Homer: The Iliad
translated by Robert Fagles, introduction and notes by Bernard Knox
Viking, 683 pp., $35.00
The Iliad for Speaking Steingrabenstrasse 20, 8036 Briebrunntam Ammersee, Germany)
translated by Michael Reck
Porpentine Press, 436 pp., $40.00 (available from the publisher, Porpentine Press,
The Odyssey of Homer
a new verse translation by Allen Mandelbaum
University of California Press, 526 pp., $35.00
Homer has never lacked readers, not even during the long period in which the essential unity of his poems was denied, and all the problems presented by the poems were solved in terms of conflicting theories of multiple authorship, so that finally scholars questioned even his ability to depart from a limited collection of traditional set phrases. Each new generation is bound to produce new translations and new interpretations; these are not necessarily better than the old, but must be tested against them by careful comparison. Richmond Lattimore’s Iliad (1951) and Odyssey (1965) have also had admirers. Now here are new versions of the Iliad by Robert Fagles, who has translated the Greek lyric poet Bacchylides, the Oresteia of Aeschylus, and the Theban plays of Sophocles, and by Michael Reck, who is known as a poet and as a friend of Ezra Pound, and of the Odyssey by Allen Mandelbaum, who has translated the Aeneid and the Divine Comedy, as well as Ungaretti and Quasimodo.
Fagles’s version has the great advantage of being prefaced by an excellent introduction by Bernard Knox, which provides the general reader with a reliable account of the present state of Homeric studies. The eighteenth century, he tells us, saw two striking departures from previous attitudes to the Homeric poems. First, its strict rationality led it to discover in the poems many inconsistencies and illogicalities, which led to the belief that they could not be the productions of a single author. Secondly, the preoccupation with folk tradition and popular poetry that set in toward the middle of the century, whose most startling result was the craze for the sham Scottish folk poetry of Ossian, encouraged the notion that the Homeric poems were the creation of “the people,” an accretion of shorter poems composed by various authors and later loosely put together. The suggestion that the poems had been composed orally had been put forward as early as the first century of the common era by the Jewish historian Josephus, and now it was revived, the first systematic theory of oral composition being put forward in 1795 by the famous German classical scholar Friedrich August Wolf.
Throughout the century that followed the debate initiated by Wolf continued. In 1832 the great scholar Gottfried Hermann, like Wolf a friend of Goethe, argued that the original nucleus of the poems continued to be amplified over a long period of time. This remained the most popular view for the remainder of the nineteenth century, though different scholars gave different accounts of how this had occurred. In 1916 another great German scholar, Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, argued that the nucleus of the poems had come into being not at the beginning but in the middle of the development of the tradition of heroic poetry, and for a long time this view became the most fashionable. But in England and …