* * *
Translated by George Chapman
With an introduction by Jan Parker
OF WORLD LITERATURE
first published by Wordsworth Editions Limited in 2002
Published as an ePublication 2012
978 1 84870 4
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ANTHONY JOHN RANSON
with love from your wife, the publisher
Eternally grateful for your unconditional love,
not just for me but for our children,
Simon, Andrew and
With Poesie to open Poesie – Chapman, ‘To the Reader’
Hector bidding farewell to his wife and baby son . . . Odysseus bound to the mast listening to the Sirens . . . heroes exhanging spear thrusts or vaunting words . . . Penelope at the loom . . . Achilles dragging Hector’s body round the gates of Troy – scenes from Homer have been reportrayed in every generation. The questions about mortality and identity that Homer’s heroes ask, the bonds of love and fellowship that motivate them, have gripped audiences for three millennia.
The task of bringing Homer’s text alive to an audience is a challenging one – for the translator now as for the ‘Sons of Homer’ who performed the epics entire to audiences in classical Greece. Both have to deliver richness and variety of voice and tone, have to excite and engage at dramatic moments, yet focus attention on telling details, on quiet reflection. Both have to interest in a story passed down from father to son, from generation to generation, yet seemingly told now for the first time.
stand in their own right as great English epic poems. They also stand as two of the liveliest and most readable translations of Homer. The language is Shakespeare’s, not ours; it represents a past golden age of heroes and adventurers – just so did Homer’s Greek represent to the Classical Greeks the heroes of the legendary Trojan War.
Chapman’s translation is the first into English, written in the vibrant English of Shakespeare’s circle – stories of warfare and adventure written for those with ‘Elizabethan’ heroic expectations. As a poet Chapman crafted Elizabethan language into a formal yet supple flowing verse form that is a joy to read; there is a freshness that makes vivid the everyday natural and craftsman’s world as well as the worlds of the battlefield and of Mount Olympus. As a Renaissance playwright translating Homer while Shakespeare was writing
, he engaged with the idea of the hero, both as supremely inspiring (‘What a piece of work is a man’) and as tragically fragile (‘this quintessence of dust’). As a Humanist thinker he could convey the human and heroic condition from the perspectives of both man and [pre-Christian] god.
As the first translation it was influential – the first books of the
were almost certainly drawn on by Shakespeare in writing
Troilus and Cressida
– but most importantly it was new-fashioned. The newness of the experience of reading classical texts fuelled new ideas of what it is to engage with and communicate them: Chapman’s desire was to be shaped by as well as shape his translation of Homer. Every later translator saw himself in a line of pious transmission and had either to struggle with a sense of inadequacy or consciously react against the great tradition. Chapman is free to respond freshly to the text, to take liberties, even: he expands the text of Penelope’s great speech to Odysseus to point up the emotional intensity of this central moment. His poetry has none of the formal ‘classicism’, rotundity and high nobility of eighteenth-century poets or the post-heroic flatness of modern translations; his couplets are not shaped, in the way that Pope’s Homer’s ‘heroic couplets’ are – a shaping that imparts a conscious nobility even to rapid, everyday details – but are free-flowing, open, rhyming lines. It is worth the odd expansion or difficult progression of words to be free of the false reverence and false ‘heroism’ of later translations.
Homer is difficult to translate because of his breadth and depth of tone – breadth in his variety of voices and heroic registers, depth in the layers of the past ages – both Dark Age and Golden Age societies – that go to make up the final versions we know as the
. Chapman’s translation is particularly good at conveying both breadth and depth – Chapman can move from sensitive emotional perceptions to high drama; he can (almost uniquely) follow Homer in endowing the everyday world the heroes inhabit with a sheen of graceful materiality – every spear, every ship is described as special in its utility, every tree or animal vivid in its particularity. This is the skill of a craftsman poet, who can delight in the well-wroughtness of a ship, door or spear as much as a well-fabricated tale; the skill of an epic poet who can bring a past, lost world to life by painting bright details overlaid neither with synthetic pastel nor with nostalgic dark tones.
