The Odyssey of Homer
It is a cliché that Western literature begins with the poems of Homer. The well-informed know that the truth is rather more complex: the Iliad and Odyssey have indeed been at the root of the literature and the culture of Europe and the West, but their roots are in what we call Asia. The first great work of European literature is also the crowning achievement of the art of the Near East, and recent scholarship delights to trace the parallels with the epic of Gilgamesh, with Mesopotamia, and with the poems and hymns of the Canaanite people of Ugarit. The action of the Iliad is set at Troy, in modern Turkey; the hero of the odyssey wanders right off the map of Greece and meets exotic people, sometimes friendly and sometimes murderous, as far afield as the Hellespont in the east, Egypt in the south, and a fantastic version of Sicily in the west. The Muse of Homer was no stay-at-home.
The two poems have shown an extraordinary staying power. Already in the fifth century BCE Greek schoolboys were learning the meaning of the archaic and poetical phrases used by Homer, and there has never been a time since when the epics have not been in the school syllabus somewhere. For centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, they were read only in the Greek East, but with the revival of learning first Italians and then other Westerners mastered the language and declared a knowledge of Homer to be necessary to an educated man.
In 1914 we find undergraduates at Oxford, as they resolved to enlist for France, quoting in their letters and diaries that powerful passage in iliad Book Twelve, where the hero Sarpedon, himself soon to die, expresses in classic form the sentiment of noblesse oblige: Because we are privileged, because we have the best estates of land and the front seats and the choicest food and drink, therefore we must fight in the front rank, and kill or be killed. That sentiment of generous paganism (Christianity had nothing to do with it) struck a chord in the hearts of the public school men who felt that they must earn their privilege by being among the first to join up.
Nowadays few boys and girls have the opportunity at school to read Homer in the original. That is sad; but interest in the poems is in many ways as great as ever. The discoveries of Schliemann and other archeologists at Troy and Mycenae, the insights of Milman Parry into the ways in which bards improvise on known material and into the working of Homeric composition, the decipherment of Linear B by Michael Ventris, and the revelation that Greek was spoken in Greece in the second millennium BCE: all this has commanded widespread public attention because of the Homeric connection. And there has never been a time when so many people were at work translating Homer into English.*
All translation of poetry into another language is a matter of nightmare difficulty—poetry itself has been defined as “what gets left out in translation.” It is also true that the age in which we live is not, to obvious appearance, one that is at ease with long poems. Few poets nowadays are writing, even fewer readers are reading, long poems in English. And the two Homeric epics present the translator with some special problems. The most obvious is that there is not, as it happens, anything in English literature analogous to Homer. English literature does not possess a great archaic epic. Beowulf is splendid, but it is too remote. It has not had an important part in the history of English literature and education, but was completely unknown through most of that history; and above all, it does not strike the modern reader, who finds himself needing a translation, as being in English. More surprisingly, English literature does not even possess a secondary or literary epic of a national kind (Paradise Lost is the story of all Christendom), like the Aeneid and the poems of Tasso and Camoëns in Latin and Italian and Portuguese, though that fact is not so important for the translator of Homer.
The position of Homer is in fact a very strange one, and it gives Greek literature a very strange shape. The normal history of an Indo-European literature seems to start with oral heroic poems, such as The Song of My Cid and The Song of Roland and the Nibelungenlied. These archaic compositions then regularly fall out of favor, with the coming of literacy and increasing sophistication, and gradually they are relegated to the backwaters, to provincial settings and peasant audiences who are out of touch with recent artistic developments. Gradually they disappear even there; and unless they are rediscovered in time by scholarly enquirers, the sort of men who in the late eighteenth century were collecting old ballads and old manuscripts in all the countries of Western Europe, they are lost forever. In Greece that did not happen, a fact that is a tribute both to the quality of the Homeric poems and to the good taste of classical Greeks, who amid the exciting innovations and greater sophistication of Athenian literature never lost sight of the excellence of the ancient oral epics.
The absence of a comparable work in English means that there is no obvious model for the translator. The manner of Milton was indeed tried by the poet William Cowper, but the result is heavy and self-conscious in a very unHomeric way. Homer is always dignified and sometimes very grand, but he is not heavy in the Miltonic style, and his dignity is not achieved at the cost of excluding large areas of experience or of the world. We have a famous appearance of a baby in the Iliad, when the little son of Hector is frightened by the sight of his father in armor and cowers crying in the arms of his nurse. In the Odyssey the poet shows us, among the scenes of recognition of Odysseus on his return to Ithaca, that when an old dog, thrown out to die on the dunghill, summons up his last strength to greet his long-lost master. Milton, like Virgil and Racine, would surely have avoided such material, which risks endangering the general elevation of their manner; but Homer resembles Shakespeare in his confidence that dogs, and babies, and other such humble aspects of reality can be raised, apparently without effort, to the level of high poetry. Both scenes, in fact, are concerned with themes at the very heart of the two poems: in the Iliad, the tragedy of the loving family man forced to leave his family and die in battle, and in the Odyssey, the pathos of the hero, regaining his home at last, but still forced to dissemble his feelings and deny his identity.
