SINCE THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY, English translators have been striving to do justice to The Iliad. It is a poem of brutal, relentless violence, but it is a violence without haste. The action unfolds in a boundless, inexhaustible present. Warriors die, but they do not age. The hour hangs at dawn, dusk, noon, or night, without transition. Opponents meet on the field, in the midst of chaos, but there is time to exchange pedigrees or insults without stint. And Homer’s hexameters, with their stately pause at each half-line, proceed with an Olympian pace fitting the detachment of their godly source. The unhurried movement of Homer’s verse plays against the graphic assault and energy of the action, intensifying their effect. Sublime passion and urgency rendered bright and hard, with none of the blur of time.
Two generations ago, Richmond Lattimore’s Iliad of Homer — which the University of Chicago Press recently reissued with a new introduction by Richard Martin — captured the majestic repose of Homer’s verse with great fidelity. Lattimore is scrupulously faithful to the original. He uses Greek spellings for the characters’ names, so Achilles is “Achilleus” and Ajax “Aias.” He hews closely to Homer’s text, keeping interpretation at a minimum. And except for an occasional archaism, his language is straightforward and unadorned. Lattimore’s fluid, flexible six-beat line is especially apt for the quiet moments and lyric touches of the poem. He gets admirably close to Homer’s voice. Unfortunately, experience as a literature professor has taught me that, even for gifted new readers, Lattimore’s Iliad is slow going.
The 1990 appearance of Robert Fagles’s Iliad offered a new experience of Homer, one that finally made the excitement of the poem accessible to readers of English. The style of Fagles’s Iliad is writerly, almost novelistic. The action is densely packed and rapid, boisterous, full of energy. Fagles exploits every scene for maximum vividness, taking almost all the slack out of Homer’s deliberate movement. The boldness of his approach is announced in the opening line of the poem, which begins with a key word: ”Rage.” Both of Homer’s classic English translators, George Chapman and Alexander Pope, rendered that first word, menin, as “wrath.” Lattimore toned this down to “anger,” but Fagles raises the volume again, and justifiably so. “Anger” does well enough for the dishonored Achilles who refuses to fight until the death of his beloved comrade Patroclus, but “rage” does far more justice to the berserker who emerges once Patroclus has been killed.
Fagles’s Iliad, though, takes liberties with the text that may be too much for some purists. He does his best, for instance, to make Homer’s heroic similes, each of which stands out as a discrete performance, blend less conspicuously into the fabric of the text. Even more radical is his approach to Homer’s epithets. In the Greek Iliad, the epithets are not context sensitive: “swift-footed” belongs to Achilles almost like a part of his name. He does not have to be running to deserve it; he can be sitting in his tent playing the lyre and still be “swift-footed Achilles.” But Fagles, in his desire to avoid mechanical repetition, tried to ma...read more