“Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem” by Michael Schmidt

Detail of the “Flood Tablet" (British Museum, WikiMedia Commons) Detail of the “Flood Tablet" (British Museum, WikiMedia Commons)

The Epic of Gilgamesh, as it’s usually titled by scholars and translators, may in fact not be an epic at all. It’s not even a single poem, but “a confusion of stories”, a number of reassembled fragments and tablets in more than one ancient language plus an “edition” assembled and organised out of scattered bits by one Sin-leqi-unninni, who between 1300 and 1000 BCE made what we would now call a “standardized text” out of it, adding, as Schmidt tells us, “prefatory lines … and a reprise that echoes the opening but in a darker tone.”

It differs from established ancient epics such as the Iliad, Odyssey or Aeneid in that it is unfinished (or at least we don’t have the complete text), does not have one single author, and, by dint of new discoveries made by scholars, constantly evolving, with parts of it being housed in different places. Sin-leqi-unninni’s version is in Standard Babylonian, reworked from Old Babylonian, and, in Schmidt’s opinion, losing by that “some of the directness and freshness of the Old Babylonian.” What Gilgamesh certainly has is a claim to be the oldest extant poem in the world, originating some 3700 years ago, easily predating Homer, although it was unknown to Western readers until the 1850s, which is some sense makes it a newer addition to the canon.

If all literary studies were written so engagingly, more people would read them.

Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem, Michael Schmidt (Princeton University Press, September 2019)
Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem, Michael Schmidt (Princeton University Press, September 2019)

Gilgamesh, now taught in universities throughout the West, is available today in a number of good translations. Many people (including the reviewer) were introduced to it through the prose translation (1962) of NK Sandars (Penguin Classics), and others may have gone on to read Benjamin Foster’s 2001 verse translation (Norton Critical Editions) or the very fine version favoured by Schmidt, that of Andrew George (1999; Penguin Classics 2000, revised 2003), also in verse.

Schmidt is very objective when it comes to discussing translations; he has something good to say about most of them, and in a chapter entitled “How You Tell It”, he gives a comprehensive overview of various ways translators have dealt with the sex scene between Enkidu and the prostitute Shamhat. These range, he shows us, from “the euphemisms of the earlier translations” to “more graphic, anachronistic and sensationalising approaches.” But it’s not just about euphemisms; the 1928 translation by Campbell Thompson, for example, uses hexameters because that’s what epics are usually written in, and the old-fashioned contractions he uses, such as ”turn’d” or “scamper’d”, not to mention archaisms like “aye” and “yea,” make it all unintentionally funny, especially when one factors in “displaying her bosom” and “sated at length with her charms.” Another translator, EA Speiser (1955), Schmidt says, is “varnished and prim” and “has an instinct for cliché.”

Schmidt takes a look at a number of more recent translations, such as those of Nigel Denis (1970), which suffers from “excessive imagery” and “off-the-peg Freudian metaphor”, the “forthright” version of Stephanie Dalley (1989), one of the translations he admires, and Philip Terry (2018), whose adaptation entitled Dictator is “inventive and wayward” (he uses a language he calls “Globish”) but also, as Schmidt avers, “truest to the spirit of the original.” Andrew George’s versions, however, “are readable in part because they remain focused on what we have of the original and do not pretend to take independent flight.” George took every fragment he could find in either Akkadian or Sumerian, presenting not only the Standard Babylonian version by Sin-leqi-unninni but also other tablets and fragments from various sources.

George also, importantly, “makes limited concessions to what the age demands.” Here is one of Schmidt’s main arguments in his book. Scholars and translators have tried to place Gilgamesh in the context of what we know about epics such as those written by Homer (whoever he was), Virgil, or even Milton. This means suggesting that it was orally transmitted or meant to be sung (perhaps like Beowulf), it had a unified and coherent narrative voice and a particular audience which was in the mind of “the” poet. Trying too hard to make a poem like Gilgamesh into a familiar form or about familiar human beings mires readers in the very dogma they need to get beyond. With this work there is no one poet, and ancient Babylon or Uruk was not at all like modern Europe or North America. Some of the themes, such as love, loyalty and humanity’s fear of death are certainly familiar, but the background against which these themes are played out is alien.

“We will never,” Schmidt tells us, “penetrate to the subjectivity of the poem, the ‘I’ of the narrator,” which can never be more than an invention of the translator. So what we have, then, is a mercurial text—“we can never,” Schmidt asserts, “tune in to the poem precisely; there is static and the volume refuses to be evenly controlled.”

Sin-leqi-unninni joined texts together to create the Standard Babylonian Gilgamesh on which most translators base their work, but even he knew at the time that it was “made by a river, by fire, by generations of scribes, by shepherds”, and when we come to our own times we can add historians, archaeologists and translators, not to mention those people who have taken Gilgamesh far beyond its origins, novelists, dramatists, film-makers, composers and modern poets. A recent recording has been made of Bohuslav Martinů’s oratorio The Epic of Gilgamesh (1955), which, incidentally, includes a narrator to keep the whole thing together.

Schmidt’s approach to this ancient text and its protagonist may raise some eyebrows, scholarly or otherwise.

These and other matters are covered in Schmidt’s book, but it is much more than literary criticism, although it must be said that if all literary studies were written so engagingly, more people would read them. The book is also a guide or introduction to Gilgamesh, and Schmidt takes each of the tablets comprising the Standard Babylonian text, discussing them in a learned yet lively manner, showing exactly how it was put together and what it can say to us at a more than two thousand year remove. He shows us in subsequent chapters that Gilgamesh still has something to say to modern readers and writers, in spite of its remoteness and strangeness.

Schmidt suggests that translations lead us to the threshold of the poem and recommends Andrew George as the translator who brings us closest to that threshold, the one whose translation celebrates the poem’s “otherness”. Rereading that translation, one soon realises why Schmidt does so. George’s “evolving” translation gives readers what is in front of him, and never tries to improve it or add to it beyond logical conjecture about what the many textual lacunae might suggest. He is acutely aware of its fluidity, and more than merely aware that this is an ancient Babylonian poem, never descending into “relevance” for 21st-century readers.

“His is an ambitious but realistic attempt to understand the languages in which the poem was composed and preserved,” Schmidt writes of George’s translation, as well as “the alien cultures that produced them.” He does not force the poem into a recognisable genre; as Schmidt puts it, “Gilgamesh did not know it was ‘the first epic poem.’ It did not know it was an epic at all.”

He expends two sections (the book is not formally divided into chapters) to the question as to what sort of a poem it actually is, and ultimately decides it’s not an epic, and also that it doesn’t need a label—it’s just Gilgamesh. And there he is, the “brave scion of Uruk, wild bull on the rampage! … Gilgamesh the tall, magnificent and terrible.”

Schmidt’s approach to this ancient text and its protagonist may raise some eyebrows, scholarly or otherwise, especially when he writes about how it is read by some modern poets, one of which, Philip Terry, we have briefly mentioned above, but this is only one way in which he engages the reader. Schmidt obviously has a great love for ancient literature, seeing it as something alive and vibrant, both qualities which are reflected in his writing.

If you have never read Gilgamesh before, Schmidt could be Virgil to your Dante, and if you have read it before, be prepared to let it be explicated in a new and lively way and to flow over your mind like quicksilver.


John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.