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Sense of Homer

The Odyssey of Homer

translated with an Introduction by Richmond Lattimore
Harper & Row, 374 pp., $8.95

To anyone who has acquired a taste for the poetry of Pope, to anybody with a taste for English poetry, the possibility of possessing parts at least of the poem known as the Odyssey and commonly attributed to Homer is given as immediately as to Keats a key was given through the very inferior version by Chapman. Thanks to Pope we who search for the epics by way of translations can look beyond our noses and see that Homer has an indefinite future among us as exhibiting not only what humanity has been but what it once again might become. Pope’s version has this success because it is on the right lines and concentrates on the main things: to make it apparent that, as a critic of our day has put it, Homer “esprime valori eterni con parole di eternitĂ .”

The effect of reading Pope is, furthermore, to help us resist temptations to prefer a part of the Odyssey to the whole. To listen to some people you would think that the poem existed solely to provide a framework for the hero’s long narrative in Books IX-XII of his marvelous adventures by sea and land. For others the poem clearly ends halfway through when Odysseus kisses his native soil in Book XIII. “Obviously the tale was the thing,” said the pseudonymous T. E. Shaw, and in so saying defined his limitations. For then he is forced to the eccentric conclusion, “Perhaps the tedious delay of the climax through ten books may be a poor bard’s means of prolonging his host’s hospitality.”

But what above all comes over us if we approach the epic through Pope is that the deep vein of great humanity in Homer is always cropping out in passages by which men’s hearts have never ceased to be touched, from Homer’s days to ours. Very often these supreme touches come to us in direct speech, and here Pope has grasped and shown us the chief problem and task of a translator as being to find credible speech. The decorum of the Homeric personages is very hard to define, and even harder to match. The personages neither orate nor converse; they strike a note that includes ornate speech and occasionally the most brutally direct word order and economy, but they have an accent all their own and their credibility as heroes depends on our getting it exactly right. The most sublime moments fail to come across if there is anything slightly “off,” as for me here:

Be content, good friend, die also thou! why lamentest thou thyself on this wise? Patroclus, too, died, who was a far better than thou!

(Matthew Arnold)

On hearing this I find Achilles disappearing and the whole Iliad going up in smoke.

Finally, Pope summed up the problem of translating the epics once and for all in his famous Preface, where he wrote:

It is not to be doubted that the Fire of the Poem is what a Translator should principally regard, as it is most likely to expire in his managing: However it is his safest way to be content with preserving this to his utmost in the Whole, without endeavouring to be more than he finds the Author is, in any particular Place. ‘Tis a great Secret in Writing to know when to be plain, and when poetical and figurative; and it is what Homer will teach us if we will but follow modestly in his Footsteps. Where his Diction is bold and lofty, let us raise ours as high as we can; but where his is plain and humble, we ought not to be deterr’d from imitating him by the fear of incurring the Censure of a meer English Critick. Nothing that belongs to Homer seems to have been more commonly mistaken than the just Pitch of his Style: Some of his Translators having swell’d into Fustian in a proud Confidence of the Sublime; others sunk into Flatness in a cold and timorous Notion of Simplicity. Methinks I see these different Followers of Homer, some sweating and straining after him by violent leaps and Bounds, (the certain Signs of false Mettle) others slowly and servilely creeping in his Train, while the Poet himself is all the time proceeding with an unaffected and equal Majesty before them. However of the two Extreams one could sooner pardon Frenzy than Frigidity: No Author is to be envy’d for such Commendations as he may gain by that Character of Style, which his Friends must agree together to call Simplicity, and the rest of the World will call Dulness. There is a graceful and dignify’d Simplicity, as well as a bald and sordid one, which differ as much from each other as the Air of a plain Man from that of a Sloven: ‘Tis one thing to be tricked up, and another not to be dress’d at all. Simplicity is the Mean between Ostentation and Rusticity.

The truth of all these propositions is already settled for many minds, and by plausible exemplification and argument the number might hopefully be increased of those who regard Pope’s Odyssey, with all its faults and mediocrities, as the standard English translation and the one that does most justice to the poetical merits of the original, and so the truest to its essential spirit. But to some American critics the mirror on the wall gave a different answer in 1961, when Robert Fitzgerald’s verse translation of the Odyssey received the Bollingen Award for the best translation of a poem into English. Tribute as various as this from Moses Hadas: “Surely the best and truest Odyssey in the English language” and from William Arrowsmith this: “At last we have an Odyssey worthy of the original” was capped by Bernard Knox, who wrote: “The longfelt need for a poetic translation of the Odyssey has been filled and it is safe to say that this will be the standard English version for a long time to come.” Even if I were not already inclined to do so, the warmth of these remarks, made by men with whom it would be an honor to be allowed to debate, would impel me to raise the question whether this version of Fitzgerald’s is such as both to show up Pope’s as inferior and to be a test for any subsequent verse translation of the Odyssey.

THE GENERAL TEST for a modern verse translation of the Odyssey, once made clear by Pope, has been made clearer by the success of several modern prose translations. The prose versions by “T. E. Shaw” and E. V. Rieu reminded or informed readers that the Odyssey can be used to provide some of the low-level pleasures of the novel. Readers noted with surprise that you could go on and on in these versions with never a pause for thought or backward comparisons. At the same time they observed the absence of any potent touches that might justify the view that the Odyssey had other merits than those of the-novel-of-the-year. Because of these versions, earlier critics who had referred to the style of the original as “sublime” or “majestic” were thought to be too stuffy or pompous to be taken seriously, and the enthusiasm of Keats for Chapman was put down to self-intoxication on the part of both translator and reader.

