What A Piece of Work: Homer, Sophocles and Shakespeare

These passages are helpful reminders any day of man’s horror and wonder.

Homer, Odyssey 18.130-5

“The earth raises up nothing feebler than man—
[of all the things that creep and breathe over the earth]
For we think that we will never suffer evil tomorrow
As long as the gods give us excellence and our limbs are quick.
But when the gods carry out painful things too,
We endure them unwillingly with a tormented heart.”

οὐδὲν ἀκιδνότερον γαῖα τρέφει ἀνθρώποιο
[πάντων, ὅσσα τε γαῖαν ἔπι πνείει τε καὶ ἕρπει.]
οὐ μὲν γάρ ποτέ φησι κακὸν πείσεσθαι ὀπίσσω,
ὄφρ’ ἀρετὴν παρέχωσι θεοὶ καὶ γούνατ’ ὀρώρῃ·
ἀλλ’ ὅτε δὴ καὶ λυγρὰ θεοὶ μάκαρες τελέωσι,
καὶ τὰ φέρει ἀεκαζόμενος τετληότι θυμῷ.

Uplifting? Yes. And it made me think of the famous “Ode to Man” from Sophocles’ Antigone (332-41):

“There are many wonders and none
is more awe-inspiring than humanity.
This thing that crosses the sea
as it whorls under a stormy wind
finding a path on enveloping waves.
It wears down imperishable Earth, too,
the oldest of the gods, a tireless deity,
as the plows trace lives from year to year
drawn by the race of horses….”

?Ο. Πολλὰ τὰ δεινὰ κοὐδὲν ἀν-
θρώπου δεινότερον πέλει·
τοῦτο καὶ πολιοῦ πέραν
πόντου χειμερίῳ νότῳ
χωρεῖ, περιβρυχίοισιν
περῶν ὑπ’ οἴδμασιν, θεῶν
τε τὰν ὑπερτάταν, Γᾶν
ἄφθιτον, ἀκαμάταν, ἀποτρύεται,
ἰλλομένων ἀρότρων ἔτος εἰς ἔτος,
ἱππείῳ γένει πολεύων.

(It keeps going… Go here for the full text).  This, of course, I cannot consider without thinking of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (2.2.303-12):

“What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet,
to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me—
nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.”

And this always leads me to listen to the musical ‘version’ from Hair, the sweetness of the song makes the bitter lesson a bit easier to swallow:

Leave a reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s