The Authoress of the Odyssey, by Samuel Butler

Chapter xi

Who was the Writer?

I believe the reader will by this time feel no doubt, from my earlier Chapters that the “Odyssey” was written by one woman, and from my later ones that this woman knew no other neighbourhood than that of Trapani, and therefore must be held to have lived and written there.

Who, then, was she?

I cannot answer this question with the confidence that I have felt hitherto. So far I have been able to demonstrate the main points of my argument; on this, the most interesting question of all, I can offer nothing stronger than presumption.

We have to find a woman of Trapani, young, fearless, self-willed, and exceedingly jealous of the honour of her sex. She seems to have moved in the best society of her age and country, for we can imagine none more polished on the West coast of Sicily in Odyssean times than the one with which the writer shews herself familiar. She must have had leisure, or she could not have carried through so great a work. She puts up with men when they are necessary or illustrious, but she is never enthusiastic about them, and likes them best when she is laughing at them; but she is cordially interested in fair and famous women.

I think she should be looked for in the household of the person whom she is travestying under the name of King Alcinous. The care with which his pedigree and that of his wife Arēte is explained (vii. 54-77), and the warmth of affectionate admiration with which Arēte is always treated, have the same genuine flavour that has led scholars to see true history and personal interest in the pedigree of Æneas given in “Il.” XX. 200-241. Moreover, she must be a sufficiently intimate member of the household to be able to laugh at its head as much as she chose. No pedigree of any of the other dramatis personæ of the “Odyssey” is given save that of Theoclymenus, whose presence in the poem at all requires more explanation than I can give. I can only note that he was of august descent, more than sub-clerical, and of a different stamp from any other character to whom we are introduced.

The fact that the writer should be looked for in a member of King Alcinous’ household seems further supported by the zest with which this household and garden are described (vii. 81-132), despite the obviously subrisive exaggeration which pervades the telling. There is no such zest in the description of any other household, and the evident pleasure which the writer takes in it is more like that of a person drawing her own home, than either describing some one else’s or creating an imaginary scene. See how having begun in the past tense she slides involuntarily into the present as soon as she comes to the women of the house and to the garden. She never does this in any other of her descriptions.

Lastly, she must be looked for in one to whom the girl described as Nausicaa was all in all. No one else is drawn with like livingness and enthusiasm, and no other episode is written with the same, or nearly the same, buoyancy of spirits and resiliency of pulse and movement, or brings the scene before us with anything approaching the same freshness, as that in which Nausicaa takes the family linen to, the washing cisterns. The whole of Book vi. can only have been written by one who was throwing herself into it heart and soul.

All the three last paragraphs are based on the supposition that the writer was drawing real people. That she was drawing a real place, lived at that place, and knew no other, does not admit of further question; we can pin the writer down here by reason of the closeness with which she has kept to natural features that remain much as they were when she portrayed them; but no traces of Alcinous’s house and garden, nor of the inmates of his household will be even looked for by any sane person; it is open, therefore, to an objector to contend that though the writer does indeed appear to have drawn permanent features from life, we have no evidence that she drew houses and gardens and men and women from anything but her own imagination.

Granted; but surely, in the first place, if we find her keeping to her own neighbourhood as closely as she can whenever the permanency of the feature described enables us to be certain of what she did, there is a presumption that she was doing the same thing in cases where the evidence has been too fleeting to allow of our bringing her to book. And secondly, we have abundant evidence that the writer did not like inventing.

Richly endowed with that highest kind of imagination which consists in wise selection and judicious application of materials derived from life, she fails, as she was sure to do, when cut off from a base of operation in her own surroundings. This appears most plainly in the three books which tell of the adventures of Ulysses after he has left Mt. Eryx and the Cyclopes. There is no local detail in the places described; nothing, in fact, but a general itinerary such as she could easily get from the mariners of her native town. With this she manages to rub along, helping herself out with fragments taken from nearer home, but there is no approach to such plausible invention as we find in Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe, or Pilgrim’s Progress; and when she puts a description of the land of Hades into the mouth of Circe (x. 508–515)— which she is aware must be something unlike anything she had ever witnessed — she breaks down and gives as a scene which carries no conviction. Fortunately not much detail is necessary here; in Ithaca, however, a great deal is wanted, and feeling invention beyond her strength she does not even attempt it, but has recourse with the utmost frankness to places with which she is familiar.

