To anyone who has acquired a taste for the poetry of Pope, to anybody with a taste for English poetry, the possibility of possessing parts at least of the poem known as the Odyssey and commonly attributed to Homer is given as immediately as to Keats a key was given through the very inferior version by Chapman. Thanks to Pope we who search for the epics by way of translations can look beyond our noses and see that Homer has an indefinite future among us as exhibiting not only what humanity has been but what it once again might become. Pope’s version has this success because it is on the right lines and concentrates on the main things: to make it apparent that, as a critic of our day has put it, Homer “esprime valori eterni con parole di eternità.”
The effect of reading Pope is, furthermore, to help us resist temptations to prefer a part of the Odyssey to the whole. To listen to some people you would think that the poem existed solely to provide a framework for the hero’s long narrative in Books IX-XII of his marvelous adventures by sea and land. For others the poem clearly ends halfway through when Odysseus kisses his native soil in Book XIII. “Obviously the tale was the thing,” said the pseudonymous T. E. Shaw, and in so saying defined his limitations. For then he is forced to the eccentric conclusion, “Perhaps the tedious delay of the climax through ten books may be a poor bard’s means of prolonging his host’s hospitality.”
But what above all comes over us if we approach the epic through Pope is that the deep vein of great humanity in Homer is always cropping out in passages by which men’s hearts have never ceased to be touched, from Homer’s days to ours. Very often these supreme touches come to us in direct speech, and here Pope has grasped and shown us the chief problem and task of a translator as being to find credible speech. The decorum of the Homeric personages is very hard to define, and even harder to match. The personages neither orate nor converse; they strike a note that includes ornate speech and occasionally the most brutally direct word order and economy, but they have an accent all their own and their credibility as heroes depends on our getting it exactly right. The most sublime moments fail to come across if there is anything slightly “off,” as for me here:
Be content, good friend, die also thou! why lamentest thou thyself on this wise? Patroclus, too, died, who was a far better than thou!
On hearing this I find Achilles disappearing and the whole Iliad going up in smoke.
Finally, Pope summed up the problem of translating the epics once and for all in his famous Preface, where he wrote:
It is not to be doubted that the Fire of the Poem is what a Translator should principally regard, as it is most likely to expire in his managing: However it is his safest way to be content with preserving this to his utmost in the Whole, without endeavouring to be more than he finds the Author is, in any particular Place. ‘Tis a great Secret in Writing to know when to be plain, and when poetical and figurative; and it is what Homer will teach us if we will but follow modestly in his Footsteps. Where his Diction is bold and lofty, let us raise ours as high as we can; but where his is plain and humble, we ought not to be deterr’d from imitating him by the fear of incurring the Censure of a meer English Critick. Nothing that belongs to Homer seems to have been more commonly mistaken than the just Pitch of his Style: Some of his Translators having swell’d into Fustian in a proud Confidence of the Sublime; others sunk into Flatness in a cold and timorous Notion of Simplicity. Methinks I see these different Followers of Homer, some sweating and straining after him by violent leaps and Bounds, (the certain Signs of false Mettle) others slowly and servilely creeping in his Train, while the Poet himself is all the time proceeding with an unaffected and equal Majesty before them. However of the two Extreams one could sooner pardon Frenzy than Frigidity: No Author is to be envy’d for such Commendations as he may gain by that Character of Style, which his Friends must agree together to call Simplicity, and the rest of the World will call Dulness. There is a graceful and dignify’d Simplicity, as well as a bald and sordid one, which differ as much from each other as the Air of a plain Man from that of a Sloven: ‘Tis one thing to be tricked up, and another not to be dress’d at all. Simplicity is the Mean between Ostentation and Rusticity.
The truth of all these propositions is already settled for many minds, and by plausible exemplification and argument the number might hopefully be increased of those who regard Pope’s Odyssey, with all its faults and mediocrities, as the standard English translation and the one that does most justice to the poetical merits of the original, and so the truest to its essential spirit. But to some American critics the mirror on the wall gave a different answer in 1961, when Robert Fitzgerald’s verse translation of the Odyssey received the Bollingen Award for the best translation of a poem into English. Tribute as various as this from Moses Hadas: “Surely the best and truest Odyssey in the English language” and from William Arrowsmith this: “At last we have an Odyssey worthy of the original” was capped by Bernard Knox, who wrote: “The longfelt need for a poetic translation of the Odyssey has been filled and it is safe to say that this will be the standard English version for a long time to come.” Even if I were not already inclined to do so, the warmth of these remarks, made by men with whom it would be an honor to be allowed to debate, would impel me to raise the question whether this version of Fitzgerald’s is such as both to show up Pope’s as inferior and to be a test for any subsequent verse translation of the Odyssey.
