Anthony Verity’s fine new translation of the Iliad is one of a trio to appear within the last year.1 Verity’s is the best of the three, as I hope to show. But his translation also does what good Homeric translations since Chapman have always done: it provokes broader questions about the state of English literature and the nature of poetry in general.

Verity takes minimal liberties with the original. Good: we need straightforward English translations of Homer which keep closely to the Greek, and Verity’s Iliad, supplemented by its useful apparatus and a sharply eloquent introductory essay by Emily Greenwood, sets a high standard for translation of that kind. Verity gives us English close enough to the lexical sense of the Greek that you could use it as a crib. And yet his text is readable, page after page. This involves a great deal of skill: the exotic conventions of Homeric verse mean that it is very easy for a close translation to issue in confusing English.

Such confusion often mars Richmond Lattimore’s 1951 translation of the Iliad, which has just been re-issued (without alteration, but supplemented with maps, notes, and a useful introduction by Richard Martin).2 Lattimore’s translation could be thought of as a rival of Verity’s, in that it competes on a similar ground. Lattimore’s chief claim for his version was its fidelity to the Greek: “I must try to avoid mistranslation,” he wrote, “which would be caused by rating the word of my own choice ahead of the word which translates the Greek.” This sounds like a good policy, but a translator’s success depends on a more active role than Lattimore implies, and in his case, adhering to the Greek often produced English which was often other than graceful or even clear. Here Lattimore’s Achilles waxes philosophical:

We are all held in a single honor the brave with the weaklings.
A man dies still if he has done nothing, as one who has done much.
Nothing is won for me, now that my heart has gone through its afflictions
in forever setting my life on the hazard of battle.
For as to her unwinged young ones the mother bird brings back
morsels, wherever she can find them, but as for herself it is suffering,
such as I, as I lay through all the many nights unsleeping,
such as I wore through bloody days of fighting,
striving with warriors for the sake of these men’s women.

If you find Lattimore’s constructions ungainly, or even his choice of words eccentric (“unwinged” for fledgling), or, if like me, you had to read the passage twice to discover Achilles’ point, then you will see how lexical fidelity does not ensure clear results. It is one of translation’s little paradoxes: the opposite approach—a very free translation—can get at the original with greater precision. Pope, for instance, writing two and a half centuries before Lattimore, tackled the same passage with greater confidence:

Fight or not fight, a like reward we claim,
The wretch and hero find their prize the same.
Alike regretted in the dust he lies
Who yields ignobly or who bravely dies.
Of all my dangers, all my glorious pains,
A life of labors, lo! What fruit remains?
As the bold bird her helpless young attends
From danger guards them and from want defends;
In search of prey, she swings the spacious air,
And with untasted food supplies her care;
For thankless Greece such hardships have I braved,
Her wives, her infants by my labors saved;
Long sleepless nights in heavy arms I stood,
And sweat laborious days in dust and blood.

This is lucid. How much more crisp is Pope’s “Fight or not fight, a like reward we claim” than Lattimore’s diffuse, rhythmically lax, and semantically fuzzy “We are all held in a single honor, the brave with the weaklings.” Lattimore clamed to strive for the directness that Matthew Arnold signaled as a cardinal Homeric characteristic. Yet Pope, for all his elaboration and interpolation, is here, as often, more steely, more energetically plain.

Verity steers a middle ground. Like Lattimore he hews close to the Greek but allows himself enough freedom to avoid distortion of English idiom. Here is Verity’s handling of the same passage:

The man who just stands there and the man who fights bravely
get the same share; coward and brave alike are equally honored;
a man dies just the same, whether he has done much or nothing.
I have endured pain in my heart, always risking my life in battle,
but I get no more share than others, not even a little.
Like a bird which brings all the morsels she can find
to her unfinished young, and suffers herself because of it,
so I too have passed many nights without sleeping, and
have come through days that were bloostained with fighting,
struggling against men, fighting for the sake of their wives.

