Why should the first book written in the Western tradition still be the best book ever written in the Western tradition?
I’m talking, of course, of the Iliad, a book so beautiful, so profound, and so inclusive, as to remain unsurpassed by Tolstoy, Proust or even Dave Barry.
I try to reread it at least once a year, and in different translations. It never fails to delight me. More, it never fails to move me deeply.
For the ancient Greeks, Homer was as close as they had to a bible. It seemed to them everything one needed to know was included in the two books he is credited with writing, and the hymns he is supposed to have composed.
It reminds one of Caliph Omar, blamed by some for burning the great library of Alexandria, who supposedly said that the library was not needed, because everything we need to know is in the Koran, and if the books in the library contradict the Koran, they should be destroyed, and if they agree with the Koran, they are superfluous.
Clearly, not everything is in the Iliad: It is a little thin on women, for instance. The Odyssey does better by that count. But it is astonishing how much actually is included.
And what is also astonishing is how clear-eyed Homer is: How unblinking in the face of both good and evil. It is all there, and narrated with hardly a nod to one side or the other. This is the world that is, not the world as we should like it to be.
There is, it is true, a good deal of the Hellenic world view that is foreign to us today, but that hardly matters. The book seems modern anyway, even cinematic. (Not that any movies made of the Trojan war are anything but embarrassing — blame that on Hollywood, not on Homer.)
He writes like a movie camera: Written details play in our minds as if we were seeing them on a screen.
In Homer’s Iliad, when the Trojan warrior Hector has killed one of his Achaean (Greek) enemies, he “planted a heel against Patroclus’ chest, wrenched his bronze spear from the wound, kicked him over flat on his back.”
Critic Roger Ebert talks about a movie cliche he calls the “fruit cart,” when a falling kung-fu fighter or a careening car knocks over a table or fruit cart and spills produce all over the screen.
In Homer’s Odyssey, the hero comes home to find his estate infested with villains. He kills them all, starting with the head bad-guy.
“Odysseus aimed and shot Antinous square in the throat with the arrow’s point stabbing clean through to the nape of the neck and out the other side. Antinous pitched to the side, his cup dropped from his grasp as the shaft sank home, and the man’s life blood came spurting from his nostrils in thick red jets. His foot jerked forward and kicked the table and food showered across the floor, bread and meat soaked in a swirl of bloody filth.”
It is especially in the area of graphic violence that Homer anticipates Hollywood.
There was a time in movies when the bad guy got shot, grabbed his chest and keeled over. In 1967, Bonnie and Clyde turned death by gunshot into a slow-motion ballet of bodies jerked like marionettes punctuated by squibs popping like bubble wrap.
Since then, Hollywood has upped the ante, and the ballet of graphic gore has gotten more sophisticated, more precise and more messy. No one can be shot nowadays without a shower of blood spattering the wall behind him like spray paint.
In just 20 lines of the Iliad, Homer kills off half a dozen heroes in bloody style. Here’s a sampling:
“Thrasymedes stabbed Antilochus right in the shoulder and cracked through the bony socket, shearing away the tendons. Then he wrenched the whole arm out and down thundered Antilochus and darkness blanked his eyes. …
“Peneleos hacked Lycon’s neck below the ear and the sword sank clean through, leaving Lycon’s head hanging on his body by only a flap of skin. The head swung wide and Lycon slumped to the ground. …
“Idomoneus skewered Erymas straight through the mouth, the spearpoint raking through, up under the brain to split his glistening skull, teeth shattered out, both eyes brimmed to the lids with a gush of red and both nostrils spurting, mouth gaping, blowing convulsive sprays of blood. He was a corpse as he hit the ground.”
Tarantino is playing catch up.
But it isn’t merely in gore that Homer is realistic. He describes everything from the food to the landscape as if he were a gobbling camera, eating up the full existence of life. And not, like some novelist, in different chapters, but in a single sentence he can telescope from the entire battlefield down to the iris of a bee’s eye, and then back out again in the space of five or 10 words. It leaves one not with the grand view and not with the microcosm, but with a clear sense that they co-exist in a single space, a single comprehension.
Something else that should be said is that Homer survives translation. There are many great poets who live so completely in their native soil, they cannot be shipped overseas without loss of savor. Goethe in his mother tongue is the great poet; Goethe in English seems like the bearer of bromides and platitudes. Horace cannot survive the journey from Latin to English without sounding rather like Polonius.
But Homer works whether in a straight interlinear or in Pope’s heroic couplets or in Stephen Mitchell’s newest colloquial English translation. The power of Homer is in his sweep, not in his preciosity.
It is what Longinus praised in his On the Sublime.
He even works in the quaint antique style of George Chapman. In fact, Chapman is a great treat for someone who loves the Queen’s English.
Outside the King James Bible, there is probably no English translation of anything more famous than Chapman’s Homer.
But it is famous for being praised in John Keats’ sonnet, rather than for itself. Hardly anyone alive has actually read Chapman.
