My father was a scholar and knew Greek.
When I was five years old, I asked him once
“What do you read about?”
“The siege of Troy.”
“What is a siege, and what is Troy?”
He piled up chairs and tables for a town,
Set me a-top for Priam, called our cat
—Helen, enticed away from home (he said)
By wicked Paris, who couched somewhere close
Under the footstool, being cowardly,
But whom—since she was worth the pains, poor puss—
Towzer and Tray,—our dogs, the Atreidai,—sought
By taking Troy to get possession of
—Always when great Achilles ceased to sulk,
(My pony in the stable)—forth would prance
And put to flight Hector—our page-boy’s self.
This taught me who was who and what was what:
So far I rightly understood the case
At five years old; a huge delight it proved
And still proves—thanks to that insructor sage
My Father, who knew better than turn straight
Learning’s full flare on weak-eyed ignorance,
Or, worse yet, leave weak eyes to grow sand-blind,
Content with darkness and vacuity.
It happened, two or three years afterward
That—I and playmates playing at Troy’ Siege—
My Father came upon our make-believe.
“How would you like to read yourself the tale
Properly told, of which I gave you first
Merely such notion as a boy could bear?
Pope, now, would give you the precise account
Of what, some day, by dint of scholarship
You’ll hear—who knows?—from Homer’ very mouth.
Learn Greek by all means, read the “Blind Old Man,
Sweetest of Singers’—tuphlos which means ‘blind,’
Hedistos which means ‘sweetest.’ Time enough!
Try, anyhow, to master him some day;
Until when, take what serves for substitute,
Read Pope, by all means!”
So I ran through Pope,
Enjoyed the tale—what history so true?
Also attacked my Primer, duly drudged,
Grew fitter thus for what was promised next—
The very thing itself, the actual words,
When I could turn—say, Buttmann to account.
Time passed, I ripened somewhat: one fine day,
“Quite ready for the Iliad, nothing less?
There’s Heine, where the big books block the shelf:
Don’t skip a word, thumb well the Lexicon!”
I thumbed well and skipped nowise till I learned
Who was who, what was what, from Homer’s tongue,
And there an end of learning. Had you asked
The all-accomplished scholar, twelve years old,
“Who was it wrote the Iliad?”—what a laugh
“Why, Homer, all the world knows: of his life
Doubtless some facts exist: it’s everywhere:
We have not settled, though, his place of birth:
He begged, for certain, and was blind beside:
Seven cities claimed him—Scio, with best right,
Thinks Byron. What he wrote? Those Hymns we have.
Then there’s the ‘Battle of the Frogs and Mice,’
That’s all—unless they dig ‘Margites’ up
(I’d like that) nothing more remains to know.”
Thus did youth spend a comfortable time;
Until—“What’s this the Germans say in fact
That Wolf found out first? It’s unpleasant work
Their chop and change, unsettling one’s belief:
All the same, where we live, we learn, that’s sure.”
So, I bent brow o’er Prolegomena.
And after Wolf, a dozen of his like
Proved there was never any Troy at all,
Neither Besiegers nor Besieged, nay, worse,—
No actual Homer, no authentic text,
No warrant for the fiction I, as fact,
Had treasured in my heart and soul so long—
Ay, mark you! and as fact held still, still hold,
Spite of new knowledge, in my heart of hearts
And soul of souls, fact’s essence freed and fixed
From accidental fancy’s guardian sheath.
Assuredly thenceforward—thank my stars!—
However it got there, deprive who could—
Wring from the shrine my precious tenantry,
Helen, Ulysses, Hector and his Spouse,
Achilles and his Friend?—though Wolf—ah, Wolf!
Why must he needs come doubting, spoil a dream?
But then, “No dream’s worth waking”—Browning says:
And here’s the reason why I tell thus much.
I, now mature man, you anticipate,
May blame my Father justifiably
For letting me dream out my nonage thus,
And only by such slow and sure degrees
Permitting me to sift the grain from chaff,
Get truth and falsehood known and named as such.
Why did he ever let me dream at all,
Not bid me taste the story in its strength?
Suppose my childhood was scarce qualified
To rightly understand mythology,
Silence at least was in his power to keep:
I might have—somehow—correspondingly—
Well, who knows by what method, gained my gains,
Been taught, by forthrights not meanderings,
My aim should be to loathe, like Peleus’ son,
A lie as Hell’s Gate, love my wedded wife,
Like Hector, and so on with all the rest.
Could not I have excogitated this
Without believing such man really were?
That is—he might have put into my hand
The “Ethics”? In translation, if you please,
Exact, no pretty lying that improves,
To suit the modern taste: no more, no less—
The “Ethics:” ’tis a treatise I find hard
To read aright now that my hair is gray,
And I can manage the original.
At five years old—how ill had fared its leaves!
Now, growing double o’er the Stagirite,
At least I soil no page with bread and milk,
Nor crumple, dogs-ear and deface—boys’ way.