THE GENERAL TEST for a modern verse translation of the Odyssey, once made clear by Pope, has been made clearer by the success of several modern prose translations. The prose versions by “T. E. Shaw” and E. V. Rieu reminded or informed readers that the Odyssey can be used to provide some of the low-level pleasures of the novel. Readers noted with surprise that you could go on and on in these versions with never a pause for thought or backward comparisons. At the same time they observed the absence of any potent touches that might justify the view that the Odyssey had other merits than those of the-novel-of-the-year. Because of these versions, earlier critics who had referred to the style of the original as “sublime” or “majestic” were thought to be too stuffy or pompous to be taken seriously, and the enthusiasm of Keats for Chapman was put down to self-intoxication on the part of both translator and reader.
Yet, if we can learn anything from Pope, a similar “lift” is the very feature by which we should know that a modern verse translation had begun to justify itself. I do not think that any modern translation could expect to rise every time Homer rises, but if it rose once or twice in one or other of the twenty or so places in the Odyssey where generation after generation has found Homer rising, then a modern poetic translation would have come into being. No real poet who respected both Homer and himself would dream of attempting the whole epic until he had done one of the great passages in such a way that competent critics told him he had added to the poetry of the English language.
To apply the test in a fair way we need a passage that is a genuine outcropping of the vein of humanity, not a piece that could have been tacked on where it is or put in at any other place. If the passage contains direct speech it must satisfy the criteria I mentioned when reviewing some versions of the Iliad in The Cambridge Quarterly (Vol. I, No. 1, Winter 1965-6). The speech must be such that, without it, we should be unable to construct the action, the inner action which gives the “story” element its point. It must be speech at a point of extreme tension, and speech that causes the mind to extend to the furthest limits of the action. In that review I was thinking principally of how in the Iliad the laments over Hector’s body sent the mind traveling back over the whole action of the poem, with the disturbing reflection that the last words of the poem are being given to Hector rather than Achilles. A similar passage is Sarpedon’s speech to Glaucus in Book XIX, which Matthew Arnold used to such good effect in characterizing the translations of Pope and Chapman. The scene where Hector parts from Andromache perfectly illustrates what I mean by the outcropping of humanity. I make these specifications because, if the translation passes the test here, it will certainly pass elsewhere, and, if it cannot pass the test here, it will not be worth bothering with.
I have chosen the silent interview between Odysseus and Penelope in Book XXIII for a further reason. If pressed to give a general account of successful translation from Homer I should always leave the emphasis on the degree to which the author has to invent his original. In a short review there is no space to refute the common delusion that there is a public Homer, “out there” so to speak, an agreed text whose meaning is shared by all who know Greek. I have therefore taken a passage which has always pulled readers up, and forced them to do some of the work of interpretation for themselves. What the difficulties are will emerge from the discussion below, but their general nature is set out beautifully by Pope in a note introducing the whole book. (These notes of Pope will come as a revelation to those who have hitherto had to use nineteenth-century and modern editions of the translations. Not only do they contain some wonderful English prose, they expound Pope’s critical creed. They are the one thing in the new edition* that the ordinary reader will feel unmixed gratitude for.)
This book contains the Discovery of Ulysses to Penelope. Monsieur Rapin is very severe upon some parts of it; whose objections I shall here recite.
The discovery of Ulysses to his Queen was the most favourable occasion imaginable for the Poet to give us some of the nicest touches of his art; but as he has manag’d it, it has nothing but faint and weak surprizes, cold and languishing astonishments, and very little of that delicacy and exquisiteness which ought to express a conjugal tenderness: He leaves his wife too long in doubt and distrust, and she is too cautious and circumspect; the familiarities she observes in being fully assur’d, and her care to act with security, are set down in number and measure, lest she should fall into any mistake; and this particularity makes the story dull, in a place that so much requires briskness and liveliness. Ought not the secret instinct of her love to have inspir’d her with other sentiments? and should not her heart have told her, what her eyes could not? Love is penetrating, and whispers more to us than the senses can convey; but Homer understood not this Philosophy: Virgil, who makes Dido foresee that Æneas designs to leave her, would have made better advantage of this favourable opportunity.
