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On Looking Into Fitzgerald’s Homer

The Iliad

translated by Robert Fitzgerald
Anchor Press/Doubleday, 594 pp., $15.00

Of the many difficulties that test the translator of the Iliad two are worth singling out. Far more sharply than with the Odyssey he faces the problem of what to turn the poem into. Though the Odyssey is not “our first novel,” there is just enough life in the cliché to allow translator and reader to collaborate in the pleasures of a narrative mode that has not been improved on. This has always been an amenable poem. Odysseus’ series of encounters in books 5-12 will submit to a wide range of interpretation; the second half of the poem, though it has its longueurs, provides a narrative action—the hero’s return and recovery of his home—that is exciting in itself and points to further levels of meaning, psychological, social, cosmological, that we can accommodate readily enough. The Iliad is a far more formidable object, a huge uncompromising tragic masterpiece that must be taken on its own terms before it will speak to ours.

The Odyssey, moreover, could be thought of as awaiting its translator: until Robert Fitzgerald came along. No previous rendering was entirely satisfactory. But the Iliad has been translated, supremely well, and the new man has always to ask himself: Can I do this passage better than Pope? He may of course hope or assume that Pope’s Iliad is so far out of cultural reach that his version will stand outside its shadow, in the direct light of the original. For what gives Pope’s translation its supreme confidence has long proved its greatest liability: the belief he shared with his readers that Homer’s epic form had been handed down through the ages and was still, in its latest reincarnation, living and usable.

Our notions of epic have changed and Pope’s Iliad belongs to its period, yet it is far more than simply an Augustan classic. And certainly it is not a “pretty poem”; Bentley’s mot is wide of the mark. Although Pope cannot respond to everything in the Iliad—he sophisticates where he should be plain and does not fully catch its tragic accent—the distinguishing feature of his translation is the way he meets Homer’s power, the rage of being that drives through the poem, with an almost comparable power of his own. It is the greatest verse translation in English and Johnson’s praise—“that poetical wonder…a performance which no age or nation can pretend to equal”—seems, now that we can read Pope again, a good deal less extravagant than it used to.

There is no question, though, that we need a modern Iliad of real poetic quality and Fitzgerald brings many qualifications to the task. His work on the Odyssey taught him how to write verse narrative, how to convert the small change of Homeric diction into contemporary though not too contemporary English. He has an ear for the cadence of speech, a sense of the prose reality of Homer’s action. His Iliad has been eagerly awaited for a good many years. Here at last it is.

Though he takes his proper local liberties and avoids the word-for-word “fidelity” that so often caught his immediate predecessor in what Hugh Kenner has called lexicographic lock-step, Fitzgerald meets the Greek closely and responsibly. In book 9 the man who loves civil war is said to be aphrætor, athemistos, anestios, that is, excluded from fellowship in a clan, in violation of usage, denied access to the hearth. This is easier to gloss than translate but Fitzgerald, catching the sense closely, comes up with resonant, convincing poetic speech:

Alien to clan and custom and hearth fire
is he who longs for war….

Or take the repeated, formular phrases that are now so much discussed. Often, no doubt, they are mere metrical remplissage, yet they are dense with stored experience and may always spring to life—like a familiar object one passes every day that suddenly, one day, becomes a revelation. Thirteen times in the poem one of the words for earth is modified by an epithet meaning literally “that feeds many.” Fitzgerald sometimes ignores the epithet and writes simply earth, ground, or the like; here and there he omits the whole phrase. But at one point (6.213), a lull in the fighting gives him time to look at this blood-stained Trojan earth and remembering what it once was, before the Achaeans came, he writes “the field where herds had cropped.” This is how one reads Homer; no one, I think, has been able to translate him in quite this way.

And he is sensitive to the pace of the poem. When Homer stops you dead in your tracks, he tries to do so too. There is in the first scene a phrase used of the sea (poluphloisboio, thalassæs) that, once heard, is not forgotten. Fitzgerald gives himself three shots at the sounding adjective: “by the shore of the tumbling clamorous whispering sea.” This may not quite work and perhaps owes too much to another poet,1 but it does serve to register a disturbance in the Greek. It might even drive someone to learn Greek and go and look for himself. Often, Fitzgerald’s strokes do work. Here is Priam in book 24, half maddened by grief:

The old man,
fiercely wrapped and hooded in his mantle,
sat like a figure graven—

where “fiercely” and “figure graven” brilliantly unfold a single packed word (entupas, meaning, we are told, that he was wrapped in his mantle so closely as to show the contour of his limbs).

