The Chronicle Review

Siege of the 'Iliad'

Photo illustration by Scott Seymour; original image of Hector and Achilles from the Trustees of the British Museum; Art Resource, NY

January 22, 2012

Erasmus quoted the Iliad in a time of widening war:

Men get their fill of sleep and love, of beautiful singing and carefree dance, but they never get enough of war.

And they never get enough of the Iliad. In his anthology, Homer in English, George Steiner asked in 1996, Why are there so many Iliads in English? His answer: notions of noble manliness. "There shines throughout the Iliad an idealized yet also unflinching vision of masculinity, of an order of values and mutual recognitions radically virile."

Small wonder the epic has appealed to warrior nations like England and the United States. William Blake warned, "It is the Classics & not Goths nor Monks, that Desolate Europe with Wars."

According to The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation, the Iliad is among the most translated works in English, and English has more versions than any other language. They include their share of casualties. Lord W.E. Gladstone, four-time prime minister of England, tried to squeeze the Iliad into ballad stanzas. He foresaw his fate: "I have involuntarily conceived of the poem as a fortress high-walled and impregnable, and of the open space around as covered with the dead bodies of his translators, who have perished in their gallant but unsuccessful efforts to scale the walls."

In the depths of digital libraries lie dead Iliads. Who remembers the English translations of William Sotheby (1831), J. Henry Dart (1865), or Charles Bagot Cayley (1876)? And I doubt we will ever see another like The Iliad of Homer in the Spenserian stanza by Philip Stanhope Worsley and John Conington (1866-68). Samuel Butler's prose Iliad (1898) still gains praise, and T.E. Lawrence's Iliad (1932) has its following, while the couplets of Edgar Alfred Tibbetts (1907) and hexameters of George Ernle (1922) gather dust. For those that fall, new Iliads rush in.

Three Iliads have recently appeared. Stephen Mitchell's (Free Press) and Anthony Verity's (Oxford University Press) are new to the battle for market share. The late Richmond Lattimore's (University of Chicago Press) Iliad first stepped onto the field in 1951 and now returns with a storied shield and dazzling armor, provided by Richard P. Martin of Stanford University: a longer, stronger, updated introduction and a vastly improved set of notes.

Mitchell, and Lattimore before him, appeal to Matthew Arnold's On Translating Homer (1861), asking for their Iliads to be judged by Arnold's four criteria—rapidity, clarity, directness, and nobility—four different ways to fail. By 1861, Arnold hadn't found an English Iliad to his liking. Not the Iliads of Thomas Hobbes (1675) or Alexander Pope (1715-20); neither those of William Cowper (1791) nor Francis Newman (1856). None got the Iliad right.

Steiner thought Arnold too harsh. He defended Pope's amplified Iliad as rapid, clear, direct, and noble poetry that comes to a point:

No hate, but glory, made their chiefs contend;And each brave foe was in his soul a friend.

When the editors of Everyman's Library wanted an Iliad in 1910, they chose the blank verse (1864) of Edward Stanley, Earl of Derby.

But poetry was overtaken by the novel, and the Iliad was retold in prose. Troops of undergraduates preferred the prose Iliad of Andrew Lang, Walter Leaf, and Ernest Myers (1883). It became the first Iliad of the Modern Library (1929). When the Britannica editors chose an Iliad for their Great Books series (1952), they picked Samuel Butler's version. The prose Iliads of Augustus T. Murray for the Loeb Classical Library (1924) and of Emile V. Rieu for Penguin Books (1950) threw verse into further retreat. Robert Graves's The Anger of Achilles (1959) translated the Iliad into prose with scattered verse passages.

Since then, however, verse Iliads have returned with a vengeance, assisted, I assume, by Apollo and Aphrodite.