Nobody would call this poetry, and Verity in his preface disavows any poetic intentions. The line breaks create only the illusion of verse. But what the passage does achieve, in addition to perfect clarity, is just the right rhetorical pitch: ordinary speech, slightly heightened; diction which is just contemporary enough without seeming indecorous (“a man dies just the same”) and just dignified enough without the yea verilies and forsooths of archaizing translations. These instances of good judgment, small in themselves, in aggregate create a uniform tone which sustains readers through the poem’s many thousands of lines. Verity’s role is active, not passive. As a trustworthy contemporary account of Homer’s sense in English, without embellishment or omission, that can be read pleasurably at length, Verity’s Iliad is exemplary. Lattimore’s version has for many decades been the preferred Iliad in the university classroom, where straightforward translations, emphasizing the poem’s paraphrasable content against its poetic style, are thought to be needed. Yet as a straightforward translation Verity’s surpasses Lattimore’s. There is no need to scorn Lattimore’s Homer: it is a substantial achievement. But the timing of Lattimore’s re-publication is unpropitious: it has been resurrected just in time to meet its match.

Homeric translations into English have always been an index of the state of the language, and the quality of English poetry, in any given century. Reading these new translations of Homer forces you to take stock of how limited is the range of rhetorical registers in contemporary English, even in English poetry. Colloquial registers? No problem there. But the English of our day is not well-suited to formal modes, and few poets can manage anything like the confident and easy elevation you find in certain passages of Shakespeare or Dryden or Arthur Golding. One reason for reading and cherishing Anthony Hecht is that he was one of the last poets in English who could achieve, elegantly but without affectation, a lofty rhetorical pitch. One of the reasons for reading the later poetry of Geoffrey Hill is to admire, in a more vexed way, his struggle to achieve, if only for a line or two, a pitch of language which resists the debased currency of demotic commercial English. Hill’s predicament is like the predicament of Homeric translators. Homer’s idiom is an occasion to rise to: it is highly stylized, built around repeated formulaic phrases, and combining, in a Greek nobody has every spoken, elements of disparate dialects. Its meter, the quantitative dactylic hexameter, accommodates within its fixed rules a great variety of metrical variations, with the result that it is at once perfectly strict and highly flexible. Homeric diction is often lofty, particularly in the Iliad, and yet capable of modulation into many shades of declension, including the comic and the homely. The English of the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries offered more resources for answering to the grander aspects of Homer’s style. Since the Romantic revolution, English has operated on principles that make Homeric translation more difficult. For the past two hundred years, our poetry has generally been thought to gain in vigor as it hews closely to the demotic; poetry is ordinary speech heightened. This means that contemporary translators may be led to regard the stylized elements of Homeric verse as incompatible with contemporary English, and to excise them.

Since the Romantic revolution, English has operated on principles that make Homeric translation more difficult.

In this respect, another new Iliad, the version of Stephen Mitchell, offers an illuminating contrast to Verity’s. Mitchell is uneasy about the formulaic and stylized elements of Homer, and makes a principle of cutting from his translation such epic conventions as the stock epithet (“godlike Achilles”).3 (Those omissions are quite a different matter from Mitchell’s radical excision of lines and passages of disputed authority, including the whole of Book 10.) There is a link between Mitchell’s anxiety to cut lines and phrases which run against the grain of English conventions, and a general unevenness in his own English style. As in this passage, where Mitchell finds Achilles presenting a bowl as a gift to the aged warrior Nestor:

“I give you a prize as an honor, and not for winning
one of the contests, since you will not box or wrestle
or enter the spear-throwing contest or run in the foot race,
for the difficulties of old age lie heavy upon you.”

And he placed the two-handled bowl in the hands of Nestor,
who accepted it with delight and said to Achilles,
“Your words about my old age, dear child, are true;
this body is not what it used to be.”