Not only does she shirk invention as much as possible in respect of natural features, but she does so also as regards incident. She can vilipend her neighbours on Mt. Eryx as the people at Trapani continue doing to this day, for there is no love lost between the men of Trapani and those of Mte. S. Giuliano, as Eryx is now called. She knows Ustica: the wind comes thence, and she can make something out of that; then there is the other great Sican city of Cefalù— a point can be made here; but with the Lipari islands her material is running short. She has ten years to kill, for which, however, eight or eight-and-a-half may be made to pass. She cannot have killed more than three months before she lands her hero on Circe’s island; here, then, in pity’s name let him stay for at any rate twelve months — which he accordingly does.

She soon runs through her resources for the Sirens’ island, and Scylla and Charybdis; she knows that there is nothing to interest her on the East coast of Sicily below Taormina — for Syracuse (to which I will return) was still a small pre-Corinthian settlement, while on the South coast we have no reason to believe that there was any pre-Hellenic city. What, she asked herself, could she do but shut Ulysses up in the most lonely island she could think of — the one from which he would have the least chance of escaping — for the remainder of his term? She chose, therefore, the island which the modern Italian Government has chosen, for exactly the same reasons, as the one in which to confine those who cannot be left at large — the island of Pantellaria; but she was not going to burden Calypso for seven long years with all Ulysses’ men, so his ship had better be wrecked.

This way out of the difficulty does not indicate a writer of fecund or mature invention. She knew the existence of Sardinia, for Ulysses smiles a grim Sardinian smile (xx. 302). Why not send him there, and describe it with details taken not from the North side of Trapani but from the South? Or she need not have given details at all — she might have sent him very long journeys extending over ever so many years in half a page. If she had been of an inventive turn there were abundant means of keeping him occupied without having recourse to the cheap and undignified expedient of shutting him up first for a year in one island, and then for seven in another. Having made herself so noble a peg on which to hang more travel and adventure, she would have hung more upon it, had either strength or inclination pointed in that direction. It is one of the commonplaces of Homeric scholars to speak of the voyages of Ulysses as “a story of adventurous travel.” So in a way they are, but one can see all through that the writer is trying to reduce the adventurous travel to a minimum.

See how hard put to it she is when she is away from her own actual surroundings. She does not repeat her incidents so long as she is at home, for she has plenty of material to draw from; when she is away from home, do what she may, she cannot realise things so easily, and has a tendency to fall back on something she has already done. Thus, at Pylos, she repeats the miraculous flight of Minerva (iii. 372) which she had used i. 320. On reaching the land of the Læstrygonians Ulysses climbs a high rock to reconnoitre, and sees no sign of inhabitants save only smoke rising from the ground — at the very next place he comes to he again climbs a high rock to reconnoitre, and apparently sees no sign of inhabitants but only the smoke of Circe’s house rising from the middle of a wood. He is conducted to the house of Alcinous by a girl who had come out of the town to fetch a pitcher of water (vii. 20); this is repeated (x. 105) when Ulysses’ men are conducted to the house of the Læstrygonian Antiphates, by a girl who had come out of the town to fetch a pitcher of water. The writer has invented a sleep to ruin Ulysses just as he was well in sight of Ithaca (x. 31, &c.). This is not good invention, for such a moment is the very last in which Ulysses would be likely to feel sleepy — but the effort of inventing something else to ruin him when his men are hankering after the cattle of the Sun is quite too much for her, and she repeats (xii. 338) the sleep which had proved so effectual already. So, as I have said above, she repeats the darkness on each occasion when Ulysses seems likely to stumble upon Trapani. Calypso, having been invented once, must do duty again as Circe — or vice versâ, for Book x. was probably written before Book v.

