CRB: Song of Troy

The origins of the Iliad and the Odyssey are shrouded in mystery, or just shrouded, but this much we know. They are two of the greatest poems ever composed.

New translations by Robert Fagles with introductions by Bernard Knox were something of an event in the publishing world when they appeared in 1990 and 1996. I saw Fagles chant a portion of his translation of the Iliad before a packed house of Directed Studies freshmen at Yale back in 2002 or so. It was an impressive performance. Fagles lived up to the rock star treatment that the students accorded him.

Once upon a time, I could read ancient Greek and grappled with one or two books of the Iliad in the original. Reading Fagles, I have been unsure whether the translations give us too much Fagles and not enough Homer. A few years ago, Daniel Mendelsohn compared translations of one passage of the Iliad (including Fagles’s) against the original. He shows how difficult the task is.

Before Fagles came Richmond Lattimore and Robert Fitzgerald. Lattimore strove for literal accuracy; Fitzgerald, not so much. As one fellow translator of Homer observed: “[The Fitzgerald and Fagles translations] were poetic works effected in part to display the authors’ lyrical responses to the story units in Homer’s epic. Rather than hew to the original, Fitzgerald and Fagles expanded it substantially in accordance with their own poetic lights.”

Anthony Esolen is professor of English at Providence College and a distinguished translator in his own right. Professor Esolen takes a look at Peter Green’s new translation of the Iliad in “Song of Troy.” Esolen declares: “Peter Green has given us more than a translation here. He has given us the distilled results of decades of his close reading and careful research into Greek history and civilization. In other words, he has given us a fine textbook for teachers and students, and for readers who are not unfamiliar with Homer, but who are not on easy terms with him either.”

Professor Esolen’s review is published in the new issue of the Claremont Review of Books that is now in the mail. I asked our friends at the CRB to let us roll out this fourth preview of the new issue as a bonus addition to our usual two or three because of my own interest in Homer. I also hoped it would add depth to the theme of greatness we have explored in the other reviews we have featured this time around. As Professor Esolen observes of the Iliad: “It is a profoundly philosophical and therefore human poem, asking great questions and venturing but tentative answers.”

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