In 1952, in the Kenyon Review, Robert Fitzgerald wrote that Lattimore's Iliad "brings Homer back from the prose where he has been getting submerged for the past several generations and restores him to his proper element, which is poetry and magnificence." Fitzgerald published his own verse Iliad in 1963 and won laurels far and wide. Some years later, in quick succession, came the verse Iliads of Robert Fagles (1990), Michael Reck (1994), Stanley Lombardo (1997), Rodney Merrill (2007), and Herbert Jordan (2008). Now come Verity and Mitchell, and Lattimore refreshed and rearmed. Steiner: "Again, I ask: Why?"

Steiner's answer still stands: Iliads are men's stuff—furious anger, insult answering insult, duels, trophies, fire, pitiless murder, competitive rape. Who loves the Iliad? Fighters. While conquering the world, Alexander the Great slept with his. Why so many Iliads? Restless ambition: "Always to be the best, and to stand out above other men." Unless the market is a myth, striving for a better Iliad will go on forever.

But for a while, a dozen years, a lifetime maybe, one Iliad might rise above the rest, as Pope's did, as Lord Derby's did. Could one of the three new Iliads win the golden bough? One could. Maybe two.

The new edition of Lattimore's translation is tall and muscular. Its introduction and bibliography are large and well defined. Richard Martin's introduction surpasses all rivals. It is the only one that pays attention to Homeric scholarship from Aristarchus and Jean-Baptiste Gaspard d'Ansse de Villoison to Milman Parry and Gregory Nagy. Martin covers much ground in his 68 pages: what we now know about the Trojan War; what we suppose about Homer; how the Iliad was transmitted to us; how it is constructed; what folklorists say about it; what archaeology adds; which of its scenes painters chose; and more. Martin concludes by comparing Lattimore's Iliad to six others.

Verity's translation is introduced by Barbara Graziosi, of Durham University. Her pages briefly describe the structure of the poem, imagine its poet, and stress the points of view of two women—Helen, wife of Menelaus, and Andromache, wife of Hector—and how close they are to the poet's.

Lattimore's own introduction has migrated to the Chicago press's Web site, but his translator's note remains: "I must render Homer into the best English verse I can write: and this will be my own 'poetical language,' which is mostly the plain English of today." His Agamemnon says to his Achilles:

To me you are the most hateful of all the kings whom the gods love.

Forever quarreling is dear to your heart, and wars and battles;

The sole clue that Lattimore's translation has been altered in a few instances "for the sake of grammar or clarity" is discreetly tucked into an endnote.

In Mitchell's Iliad, the focus is all on the poetry. Calling the Iliad "one of the monuments of our own magnificence," Mitchell has no use for scholars' quarrels. His Homer, whom he points out "almost certainly wasn't named Homer," wrote miraculous poetry: "Even the most desolating of human experiences, when raised to the level of poetry, are a joy to be savored by those who surrender to the music of the words." The joy of war, for instance:

"A current runs through my hands, they long for a spear, my legs want to sprint, my body

feels stronger than it has ever been, and I can't wait to meet Hector and fight him in all his fury."

The breadth of the sentence, its three quick breaths and sprint to the finish, measure the speaker's rising zeal. Mitchell's characters boast and argue sharply. His Hera sasses, his Agamemnon snarls, his Helen prophesies:

Zeus has brought us an evil fate, so that poets

can make songs about us for all future generations.

Verity's translation "does not claim to be poetry." His aim is "to use a straightforward English register and to keep closely to the Greek, allowing Homer to speak for himself." He tells us, "I have kept clear of 'poeticizing' Homer at one extreme and reducing the scale of his invention to the level of a modern adventure story at the other." Thus his Agamemnon insults Achilles:

Of all the Zeus-nurtured kings you are the most hateful to me,

For strife and war and battles are always dear to your heart;

That is clear, but clotted: An angry English Agamemnon could hardly sputter something like "Zeus-nurtured" (in Greek, diotrepheon). As he does with similar problems, Mitchell ignores the troublesome word and replaces it with a phrase all his own. His Agamemnon says:

And to tell the truth, no man, of all the commanders

gathered here, is as hateful to me as you are,

because you are steeped in strife and contention and fighting.

