‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Saturday 18 July 2020

"Thetis of the Shining Breasts"

The image, there, is Sir James Thornhill's ‘Thetis Accepting the Shield of Achilles from Vulcan’ (1710), currently in the Tate.

You know the story already: Achilles, grief-stricken and furious at the death of his lover Patroclus, resolves to return to the war from which he had previously withdrawn. His divine mother Thetis visits the palace of Hephaestos, the smith of the gods, begging him to make her son a marvellous suit of armour and shield to protect him in battle. This the god does, because he owes Thetis a favour.
She [Charis] called to Hephaestus, the famed craftsman, and spake to him, saying: “Hephaestus, come forth hither; Thetis hath need of thee.” And the famous god of the two strong arms answered her: “Verily then a dread and honoured goddess is within my halls, even she that saved me when pain was come upon me after I had fallen afar through the will of my shameless mother, that was fain to hide me away by reason of my lameness. Then had I suffered woes in heart, had not Eurynome and Thetis received me into their bosom—Eurynome, daughter of backward-flowing Oceanus. With them then for nine years' space I forged much cunning handiwork, brooches, and spiral arm-bands, and rosettes and necklaces, within their hollow cave; and round about me flowed, murmuring with foam, the stream of Oceanus, a flood unspeakable. Neither did any other know thereof, either of gods or of mortal men, but Thetis knew and Eurynome, even they that saved me. And now is Thetis come to my house; wherefore it verily behoveth me to pay unto fair-tressed Thetis the full price for the saving of my life.” [Iliad 18:392-408; this is A.T. Murray's old Loeb translation from 1924]
Accounts differ as to why and by whom Hephaestus was thrown out of heaven; but Homer is clear that Thetis saved his life. In return the smith makes the armour, and not only forges the shield but decorates it with a wide range of gorgeously rendered pastoral and city scenes of peaceful Greek life.

Anyway: recently I re-read Auden's great poem ‘The Shield of Achilles’ (1955).
She looked over his shoulder
For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-governed cities
And ships upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
And a sky like lead.

A plain without a feature, bare and brown,
No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood,
Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down,
Yet, congregated on its blankness, stood
An unintelligible multitude,
A million eyes, a million boots in line,
Without expression, waiting for a sign.

Out of the air a voice without a face
Proved by statistics that some cause was just
In tones as dry and level as the place:
No one was cheered and nothing was discussed;
Column by column in a cloud of dust
They marched away enduring a belief
Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief.

She looked over his shoulder
For ritual pieties,
White flower-garlanded heifers,
Libation and sacrifice,
But there on the shining metal
Where the altar should have been,
She saw by his flickering forge-light
Quite another scene.

Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot
Where bored officials lounged (one cracked a joke)
And sentries sweated for the day was hot:
A crowd of ordinary decent folk
Watched from without and neither moved nor spoke
As three pale figures were led forth and bound
To three posts driven upright in the ground.

The mass and majesty of this world, all
That carries weight and always weighs the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
And could not hope for help and no help came:
What their foes like to do was done, their shame
Was all the worst could wish; they lost their pride
And died as men before their bodies died.

She looked over his shoulder
For athletes at their games,
Men and women in a dance
Moving their sweet limbs
Quick, quick, to music,
But there on the shining shield
His hands had set no dancing-floor
But a weed-choked field.

A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,
Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who'd never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.

The thin-lipped armorer,
Hephaestos, hobbled away,
Thetis of the shining breasts
Cried out in dismay
At what the god had wrought
To please her son, the strong
Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles
Who would not live long.
The short-line stanzas here (1, 4, 7) detail the kind of things portrayed upon the actual Homeric shield of Achilles; the longer-lined stanzas interspersed give us grim modern glosses.

But one thing puzzled me: why ‘Thetis of the shining breasts’? It looks like a maternal image, or perhaps even a sexual one. But here's the thing: although it is Homeric practice to add epic epithets to characters' names, neither he nor any other classical poet uses this particular epithet. In fact Homer uses only two epithets for Thetis: Θέτις Αργυροπεζα (as at Iliad 18: 369 and 381) which means ‘silver-footed Thetis’, and Θέτις Ἁλοσυδνης (eg Iliad 20:207) which means ‘brine-born Thetis.’ How do these breasts get into Auden's poem?