There cannot be a perfect translation, except that built up in the individual reader’s mind. But there can be a translation that helps the reader to engage with Homer, and Chapman’s is arguably the best. Driving his poetry is the excitement of the Renaissance discovery of classical civilisation as at once vital and distant; his artistry enables the reader to engage with a masterpiece which is still today simultaneously vivid and classic. It is this excitement and vitality that most mark out the experience of reading Chapman’s
, as testified to by Keats:
Oft of one wide expanse have I been told
That deep browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet never did I breathe its pure serene
Till I heard
speak out loud and bold.
Chapman and Homer
Chapman – the Elizabethan dramatist George Chapman’s Seven Books of the Iliads of Homer Prince of Poets, published in 1598, was the first translation of Homer from Greek into English. The seven Books: 1, 2, 7–11, appeared as Shakespeare was writing Hamlet; his Iliad was revised, completed and published in 1610–1, his Odyssey in 1614–5.
Homer – the traditional name for the final composer/shaper[s] (perhaps in the eighth century
, perhaps in northern, Greek-speaking Asia Minor) of the oral stories about Achilles, Troy and Odysseus. These stories perhaps go back to a historical trade war between the allies of Mycenaean Greece and Troy some time between the fifteenth and twelfth centuries
. The fluid oral sections may have gradually become set into a traditional, accepted text; at some point the text was written down. The Iliad and Odyssey may have been composed by different people, though they were later treated as associated. The texts were stabilised for performance in Athens in the late sixth century
After the settled societies of Mycenaean Greece and Asia Minor – the historical kingdoms of ‘Mycenaean’ Sparta, Pylos, Mycenae and Troy-Hissarlik – came a period of depopulation. During this period, popularly called ‘The Dark Ages’, a different ethnic group invaded Greece. They laid claim to the land they had taken over by investigating and preserving the hero cults of the previous population. Throughout this period, it is presumed, the hero stories of the Mycenaean period were preserved, performed and eventually, with the development of writing, recorded.
Note about Names
Chapman uses the Latin form of the Greek gods’ names – Jupiter or Jove for Zeus, Juno for Hera, Vulcan for Hephaistus, Venus for Aphrodite. He frequently uses patronymics for the heroes – Laertides, Aeacides for Odysseus, Achilles etc. The Glossary of Proper Names (p.
) lists the various forms with the usual Greek equivalents; for clarity, the introduction uses the commonly known Greek form of name for both gods and heroes.
Introduction to the
Achilles’ baneful wrath resound, O goddess – that impos’d
Infinite sorrows on the Greeks, and many brave souls loos’d
From breasts heroic . . .
opens with an invitation to join the audience, to hear the deeds of heroes retold, their deaths recounted. The teller of tales invokes the Muse who saw the events, to ensure that this is a true record of the deaths of the ‘brave souls’: the only reward for the tragedy of heroes’ deaths is that their deeds are recorded and remembered down the generations.
What did they die for? For Achilles’ anger, for Agamemnon’s stupid intransigence, for Paris’ passion, for the gods’ malevolence, for no reason except they were in the wrong place at the wrong time . . . The
is a record of deaths: of the tragedy of the death of Sarpedon, whose warm personality sounds through the stories from the Trojan camp, and of Patroclus, whose gentle kindness sounds through those from the Greek side; of pity for the many young men whose first adult act is to enter the battle where they find death not glory.
But each hero’s deeds are also woven into a tapestry of life – scenes from Mount Olympus, where the gods meet, feast and enjoy immortal bliss; scenes of animals, farm life and nature worked in miniature as similes; scenes from the ordinary life ‘back home’, worked on to Achilles’ shield as a replacement for and a reminder of the world he will now never see again. The battlefield is seen from the combatants’ viewpoint – decisive encounters that don’t materialise, death strokes that go astray, triumphant advances that suddenly leave the victor vulnerable: the tiny chance events that save or destroy. But the battlefield is also a tragic stage – each action set against a backcloth of patterns, possibilities and judgements made by the poet and by the gods. The geography of Troy is marked out by the gods – Troy citadel and the Greek ships are targets that may be attacked only when History and Destiny permit; when Hector or Patroclus get carried away they seem to bring on themselves not just death but doom.