Arnold exposed sharp differences in Iliads, but all three here show a common commitment to clarity, none make blunders, all stay close to the Greek—and close to each other. But they are still very different; they offer real choices. Where they deviate is in details—word choice, section breaks, and punctuation—and in ambition and apparatus.

Most translations of the Iliad armor with annotation. Rapid, direct, and noble translations can't stop to explain names and relations. Martin's endnotes for Lattimore are by far the most informative. They identify verses that are especially significant or thorny; explain the mythic background of allusions and characters; invoke pertinent scholarship; and link passages to other parts of our literary heritage. Verity's endnotes have helpful summaries for each of the Iliad's 24 books and connect parts of the poem to each other. Mitchell's endnotes reflect findings from a few sources; they scarcely do more than identify characters and places. I often wanted an index. Only Verity has one.

It is an Iliadic maxim. Even the best Iliad translations give bronze for gold. But polished bronze shines brilliantly, too.

Why are there so many translations of the Iliad? Because it inspires and challenges poets. Mitchell has translated poems of Rilke, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Tao Te Ching, the Bhagavad Gita, and Book of Psalms; that is, so far translations from German, Akkadian, Chinese, Sanskrit, and Hebrew. The Iliad hung like a trophy before him, teasing to be taken. His way was paved by a hundred prior translators. All he needed was a Greek edition.

Each of the three translators chose a different edition. Lattimore, the three-volume Homeri Ilias of D.B. Monro and T.W. Allen in Oxford Classical Texts (third edition, 1919); Verity, the one-volume Ilias of Helmut van Thiel (1996); and Mitchell, M.L. West's two-volume Ilias (1998 and 2000). The differences in those editions are of keen interest to Homeric scholars: variants, survivals of an older language, peculiarities of dialect, interpolations, omissions, and the like. The three editions make independent decisions about what constitutes the reading text, what is signaled by punctuation, spacing, and marginal cues, and what is consigned to notes. Most of that is lost in translation.

But it made more of a difference to the three translations than I would have predicted. Since the time of the Ptolemies, the traditional text for the Iliad has had 15,693 lines. So, too, do Monro and Allen and Thiel, and thus Lattimore and Verity. Mitchell's Iliad has 14,370 lines, a reduction accomplished by omitting lines that West's edition treated as interpolated. Eighty lines disappear from Book 5; 51 from Book 15; another 80 from Book 20; and so on. There are precedents: Fitzgerald deleted 18 lines, and F. Melian Stawell recommended removing hundreds of lines in the Everyman Iliad, including all of Book 10, the Doloneia, "the night of terror" when Odysseus and Diomedes, spurred on by Athena, raid the Thracian camp.

Lo, Mitchell's Iliad has no Book 10, not a word of it. The Doloneia has long been recognized as a late addition to the epic, although some scholars allow that its antiquity, reputation, and peculiarity (valuable in teaching the transmission of the Iliad) have earned its retention. By omitting it, Mitchell has not translated the Iliad read by Virgil and Milton, but a presumptive earlier one.

Too bad. Mitchell's amputations prevent readers from seeing how anthological the Iliad is. He could have translated Book 10 if he wished; he can't blame West, whose Greek edition considers Book 10 a patch, but keeps it. Ditching the Doloneia defies millennia of care to preserve and explain it. What looks to Mitchell like a lean Iliad looks to me like a wounded one.

"Why so many Iliads?" is less perplexing than "How to choose between them?" If approaching exams or clear plain English are the primary criteria, Verity's Iliad wins.

Mitchell's Iliad is pitched to people who come to the epic hurried, belated, and impatient to get to the end of it. His is a coffee-and-cognac epic.

Lattimore's Iliad is best for those who want to feel the epic from the loins on up, its rush, its reprieves, and its overwhelming rage.

Everybody should read one.

Willis G. Regier is the director of the University of Illinois Press. His most recent book is Quotology (University of Nebraska Press, 2010).