Kings: An Account of Books 1 and 2 of Homer’s ‘Iliad’
by Christopher Logue
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 86 pp., $16.95
The British poet Christopher Logue has spent three decades working at a short collection of verse based on Homer’s Iliad. The project began almost by accident when the classicist Donald Carne-Ross asked the poet to help make a readable script of some Homeric excerpts for the BBC Carne-Ross equipped Logue, who knew no Greek, with a literal translation of the excerpt (Book XVI) he had in mind. Logue studied other verse translations and produced The Patrakleia of Homer: A New Version (1963).
He next turned his hand to Book XIX of the Iliad, which he saw as a companion piece to Book XVI. He closed the gap between the two with six hundred lines of (mainly) battle description from the intervening books, and published the result as War Music: An Account of Books 16 to 19 of Homer’s ‘Iliad‘ (1981). “Version,” you notice, has now become “account”—Logue is moving more freely on his own, despite continuing guidance from classicists. The innovations become even more pronounced in his third thin book, Kings: An Account of Books 1 and 2 of Homer’s ‘Iliad’ (1991). He wants, apparently, to avoid the whole question of a translator’s “fidelity” by presenting his work as something like a musical fantasia on Homer’s recoverable meanings for our time—a book that is as much a commentary as was, say, Simone Weil’s The Iliad, or The Poem of Force. But Logue goes beyond Weil. He is much more interested in purely literary accomplishments—e.g., in the effects of the Homeric similes—than was the ideological Weil. It is this care in re-creating literary effects that makes Logue’s work the very thing he refuses to say it is: the best translation of Homer since Pope’s. In fact, on its own partial scale, it is as good as the very best English version, Chapman’s, to which it owes a great deal.
This claim may seem extreme. After all, Logue not only cuts the text but rearranges it; he reassigns speeches, and indulges in wild anachronisms (“Ajax, grim underneath his tan as Rommel after ‘Alamein”); he even adds whole scenes and characters not in the original. But all this is in service to Homer, trying to be true to him.
Take the episode from Book I where Achilles is about to attack Agamemnon, until Athena intervenes (1.194–222). The episode is quickly told, and with deceptive simplicity, yet G.S. Kirk calls it “perhaps the most remarkable of all corporeal interventions by a god or goddess in the Iliad.” It is both a mystical and a harsh act, a “violent grace” as Aeschylus would later put it. Athena comes herself, not in disguise, not sending a lesser messenger. She appears behind Achilles, and jerks his head around by the hair. Only then does he see her, though no one else can. It is almost as if the ghost of Hamlet’s father tackled him as he moved angrily …