The poem’s narrative business is lucidly presented. A moment in the fighting: “And near and nearer / the front ranks came” till a single figure “detached himself to be the first in battle—/ vivid and beautiful, Aléxandros.” In the domestic scenes, thanks to our greater knowledge of Homer’s Realien, the modern translator can score over Pope whose culture loaded the clear Homeric world with the pomp thought proper to epic. Priam is thus credited with a residence worthy of a baroque monarch (“And now to Priam’s stately Courts he came, / Rais’d on arch’d Columns of stupendous Frame”) whereas Fitzgerald can write simply “Priam’s palace…made all of ashlar, with bright colonnades.”

There is much to admire and be grateful for in Fitzgerald’s Iliad (much too that surely has not come over to me on this first reading). It seems certain to be the current version for some time. Why then is one left with a certain sense of dissatisfaction? At his best, Fitzgerald can keep a powerful movement going, as in the battle with the river in book 21 and for much of book 16, the Patrokleia, where there are passages “composed” with something of Homer’s monumental drive—for instance, the lines (765-776 in the Greek) culminating in the vision of the dead charioteer Kebriones “minding no more the mastery of horses.” With the lyrical moments, as one might expect, he is particularly successful. The lovely ease and assurance that distinguished his Odyssey shine once again in (for instance) the lines describing the Cretan dancers on Achilles’ shield.

And yet…. In the preface to his Iliad Pope spoke of “that unequal’d Fire and Rapture, which is so forcible in Homer, that no Man of a true Poetical Spirit is Master of himself while he reads him.” This is the challenge that every translator must meet. To an astonishing degree Pope did meet it; I have not yet found that Fitzgerald does. This Iliad does not overwhelm; it does not leave one, shaken and exalted, with the sense of an abounding, transfigured reality.

This relative failure is most apparent in the big military books, from 11 through the middle of 18, that span a single terrible day’s fighting. They test the translator cruelly and are hardly less testing for the contemporary reader. The nature of war has changed beyond all recognition and the “poetry of war” has not been the same since Fabrice stumbled into the battle of Waterloo. No one can suppose that Homer enjoys war, yet he confronts it, head on, with a dreadful relish that easily offends us. As a metaphor for the human condition his battles are acceptable enough, but there are too many of them and they are too literal, too savagely particularized, to allow this easy way out. On a different level there is, to be frank, the danger of tedium in the many passages which, in English, seem to consist of not much more than “A killed B and C was killed by D,” plus epithets and accouterment.2

I say “in English” because in the original the problem hardly arises. For two reasons, I think. First, the insistent realism of Homeric poetry persuades us that this is all actually happening. The fighting cannot be written off as so much literary slaughter and is often too frightening and too heart-rending to leave time for boredom. There is no catching at our emotions in all this killing, and no consolation; no real cause to fight for, and certainly no promise of a future reward for fighting well. A man dies, that is all. With an accent not so much of pity as of absolute sorrow the event, in all its gravity, is caught and recorded again and again: the abrupt fall of an erect, flourishing creature.

Here, the Homer of the Iliad is strictly incomparable, but there is another factor in the making of these scenes that does not put them quite beyond the reach of a poet who, like Pope, was working in a great style. And that is the high formality of the verse and the meter itself. Coleridge remarked on meter’s power “to increase the vivacity and susceptibility both of the general feelings and of the attention…. As a medicated atmosphere, or as wine during animated conversation, [the effects of meter] act powerfully though themselves unnoticed.” Thanks to this metrically induced “atmosphere” through which and in which the action of the poem is presented, the battle scenes hardly ever, in the original, read like mere transcriptions of carnage. The formality of the verse form does not so much distance as heighten them, they are not less but more than usually “there,” so that—our own powers of response enormously intensified—the narrative can blaze for hundreds of lines on end, seemingly at full stretch but with always enough energy in reserve to reach still higher and burst into almost intolerable splendor.

