Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Alexander Pope's Translation of The Iliad

In the War of Troy, the Greeks having sack'd some of the neighbouring Towns, and taken from thence two beautiful Captives, Chruseïs and Briseïs, allotted the first to Agagamemnon, and the last to Achilles. Chryses, the Father of Chruseïs and Priest of Apollo, comes to the Grecian Camp to ransome her; with which the Action of the Poem opens, in the Tenth Year of the Siege. The Priest being refus'd and insolently dismiss'd by Agamemnon, intreats for Vengeance from his God, who inflicts a Pestilence on the Greeks. Achilles calls a Council, and encourages Chalcas to declare the Cause of it, who attributes it to the Refusal of Chruseïs. The King being obliged to send back his Captive, enters into a furious Contest with Achilles, which Nestor pacifies; however as he had the absolute Command of the Army, he seizes on Briseïs in revenge. Achilles in discontent withdraws himself and his Forces from the rest of the Greeks; and complaining to Thetis, she supplicates Jupiter to render them sensible of the Wrong done to her Son, by giving Victory to the Trojans. Jupiter granting her Suit incenses Juno, between whom the Debate runs high, 'till they are reconciled by the Address of Vulcan.

The Time of two and twenty Days is taken up in this Book; nine during the Plague, one in the Council and Quarrel of the Princes, and twelve for Jupiter's Stay with the Æthiopians, at whose Return Thetis prefers her Petition. The Scene lies in the Grecian Camp, then changes to Chrysa, and lastly to the Gods on Olympus.

That's Alexander Pope's summary of Book 1 of Homer's Iliad -- the "argument," as such literary summaries used to be called. Pope's translation of the Iliad appeared between 1715 and 1720, during which time Pope was between 27 and 32 years old. Many poets have translated the Iliad into many languages (and some non-poets, let's face it). Hundreds of translations into English have been made. Once a decade or so someone will declare that the latest English translation is so magnificent that there's no need for another one, ever. Or at least for a very, very long time. At least once during the 20th century, a paperback edition carried a line from a review declaring that this translation was so good that another one wouldn't be needed for at least a century, and then the reviewer published his own translation, less than a century later.

I'm not a poet -- I'm a very, very, very, very good writer of prose, but with verse, not so much. I can't see myself holding my own in a debate with great poets about the relative merits of various translations of the Iliad. But I like Pope's very much. This is the way Pope begins the poem:

The Wrath of Peleus' Son, the direful Spring
Of all the Grecian Woes, O Goddess, sing!
That Wrath which hurl'd to Pluto's gloomy Reign
The Souls of mighty Chiefs untimely slain;
Whose Limbs unbury'd on the naked Shore
Devouring Dogs and hungry Vultures tore.
Since Great Achilles and Atrides strove,
Such was the Sov'reign Doom, and such the Will of Jove.

Declare, O Muse! in what ill-fated Hour
Sprung the fierce Strife, from what offended Pow'r?
Latona's Son a dire Contagion spread,
And heap'd the Camp with Mountains of the Dead;
The King of Men his Rev'rend Priest defy'd,
And, for the King's Offence, the People dy'd.

For Chryses sought with costly Gifts to gain
His Captive Daughter from the Victor's Chain.
Suppliant the Venerable Father stands,
Apollo's awful Ensigns grace his Hands:
By these he begs; and lowly bending down,
Extends the Sceptre and the Laurel Crown.
He su'd to All, but chief implor'd for Grace
The Brother-Kings, of Atreus' Royal Race.

What can I say, that works for me. Does this mean that Richmond Lattimore's version is no longer my favorite? No, it means that I love them both and don't feel that I have to choose one.

It's very strange that it has not occurred to me until just now to try translations of the Iliad into other languages, other than Latin. (Generally speaking, Latin translations of the Iliad are notorious for being not so good. Unless there are a lot of outstanding Latin translation of the Iliad of which I've never heard. That's certainly possible.) When things like that suddenly occur to me I get very happy.

The earliest English tranlsation of the Iliad of which I am aware is that of Arthur Hall, published in 1581, which begins:

I Thée beséech, O Goddesse milde, the hatefull hate to plaine,
Whereby Achilles was so wroong, and grewe in suche disdaine,
That thousandes of the Gréekish Dukes, in hard and heauie plight,
To Plutoes Courte did yéelde their soules, and gaping lay upright,
Those sencelesse trunckes of buriall voide, by them erst gaily borne,
By rauening curres, and carreine foules, in peeces to be torne.

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