In Homeric Matters, Affirm Nothing!

Karlo Arretino to Giovanni Marrasio:

Recently, my dearest Marrasio, when among some of the most distinguished youths dedicated to humanistic study, I praised Homer in the highest terms and said that it was not only in his great works (which usually offer a field for even the mediocre orator or poet), but even in the war of the frogs and mice which he devised as a young man, he showed how much power of intellect he possessed, they entreated me with prayers and force to translate the Batrachomyomachia into Latin and – if it was not possible in verse – to at least render it into prose. And so, since I could in no way resist their pleading, I set about translating it free from all metrical concern. But when I had translated only a few verses, the speech seemed to me so rough and poorly composed that none of it appeared to be sweet or elegant or even to sound like Homer. And so I changed my plan and called upon the Muses to give me a little bit of inspiration and to sprinkle my lips, if not with the sacred waters of Parnassus, at least with the drops of that fountain of Gaius, about which you recently wrote so many delightful elegies. And if suddenly, I would become a poet from a crow (as he said), I promised a whole hecatomb to them.

On the next night, I dreamt that I was taken up on the Muses’ lap and then submerged in the fountain of Gaius, and for that reason when I woke up a little later, I rushed with swiftness of mind to writing and I rendered this little work into our own language. If anything seems elegant in it, attribute it to Homer, the most excellent of all poets, especially in those waves with which you say that your own poems are drenched. But if you come upon anything inept, you can be sure that it was mine.

But I joke too much. It does not escape me that Plutarch thought that these things did not seem to be the work of Homer, because he thought that it would redound to the praise of this most renowned poet if nothing were ascribed to his authorship but those two outstanding poems, of in one of which he sang about the Trojan War, and in the other of which he sand the wanderings of Ulysses. And for that reason, he denied that the Margites was composed by Homer. He made no mention of the Hymns, but I do not see why the opinion of those who ascribe these poems to Homer cannot be true. For if our own Vergil wrote the Culex, the Copa, and some other things for the sake of exercising his talent so that he could finally sing about pastors, fields, and horrid wars, what wonder is it that Homer played around with this kind of work before the Trojan War, especially since the elegance of the language seems hardly discordant with the tone of that noble work. For although it seems laudable to write great things, it is hardly absurd to exercise oneself in small matters, and indeed, ‘I am not doubtful in my mind to say in words how great it is and to add honor to small things.’ For, as the most excellent poet writes, ‘in a small thing, there is labor but no small glory.’

But this should hardly seem amazing to us, if we consider what kind of controversy about this work there is among the learned, since we see that there are so many different opinions about the birth, life, and country of Homer himself. If you consult Ephorus about his fatherland, he says he was Cumaean; if you look to Pindar, the prince of the lyric poets, he will say he’s Smyrnaean now and Chian another time; if you ask Antimachus and Nicander, they will think that he comes from Colophon; if you go to Aristarchys and Dionysius Thrax, they will hardly hesitate to say that he is Athenian; and though Simonides says he’s from Chios, and Aristotle says the same, there are those who grant that he may be from Cyrpus, Salamis, or Argos. Similarly, there are just as many different opinions about when he was born or who his parents were, that it would be more to the point to affirm nothing about Homer than to offer any opinions about him.

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“Was this the ride that began the crab-claw clips?”

Nuper, suavissime Marrasi, quom apud quosdam praestantissimos iuvenes studiis humanitatis mirifice deditos Homerum summopere laudassem dixissemque eum non solum in rebus magnis, quae mediocri oratori vel poetae maximum orationis campum praestare solent, verum etiam in eo bello quod adolescens de ranis muribusque finxit quantum iam ingenio valeret ostendisse, et precibus et vi a me exegerunt ut id in Latinum converterem ac, si non valerem versu, saltem id, quoquo modo possem, soluta oratione transferrem. Itaque, cum eorum studiis nullo pacto obsistere quirem, liber omni pede id traducere aggressus sum; sed, cum perpaucos transtulissem versus, ita ea oratio incondita et incomposita mihi visa est, ut nihil suave, nihil elegans, nihil denique Homericum resonare videretur. Itaque mutato consilio, Musas invocavi, ut mihi aliquantulum aspirarent meaque labra si non Parnasi sacris undis, saltem lymphis illius Gaii fontis, de quo nuper quam plures suavissimos elegos edidisti, aspergerent. Ac si repente ex corvo (ut inquit ille) poeta prodirem, eis hecatombem pollicitus sum. Proxima deinde nocte in somnis mihi visum est Musarum gremio sublatum in Gaio fonte esse demersum, quamobrem paulo post experrectus, alacri animo ad scribendum accessi et hoc opusculum in nostram linguam transtuli. In quo si quid elegans visum fuerit, tum Homero, omnium poetarum praestantissimo, tuo maxime illis undis, quibus tua carmina uda esse dicis, attribuito; sin autem aliquid ineptum offenderis, id a me editum esse credas. Sed iam diu tecum iocor. Non tamen me latet videri Plutarcho haec Homero non esse tribuenda, putavit enim, ut arbitror, hanc clarissimi poetae summam fore laudem, si nihil illius nomine inscriberetur praeter illa duo egregia poemata, quorum altero bellum Troianum, altero Ulixis varios errores cecinit. Itaque et hoc et Margitem Homeri esse negavit; de Hymnis vero nullam fecit mentionem, sed non video cur sententia eorum qui haec Homero ascribunt vera esse non possit. Nam si noster Maro Culicem, Copam nonnullaque alia exercendi ingenii gratia scripsit, ut tandem pastores, agros horrendaque bella caneret, quid mirum Homerum hoc opere bello Troiano praelusisse, praesertim quom verborum elegantia ab illo praeclaro opere minime dissentire videatur? Quamvis enim laudabile sit res magnas scribere,in parvis tamen aliquando se exercere haud absurdum est, et enim “non sum animi dubius verbis ea dicere magnum / quam sit et angustis hunc addere rebus honorem”. Nam, ut inquit praestantissimus poeta, “in tenui labor at tenuis non gloria”. Sed minime mirum nobis videri debet, si de hoc opere inter doctos aliquod certamen sit, quom de genere, de vita, de patria denique ipsius Homeri tam varias sententias esse videamus. Nam si ab Ephoro patriam quaeras, Cumaeum esse dicet; si a Pindaro omnium liricorum principe, tum Smyrnaeum tum Chium asseverabit; si ab Antimacho et Nicandro, Colophonium censebunt; sin autem ab Aristarcho et Dionysio Thracio, haud dubitabunt Atheniesem dicere; demum quom Simonides Chium, Aristoteles item fuisse scribat, non desunt qui eum ex Cypro, Salaminium aut Argivum esse concedant, qua item tempestate quibusve parentibus fuerit, tam variae sententiae sunt, ut satius sit de eo nihil affirmare quam tam diversas de eo opiniones proferre.

3 thoughts on “In Homeric Matters, Affirm Nothing!

    1. Yeah, we really bungled it on both counts! We should have at least *tried* to stage a photo like this for promotional purposes.

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