A Life With the Greeks

My first encounter with the story of Troy happened as a child while reading one of those juvenile collected tales of Ancient Greek and Rome. It kindled an enchantment for that vanished golden age that has never waned. Those gods, goddesses, and heroes have accompanied me as proxy siblings, with that admixture of fierce love and gentle hostility typical to such relationships. Achilles, the truculent and distant older brother, admired and loathed in equal measure. Paris, the craven cousin, who gossips behind closed doors. Beautiful, unpredictable Cassandra who became the model for at least one of the important women in my life.

Although I own Homer in the original Greek I cannot claim to know Homer that way, though, from time to time, I crudely decode stretches, word by word, like a detective. Any classical scholar in his first year possesses more competence in Greek than I’ve achieved. As a teenager I learnt to write the first line of Homer’s Iliad in Greek from memory, but it was artifice, a party trick. Classical Greek studies remain an ambition, to sit beside my formal training in Latin. As Joyce once wrote to Harriet Shaw Weaver, “I [..] have spent a great deal of time with Greeks of all kinds from noblemen down to onionsellers, chiefly the latter. I am superstitious about them. They bring me luck.”

Without classical Greek I am compelled to rely on translations into English, though at school we dabbled a bit with a Latin translation of Homer. Pope’s translation was my first, of which Robert Fagles, while acknowledging its greatness, said, “Pope’s Homer is really an English poem.” Of Pope’s translation (hat-tip to Douglas Robertson), Samuel Johnson wrote:

I suppose many readers of the English “Iliad,” when they have been touched with some unexpected beauty of the lighter kind, have tried to enjoy it in the original, where, alas! it was not to be found. Homer doubtless owes to his translator many Ovidian graces not exactly suitable to his character; but to have added can be no great crime, if nothing be taken away. Elegance is surely to be desired, if it be not gained at the expense of dignity. A hero would wish to be loved, as well as to be reverenced.

To a thousand cavils one answer is sufficient; the purpose of a writer is to be read, and the criticism which would destroy the power of pleasing must be blown aside. Pope wrote for his own age and his own nation: he knew that it was necessary to colour the images and point the sentiments of his author; he therefore made him graceful, but lost him some of his sublimity.

Besides Pope, I’ve read translations of the Iliad by Richard Lattimore, Robert Fitzgerald and William Cowper, as well as much of Stephen Mitchell’s truncated version. I’m reading Robert Fagles admirably lucid translation. Each of these translations tackle the Iliad differently, and I struggle to recommend one over the other, though Mitchell’s version impressed me least.

I do urge those interested in Homer to read Simone Weil’s essay, The Iliad, or The Poem of Force [PDF]. For the nerdy I also recommend Malcolm M. Willcock’s A Companion to the Iliad (based on Richard Lattimore’s translation).

12 thoughts on “A Life With the Greeks

  1. The Illiad is hugely important to me. An incredibly powerful text. I need to check which translation it is I’m most familiar with (or rather who it’s by).

    I just bought Alice Oswald’s Memorial. Looking forward to it.

    Patroclus always impressed me most. While Achilles indulged in the largest hissy fit in history, letting good men die because he’d lost Briseis (if I remember names correctly) to Agamemnon, Patroclus got out there and did so well that Apollo himself had to intervene to stop Patroclus from upsetting destiny.

    For all the gods though and grand passions, it’s the incredible humanity of the work that makes it so powerful for me.

    • Max, thanks for the heads-up to Alice Oswald’s Memorial. I’d seen it but had no idea as to its content.

      My affection has always been for Hector, a hero ready to die for the limitations of ordinary life. Though he makes mistakes he never ceases to be admirable, and dies an inevitable death.

      I couldn’t agree with you more about the humanity of the Iliad. There is a great deal of truth in the Homeric perspective. It seems to me that the poem offers the sort of mature and intelligent understanding we should have of the world.

      • She wrote an article in the Guardian titled Haunted by Homer which is still online and which speaks at length regarding the Illiad. I’ve not read it properly as yet, but it looked very interesting.

        What I didn’t understand in the Illiad when I first read it was the recounting of the history of characters who die very quickly, sometimes even without any dialogue. Later I came to the view that it was partly as lineage was more important to the Greeks than it is to us, but later still I realised it’s making a subtler point too. That they are people, that they had homes and families, even if not dialogue within the poem.

        So, a character is introduced. We know his grandparents, that his parents are waiting for him, then an arrow kills him before he says a word. Looking at that now it brings out the pointless waste of war. We focus on the generals, the decorated, but the man who dies unnoticed save by his family and friends is as much a man as any of those more feted, and his death no less tragic.

        • Haunted by Homer is superb. I’ve just read it. Thank you again.

          In my Pope edition of Homer, there’s an essay by Thomas Parnell about the diversity of deaths of the warriors, who are distinguished by either their characters, or age, profession, nation, family etc. Their means of death are also explicit and varied. By employing this approach each come alive in precisely the way you mention. There is such compassion in Homer’s approach.

  2. If you haven’t already read it, I think you’ll find E.R. Dodds’ now-classic The Greeks and the Irrational worthwhile (available from the usual sources).

    And I can’t echo your praise for Alice Oswald strongly enough. Her writing is just gorgeous, and I think she’s a far better poet and interpreter than anne carson, for example. In any case, you’ll probably enjoy Mira Rosenthal’s recent review, as I did: Alice Oswald’s Memorial and the Reinvention of Translation.

  3. If you haven’t read Guy Davenport’s brilliant essay on different translations of Homer, “Another Odyssey,” in Geography of Imagination, you must. (If you have access to JStor, it looks like there’s a copy on there. If you don’t, holler and I can send it to you.)

    That essay turned me on to George Chapman’s translation, which is absolute fireworks in parts. There are a few versions up on archive.org. I’d been pacing through Rodney Merrill’s attempt at a rhythmically-true translation with bits of Lattimore every now and then, but Chapman’s really got me going. Davenport makes something of a case for Chapman’s liberties being more in-tune with Homer than Pope’s liberties, if that piques your fancy for both or either.

  4. Pingback: December: Extended Reading Notes | Time's Flow Stemmed

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