Another perilous model was the King James Bible, with the double recommendation of dignity and (in the Victorian period) universal familiarity, and it is into a pastiche of that style—itself historically a work produced by refining and updating the version, and the style, of William Tyndale a century earlier—that the Odyssey was translated by S.H. Butcher and Andrew Lang, and the Iliad by Lang, Walter Leaf, and Ernest Myers. I was brought up on those versions, and I retain an affection for them. But undeniably they introduce a rather churchy tone, sometimes inappropriate to Homer, who constantly involves gods, but whose atmosphere is eminently unlike that of the Bible or the church.
In this century the Penguin Classic version of E.V. Rieu achieved enormous success by turning the Odyssey into something more like a novel than an archaic epic, drastically pruning the poetical flourishes, omitting many of Homer’s repetitions, and writing in prose of a very middle flight. Two impressive versions have been produced in America since World War II. In the 1950s Richmond Lattimore used a long verse form, “a free six-beat line,” which aims to convey the movement of Homer’s hexameters; the risk here is that of sounding too much like Longfellow. In the 1970s, Robert Fitzgerald translated the poems into verse that stayed, on the whole, quite close to the rhythm of blank verse. Both these versions deserved their success.
The joker in the pack, a performance to which (in the judgment of Samuel Johnson) no age or country could produce a parallel, is the translation by Alexander Pope. His version of the Iliad, the work that made Pope famous and rich, is currently being reprinted by Penguin Classics; of the Odyssey he translated twelve of the twenty-four books himself, but he also kept a close eye on the assistants who translated the other twelve. It is indeed a staggering performance, absolutely assured, going with a swing, unmistakably a poem. I quote a passage which brings out one of the problems with translating Homer: his easy transition from one poetical level (as we naturally think of it) to a very different one. In the Sixth Book of the Odyssey the goddess Athena stirs up the young princess Nausicaa to go down to the seashore, where she will be in position to meet the shipwrecked Odysseus. Nausicaa is to get the use of her father’s chariot and go off with a group of girls to do some laundry on the beach: it will be an occasion for a picnic and games with a ball. Athena then departs for the serene beauty of Olympus. Here is Pope:
The royal car at early dawn obtain,
And order mules obedient to the rein;
For rough the way, and distant rolls the wave
Where their fair vests Phaeacian virgins lave.
In pomp ride forth: for pomp becomes the great,
And Majesty derives a grace from State.
Then to the Palaces of heav’n she sails,
Incumbent on the wings of wafting gales:
The seat of Gods, the regions mild of peace,
Full joy, and calm Eternity of ease.
There no rude winds presume to shake the skies,
No rains descend, no snowy vapours rise;
But on immortal thrones the blest repose:
The firmament with living splendours glows.
I think we detect here the embarrassment of the baroque era at the whole idea of a princess doing the washing. Homer’s Greek says only, “For you, too, it will be much better than to go on foot; the washing places are far from the town.” No “distant rolls the wave,” still less anything so periwigged as the couplet about riding forth in pomp—not very appropriate to the journey of a lot of girls on a mule cart with the laundry. We remember that Pope, in his very interesting preface to his translation, thinks it right to be defensive on this subject: some things in Homer “proceed from the nature of the times he lived in,” especially that “simplicity” which shows us “monarchs without their guards, princes tending their flocks, and princesses drawing water from the springs.”
Homer is alive, too, as a source, a model, and a sparring partner for poets. One of the most exciting poetic projects under way at the moment is the re-creation of the Iliad by Christopher Logue. He began with the apparently isolated publication in 1981 of War Music, based on Iliad, Books 16 to 19, but then he fell under Homer's spell, and he now seems to have embarked on a systematic reworking of the Iliad as a whole. Kings, "an account of Books 1 and 2," appeared in 1991, and The Husbands, reworking Books 3 and 4, but including material from Books 2, 5, 7, and 11, in 1994 (in the US: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995). Logue uses the term "an account": he is not producing a translation. He rearranges episodes, and he invents scenes and characters, and even gods, who do not appear in Homer. His poem is unmistakably of this age. It is tough and often irreverent, but also often lyrical. For me this daring venture is a great success: Logue is brilliantly, if unexpectedly, Homeric.↩
Homer is alive, too, as a source, a model, and a sparring partner for poets. One of the most exciting poetic projects under way at the moment is the re-creation of the Iliad by Christopher Logue. He began with the apparently isolated publication in 1981 of War Music, based on Iliad, Books 16 to 19, but then he fell under Homer’s spell, and he now seems to have embarked on a systematic reworking of the Iliad as a whole. Kings, “an account of Books 1 and 2,” appeared in 1991, and The Husbands, reworking Books 3 and 4, but including material from Books 2, 5, 7, and 11, in 1994 (in the US: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995). Logue uses the term “an account”: he is not producing a translation. He rearranges episodes, and he invents scenes and characters, and even gods, who do not appear in Homer. His poem is unmistakably of this age. It is tough and often irreverent, but also often lyrical. For me this daring venture is a great success: Logue is brilliantly, if unexpectedly, Homeric.↩