And a handsome hardcover it is.
While I heartily applaud any and all expressions of contempt for the American middle-brow culture, I have to point out that every translation of The Iliad has its first edition. A first edition of Pope’s Iliad is probably worth a bundle. Another translation’s first edition could easily end up as a $1 garage sale book.
Because of its distinctive cover, which I guessed (wrongly) must be from between 1890 and 1920, I thought I might discover what translation it was. I googled a while, but couldn’t find it. But another commenter to the Paris Review blog knew what it was: an edition of Pope’s translation, published in Boston in the 1880’s.
Meanwhile, in my search, I came across a really interesting website. It is a list of published English translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey, many of them with links to the opening passage of the poem, the first seventy or so lines. It was enjoyable – thought provoking, actually – to compare them. I looked mainly at Victorian era translations.
They ranged from Arthur S. Wray’s nearly incomprehensible (1886):
THE wrath of Achilles the Peleus-begotten, O Song-queen, sing,
Fell wrath, that dealt the Achaians woes past numbering;
Yea, many a valiant spirit to Hades’ halls did it send,
Spirits of heroes, and cast their bodies to dogs to rend,
And to fowls of ravin,—yet aye Zeus’ will wrought on to its end
Even from the hour when first that feud of the mighty began,
Of Atreides, King of Men, and Achilles the godlike man.
to the breathlessly mellifluous Charles Baglot Cayley’s (1876):
MUSE, of Pelidéan Achilles sing the resentment
Ruinous, who brought down many thousand griefs on Achaians,
And ultimately banish’d many souls to the mansion of Hades
Of warriors puissant, them making a booty for hounds and
All manner of prey-birds, wherein Jove’s will was accomplish’d
From that time forward, when first was in enmity parted
Atrides, king of hosts, from Jove-exampling Achilles
to Samuel Butler’s workaday prose (1888):
Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another.
to George Ernle’s faltering attempt at modernity (1922):
Sing me that Anger, Goddess, which blinding royal Achilleus
Balefully, brought sufferings untold to the army of Argos,
Sent many souls of mighty Achaeans into the darkness
And flung abroad the bodies to the wild dogs and to the vultures
And to the fowls of Heaven, till Zeus had duly accomplished
All he decreed. Sing of it from where Agamemnon Atrides
And the gallant Achileus first fought and parted asunder.
What God aroused contention amongst these so to divide them?
to W. H. D. Rouse’s faltering attempt to reach out to the proletariat (1938):
AN angry man—there is my story: the bitter rancour of Achillês, prince of the house of Peleus, which brought a thousand troubles upon the Achaian host. Many a strong soul it sent down to Hadês, and left the heroes themselves a prey to dogs and carrion birds, while the will of God moved on to fulfilment.
It began first of all with a quarrel between my Lord King Agamemnon of Atreus’ line and the Prince Achillês.
Glancing at the list, my eye was caught by a translation by William Cullen Bryant in 1865. Mistaking him for William Jennings Bryan (the Cross of Gold guy translated Homer!?) I decided to check it out. In a simple, straightforward iambic pentameter which, thanks to Yankee self-confidence and Puritan self-control, contains not the slightest whiff of the Elizabethan, Bryant’s translation (at least of the opening) is both the clearest in sense and most accomplished in poetry of any I can remember reading.
O GODDESS ! sing the wrath of Peleus’ son,
Achilles; sing the deadly wrath that brought
Woes numberless upon the Greeks, and swept
To Hades many a valiant soul, and gave
Their limbs a prey to dogs and birds of air,—
For so had Jove appointed,—from the time
When the two chiefs, Atrides, king of men,
And great Achilles, parted first as foes.
The editor of the website, Ian Johnston, of Vancouver Island University, who includes a short, pithy comment after each sample, agrees with me: “Bryant’s Iliad ranks as one of the most successful and readable English renditions of Homer of the century.”
I prefer it to Richmond Lattimore’s, which was the one we were assigned to read in college and which I re-read a couple of years ago:
Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus.
Of recent translations, Stephen Mitchell’s (2011) opening stanza approaches Bryant’s in combining clarity with masterful poetry:
The rage of Achilles—sing it now, goddess, sing through me
the deadly rage that caused the Achaeans such grief
and hurled down to Hades the souls of so many fighters,
leaving their naked flesh to be eaten by dogs
and carrion birds, as the will of Zeus was accomplished.
Mitchell’s italicized “through” is puzzling. Is there something in the Greek which calls for it, or does he simply want to emphasize the role of the muse for 21st century readers who might not be aware of it? Whatever – Mitchell’s spare and focused opening makes me think I should have a copy of his Iliad on my shelves too.
The start of Robert Fagles’ 1990 translation, which was critically acclaimed and sold quite well (for a translation of Homer) doesn’t do it for me:
Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters' souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Finally, here is Pope’s translation:
THE Wrath of Peleus' Son, the direful Spring
Of all the Grecian Woes, O Goddess, sing!
That Wrath which hurl'd to Pluto's gloomy Reign
The Souls of mighty Chiefs untimely slain;
Whose Limbs unbury'd on the naked Shore
Devouring Dogs and hungry Vultures tore.
Since Great Achilles and Atrides strove,
Such was the Sov'reign Doom, and such the Will of Jove.
Celebrated, perhaps, but not by me. Pope’s primary business seems to be trawling his meter for rhymes. But I’m prejudiced by an impatience with 18th century poetry (although I love the century’s pretentious prose which, as far as I’m concerned, lives up to all its pretentions – The Declaration of Independence, for example).
I’ve ordered the Bryant from ABE Books. I can’t believe (meaning I can well believe) that there was no 20th century edition of this excellent Homer. (Or maybe it falls down after the opening. I’ll find out.)