Such frequent examples of what I can only call consecutive octaves indicate a writer to whom invention does not come easily, and who is not likely to have recourse to it more than she can help. Having shown this as regards both places and incidents, it only remains to point out that the writer’s dislike of invention extends to the invention of people as well as places. The principal characters in the “Odyssey” are all of them Scherian. Nestor, Ulysses, Menelaus and Alcinous are every one of them the same person playing other parts, and the greater zest with which Alcinous is drawn suggests, as I have said in an earlier Chapter, that the original from whom they are all taken was better known to the writer in the part of Alcinous than in that of any of the other three. Penelope, Helen, and Arēte are only one person, and I always suspect Penelope to be truer to the original than either of the other two. Idothea and Ino are both of them Nausicaa; so also are Circe and Calypso, only made up a little older, and doing as the writer thinks Nausicaa would do if she were a goddess and had an establishment of her own. I am more doubtful about these last two, for they both seem somewhat more free from that man-hatred which Nausicaa hardly attempts to conceal. Still, Nausicaa contemplates marrying as soon as she can find the right person, and, as we have seen, neither Circe nor Calypso had a single man-servant of their own, while Circe was in the habit of turning all men who came near her into pigs or wild beasts. Calypso, moreover, is only made a little angry by being compelled to send Ulysses away. She does not seem to have been broken-hearted about it. Neither of them, therefore, must be held to be more fond of men than the convenience of the poem dictated. Even the common people of Ithaca are Scherians, and make exactly the same fault-finding ill-natured remarks about Penelope (xxiii. 149-151) as the Phæacians did about Nausicaa in Book vi. 273-288.

If, then, we observe that where the writer’s invention is more laboured she is describing places foreign to her own neighbourhood, while when she carries conviction she is at or near her own home, the presumption becomes very strong that the more spontaneous scenes are not so much invention as a rendering of the writer’s environment, to which it is plain that she is passionately attached, however much she may sometimes gird at it. I, therefore, dismiss the supposition of my supposed objector that the writer was not drawing Alcinous’ household and garden from life, and am confirmed in this opinion by remembering that the house of Ulysses corresponds perfectly with that of Alcinous — even to the number of the women servants kept in each establishment.

Being limited to a young woman who was an intimate member of Alcinous’ household, we have only to choose between some dependant who idolised Nausicaa and wished to celebrate her with all her surroundings, or Nausicaa (whatever her real name may have been) herself. Or again, it may be urged that the poem was written by some bosom friend of Nausicaa’s who was very intimate with the family, as for example Captain Dymas’s daughter.

The intimate friend theory may be dismissed at once. High spirited girls, brilliant enough to write the “Odyssey” are not so self effacing as to keep themselves entirely out of sight. If a friend had written the washing day episode, the friend would have come a washing too — especially after having said she would in Nausicaa’s dream.

If, again, a dependant had written it, Nausicaa would neither have had the heart nor the power to suppress her altogether; for if she tried to do so the dependant — so daring and self-willed as the writer proves herself to be — would have been more than a match for her mistress. We may be sure that there were not two such spirits in Trapani, as we must suppose if we make Nausicaa able to bow the will of the authoress of the “Odyssey.” The fact that in the washing day episode, so far as possible, we find Nausicaa, all Nausicaa, and nothing but Nausicaa, among the female dramatis person, indicates that she was herself the young woman of Trapani, a member of the household of King Alcinous, whom we have got to find, and that she was giving herself the little niche in her work which a girl who was writing such a work was sure to give herself.

A dependant would not have dared to laugh at Alcinous with such playful malice as the writer has done. Again she would have made more of Nausicaa herself in the scenes that follow. At present she is left rather as a ragged edge, and says good bye to Ulysses in Book viii. 460, &c., with much less detail, both as regards her own speech and that of Ulysses in reply, than a courtier-like dependant would have permitted. She does not hear Ulysses’ account of his adventures — which she might perfectly well have done under her mother’s wing. She does not appear to take her meals with the rest of the family at all. When she returns from washing, Eurymedusa brings her supper into her own room. She is not present at any of Alcinous’ banquets, nor yet at the games, and her absence from the farewell scene in Book xiii. is too marked to be anything but intentional. It seems as though she wished the reader to understand that she lived apart, and however much she might enjoy an outing with her maids, would have nothing to do with the men who came night after night drinking her father’s best wine, and making havoc of his estate. She almost calls these people scoundrels to their faces by saying that they always made the final drink offering of the evening not to Jove but to Mercury, the god of thieves (vii. 137). In passing, I may say that the strangeness of the manner in which Nausicaa says good bye to Ulysses is one of the many things which convince me that the “Odyssey” has never been recast by a later hand. A person recasting the work would have been tolerably sure to have transferred the leave-taking to Book xiii.