Chapman issued his translations, first of the Iliad and then of the Odyssey, from 1598 through 1615, overlapping the publication of the King James Bible in 1611. Like that Bible, it is written in a knotty Elizabethan-Jacobean style, when English was first stretching its muscles and testing its power. It is profligate in its verbal extravagance.
Keats wrote that Chapman speaks out “loud and bold,” and he certainly does.
“The man, O Muse, inform, that many a way
Wound with his wisdom to his wished stay;
That wandered wonderous far when he the town
Of sacred Troy had sacked and shivered down.”
I love that: “sacked and shivered down.”
Of course, you lose something to gain something. Chapman’s word inversions, to fit his meter, make the words sound as archaic as the more obscure parts of King James, and can interfere with understanding the sense. You keep having to stop and reparse the sentence to understand just what he means to say.
On the other hand, there is a strength and nobility to the stylized expression.
Modern translations, even as wonderful as the recent one by Robert Fagles (which I recommend to first-time readers over Chapman), may be clearer, and it has its own felicities, but it doesn’t give us anything as palpable as that shivering city: “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy.”
The course between elevated style and easy comprehension has to be charted by each of Homer’s translators. Do you try to make him into an adventure novel, like W.H.D. Rouse, or do you look for the astonishing words that make poetry?
The opening of the Iliad has a line about how the anger of Achilles has caused the death of many men. An interlinear and literal translation says that the hero “prematurely sent many brave souls of heroes to Hades and made them prey to dogs and to all birds of prey.”
It is a grim image, of corpses littering the battlefield and being chewed on by animals.
Samuel Butler translates the same passage as “pushing brave men under the sod, feeding young men to dogs and to vultures.”
Alexander Pope, in one of the most enduring translations, gives that as:
“The souls of mighty chiefs untimely slain;
Whose limbs unburied on the naked shore,
Devouring dogs and hungry vultures tore.”
The text most often taught in colleges is Richmond Lattimore’s. He gives that same passage as:
“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.”
The American poet Robert Lowell has it:
“threw so many huge souls into hell,
heroes who spilled their lives as food for dogs and darting birds.”
So you can see there is quite a wide latitude of possibility in translation, to make the sense clear and to make the imagery potent.
Here is Chapman’s opening:
To give a sense how Chapman fits into all this, we should look at the opening of Book XI of the Odyssey.
It tells about Odysseus (Chapman uses the Latin version of the name, Ulysses) and his men setting off from the island of the witch-goddess Circe.
A.T. Murray’s nearly literal translation for the Loeb Library offers:
“But when we had come down to the ship and to the sea, first of all we drew the ship down to the bright sea, and set the mast and sail in the black ship, and took the sheep and put them aboard, and ourselves embarked, sorrowing, and shedding big tears.”
It is a passage translated by T. E. Lawrence — yes, that is Lawrence of Arabia — as:
“At length we were at the shore where we lay the ship. Promptly we launched her into the divine sea, stepped the mast, made sail and went: not forgetting the sheep, though our hearts were very low and big tears rained down from our eyes.”
Pope lets these words fly quick and smooth:
“Now to the shores we bend, a mournful train,
Climb the tall bark, and launch into the main:
At once the mast we rear, at once unbind
The spacious sheet, and stretch it to the wind;
Then pale and pensive stand, with cares oppressed,
And solemn horror saddens every breast.”
Pope has expanded the passage to make it fly gracefully. Chapman goes the other way, with his crabbed, organ-tone Elizabethan style:
“Arrived now at our ship, we launched, and set
Our mast up, put forth sail, and in did get
Our late-got Cattle. Up our sails, we went,
My wayward fellows mourning now the event.”
Over and over, in Chapman, you come across the gnarly masticated consonants that act as rocks in the clear stream of vowels. Reading him can be like walking barefoot on gravel.
But at its best, it makes you taste each word as you utter it. You cannot speed-read the poetry: You must measure each syllable.
There are parts where Chapman seems to be on auto pilot, and when his poetry ventures into the banal, but at his best Chapman gives us a view of Homer as sublime, the version of Homer that Longinus praised, as being bigger and more awesome than our ordinary course of experience.
Oh, but what might have been. There is a passage of Homer that accomplishes what Chapman did, only more so, and with a sweeping poetic power that no one has ever matched.
One wishes, though, that Ezra Pound had finished a full translation of Homer. That cranky, crazy, fraudulent genius has given us the best, most noble, most poetic, and at the same time most comprehensible translation of parts of the Odyssey in his opening section of The Cantos.
It has the best of Chapman and the best of Pope, with a 20th Century irony and an Anglo-Saxon vocabulary that dances and sings. How I wish he hadn’t gone all loony and filled his Cantos with Chinese and economics and instead have spent that same time giving us all of Homer.
“And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and
We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,
Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also
heavy with weeping.”
Well, if we can’t have a full Pound, Chapman will more than suffice.