The translator here is unsure. What’s at issue is the gulf between the rhetorical register of Mitchell’s Achilles and his Nestor. It’s a long slide from “the difficulties of old age lie heavy upon you” to the jarring “this body is not what it used to be.” That last phrase corresponds to two whole lines in the Greek: Mitchell’s reduction is not a poetic compression but a cutting of losses. The Greek lines, a rich echolalia of mournful u’s and o’s, go like this:

ou gar et empeda guia philos podes, oude ti cheires omon amphoterothen epaissonta elaphrai

[For my limbs, and my feet too, o friend, are no longer firm, neither do my arms swing out lightly from my shoulder on each side]

In Greek, the stylized idiom of these lines is stately and leisurely and ceremonious; in English, the very same lines sound redundant and awkward. Mitchell feels this clash of Homeric stylization and the conventions of contemporary English, and makes a reasonable decision to let the Homeric drop away entirely: “my body is not what it used to be.” That avoids archaism or exoticism, but at the cost of setting venerable Nestor on the same rhetorical level as middle-aged me, staggering off the tennis court. Moreover “this body is not what it used to be” is at odds with the register Mitchell had allowed Achilles: “For the difficulties of old age lie heavy upon you.” Who in our time would be imagined to utter such august locution, other than ironically? Although Mitchell’s diction here and throughout is often ill-judged, he has my sympathy, since English of our day is so often inadequate to Homer’s easy loftiness, and the traditions of post-Romantic English poetry leave so few conventions answerable to Homer’s stylized idiom.

It is with respect to just this problem that Verity’s commitment not to depart from the Greek, but to follow it judiciously, serves him in better stead:

“I give you this prize without a contest
since you will certainly not fight with fists again, nor wrestle,
nor will you ever enter for a spear-contest or running race,
because now burdensome old age presses hard upon you.”
So he spoke, and laid the jar in Nestor’s hands, and he was
delighted to receive it, and addressed Achilles in winged words:
“All that you have said, my son, is according to due measure:
no longer are my limbs steady, my friend, nor
do my arms swing easily from both my shoulders.

This is much more quietly confident than Mitchell. Verity retains the Homeric idioms which Mitchell excises, including those pervasive formulaic phrases “so he spoke” and “addressed. . . . in winged words.” Where Mitchell opts for contemporary colloquialisms, Verity constructs a special idiom of his own, without the distracting archaisms of translationese, but is just enough unlike contemporary English to allow Homeric touches. One such touch is “fight with fists”: that is not quite English. Who would say “make music with the mouth” instead of “sing”? Verity would have been perfectly justified in writing, as Mitchell does, “box”, but he keeps his nerve and preserves the Homeric idiom within a style which he has created to accommodate it without jarring. Verity’s ear is not flawless: sticking close to the Greek occasionally leads him into the sort of gaffe that Mitchell generally avoids. For instance, Verity follows Homer in saying that a soldier takes a “great leap forward,” and in such cases fidelity to the original ought to have been overridden for the sake of canceling an inadvertent anachronism. But by and large, through countless small judgments, Verity creates an English style, not contemporary but not too distracting, not the language of any particular time or place but not outrageous either. It is not Homer’s style—far too neutral and cautious for that. But it creates a rhetorical context that allows Verity to stay close to the Greek without distorting English idiom, and this in turn gives his translation an assurance and consistency which is lacking in Mitchell’s, who must with every line decide whether to cut, add, suppress, update, or colloquialize. Verity has created an idiom that minimizes the appearance of intervention: he has made his own hard work aggressively modest. This is harder in its way than more flamboyant approaches, such as Mitchell’s.

What is less creditable in respect of Verity’s translation is not the translation itself but his confidence, expressed in a translator’s note, about what such accuracy can achieve. “My aim,” he writes, “has been to use a straightforward English register and to keep closely to the Greek, allowing Homer to speak for himself.” That claim nettles, because I do not hear in Verity’s Iliad, or in anybody else’s, Homer speaking for himself. This is no complaint. I am pleased that Chapman’s Homer sounds not like Homer speaking for himself, but like Chapman speaking superbly for him. Pope’s Homer sounds like Pope, Fitzgerald’s Homer like Fitzgerald, and Verity’s Homer happily like Verity. In claiming to have effaced himself, Verity at once claims too much credit for his or any other translation, and too little for the credible but very different voice he creates for his translation. More broadly, his claim blurs the distinction between lexical fidelity (the scrupulous transmission of semantic content) and whatever other factors may combine to create that quality we call a poet’s voice. I don’t doubt that Verity is perfectly aware of the distinction—he probably means “speak for himself” only in the narrower lexical sense, and I suspect I am pressing his statement far beyond the simple point he was trying to make. But I pursue it because I find that it is common in the classroom, in the pages of literary journals, and among ordinary readers, to take such pronouncements more literally than Verity may have intended, and presume that the job of the translator is to get out of the author’s way, and to let him speak for himself. In the case of Homer, I doubt that this is desirable or possible.