The strength of this objection consists chiefly in the long incredulity of Penelope, and the slowness she uses to make an undeniable discovery: This Rapin judges to be contrary to the passion of love, and consequently that the Poet writes unnaturally.
There is somewhat of the Frenchman in this Criticism: Homer in his opinion wants vivacity; and if Rapin had been to have drawn Ulysses, we had seen him all transport and ecstasy. But where there is most fancy, there is often the least judgment. Penelope thought Ulysses to be dead; he had been absent twenty years; and thro’ absence and his present disguise, he was another person from that Ulysses whom she knew, when he sail’d to Troy; so that he was become an absolute stranger. From this observation we may appeal to the Reader’s judgment, if Penelope, without full conviction, ought to be persuaded that this person was the real Ulysses? And how could she be convinc’d, but by asking many questions, and descending to particularities, which must necessarily occasion delay in the discovery? If indeed Ulysses and Penelope had met after a shorter absence, when one view would have assured her that he was her real husband, then too much transport could not have been express’d by the Poet; but this is not the case, she is first to know her husband, before she could or ought express her fondness for his return, otherwise she might be in danger of misplacing it upon an impostor: But she is no sooner convinced that Ulysses is actually returned, but she receives him with as much fondness as can be expressed, or as Rapin could require.
While yet he speaks, her pow’rs of life decay,
She sickens, trembles, falls, and faints away:
At length recov’ring, to his arms she flew,
And strain’d him close, as to his brest she grew.
Till this moment the discovery was not evidently made, and her passion would have been unseasonable; but this is no sooner done, but she falls into an agony of affection. If she had here appear’d cool and indifferent, there had been weight in Rapin’s objections.
“T. E. Shaw,” for example, who had made up his mind that Penelope was a “sly cattish wife,” found her speaking sarcastically to the Old Nurse:
Penelope responded: “Even your storied wisdom, mother dear, hardly equips you to interpret the designs of the eternal Gods. Howbeit let us away to my son, for I would see the suitors lying in death; and their slayer.”
Robert Fitzgerald is softer, and more natural, here:
Penélopê said: “Nurse dear, though you have your wits about you, still it is hard not to be taken in by the immortals. Let us join my son, though, and see the dead and that strange one who killed them.”
He, however, has taken a bold step and perhaps in the wrong direction in putting in the one adjective that it may have been the whole point of this little scene to withhold. There is no warrant for “strange” in the mere words of Homer. We, however, ourselves supply some such word as we wonder what Penelope will finally decide to do. “T. E. Shaw” went on:
She was going down as she spoke, her heart in a turmoil of debate whether to keep her distance while she examined her dear lord, or go straight up at once to kiss his head and clasp his hand. So when at length she came in across the stone threshold it was to take a seat in the fire-light facing Odysseus, but over against the further wall.
Prose can be less distinguished than this, as we are reminded by E. V. Rieu:
As she spoke she left her room and made her way downstairs, a prey to indecision…
but it is poor enough to make us regret that T. E. Lawrence did not feel challenged by Homer to write better. Nor can this of Fitzgerald be called much superior:
She turned then to descend the stair, her heart in tumult. Had she better keep her distance and question him, her husband? Should she run up to him, take his hands, kiss him now? Crossing the door-sill she sat down at once in firelight, against the nearest wall, across the room from the lord Odysseus.
Only those who are very familiar with Fitzgerald’s version as a whole would point out here as characteristic a suggestion of kittenish waywardness in “should she run up to him…?,” but the Fitzgerald “fan” might not accept my further general impression that his is the first version to make the Butlerian thesis plausible that the Homer of the Odyssey was a woman.
I am assuming that our eyes at this point are meant to be looking centrally at the megaron and that we now turn to Odysseus:
He sat at the base of a tall pillar, waiting with dropping eyelids to hear his stately consort cry out when she caught sight of him.
