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.”


Still in 1769 the highly intelligent Robert Wood, the first to point out the fidelity of Homer to both the geography and the customs of the Near East of his own time, remarks in his Essay on the Original Genius and Writings of Homer:

In an age when Rank and condition are multiplied and subdivided with so much nice and punctilious precision, it is difficult to reconcile ourselves to the simplicity of one uniform set of manners…. We are disgusted, when we see queens and princesses employed in the lowest departments of domestic drudgery.

That sentence itself makes the point with double force: Wood cannot bring himself to mention what it was that the princess Nausicaa was doing. On the other hand, the description of Olympus, obviously much more to the translator’s taste, comes sonorously and elegantly off the tongue.

Here is the version of Walter Shewring (Oxford University Press, World’s Classics, 1980):

“So tomorrow early you must urge the king your father to let you have a wagon and mules. They will carry all the dresses for you, and the sashes and the brilliant rugs; besides, for yourself, it is far better to ride than walk; the washing-places lie well beyond the town.”

And with these words the goddess of gleaming eyes departed to Olympus. There, men say, the home of the gods is secretly set for ever, unrocked by tempest, undrenched with rain, unassailed by snow; a cloudless sky stretches out above and a white radiance is everywhere. It is in this place that the blessed gods take their pleasure through all their days; and to it the goddess of gleaming eyes departed after giving her message to the princess.

That is faithful to the sense of the original, and I think it will be agreed that it is a dignified English prose. The potentially disruptive passage from mundane arrangements to celestial palaces is managed unobtrusively. But, of course, the translator has abandoned any attempt at verse.

We come to the new version by the experienced American translator Robert Fagles. He is “working from a five- or six-beat line while leaning more to six [but] I expand at times to seven beats…or I contract at times to three.” Here is his translation of the same passage:

“So come,
first thing in the morning press your kingly father
to harness the mules and wagon for you, all to carry
your sashes, dresses, glossy spreads for your bed.
It’s so much nicer for you to ride than go on foot.
The washing-pools are just too far from town.”
With that
the bright-eyed goddess sped away to Olympus, where,
they say, the gods’ eternal mansion stands unmoved,
never rocked by galewinds, never drenched by rains,
nor do the drifting snows assail it, no, the clear air
stretches away without a cloud, and a great radiance
plays across that world where the blithe gods
live all their days in bliss.

That reads well, to my ears. The rhythm and the general stylistic tone are good. But doubt arises at one passage: “It’s so much nicer…. The washing pools are just too far….” As Pope went off in one direction, that of Versailles, so this seems to me to go off in the other, that of suburbia; and the transition to the splendid passage that follows is now perceptibly abrupt.

It is a memorable moment of pathos when Odysseus meets the ghost of his mother in the lower world. He asks her how she came to die, and for news of the rest of his family. She tells him that his old father has been broken by his grief for his absent son; he has dropped out, is dressed in rags, sleeps on the ground. As for her, it was not the archer goddess Artemis who brought her a natural death. In Fagles’s version,

And I with the same grief, I died and met my fate.
No sharp-eyed Huntress showering arrows through the halls
approached and brought me down with painless shafts,
nor did some hateful illness strike me, that so often
devastates the body, drains our limbs of power.
No, it was my longing for you, my shining Odysseus—
you and your quickness, you and your gentle ways—
that tore away my life that had been sweet.

Again, the Pope version has more obvious rhetoric:

For thee, my son, I wept my life away;
For thee thro’ hell’s eternal dungeons stray:
Nor came my fate by ling’ring pains and slow,
Nor bent the silver-shafted Queen her bow;
No dire disease bereav’d me of my breath;
Thou, thou my son wert my disease and death;
Unkindly with my love my son conspir’d,
For thee I liv’d, for absent thee expir’d.

