Homer: The Iliad

October 18, 2022

The Iliad
Homer
Translated from the Greek by Four Illustrious Translators
[c.800 BC]
c.500 pages. Second reading.

When first I attempted The Iliad, many years ago, it was a sad and dispiriting affair, and I struggled through it without any enjoyment. Now, with quite a few other, if lesser, ancient epics under my belt, I felt sufficiently buoyed up with hope and girt about the loins to try again. Alas! Let me not say that I fared no better, but let me also be honest: it was a sad and dispiriting affair.

The problems for me were principally two, I think. One was the diffuse structure of the poem. I understand the basic shape: the Trojans prevail in battle so long as Achilles sits in his tent, but, stirred to action, he turns the tide and triumphs in the epic confrontation with Hector. But within that basic framework the poem felt aimless to me: there were so many characters, gods and men, churning back and forth in endless succession, speechifying, throwing spears, world without end. Like a great Trojan warrior dragging the body of his foe through the dust, I was dragging my own battered self from one episode to the next, bereft of hope.

The second problem for me was all the fighting. Maybe it’s churlish to complain of fighting in a poem about war; the criticism is just. But, just as I tend to yawn and drift away in films when giant action scenes play out, so here I struggled to maintain attention through all the rock throwing and spear hurling and sword swinging. True, the gruesome deaths Homer grants certain characters reward a certain morbid fascination, but for the most part I found the sword-play immoderately tedious. This bothers me some, because I believe the poet intended those bits to be exciting, and maybe in performance they would have been, but I couldn’t maintain enthusiasm for them.

It was not that I found nothing to like. The siege of Troy, for instance, was motivated by the Greeks’ desire to recover Helen, absconded with Paris and now held securely within the city’s walls. But the poet tells us, early on, that she and Paris have grown cool to one another as the war has played out on the plain before the city, a revelation that casts a pall of pointlessness over the whole affair. This is dramatically effective. I also appreciated the evenhandedness of Homer, who is a Greek writing about a Greek triumph, but who generously grants the Trojans the same heroism and dignity that he lavishes on the Greek warriors.

As the battles raged, I was sometimes tempted to abandon the poem, but I held on in anticipation of the tale of the Trojan horse, which I expected would provide a change of pace and a straightforward storyline. Imagine my chagrin when, inching closer and closer to the end, it gradually dawned on me that the episode of the Trojan horse is not part of the Iliad after all. Ah well.

***

My first acquaintance with the Iliad, years ago, was through the translation of Richmond Lattimore, made in the early 1950s. This is still a well-regarded translation, often chosen for courses on Homer because it attempts to follow the Greek line as closely as possible: the metre is Homer’s own dactylic hexameter, and Lattimore tried to keep each line of English more or less aligned with the corresponding line of Greek. But personally I found, and find, that the hexameter line is awkwardly long for English verse, giving the poem a baggy, sprawling feel.

This time out I wanted to explore another approach. There are literally dozens of translations available, so I had to choose.

In the 1970s Robert Fitzgerald made a translation in blank iambic pentameter, and this, too, has maintained a good reputation; I was curious to peer into it. A popular version in the past few decades has been Robert Fagles’ translation, written in an irregular metre of five or six beats and said to be vivid and exciting. I was also curious about the 18th century translation, in rhyming couplets, by Alexander Pope; it might be rude to force Homer into a mold so foreign to him, but perhaps a genius could manage it?

In the end, I decided not to decide: I read all four — Lattimore, Fitzgerald, Fagles, and Pope — in rotation, Book by Book. I lost the continuity of a single poetic voice, but I gained a diverting variety, and diverting variety was what I needed.

**

In fact, I found it a cheering exercise to pause occasionally to compare translations of specific passages, and I’ve chosen a few to present here. Homer is famous for his heroic similes, so I’ve picked one of those; the Iliad is famous, as I’ve already said, for its gory death scenes, so I’ve chosen one of those; and, finally, I selected a charming domestic scene involving Hector and his family, which was a personal favourite.

