“Cat’s Funeral” and Homer’s “wine-dark sea”

January 19, 2012 • 6:27 am

by Matthew Cobb

I knew the name  E.V. Rieu from my battered old copy of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, which he translated. On reading the Times Literary Supplement this morning, I came across this children’s poem he wrote, ‘Cat’s Funeral’. I thought it was rather good:

Bury her deep, down deep,

Safe in the earth’s cold keep,

Bury her deep-

No more to watch bird stir;

No more to clean dark fur;

No more to glisten as silk;

No more to revel in milk;

No more to purr.

Bury her deep, down deep;

She is beyond warm sleep.

She will not walk in the night;

She will not wake to the light.

Bury her deep.

I’m not really sure what a ‘children’s poem’ is (though I suppose I understand what an adult poem is – you wouldn’t give an 8 year old Eliot’s The Waste Land). “Cat’s Funeral” will do for both grown-ups and children, I think.
The poem was published in this rather fine-looking collection of poems, with drawings by E. H. Shepard, who also drew the Winnie the Pooh books before Disney got his mitts on them. You can pick up a copy of The Flattered Flying Fish for not much at all on Abebooks (other booksellers are available).

According to Wikipedia (back on line after the SOPA blackout), Rieu (1887-1972), was the initiator the Penguin Classics series, as well as being a classics scholar and a translator. I first read the Odyssey, in Rieu’s translation, on the Greek island of Patmos (also the place where Saint John allegedly wrote the Book of Revelations, with all its Dylanesque weirdness).

It appears that Rieu was the originator of the phrase ‘wine-dark sea’. In 1983-4, the meaning of this was the subject of a long correspondence in Nature, when a series of writers discussed what exactly was meant, and how we could tell. Sadly, it is all behind Nature’s paywall, so unless you have a personal subscription or work somewhere that has access, the links in the following paragraphs will lead nowhere. Blame Macmillan Publishing.

The opening salvo suggested that the geology of the Peloponnesus meant that water was sufficiently alkaline to make the wine blue (someone later pleaded for this to be tested experimentally). This was scotched as Homer also said cattle were ‘wine-dark’ (but clearly not blue), and it was suggested that it was something to do with the sea at dusk.

A few months later a series of criticisms were put forward, including the argument that the original Greek had no colour connotation at all, and the suggestion that Homeric Greek divided the spectrum to four parts (white/black/red/yellow) (later support for this came in the shape of the doubtful suggestion that Nigerians cannot distinguish various colours), or that the phrase was referring to albedo rather than colour, or that it was a more tribute to vengeful Poseidon. Classics lecturers argued that Homerian wine can be black as well as red, and that therefore it could just be a phrase referring to a dark sea.

It was finally argued that the whole thing was Rieu’s fault, and that the original Greek could be better rendered as ‘wine-faced”, i.e. like the surface of wine. Astronomers even tried to get in on the act, pointing out that Homer described Sirius as a red star, whereas in fact it is white/blue. (A later correspondent pointed out that only Pliny and Ptolemy describe Sirius as ‘red’. Other roman writers, as well as Eygptian and Chinese astronomers, referred to Sirius as white or blue.)

After coming to no real conclusion, the correspondence was finally closed with a note from one Hilton Stowell in the ERBP Laboratory in Georgia. He wrote:

“the literati used to believe that the last word came from Stephen Dedalus [in Joyce’s Ulysses] when he spoke the winged words ‘snotgreen and scrotum-tightening sea’.”

14 thoughts on ““Cat’s Funeral” and Homer’s “wine-dark sea”

  1. I tried to read Rieu’s translation of the Iliad, but after a few pages got to the point where I was inwardly screaming “If you say Long-Haired Achaeans once more I’m throwing the damn book down for good!”. He did and I did.

  2. Yeah, but as bloodthirsty school boy I remember enjoying bthe graphic descriptions of battle – spears shattering teeth and cutting tongues off at the root – I think that was Rieu’s translation. Also, I thought the wine-dark sea line reflected the ways different cultures described colours – just as Welsh has the same word for blue and green – ‘glas’ – wine-dark is a perfect description of a dark sea, regardless of what we actually perceive the ‘colour’ to be.

  3. Nice. That “wine-dark sea” is also one of the topics in Guy Deutscher’s excellent “Through the Language Glass”. I’ll have to check if he metioned Stowell, though 🙂

  4. I have occasionally wondered, when rinsing out glasses which had held red wine, why it is that as the amount of water in the glass increases and dilutes the red evaporate at the bottom of the glass the water gains a blueish hue.

    Any ideas, or is it just that my eyes aren’t working properly after consuming alcohol?

  5. “Cat’s Funeral” first lines caused me to sob uncontrollably, remembering the deaths and burials of my four beautiful cats in less than four years, not very long ago at all.

    I thought the wound of loss had healed over, but no.

  6. I guess I was blissfully unaware of that long wine-dark correspondence. Me, I’m just reminded of the line from Firesign Theater’s Nick Danger album.

    (Catherwood, about to enter the time machine, intending to go): …to Ancient Greece, where burning Sappho loved and sang and stroked the wine-dark sea, in the temple by the moonlight, wa da doo dah…

  7. Still Citing Wikipedia as a source of information ???????????

    Sheesh, ….. the information on Wikipedia usually represents a general consensus of opinion about a topic, nothing more. The internet is rife with reliable information if one will only take the time to find it.

  8. “I’m not really sure what a ‘children’s poem’ is”

    I’m working from memory and Wikipedia doesn’t support me, but I remember learning that children’s literature is a relatively recent (19th century) category. Before then, literature for children was mostly religious and didactic.

  9. I read those lines in the TLS as well; they’re in a piece by Rachel Hadas. She states that they are the “last two stanzas” of the poem. I’m still searching for the full poem.

    1. Well, I can’t erase my comment, though I wish I could. According to on-line searches, those lines are the complete poem, but I’m still searching for a collection by Rieu just to make sure. Apparently, he’s written other poems about cats.

  10. Hi! I have a question about the photo used for EVR. Can you verify that this is definitely a picture of him? I have used the same picture and received a mail from someone who doubts if it really is a pic of EVR. It used to be on Wikipedia, but I see they also took the pic down and this makes me wonder. Any comments? my mail is ebenvt(at)gmail.com

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