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 eternità.”

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 …

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Letters

Crusty Christopher August 1, 1968