Let’s begin with the simile. In this one, taken from Book 13, the charging Trojan army is compared to a boulder propelled by a raging torrent. Here is how Lattimore renders it:

The Trojans came down on them in a pack, and Hektor led them
raging straight forward, like a great rolling stone from a rock face
that a river swollen with winter rain has wrenched from its socket
and with immense washing broken the hold of the unwilling rock face;
the springing boulder flies on, and the forest thunders beneath it…

I’m not sure about the “immense washing”, but I like the image of the “springing boulder” and of the forest “thundering” as the boulder crashes through.

Here is Fitzgerald:

Trojans massed and running
charged them now, with Hektor in the lead
in furious impetus, like a rolling boulder
a river high with storm has torn away
from a jutting bank by washing out what held it;
then the brute stone upon the flood
goes tossed and tumbling, and the brush gives way,
crashing before it.

I much prefer this shorter line, and I like also the alliteration of “tossed and tumbling” and the slightly oblique description of the river as “high with storm”.

Now Fagles:

Trojans pounded down on them!
Tight formations led by Hektor careening breakneck on
like a deadly rolling boulder torn from a rock face —
a river swollen with snow has wrenched it from its socket,
immense floods breaking the bank’s grip, and the reckless boulder
bounding high, flying with timber rumbling under it…

Exclamation mark! I think we get a strong sense of motion and drama in this version: “pounded down”, “breakneck”, “reckless”, “bounding”, “flying”. Too much of this could get exhausting, but it serves this particular simile quite well.

Lastly, Pope:

Thus breathing death, in terrible array,
The close compacted legions urged their way:
Fierce they drove on, impatient to destroy;
Troy charged the first, and Hector first of Troy.
As from some mountain’s craggy forehead torn,
A rock’s round fragment flies, with fury borne,
(Which from the stubborn stone a torrent rends,)
Precipitate the ponderous mass descends:
From steep to steep the rolling ruin bounds;
At every shock the crackling wood resounds.

The feeling is entirely different. I’m a sucker for rhyme, and I confess I find this translation congenial, though I can certainly see that it is least faithful from a metrical point of view. Still, it is fascinating to see how Pope is able to fit in all of the essential details, even if taking a few extra lines to do it.

**

Next let’s look at a death scene. In Book 14, the Trojan Ilioneus runs into the Greek Peneleus, and it doesn’t go well for him. Lattimore puts it this way:

This man Peneleos caught underneath the brow, at the bases
of the eye, and pushed the eyeball out, and the spear went clean through
the eye-socket and tendon of the neck, so that he went down
backward, reaching out both hands, but Peneleos drawing
his sharp sword hewed at the neck in the middle, and so dashed downward
the head, with helm upon it, while still on the point of the big spear
the eyeball stuck.

So Ilioneus’ head was first skewered, then severed, but the eyeball remained fixed firmly to the spear’s tip. Fitzgerald gives us a slightly different picture:

Peneleos drove his spearhead
into the eye-socket underneath the brow,
thrusting the eyeball out. The spearhead ran
straight through the socket and the skull behind,
and throwing out both hands he sat down backward.
Peneleos, drawing his long sword, chopped through
the nape and set the severed helmeted head
and trunk apart upon the field. The spear
remained in the eye-socket.