Fitzgerald’s flexible blank verse line, though it is skillfully handled and certainly a far finer medium than Lattimore’s laborious six-beater, lacks the resources of a great style. It cannot pace the steady hexametral drive of the Greek, can, at a demanding moment (Achilles’ return to the war), rise only to this:

Automédôn then
took in hand the shining whip and mounted
the chariot, and at his back Akhil- leus
mounted in full armor, shining bright
as the blinding Lord of Noon. In a clarion voice
he shouted to the horses of his father—

But in the original a passage like this makes us feel, in Cedric Whitman’s words, “that all the surge and motion of the Iliad hitherto has been nothing, so far does the hero’s roused vitality surpass all else.” Pope, in his own terms, meets the challenge:

The Charioteer then whirl’d the Lash around,
And swift ascended at one active Bound.
All bright in heav’nly Arms, above his Squire
Achilles mounts, and sets the Field on Fire;
Not brighter, Phoebus in th’ Ae- therial Way,
Flames from his Chariot, and re- stores the Day.
High o’er the Host, all terrible he stands,
And thunders to his Steeds these dread Commands.

Perhaps there is something in this poem that Fitzgerald could not quite stomach. (Here and there one finds oneself wishing, ungratefully, that he had tackled Virgil instead. What a superb reading he could give of the Aeneid!) It may be, too, that the nature of the present demand for translation puts an obstacle in the translator’s path. Writing for people who mostly do not have the original, he is required to be what professors call “accurate.” Though Fitzgerald does not work word for word or line by line, he is much closer to his text than Pope, whose unit was the whole paragraph, even the whole scene, which he then proceeded to recast and recreate in his own terms. Standing at this distance he was able, paradoxically, to enter into a closer, certainly a richer, relation with his original than most modern translators can. “What distinguishes Pope’s accomplishment,” Douglas M. Knight writes in the introduction to the Twickenham edition of Pope’s Homer, “is that he is willing to allow his own world and Homer’s a mutual or shared life, each providing a commentary on the other. Translations of Homer commonly founder because they will not risk such interplay.” Interplay, in this sense, means taking liberties that would raise academic eyebrows these days and rob you of the prize of classroom adoption. Yet is there any other way to translate great poetry—that is, to carry it across into the new language and time? It still demands of the translator that he bring his whole life, his whole cultural experience, to bear on the text.

Take the two versions in my first box, one of the many passages that poignantly juxtapose peace and war. Briefly but firmly, the man’s kindly, useful life is set before us, then the terror of his death. The situation here is universal enough, it would seem, and one wonders why Fitzgerald makes so little of it while Pope is hardly inferior to the original. Perhaps it is because the universal, to affect us, must be given a local habitation and a name. Thanks to the interplay he allows between his own world and Homer’s, Pope has more to do than simply match the Greek words with English. As Maynard Mack shows elsewhere in the Twickenham introduction, he colors the scene with later, and contemporary, cultural elements—Stoic, Christian, a new social awareness of the poor—and seizing on the emergent concept of philanthropia or humanitas which he found in these lines presents it in the more developed form it had taken in his own day. We know too much to permit ourselves these liberties now? But translation is not archaeology and a true translation of a moving passage must itself be moving.

For various respectable purposes we need a reliable account of what Homer “says.” Lattimore has provided one. Translation means more than this, though, and the question is whether the Iliad can be translated, in its entirety, today. Fitzgerald has tried his hand at it but he is too fine an artist to fake and his text reveals that all too often he has not been able to meet the challenge of the Iliad. The trouble may in large part be that he has failed to find an answer to the problem I began with: the problem of what to turn this poem into. Pope’s strength is that he did have an answer. The late Renaissance or neoclassic heroic mode gave him the means to respond to about as much of the Iliad as was visible to his age. It gave him a great style through which to meet the still greater style of the original.

There is today no single style that will serve. But are there perhaps a dozen styles? Living in the afterglow of a great creative period, we have at our immediate disposal the resources of the modernist masters. Pound’s Cantos alone offer an almost limitless variety of formal inventions. To respond to all that we now find in Homer (from a perspective wider than Pope’s), the next translator is going to have to draw on the full range of modern poetic (including the prosaic and “unpoetic,” including typography). Even so he is not likely to encompass the whole poem and will probably have to be content with Fragments of an Iliad. No matter. The fragmentary is our home ground.