Lawrence is so poor that Rieu by contrast seems to have all the quietness of Homer:
…Odysseus, who was sitting by one of the great columns with his eyes on the ground, waiting to see whether his good wife would say anything to him when she saw him.
Fitzgerald seems to have taken this passage in the same spirit:
There leaning against a pillar, sat the man and never lifted up his eyes, but only waited for what his wife would say when she had seen him.
Now comes the point of the scene. The original is unfortunately hard to construe and the versions may not have exactly the same substratum. Here is “T. E. Shaw”:
But she sat there in a long silence, with bewildered heart. One moment she would look and see him in his face; and the next moment fail to see him there, by reason of the foul rags he wore…
Fitzgerald has risen above this:
And she, for a long time, sat deathly still in wonderment—for sometimes as she gazed she found him—yes, clearly—like her husband, but sometimes blood and rags were all she saw.
The translation tails off slightly where Mr. Fitzgerald’s prose faintly suggests a lame iambic pentameter. I use this apparently perverse language, not for the usual purpose, to denigrate the verse pretension; I am appealing to the verdict of the ear that if that organ is allowed to take the lead we are bothered by the typographical layout, which suggests a “blank verse” metric. The reminders of blank verse in the translation are usually places where Mr. Fitzgerald has failed to sustain his staple, which is prose as good as, and sometimes slightly better than, the average of current prose translationese.
The typographical liberty I have taken with Mr. Fitzgerald’s text will, I hope, serve to make a point in reply to those who regard the staple as consummate verse. But such admirers might well ask me whether my ear is so thick that I hear only prose in this selected passage! And I would gladly testify that it is just the slight differences from prose that make the translation as a whole such a fluid medium that I can find no passages of stodge or tedium. But it would be unfair to a reader who does not know it to leave this translation there. For it is as distinguished for its poeticalities as for its prose. Many of these are such as to bring a smile of pleasure to a reader with the Greek text before him. They all suggest that Mr. Fitzgerald enjoyed translating Homer; they give us a strong impression of a personality so ondoyant et divers that we never want to leave his company. Although I judge that his translation never rises, as the best parts of Pope’s do, it has a strong prima facie case to be the one version we need if we have no Greek to protect us from the merely Augustan poeticalities of Pope.
I HOPE I have now rigged up a rough-and-ready experimentum crucis, a test that will settle the matter for those with only a mild interest in Homer and will compel those more deeply involved to use exact and clear language in setting out their comparative findings. If so, it is time to introduce our central figure.
To many people it will seem ludicrous to speak of “introducing” Richmond Lattimore, for his other translations have made his name a household word in academic America. His version of the Iliad in particular is there taken to be an established classic—though these two words have been so abused that all that is now intended by the phrase may be that the version passes muster with several colleagues in the academic world and is “recommended reading” for a vast captive audience of undergraduates. On this topic Bernard Knox appears to be a man of one formula, for in the article from which I took the pre-prepared “blurb” for Fitzgerald’s Odyssey, I found this comment: “…the Iliad, by Richmond Lattimore, whose translation, using contemporary English and a rhythmic approximation of Homer’s own line, has established itself as the classic translation for our age and I suspect for a long time to come.” Must Mr. Fitzgerald’s version now make way for Professor Lattimore’s or is Lattimore’s version so inferior to Fitzgerald’s as to be a luxury, without any true raison d’être?
Circumspect Penelope said to her in answer:
“Dear nurse, it would be hard for you to baffle the purposes
of the everlasting gods, although you are very clever.
Still, I will go to see my son, so that I can look on
these men who courted me lying dead, and the man who killed them.”
She spoke, and came down from the chamber, her heart pondering
much, whether to keep away and question her dear husband,
or to go up to him and kiss his head, taking his hands.
But then, when she came in and stepped over the stone threshold,
she sat across from him in the fire- light, facing Odysseus,
by the opposite wall, while he was seated by the tall pillar,
looking downward, and waiting to find out if his majestic
wife would have anything to say to him, now that she saw him.
She sat a long time in silence, and her heart was wondering.
Sometimes she would look at him, with her eyes full upon him,
and again would fail to know him in the foul clothing he wore.
