Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem

Princeton Univ. Sept. 2019. 144p. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780691195247. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9780691196992. LIT
The Babylonian epic poem Gilgamesh, long lost until a series of clay tablets were unearthed and translated in the 19th century, is among the oldest and newest classics of world literature. Tracing the adventures of its semidivine hero and his companion Enkidu, the poem is about the pathos of humanness, mortality, and otherness. It included an account of an apocalyptic deluge strikingly similar to that of Noah in the Bible. The cuneiform clay tablet “text,” itself a composite of millennia of “texts,” represents an unstable and unfinished work as new elements are uncovered and our knowledge of the languages develops. Schmidt (The Novel; The First Poets) foregrounds the ambiguities and diverse interpretations of the poem, then traces the story, comparing the various translations and versions, scholarly and not, especially those of N.K. Sanders, Benjamin Forster, and Andrew George. He further considers artistic responses to the poem by various poets and translators from Rilke to Charles Olsen, Louis Zukofsky, and Andrea Brady, and has quizzed some 50 contemporary writers on their reactions.
VERDICT Schmidt’s book deeply enriches our appreciation of a work already rich. A solid addition to all collections.

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