Where Lattimore had the head “dashed downward”, Fitzgerald has it more gently “set apart”. I notice also that for Fitzgerald the spear remains in the eye-socket, rather than directly in the eye-ball, which strikes me as more plausible. In any case, here is Fagles:

… the one Peneleous lanced beneath the brows,
down to the eyes’ roots and scooped an eyeball out —
the spear cut clean through the socket, out behind the nape
and backward down he sat, both hands stretched wide
as Peneleos, quickly drawing his whetted sword,
hacked him square in the neck and lopped his head
and down on the ground it tumbled, helmet and all.
But the big spear’s point still stuck in the eye-socket —

I like the “lanced” and “lopped” and “tumbled”, and I note with approval the spear-transfixed eye-socket again. Finally, Pope:

Full in the eye the weapon chanced to fall,
And from the fibres scoop’d the rooted ball,
Drove through the neck, and hurl’d him to the plain;
He lifts his miserable arms in vain!
Swift his broad falchion fierce Peneleus spread,
And from the sprouting shoulders struck his head;
To earth at once the head and helmet fly;
The lance, yet sticking through the bleeding eye,
The victor seized…

It is interesting that Fagles echoed Pope’s “scoop”, which seems an odd verb to describe a spear’s action. Again, I rather like this rendering, though I acknowledge that certain details, like the weapon that merely “chanced” to find its mark, or the “sprouting shoulders”, aren’t quite apt.

**

Lastly, let’s take a peek at Hector at home as he plays with his son, little Hectorides. This is from Book 6, and is one of the few passages in the poem not actively flexing its muscles. We’ll take the translators in the same order, beginning with Lattimore:

So speaking glorious Hektor held out his arms to his baby,
who shrank back to his fair-girdled nurse’s bosom
screaming, and frightened at the aspect of his own father,
terrified as he saw the bronze and the crest with its horse-hair,
nodding dreadfully, as he thought, from the peak of the helmet.
Then his beloved father laughed out, and his honored mother,
and at once glorious Hektor lifted from his head the helmet
and laid it in all its shining upon the ground.

The helmet in question, I guess, might have been something like this, and who would blame the child for being a little frightened at it? Next, Fitzgerald:

As he said this, Hektor held out his arms
to take the baby. But the child squirmed round
on the nurse’s bosom and began to wail,
terrified by his father’s great war helm —
the flashing bronze, the crest with horsehair plume
tossed like a living thing at every nod.
His father began laughing, and his mother
laughed as well. Then from his handsome head
Hektor lifted off his helm and bent
to place it, bright with sunlight, on the ground…

I like that “bright with sunlight”, and I find the verse, in this metre, has an appealing poise and stability. Now Fagles:

In the same breath, shining Hektor reached down
for his son — but the boy recoiled,
cringing against his nurse’s full breast,
screaming out at the sight of his own father,
terrified by the flashing bronze, the horsehair crest,
the great ridge of the helmet nodding, bristling terror —
so it struck his eyes. And his loving father laughed,
his mother laughed as well, and glorious Hector,
quickly lifting the helmet from his head,
set it down on the ground, fiery in the sunlight…

I find this a little too intense: “recoiled”, “cringing”, “screaming”, “terrified”. Poor kid. But “fiery in the sunlight” is good. Finally, Pope:

Thus having spoke, the illustrious chief of Troy
Stretch’d his fond arms to clasp the lovely boy.
The babe clung crying to his nurse’s breast,
Scared at the dazzling helm, and nodding crest.
With secret pleasure each fond parent smiled,
And Hector hasted to relieve his child,
The glittering terrors from his brows unbound,
And placed the beaming helmet on the ground.

This is a model of brevity, while still capturing the details we find in the others. I would hazard a bet, also, that little Hectorides would prefer the rhymes.

*

In the end, my first choice among these translations is Fitzgerald’s. His metre is a good one for an epic in English, giving the verse a noble sense, and his version felt sturdy and steady. Lattimore I thought too spindly and diffuse, and Fagles felt too emotionally volatile after a while. My second favourite was actually Pope, despite the obvious deviations from Homer’s style; the rhymes provided a steady beat that kept me moving forward, and I actually felt that the going was easiest when reading his version.

It’s disappointing, of course, to struggle, again, to appreciate such a great poem. I’d like to have had a more substantial encounter this time out, but it was what it was. I expect to have a better time with the Odyssey, and I’m looking forward to it.

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