To claim to be getting out of Homer’s way, and to let him speak for himself, takes us right back to 1791.

To claim to be getting out of Homer’s way, and to let him speak for himself, takes us right back to 1791. That was when William Cowper took the bold step of publishing the first complete English Iliad in verse since Pope’s. For seven decades Pope’s Iliad had no competitors: its formal perfection, its wit, and its magisterial unity gave the impression of definitiveness, and probably inhibited potential successors, in the way that composers in the wake of Beethoven for some time felt it pointless to attempt symphonies. Yet Pope’s Homer had always been controversial for the liberties it took, and by the last decade of the eighteenth century that revolution of taste we call Romanticism meant, in part, rejecting the major features of Pope’s style: his rhymed couplets, his lofty diction, his symmetries of versification and thought, his sparkling epigrams. Cowper proposed his Iliad as programmatic: it was to break with Pope’s Augustan aesthetic and its tolerance of paraphrase and invention. Cowper replaced rhyming couplets with blank verse, where freedom from the need to rhyme allowed him to stay much closer to the Greek. As against Pope, who interpolated not only the occasional word or phrase of his own, but even sometimes several lines at a time, Cowper made a point of suppressing his own invention: “I have omitted nothing,” he averred, and added more pointedly, “I have invented nothing.” That is reasonable, and Cowper went on to make a generous acknowledgment of the value of freer translations. But a retrenchment from Augustan liberties, and (significantly) the notion that a translator ought to annihilate his own personality and let Homer speak in his own voice, hardened into a kind of doctrine in the nineteenth century. It issues, to take just one instance, in the charge of one critic (called T. S. Brandreth) that even Cowper’s restraint did not go far enough. “Cowper,” complained Brandreth, “was also a poet, and could not forget, what he himself had written; the poems of Homer must be squeezed into the mold from which the poems of Cowper had issued.” The implication is that, in a translator, to possess original poetic powers is more likely to be a handicap than an advantage: a reversal of eighteenth-century assumptions. Verity’s claim for his own Iliad places him squarely in this tradition.

The counter-tradition needs reasserting. The question is not whether a translator should interpose himself between Homer and the reader, but how well he interposes. Verity speaks for Homer: it is him we hear speaking. Within the bounds of responsible translation, even narrowly understood, he has a wide range of legitimate choices to make. He has chosen the English words, arranged them in an order that is his and not Homer’s, and created a rhetorical atmosphere which, though it is well-judged in relation to certain aspects of Homer’s art, is his own different achievement. It deserves recognition.

Once again Pope offers perspective. In this passage, Athena has just persuaded the intemperate Trojan Pandarus to violate a truce by shooting at the unsuspecting Greeks. In anticipation of which, he reaches for his elegant bow:

He heard, and madly at the motion pleased
His polish’d bow with hasty rashness seized.
’Twas form’d of horn, and smoothed with artful toil: 
A mountain goat resigned the shining spoil,
Who pierced long since beneath his arrows bled; 
The stately quarry on the cliffs lay dead,
And sixteen palms his brow’s large honors spread. 
The workman join’d, and shaped the bended horns, 
And beaten gold each taper point adorns.

Is this Homer? No. We have Pope’s characteristic embroidering, both lexical and affective. Where Homer wrote simply “horns,” Pope has “his brow’s large honors.” Pope’s meter is no satisfactory equivalent to the Greek. English iambic pentameter is less expansive than epic dactylic hexameter, and less metrically flexible. Homer is rapid; Pope’s couplets arrest the speed typical of Homer’s verses, and their rhymes encourage an epigrammatic wit that is alien to Homer’s art. Homer contrives symmetries and responsions large and small, but not like the neat Augustan antitheses that crowd Pope’s verses (“his polished bow with hasty rashness seized”). Pope’s translation is not irresponsible, but he feels at liberty to depart from the Greek, and his style is his own, not Homer’s.