The impact of this passage, in this particular context where I have introduced so many breakwaters, may not be great, but anyone who had conscientiously read without interruption all the twenty-three books to this point might well be pardoned if he likened the experience to that of some poor rat forced to wade up to the whiskers through an endless morass of chewed tram tickets. It is a minor annoyance to have things like this:
looking downward, and waiting to find out if his majestic
printed as if they were composed lines of poetry; the major grief is the tastelessness of the words that painstakingly drain away the distinction of the poem. Heaven knows what a ridiculous noise I make in my head when I open my Homer at this passage but I seem to hear by comparison the music of the spheres. But the contrast is not, I suspect, essentially bound up with what we call “sound”: it is chiefly relief at discovering that there is nothing Homeric about all that gives offense in this version. Nothing in my not very learned contact with the Greek words leads me to doubt that I am meeting with a superior mind, the mind of one who thought grandly (on occasions) of the human race, however unable in general to blink the “miserable condition of humanity.” T. E. Lawrence was convinced of the opposite:
My version is fustian: but so is Homer, I think…. A great man could make a great poem or a great novel out of its material…but a translator can only expose the fraud… What’s really wrong with the Odyssey is Homer.
The point I am attempting to make here was made long ago by another would-be translator of an epic, John Dryden:
If I cannot copy his harmonious numbers, how shall I imitate his noble flights, where his thoughts and words are equally sublime?… What modern language, or what poet can express the majestic beauty of this one verse, amongst a thousand others?… For my part, I am lost in the admiration of it: I contemn the world when I think on it, and myself when I translate it.
My report, then, is both that
the case presents
No adjunct to the Muse’s diadem
and more attention to art was needed and less to matter, since the matter is of no interest to, does not even exist for, lovers of literature without the manner.
To all who would sustain a very high estimate of these two versions as poems, I would offer a challenge to say: are they significantly superior to this?—and I would ask for similar comparisons to set the three versions up against one another as wholes.
Cautious Penelope answered:
“Dear nurse, it’s difficult indeed to comprehend the ways
Of the eternal gods, no matter how wise you are.
But let’s go down to my son and see the dead wooers
Along with the man who killed them.” With this she left
Her room and went downstairs, fiercely debating
Within her heart whether she should keep her distance
From her own dear husband and ask him some questions, or go
Right up and clasp him, kissing his head and hands.
But when she went in across the stone threshold, she sat down
In the firelight close by the wall across from Odysseus,
Who sat by a massive pillar with his eyes on the ground
Waiting to see if his noble wife would speak
When she saw him. Long and silently she sat there, utterly
Spellbound. At times she would look him straight in the face
And still not know who he was in those rags he had on.
(Ennis Rees, 1960)
Must the verdict then be that in the sixth decade of the twentieth century the US saw three translating poets, each great enough to consign Pope’s Odyssey to oblivion? I must say, though, that in my opinion a man who can believe that can believe anything.
BUT CAN TEN or more years’ work, the composition of 359 pages of verse, with at least thirty-five long lines to the page, be dismissed on the strength of one quotation and a cloudy image of the effect of reading the translation from cover to cover? Dismissal cannot occur until all the steps in the argument are agreed on and accepted as valid. Is it true, for instance, that a translation of Homer must be damned unless “the Fire of the Poem” is preserved? Is it true that “the chief problem and task of a translator” of these epics is “to find credible speech”? The present attempt to set up an ineleuctable clinch fails if the reader finds the great figures talking like real heroes in other parts of the translation. Nothing is left of the reviewer’s claim to have done his work with scrupulous care if the chosen passage does not represent the poet’s virtues as well as his deficiencies. It would not have been difficult to find worse passages, but my general impression of Professor Lattimore’s version was of a uniform level of performance, and therefore it would not have been helpful to cap my earlier remark about Achilles disappearing by asking what happens to Agamemnon here:
So there is nothing more deadly or more vile than a woman
who stores her mind with acts that are of such sort, as this one
did when she thought of this act of dishonor, and plotted
the murder of her lawful husband. See, I had been thinking
that I would be welcome to my children and thralls of my household
When I came home, but she with thoughts surpassingly grisly
splashed the shame on herself and the rest of her sex, on women
still to come, even on the one whose acts are virtuous.