The movement is exhilarating, the style powerful. But “hell’s eternal dungeons,” impressive as they sound, are quite different from the bloodless existence envisaged by Homer for the dead, roaming unpunished through the fields of asphodel, and they come in here purely for rhetorical effect. The idea of life beyond the grave has automatically triggered a booming elevation of style. At the end of the passage we lose the revealing touch, so telling for Homer’s conception of the relation of the sexes, and preserved by Fagles with tact as well as fidelity, that it was the gentleness of her son that his mother missed so sorely. Fagles captures this feeling, while Pope intrudes the idea that Odysseus “conspired” with his mother’s love to cause her death: a conceit which might have been as welcome to Ovid as to Dryden, but which comes from another universe than that of Homer.

I offer one more extended comparison. At the center of the epic Odysseus, after many perils and tribulations, is finally put on a ship by the Phaeacians and sent off to his home on Ithaca. The passage is a haunting and reflective one. The regular activities of ship-launching are described in summary tone, using the formulaic lines which we have seen before; then the ship sails, and the weary hero sleeps on her deck a deep sleep, and the poet contemplates him, for once out of reach of the sufferings that have dogged him. There is a reminder of the very opening of the Odyssey: “Sing, Muse…of the man whose heart endured much suffering as he sailed the sea”: this passage is unusual in its air of being not simply formulaic but a specific pointer to a significant line in the poem. Here is Shewring’s version:

The others sat at the thwarts in order, untied the cable from the hole in the stone, then swung back and began to throw up the water with their oars, while on him fell sleep irresistibly, delicious unbroken sleep that looked like death. As for the ship—it was as when four stallions yoked together feel the whipstrokes and rush away over the plain, lifting their feet high in air and quickly accomplishing their course—so the ship’s stern was lifted high, and in the wake surged and seethed the great waves of the sounding sea. Steady, unswerving, the ship coursed onwards; not even the falcon, swiftest of things that fly, could have kept pace with her. Thus then she sped lightly on, parting the waves of ocean and carrying with her a man who was godlike in his counsels, one who had borne much grief of spirit, who had cut his path through embattled foes and wearying waves, but now was sleeping in quietude, with all his troubles put out of mind.

Here in contrast is the Pope translation:

Now plac’d in order, the Phaeaciantrain
Their cables loose, and launch into the main:
At once they bend, and strike their equal oars,
And leave the sinking hills, and less’ning shores.
While on the deck the Chief in silence lies,
And pleasing slumbers steal upon his eyes.
As fiery coursers in the rapid race
Urg’d by fierce drivers thro’ the dusty space,
Toss their high heads, and scour along the plain;
So mounts the bounding vessel o’er the main.
Back to the stern the parted billows flow,
And the black Ocean foams and roars below.
Thus with spread sails the winged galley flies;
Less swift an eagle cuts the liquid skies:
Divine Ulysses was her sacred load,
A Man, in wisdom equal to a God!
Much danger, long and mighty toils he bore,
In storms by sea, and combats on the shore;
All which soft sleep now banish’d from his breast,
Wrapt in a pleasing, deep, and death-like rest.

In Shewring, “sleep that looked like death,” a not very satisfactory rendering of the Homeric “sleep most closely like death.” In Pope, the splendid phrase has gone, leaving only “pleasing slumbers“—a very different (and much inferior) thing; the sweet but deathlike sleep is removed to the end of the scene, a change deftly enough done but transferring the emphasis and transforming the weight of the scene. Nor is it much comfort to have gained in exchange the un-Homeric “sinking hills, and less’ning shores”: very nice, but an eighteenth-century commonplace, not present in Homer. If Odysseus is looking in any direction, we can be sure that he is not looking back at the land of the Phaeacians. The Homeric falcon, too, becomes an eagle, presumably as the grander bird.

