San Diego is a magnificent city in California. I would like to tell you what I most wanted to see when we went there for a conference of Mark’s earlier this year, and why.
You can award yourself points when you see where this is going.
Thousands of years ago, it seems likely that various Greek city states fought a war against the city of Troy. (10 points)
Some time later, poems were composed about it, possibly by somebody called Homer.
Some time later still, these were written down. The poems, “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey”, became landmarks in Ancient Greek, and world, literature.
In the early sixteenth century, Hernan Cortes and others explored/invaded America. (8 points)
In 1616, one George Chapman published a translation of Homer.
In about 1690, there was an unsuccessful attempt to found a Scottish colony at a place called Darien, in Panama. (7 points)
More than a hundred years later, John Keats was inspired to write the most famous poem ever written (surely) about a translation. Since it’s out of copyright, I can quote in full:
Much have I travelled in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific – and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise –
Silent, upon a peak in Darien. (5 points)
I find it moving that Keats wanted to write great poetry about an already old translation of an already very ancient work.
The saga moves on, and takes a lighter tone. For some reason, it’s Keats’ last few lines that seem to have caught most people’s imagination.
For example, my first encounter with the poem came when reading the classic children’s book, “Swallows and Amazons”. Here the children are giving exotic names to places in the Lake District, and Titty’s memory of Keats’ description of the awed sailors inspires them to call a little promontory “Darien”. (3 points)
Then there is the only memorable history of England… The hard-hitting analysis of the reign of King Williamanmary in “1066 and All That” contains the lines
“The Scots were now in a skirling uproar because James II was the last of the Scottish Kings and England was under the rule of the Dutch Orange; it was therefore decided to put them in charge of a very fat man called Cortez and transport them to a peak in Darien, where it was hoped they would be more silent.”
And there is PG Wodehouse. In one of the prefaces to one of his novels (which I haven’t got in my hands at present, so excuse inaccurate quote), he says that he had in an earlier book referred to Cortez looking at the Pacific. Someone, he says, complained
“ ‘It wasn’t Cortez, you big stiff, it was Balboa.’ However, if Cortez is good enough for Keats, he is good enough for me. Moreover, the Pacific was open to being looked at around that time, and I see no reason why Cortez should not have had a look at it as well.’ “ (1 point)
One could write a learned article about the interplay of history and literature and popular legend. I just can’t explain the joy it gives me to trace the line of thought and inspiration and playfulness down the thousands of years from Troy to Wodehouse.
So this is why, when we went to San Diego, what I really wanted to see was the Pacific Ocean. It was still open to being looked at, after all.
Love from the PPI Blogger