I should have liked to make the verdict turn on one of the most heart-touching moments in Homer’s poem, where Odysseus confronts and is confronted by Nausikaa. So many people have found this one of the passages that make the poem a classic that it would be fair to say that, if the poetry of the original is not in some way matched in the translation here, the version cannot be passed as existing let alone as deserving praise. But at this place in the book I found Professor Lattimore’s poetry actually repulsive. As a child and an adolescent the taste of the material from which tram and bus tickets were then made was not repulsive to me (unlike highly flavored chewing gums) but monotonous in the long run and saliva-absorbent. As a hardened reader, whose critical writing first saw print in 1927, I have had to chew the literary equivalent of much devitalized cellulose and have so learned to distinguish the respectably mediocre from the ever-living and the completely dead. The following seems to me therefore a lapse from Professor Lattimore’s norm:
Only the daughter of Alkinoös stood fast, for Athene
put courage into her heart, and took the fear from her body,
and she stood her ground and faced him, and now Odysseus debated
whether to supplicate the well- favored girl by clasping
her knees, or stand off where he was and in words of blan- dishment
ask if she would show him the city, and lend him clothing.
Then in the division of his heart this way seemed best to him,
to stand well off and supplicate in words of blandishment,
for fear that, if he clasped her knees, the girl might be angry.
So blandishingly and full of craft he began to address her:
“I am at your knees, O queen. But are you mortal or goddess?
If indeed you are one of the gods who hold wide heaven,
then I must find in you the nearest likeness to Artemis
the daughter of great Zeus, for beauty, figure, and stature.
But if you are one among those mortals who live in this country,
three times blessed are your father and the lady your mother…”
And lest the reader suspect me of being too narrow-minded an admirer of Pope, I will offer as a relevant comparison a piece of free translation by Chaucer:
So longe he walketh in this wilder- nesse,
Til at the laste he mette an hunter- esse.
A bowe in hande and arwes hadde she;
Hire clothes cutted were unto the kne.
But she was yit the fayreste creature
That evere was yformed by Nature;
And Eneas and Achates she grette,
And thus she to hem spak, whan she hem mette;
“Saw ye,” quod she, “as ye han walked wyde,
Any of my sustren walke yow be- syde
With any wilde bor or other best,
That they han hunted to, in this forest,
Ytukked up, with arwes in hire cas?”
“Nay, sothly, lady,” quod this Eneas;
“But by thy beaute, as it thynketh me,
Thow myghtest nevere erthly woman be,
But Phebus syster art thow, as I gesse.
And, if so be that thow be a god- desse,
Have mercy on oure labour and oure wo.”
“I n’am no goddesse, sothly,” quod she tho;
“For maydens walken in this contre here,
With arwes and with bowe, in this manere.
This is the reyne of Libie, there ye ben,
Of which that Dido lady is and queen”…
Here, it seems to me, we have a real meeting, and the hero manages successfully to “supplicate the well-favored girl” “in words of blandishment,” and we can believe in the people speaking because of the poetry they speak. This is the music of fairyland, and, no doubt, much of Virgil has gone—including, possibly, Virgil’s own feeling for this passage of Homer—to pay the piper.
Yet that infelicitous speech puts an immediate extinguisher on our imagination can be seen by comparing Chaucer’s goddess with one of Professor Lattimore’s; Kalypso (anglicé: Calypso):
“You are so naughty, and you will have your own way in all things.
See how you have spoken to me and reason with me.
Earth be my witness in this, and the wide heaven above us,
and the dripping water of the Styx, which oath is the biggest
and most formidable oath among the blessed immortals,
that this is no other painful trial I am planning against you,
but I am thinking and planning for you just as I would do it
for my own self, if such needs as yours were to come upon me;
for the mind in me is reasonable, and I have no spirit
of iron anger inside my heart. It is full of pity.”
So she spoke, a shining goddess…
The goddess cannot shine if she speaks like that: incredulus odi.
May 9, 1968
Translations of Homer: The Iliad and the Odyssey (Volumes VII-X in the Twickenham edition of the poems of Alexander Pope), Yale University Press, Vols. VII and VIII (Iliad), $37.50; Vols. IX and X (Odyssey), $37.50 ↩