Nausicaa, again, would have been more than human if she had permitted any one but herself to put into her mouth the ill-natured talk about her which she alleges to pass current among the Phæacians. She would not mind saying it herself when her audience, private or public, would know that she was doing so, but a dependant would have been requested to be less pungent.

I admit as I have already done that these arguments are not absolutely demonstrative, but it being, I may say, demonstrated that we must choose between Nausicaa and some other young woman of Trapani who lived in, or was very closely intimate with, the household of King Alcinous, I have no hesitation in saying that I think Nausicaa herself more likely than this other unknown young woman to have been the writer we are seeking.

Let the reader look at my frontispiece and say whether he would find the smallest difficulty in crediting the original of the portrait with being able to write the “Odyssey.” Would he refuse so to credit her merely because all he happened to know about her for certain was that she once went out washing clothes with her attendants? Nausicaa enjoyed a jaunt on a fine spring morning and helped her maids at the washing cisterns; therefore it is absurd to suppose that she could have written the “Odyssey.” I venture to think that this argument will carry little weight outside the rank and file of our Homerists — greatly as I dislike connecting this word however remotely with the “Odyssey.”

No artist can reach an ideal higher than his own best actual environment. Trying to materially improve upon that with which he or she is fairly familiar invariably ends in failure. It is only adjuncts that may be arranged and varied — the essence may be taken or left, but it must not be bettered. The attempt to take nature and be content with her save in respect of details which after all are unimportant, leads to Donatello, Giovanni Bellini, Holbein, Rembrandt, and De Hooghe — the attempt to improve upon her leads straight to Michael Angelo and the barocco, to Turner and the modern drop scene. There is not a trace of the barocco in my frontispiece; we may be confident, therefore, that such women, though doubtless comparatively rare, yet existed, as they exist in Italy now, in considerable numbers. Is it a very great stretch of imagination to suppose that one among them may have shown to equal advantage whether as driver, washerwoman, or poetess? At the same time I think it highly probable that the writer of the “Odyssey” was both short and plain, and was laughing at herself, and intending to make her audience laugh also, by describing herself as tall and beautiful. She may have been either plain or beautiful without its affecting the argument.

I wish I could find some one who would give me any serious reason why Nausicaa should not have written the “Odyssey.” For the last five years I have pestered every scholar with whom I have been able to scrape acquaintance, by asking him to explain why the “Odyssey” should not have been written by a young woman. One or two have said that they could see none whatever, but should not like to commit themselves to a definite opinion without looking at the work again. One well-known and very able writer said that when he had first heard of the question as being mooted, he had supposed it to be some paradox of my own, but on taking up the “Odyssey” he had hardly read a hundred lines before he found himself saying “Why of course it is.” The greater number, however, gave me to understand that they should not find it a difficult matter to expose the absurdity of my contention if they were not otherwise employed, but that for the present they must wish me a very good morning. They gave me nothing, but to do them justice before I had talked with them for five minutes I saw that they had nothing to give with which I was not already familiar. The “Odyssey” is far too easy, simple, and straightforward for the understanding of scholars — as I said in the Life of Dr. Butler of Shrewsbury, if it had been harder to understand, it would have been sooner understood — and yet I do not know; the “Iliad” is indeed much harder to understand, but scholars seem to have been very sufficiently able to misunderstand it.

Every scholar has read a Book or two of the “Odyssey” here and there; some have read the whole; a few have read it through more than once; but none that I have asked have so much as been able to tell me whether Ulysses had a sister or no — much less what her name was. Not one of those whom I have as yet had the good fortune to meet in England — for I have met with such in Sicily — have saturated themselves with the poem, and that, too, unhampered by a single preconceived idea in connection with it. Nothing short of this is of the smallest use.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/butler/samuel/authoress_of_the_odyssey/chapter11.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31