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 …