And yet Pope’s translation gives Greekless readers access to a dimension of Homer’s voice which neither Verity’s excellent Iliad, nor Mitchell’s less assured version allows to be heard. From Pope, a reader could gather that the Iliad is a poem not only of great conceptual but also poetically formal unity. Pope’s English generates, and sustains for page after page, a musical cadence so marked that it is a kind of language in itself, from which readers may infer, by analogy, that a similarly powerful formal idiom pervades and sustains the ancient poem. The relish with which Pope dwells upon this description of a craftsman’s polish is at one with the relish he takes in the craft of his own translation, shaping and joining each couplet, and leaving each one touched with a golden point. Verity makes no attempt, as he himself makes clear, at reproducing Homer’s metrical art; my concern is that we not confuse that perfectly honorable abstention with “allowing Homer to speak for himself.”

What’s more, Pope’s larger formal provision offers a ground on which minute effects can emerge, the sorts of effect that, mutatis mutandis, enliven every other line of Homer. There’s the surprise that comes when a rhymed couplet is suddenly expanded into a tercet (“And sixteen palms his brow’s large honors spread”). That formal expansion itself enlarges on a Homeric idea: the possibility of honor spreading after death, through the skill of a craftsman who can preserve for future use the memory of that honor. There’s the way the exigencies of the rhyme scheme precipitate a sudden change in verbal tense (“and beaten gold each taper point adorns”): the shift from preterite to present creates an abrupt thrill of Homeric immediacy. And another signal Homeric quality—the variety of rhythmic combinations he achieves within the limits of the dactylic hexameter’s metrical template—has its analogue in Pope. When he writes of the mountain goat “Who pierced long since beneath his arrows bled,” those two words, “long since,” without warrant of the Greek, bring in the special pathos of the sense of the passage of time, an emotional coloring more Virgilian than Homeric. But the rhythmical subtlety it involves, by which the expected iamb is replaced by a spondee which slows the line at the very moment when long passage of time is invoked (“Who pierced LONG SINCE beneath his arrows bleeds”), is suggestive of a similarly various metrical texture in Homer. The line too labors and the words move slow.

Homer in his Greek creates a distinctive sound.

Out of a thousand similar verbal adjustments, Homer in his Greek creates a distinctive sound. If English readers are to partake of any sense of it, translators must speak for him in their own poetic idioms capable of suggesting, by analogy, the presence of some answering, though different, quality in the original. So yes, we need straightforward translations such as Verity’s, which I welcome as the best of its kind. But no, let us not accept that nineteenth-century notion, born in part of a larger Romantic reaction against the Augustans, that to stick closely to the Greek is to allow Homer to speak for himself. Homer needs talented translators to speak for him. What is a translator for? Homer speaks for himself in his Greek. Otherwise, Homer often sounds more nearly himself when it is the translator’s voice we are hearing.

A coda. Let me re-write the sentence above: Homer often sounds more nearly himself when Christopher Logue speaks for him. For nearly fifty years, until he died last December, that English poet had been making a version of the Iliad, or if you prefer, an English poem based on the Iliad. It has been emerging in installments under various titles: War Music, All Day Permanent Red, Cold Calls. The subject matter is Homeric (mostly), but the voice is all Logue, who stakes everything on the capacity of his own stylistic vigor to imply the tremendous, if different, vigor of Homer. Logue’s work is uneven, but in his best moments his English achieves a verbal density and texture that speaks for Homer in the sorts of ways I have tried to show that Pope does. On a spectrum of Homeric translation, from scrupulously self-effacing on the one hand to flamboyantly free on the other, Verity’s Iliad and Logue’s Homer occupy opposing poles. It is an interesting alignment of opposites that Verity’s translation appeared just a few months before Christopher Logue left us. We need them both.

1 The Iliad, by Homer, translated by Anthony Verity; Oxford University Press, 512 pages, $29.95.

2 The Iliad of Homer, translated by Richmond Lattimore, with an introduction by Richard Martin; University of Chicago Press, 608 pages, $35.

3 The Iliad, by Homer, translated by Stephen Mitchell; Free Press, 544 pages, $35.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 Number 1, on page 24
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