The answer is via a mistranslation (by no means the only one) in George Chapman's Elizabethan-Jacobean rendering of Homer. Here's how Chapman translates the lines quoted—in Murray's more literal version—at the head of this post:
She led her in, and in a chair of silver (being the fruit
Of Vulcan’s hand) she made her sit, a footstool of a suit
Apposing to her crystal feet; and call’d the God of fire,
For Thetis was arriv’d, she said, and entertain’d desire
Of some grace that his art might grant. “Thetis to me,” said he,
“Is mighty, and most reverend, as one that nourish’d me,
When grief consum’d me, being cast from heav’n by want of shame
In my proud mother, who, because she brought me forth so lame,
Would have me made away; and then, had I been much distress’d
Had Thetis and Eurynome in either’s silver breast
Not rescu’d me; Eurynome that to her father had
Reciprocal Oceanus. Nine years with them I made
A number of well-arted things, round bracelets, buttons brave,
Whistles, and carquenets. My forge stood in a hollow cave,
About which, murmuring with foam, th’ unmeasur’d ocean
Was ever beating; my abode known nor to God nor man,
But Thetis and Eurynome, and they would see me still,
They were my loving guardians.” [Chapman’s Iliad 18: 344-361]
‘I [had] been much distress’d/Had Thetis and Eurynome in either’s silver breast/Not rescu’d me’: the Greek is simpler: εἰ μή μ᾽Εὐρυνόμη τε Θέτις θ᾽ ὑπεδέξατο κόλπῳ: ‘had not Eurynome and Thetis received me into their bosoms.’ Why does Chapman add-in the silver? Because elsewhere in Homer Thetis's feet are described as silver. And because it makes the breasts shining, since these two beings are divine sea-nymphs. Which is to say: Hephaestus being received into their bosoms is Hephaestus falling an immense distance from heaven and hitting water rather than land, and so surviving. Their bosoms are silver-shining because that's how the sunlit sea is.

One thing this does, or so it seems to me, is draw out how dry Auden's horrible vision of contemporaneity is. It's all landscapes, wastelands, concrete and barbed wire. It is, we could say, a thirsty vision. The silver breasts of Thetis (the ‘she’ of the opening line, I suppose) represent not maternal nutrition nor even the individuated bliss of sexual connection, so much as the blue stretch of ocean, the diver leaping and sheathing himself in water: cool freedom and the escape of survival. At any rate, that (I think) is how Auden got ‘Thetis of the shining breasts’.


  1. Ah, this is very helpful to a man making an edition of the book!

    One thing I always point out to my students about stanza 6, the dark heart of the vision:

    words: 63
    words of 3 syllables: 1
    words of 2 syllables: 4
    words of 1 syllable: 58, including 37 in a row at one point

    1. It was hearing that you were going to edit this collection that made me dig it out again, since it occurred to me I hadn't read it in ages. It's good, isn't it?

  2. This is fascinating, I have wondered about that Auden line myself. I have been looking into Chapman's Homer myself recently (his Odyssey though), and while I have no Greek, I can tell through cross-referencing other translations that he often takes little liberties like this. About half the time, when I can understand them, they feel exactly correct to me, like he's elaborating a nuance I also see. Which leads me to a quibble:

    Is what you describe really a mistranslation? It sounds like Chapman is quite clear on the Greek, at least here, and makes a deliberate choice to add something. An odd choice, or even a wrong one, but it doesn't seem like a failure to understand the original. But maybe I've failed to understand you.

    1. Fair point: mistranslation is harsh when I'm actually talking about an insufficiency of rigorous puritanism in translation. So Homer says breast and Chapman says silver breast, how would you characterise that? Creative augmentation of the original? Something along those lines.

      I agree, by the way, that Chapman is amazing. He very often hits lines of such gorgeous poetry that it becomes merely pettifogging to describe them as "unHomeric". Some of my favourites from his Iliad include his line describing the dead: "They never see the flying sun, nor hear the winds that breathe" [8:481]

      ... or this account of men falling in battle on the dusty plains of Troy:

      The batter'd earth flew
      In clouds of dust about their ears, rais'd from the horses' hooves,
      That beat a thunder out of earth as terrible as Jove's. [11:151-3]