Yet, if we can learn anything from Pope, a similar “lift” is the very feature by which we should know that a modern verse translation had begun to justify itself. I do not think that any modern translation could expect to rise every time Homer rises, but if it rose once or twice in one or other of the twenty or so places in the Odyssey where generation after generation has found Homer rising, then a modern poetic translation would have come into being. No real poet who respected both Homer and himself would dream of attempting the whole epic until he had done one of the great passages in such a way that competent critics told him he had added to the poetry of the English language.

To apply the test in a fair way we need a passage that is a genuine outcropping of the vein of humanity, not a piece that could have been tacked on where it is or put in at any other place. If the passage contains direct speech it must satisfy the criteria I mentioned when reviewing some versions of the Iliad in The Cambridge Quarterly (Vol. I, No. 1, Winter 1965-6). The speech must be such that, without it, we should be unable to construct the action, the inner action which gives the “story” element its point. It must be speech at a point of extreme tension, and speech that causes the mind to extend to the furthest limits of the action. In that review I was thinking principally of how in the Iliad the laments over Hector’s body sent the mind traveling back over the whole action of the poem, with the disturbing reflection that the last words of the poem are being given to Hector rather than Achilles. A similar passage is Sarpedon’s speech to Glaucus in Book XIX, which Matthew Arnold used to such good effect in characterizing the translations of Pope and Chapman. The scene where Hector parts from Andromache perfectly illustrates what I mean by the outcropping of humanity. I make these specifications because, if the translation passes the test here, it will certainly pass elsewhere, and, if it cannot pass the test here, it will not be worth bothering with.

I have chosen the silent interview between Odysseus and Penelope in Book XXIII for a further reason. If pressed to give a general account of successful translation from Homer I should always leave the emphasis on the degree to which the author has to invent his original. In a short review there is no space to refute the common delusion that there is a public Homer, “out there” so to speak, an agreed text whose meaning is shared by all who know Greek. I have therefore taken a passage which has always pulled readers up, and forced them to do some of the work of interpretation for themselves. What the difficulties are will emerge from the discussion below, but their general nature is set out beautifully by Pope in a note introducing the whole book. (These notes of Pope will come as a revelation to those who have hitherto had to use nineteenth-century and modern editions of the translations. Not only do they contain some wonderful English prose, they expound Pope’s critical creed. They are the one thing in the new edition* that the ordinary reader will feel unmixed gratitude for.)

This book contains the Discovery of Ulysses to Penelope. Monsieur Rapin is very severe upon some parts of it; whose objections I shall here recite.

The discovery of Ulysses to his Queen was the most favourable occasion imaginable for the Poet to give us some of the nicest touches of his art; but as he has manag’d it, it has nothing but faint and weak surprizes, cold and languishing astonishments, and very little of that delicacy and exquisiteness which ought to express a conjugal tenderness: He leaves his wife too long in doubt and distrust, and she is too cautious and circumspect; the familiarities she observes in being fully assur’d, and her care to act with security, are set down in number and measure, lest she should fall into any mistake; and this particularity makes the story dull, in a place that so much requires briskness and liveliness. Ought not the secret instinct of her love to have inspir’d her with other sentiments? and should not her heart have told her, what her eyes could not? Love is penetrating, and whispers more to us than the senses can convey; but Homer understood not this Philosophy: Virgil, who makes Dido foresee that Æneas designs to leave her, would have made better advantage of this favourable opportunity.

The strength of this objection consists chiefly in the long incredulity of Penelope, and the slowness she uses to make an undeniable discovery: This Rapin judges to be contrary to the passion of love, and consequently that the Poet writes unnaturally.

There is somewhat of the Frenchman in this Criticism: Homer in his opinion wants vivacity; and if Rapin had been to have drawn Ulysses, we had seen him all transport and ecstasy. But where there is most fancy, there is often the least judgment. Penelope thought Ulysses to be dead; he had been absent twenty years; and thro’ absence and his present disguise, he was another person from that Ulysses whom she knew, when he sail’d to Troy; so that he was become an absolute stranger. From this observation we may appeal to the Reader’s judgment, if Penelope, without full conviction, ought to be persuaded that this person was the real Ulysses? And how could she be convinc’d, but by asking many questions, and descending to particularities, which must necessarily occasion delay in the discovery? If indeed Ulysses and Penelope had met after a shorter absence, when one view would have assured her that he was her real husband, then too much transport could not have been express’d by the Poet; but this is not the case, she is first to know her husband, before she could or ought express her fondness for his return, otherwise she might be in danger of misplacing it upon an impostor: But she is no sooner convinced that Ulysses is actually returned, but she receives him with as much fondness as can be expressed, or as Rapin could require.

While yet he speaks, her pow’rs of life decay,
She sickens, trembles, falls, and faints away:
At length recov’ring, to his arms she flew,
And strain’d him close, as to his brest she grew.

  1. *

    Translations of Homer: The Iliad and the Odyssey (Volumes VII-X in the Twickenham edition of the poems of Alexander Pope), Yale University Press, Vols. VII and VIII (Iliad), $37.50; Vols. IX and X (Odyssey), $37.50

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