eight-year-old (and being Jane Austen's niece, Cassandra must have been clever) couldn't decipher it. I also imagine Cassandra treasured it, too; her aunt died only six months later, leaving her final novel, Sanditon, unfinished.

I'm not providing a translation (the Library didn't either), so you can try to figure it out for yourselves. It begins "My dear Cassy I wish you a happy new year" and is signed "Your affectionate aunt Jane Austen." What lies between is up to you. Please click on the image to enlarge.

Above: Jane Austen (1775-1817) Autograph letter, written backward, to her niece Cassandra Austen, signed and dated Notwahc [Chawton], 8 January 1817, The Morgan Library. 
Below: Mr. Morgan's Library, The Morgan Library
Photos ©2018 Susan Holloway Scott

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Breakfast Links: Week of January 14, 2018

Saturday, January 20, 2018
Breakfast Links are served - our weekly round-up of fav links to other web sites, articles, blogs, and images via Twitter.
• Bullet-stopping Bibles.
• How an earthenware jug can be a radical object.
• Why did Charles Dickens have a personal postbox?
• A seldom-seen part of New York City: the vanishing towns along Hook Creek.
• An overlooked benefactress: new research discoveries about who paid for Alexander Hamilton's education.
• Image: Cross-section of a Regency-era townhouse in Brunswick Square.
Katherine of Aragon's prayer book.
• How the newly rediscovered kitchen at Monticello fits into the history of upper-class dining in the west.
• Empress Josephine and the creation of Malmaison.
• Two suns? No, it's a supernova drawn in Kashmir over 6,000 years ago.
• A graveyard of ghost ships near Coney Island.
• The tattooist of Auschwitz - and his secret love.
Image: This is the world's oldest known woven garment, dating from 3482-3103 BC.
• The countess, the gout, and the spider.
• Then and now: fifteen historic New York scenes.
Unicorns in an 18thc Persian medical manual.
• Image: Cutaway reconstruction of late 12thc polygonal keep at Conisbrough Castle, South Yorkshire.
• Distilling the essence of Heaven: how alcohol could defeat the Antichrist (at least in the 16thc.)
• A rare cast & chased gold medal of Queen Elizabeth I that was likely a gift from the queen to a favored courtier or ally.
• Unbelievable images from Weird (er, World) War Two.
Hungry for more? Follow us on Twitter @2nerdyhistgirls for fresh updates daily.
Above: At Breakfast by Laurits Andersen Ring. Private collection

Friday, January 19, 2018

Friday Video: The Wedding of Princess Elizabeth & Philip Mountbatten, 1947

Friday, January 19, 2018

Susan reporting,

This is for all of you out there who are engrossed in The Crown on Netflix. Here's a short newsreel segment with the highlights of the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten on November 20, 1947. As grainy as this black & white footage is today, how exciting it must have been to people in the cinema in those pre-television days - and how very different from the second-by-second broadcast of the last royal wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A Newly Discovered Painting of Gen. George Washington's Headquarters Tent, 1782

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Susan reporting,

"National treasure" is a heady designation, but I can't think of any artifact that deserves it more than George Washington's headquarters tent, middle left, now the star of the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, PA. The old tent's once-stout canvas is worn so thin that it now requires an elaborate internal substructure to support it, and so fragile that it can only be shown to visitors a limited number of minutes a day. Yet there are few objects that are both so weighted with history and so emotionally evocative of a long-gone time and spirit.

I've written before in detail about the tent's history here, and about the hand-sewn replica of it (the "stunt double" used in the museum's film) made by the tailors of Colonial Williamsburg here. For visitors to the Philadelphia area, the tent has become a must-see - though I should warn you that everyone I've taken to see it has been overwhelmed to the point of patriotic teariness.

While the actual tent still exists, as well as numerous descriptions of it dating from the Revolution, there wasn't an 18thc image that showed it in use in the field. However, in one of those fortuitous discoveries that make history so special (and delights viewers of Antiques Road Show), an 18thc watercolor showing the tent suddenly appeared at auction last spring, only weeks after the MoAR had opened. While the auction house had labeled it as simply a "Revolutionary War Camp Scene," to Dr. Philip Mead, Chief Historian and Director of Curatorial Affairs for the Museum, recognized the tent  as once. Fortunately, no other potential buyers did as well, and the Museum was able to acquire the drawing for its permanent collection.

The watercolor is long and narrow - about 12" high and seven feet in length, and far too long to capture in its entirety here - consisting of multiple sheets joined together to create a panorama of the Continental Army's 1782 encampment at Verplanck's Point in New York's Hudson Valley. (The single sheet, below, shows the visible joinings between pages.) Rows and rows of the soldiers' small, peeked tents are depicted in precise detail, right, as are the more elaborate tents of the officers. Set apart from the others and on a small hill in a position both commanding and unmistakable, is Washington's field tent, complete with its decorative entryway, above left.

"We have no photographs of this army, and suddenly here is the equivalent of Google Street View," said Dr. Mead. "Looking at it, you feel like you are walking right into the past."

But the tent and the military landscape surrounding it are only part of the watercolor's story. Additional study, analysis, and preservation confirmed that the scene was painted by Pierre L'Enfant, the French-born military engineer who traveled with the Continental Army during the war. L'Enfant was a man of many talents; he also designed the plan for Washington, DC, and the Diamond Eagle of the Society of Cincinnati (featured in my blog here.) A skilled artist, L'Enfant's eye for detail and accuracy was remarkable. Although this same landscape along the Hudson River today includes a few modern buildings, it's surprisingly recognizable from L'Enfant's painting, over 235 years later.

The watercolor is currently on display through February 19 in the exhibition "Among His Troops" at the Museum of the American Revolution. In addition to other artifacts used at the 1782 encampment, the exhibition includes the only other known L'Enfant panorama, a view of West Point, also painted in 1782. I'll be writing more about this second painting later this week.

Click here for more information about the exhibition.

Many thanks to Phil Mead and Scott Stephenson for the early tour of the exhibition, and to Alex McKechnie for her assistance.

Photographs courtesy of the Museum of the American Revolution.

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