cover image Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem

Gilgamesh: The Life of a Poem

Michael Schmidt. Princeton Univ., $24.95 (144p) ISBN 978-0-691-19524-7

Schmidt (The Novel: A Biography), a critic and poet, outlines the circuitous, millennia-old path by which the epic of a young Sumerian king came to light and continues to fire literary imaginations. The ancient poem “Gilgamesh,” dating back to 700 B.C.E., comes from 12 clay tablets, unearthed in the 1850s during excavations in what is now Iraq. Subsequent fragments continue to surface, inscribed in different ancient languages. Because of this, “the poem remains provisional, shifting like dunes.” The book’s first half summarizes and analyzes each tablet, together encompassing the story of King Gilgamesh’s wild early years and eventual maturation, his friendship with the wild man Enkidu, and his search for the secret to eternal life after Enkidu’s death. The second half broadens out to encompass the poem’s many implications, such as how the discovery of its pre–Noah’s Ark account of an annihilating deluge reshaped views about the composition of the Bible. Comparing different translations, Schmidt finds that each version, “while taking us on roughly the same road, negotiates the steeper gradients and the numerous pot-holes in different ways.” Thanks to these and other striking turns of phrase, Schmidt leavens what could be ponderous textual analysis with his own poetic skills, creating an insightful, stimulating book sure to breathe new life into the would-be immortal king. Agent: Georgina Capel, Georgina Capel Associates. (Sept.)