It would be foolish to make projections of this sort if a contemporary poet had not already gone some of the way. Christopher Logue, in the best of his four Homeric “fragments,” has come as close to certain aspects of the Iliad as we are likely to get now.3 Though the tragic seems at present beyond him, he conveys, better sometimes even than Pope, the energy and terror of this poem and, more fleetingly, the glory. Like Homer, he can convince us that it is all really happening. The passage in my second box, brief enough and (just) close enough to serve the purposes of comparison, is too decorative and hardly shows him at his best, but if it fails it fails valiantly, in the line of duty. For the translator of a scene like this has somehow to make us believe the unbelievable: Here, now, beautiful, terrifying things created by the hands of a god are in the hands of a man more terrifying and beautiful than they are.

Often Logue is much freer, substantially reproducing Homer’s action while responding to it in his own terms. He knows, for instance, that Homer’s war is not play-acting and hence makes no attempt to keep out his own disgust at the fact of war. This involves violent changes of tone, abrupt juxtapositions of attraction and revulsion which are not to be found in Homer. They are however inescapably part of our reading of Homer and the translator who seeks to make the Iliad live in the modern world cannot exclude them.

Thanks to Robert Fitzgerald, we will not need another Odyssey for a long time to come. Despite the interest of his new version there is room for another Iliad and I think the next man (Logue or someone else) is going to have to take far greater risks and allow his own world and Homer’s to come to grips with each other. It is not, as classical scholars invariably suppose, a matter of “modernizing” Homer. (Logue goes too far in this direction and does not maintain Pope’s interplay between then and now.) What we need is rather a poet who will do for the Iliad, or parts of it, something of what Pound did for the passage from the Odyssey in his first Canto. Though this could only have been written in our century, diction and tone are decidedly archaic. Pound presents us with an ancient object: that somehow comes to light in a modern poem. He shows the past surfacing within the present, and preserves the tension between them. An authentic moment from a distant then is now.


   Next Teuthras’ Son distain’d the Sands with Blood,
Axylus, hospitable, rich and good:
In fair Arisba’s Walls (his native Place)
He held his Seat; a Friend to Human Race.
Fast by the Road, his ever-open Door
Oblig’d the Wealthy, and reliev’d the Poor.
To stern Tydides now he falls a Prey,
No Friend to guard him in the dreadful Day!
Breathless the good Man fell, and by his side
His faithful Servant, old Calesius dy’d.
then slew Áxylos Teuthránidês
from the walled town Arisbê. A rich man
and kindly, he befriended all who passed
his manor by the road. But none of these
could come between him and destruction now,
as the Akhaian killed him, killing with him
Kalêsios, his aide and charioteer—
leaving two dead men to be cloaked in earth.


And she laid the armor
down before Akhilleus, clanging loud
in all its various glory. Myrmidons
began to tremble at the sound, and dared not
look straight at the armor; their knees shook.
But anger entered Akhilleus as he gazed,
his eyes grown wide and bright as blazing fire,
with fierce joy as he handled the god’s gifts.
   And as she laid the moonlit armour on the sand
it chimed;
   and the sounds that came from it,
followed the light that came from it,
   like sighing,
   Made in Heaven.

And those who had the neck to watch Achilles weep
could not look now. Nobody looked. They were afraid.

Except Achilles. Looked,
lifted a piece of it between his hands; turned it;
tested the weight of it; then,
spun the holy tungsten like a star between his knees,
slitting his eyes against the flare, some said,
by other thought the hatred shuttered by his lids,
   made him protect the metal.

His eyes like furnace doors ajar.

  1. 1

    Oliver St. John Gogarty: “The sound comes to me / of the lapsing, unsoilable, / Whispering sea.”

  2. 2

    Brilliantly guyed by Christopher Logue in his version of book 16. Immediately after a solemn and beautiful passage we read: “While this was done Achilles’ overreaching vicar killed”—then, in very small type: “Eckelus, of whom nothing is known; Perimos, the son of Megas; Sistor, an Egyptian horse dealer; Keth and San, slaves to the former; Crates, a silversmith from Cyme; Doron, a regular; Pilarty, a cook; Fanes, Geyan, & Mastor, farriers; Toris, a merchant slaver.”

  3. 3

    From Book XXI of Homer’s Iliad” (the battle with the river) in Songs (New York: Astor-Honor, 1960); Patrocleia of Homer (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1963); Pax: Book XIX of the Iliad (London, 1967); “The Fight for Patroclus…from Iliad 18,” Arion 8/4, Winter, 1969.

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