Now for Fagles:

…as crewmen sat to the oarlocks, each in line.
They slipped the cable free of the drilled stone post
and soon as they swung back and the blades tossed up the spray
an irresistible sleep fell deeply on his eyes, the sweetest,
soundest oblivion, still as the sleep of death itself…
And the ship like a four-horse team careering down the plain,
all breaking as one with the whiplash cracking smartly,
leaping with hoofs high to run the course in no time—
so the stern hove high and plunged with the seething rollers
crashing dark in her wake as on she surged unwavering,
never flagging, no, not even a darting hawk,
the quickest thing on wings, could keep her pace
as on she ran, cutting the swells at top speed,
bearing a man equipped with the gods’ own wisdom,
one who had suffered twenty years of torment, sick at heart,
cleaving his way through wars of men and pounding waves at sea
but now he slept in peace, the memory of his struggles
laid to rest.

All the translators are in their different ways happy in their description of the ship crashing forward through the waves, but I find Fagles particularly successful (“Hoofs high…hove high,” “crashing dark in her wake as on she surged”), and his treatment of the deathlike sleep also seems to me to be clearly the best.

Fagles’s translation is handsomely published to match his iliad, which appeared in 1988. There are fourteen pages of notes, a bibliography of suggested further reading, four maps, four family trees, and a twenty-page “pronouncing glossary” of the proper names that occur in the poem. The book has a sixty-page introduction by Bernard Knox, which as one would expect deals authoritatively with the central questions raised for the modern reader by a poem so ancient, which in many ways still feels so little remote. Knox gives a sketch of the history of the text and of the “Homeric question,” the various problems and suggested solutions that have vexed the poem and its readers ever since later antiquity. His conclusions are robustly sensible. The vogue for chopping the poem up and ascribing the fragments to different poets and different phases of the tradition has passed. The language and dialectic of the poem work together, as he well says:

The long line, which no matter how it varies in the opening and middle always ends in the same way, builds up its hypnotic effect in book after book, imposing on things and men and gods the same pattern, presenting in a rhythmic microcosm the wandering course to a fixed end which is the pattern of the rage of Achilles and the travels of Odysseus, of all natural phenomena and all human destinies.

The reader will also find a reliable short account of the formulaic expression in Homer, and of the relation of the Odyssey to the Iliad. It cannot be doubted that the Odyssey was composed with the other epic already in existence and in the eye of the poet: the Iliad is presupposed, and the loose ends between the events of the two poems—the Wooden Horse, the Fall of Troy, the homecomings of the heroes, the murder and avenging of Agamemnon—are carefully filled in. Knox also provides thoughtful discussion of the heroism of Odysseus and of the morality and theology of the poem. They are not as different as is often alleged, Knox rightly insists, from those of the Iliad. We are not faced with a nice simple piece of intellectual progress between the two epics, and the Odyssey contains plenty of the old hard rawness of the Olympian gods, familiar from the Iliad (and from Sophocles).

I missed only some discussion of the Eastern parallels: the name of Gilgamesh, hero and traveler, might well have been mentioned. Nor is Knox much interested in the voyage of the Argo, though as he says there are several indications that a version of that story was powerfully influential on the Odyssey poet. We can, I think, reflect on the difference between Odysseus’ purely human crew and the supernaturally gifted Argonauts, and between the character of their adventures. It is by deliberate choice that the odyssey is not more magical, more romantic, more like a folk tale.

As for Fagles’s translation, it takes its place as a worthy representative of the most poetical type of version that seems possible in this generation. Gone are the days when it could seem natural to turn Homer into rhyming couplets, or into the idiom of the Authorized Version of the Bible. His rhythms are supple, not mechanical; but they are perceptible, they are there, especially if his lines are read aloud. They read aloud very well, in fact; and that is a great indication of quality. Heard aloud, or read in silence but at a deliberate speed (we all tend to read much too fast, nowadays; poetry cannot be taken in such a hurry), the pace is seen to be subtly varied, the structure of large sections coherent and convincing. The choice of words and of stylistic level, so immensely difficult to get consistently right, is on the whole equally satisfying. Fagles’s iliad and Odyssey together add up to a distinguished achievement.

This Issue

November 28, 1996