The theme of the poem is the consequences of the terrible anger of Achilles. He is extreme – the one who fights best, cares most for his honour, is least able to accept the abrogation of the ‘heroic code’, is least able to accept the human condition. It is his extremity that renders him a hero – not in the sense of a shining example but in the sense of having the stature to test and demonstrate the limits of what it is to be human. The question for most of the
is whether the extremity of Achilles’ anger renders him
human; Book 24 ends in tears of compassion, as Achilles joins with the father of his bitterest enemy in weeping over Hector’s body, acknowledging that he too will soon be only a lifeless corpse and a name.
The battlefield is seen with all the intensity of those who have decided to exchange long life for glory, but also with the flippancy of the gods who see human affairs as childish. There is the sadness of those such as Achilles’ mother or Hector’s wife – who watch the battle from afar and await the consequences; there is also the remoteness of the immortals, for whom mortals are like leaves on a tree – they fall each autumn and are replaced each spring. One of the reasons for reading the
is that it sets prowess against these other perspectives – the heroes are driven to greater feats because otherwise their lives will have been as unindividuated as those leaves on the tree; Achilles weeps for the pain his death will cause his father and the immortal grief it will bring his goddess mother. Yet the power of the life force, the energy and charge of the story and the storytelling do not allow the heroes to give up. His deeds are heroic because they are done in the teeth of the knowledge that death is all around and that the only immortality is the remembrance of later generations.
The heroes round the wall of Troy do not fight out of loyalty to a cause – Achilles and Sarpedon as allies remind their respective Greek and Trojan generals that they are fighting because they agreed to, not out of personal involvement. They fight, as Sarpedon reminds his second-in-command Glaucus, because it is their place to do so and because, as heroes, that is the only respectable arena in which to prove and define themselves. Audiences in the past have been drawn to the poem for the same reason as postwar readers now are put off by it – as a glorification of war and of the definition of a man as a skilled fighting machine. Both reactions over-simplify the epic poem, which reflects, and reflects on, every kind of attitude to war and death. Both reactions are wrong in thinking the poem shows heroes who have something to live and die for – the heroes, rather, are all too clear that what they give their lives for can be seen as now glorious and now foolish and deluded. The
is a multifaceted account of the human condition – which is to strive for life and individuation while facing tragedy and nothingness.
As the performers of fifth-century Athens had to re-create a past ‘age of heroes’ for their audience, so every translator has to transmit Homer to an audience distanced in time and in social values. To engage with Homer is to be drawn away from contemporary culture in reimagining the past. Such engagement leads to highlighting knots in the text that seem both central and strange: cruxes, such as that of the nature and values of the heroes in the
that have to be interpreted by the modern reader
Twentieth-century translations tend to the anti-heroic, giving Achilles a brooding self-centredness and making Agamemnon a petty, querulous tyrant. Pope, on the contrary, ennobles both. Chapman, with an eye to the Elizabethan court, is attuned to the problem of the hero in society and gives both parties stature, strong though different characters and dignified, individualised voices. This comes out in the way he renders the quarrel that leads to Achilles’ wrath: when Nestor, the wise counsellor, tries to intercede between Agamemnon’s royal temper and Achilles’ hurt pride, saying that Achilles must be mollified because he is their only safeguard, Agamemnon is made to reply:
‘All this, good father,’ said the king, ‘is comely and good right,
But this man breaks all such bounds; he affects, past all men, height;
All would in his power hold, all make his subjects; give to all
His hot will for a temperate law.’
Achilles’ version of the rupture is in Book 9, when his friends, suffering at the hands of the Trojans, beg him to return to help them. Though warm in his reception of them, he refuses the Greeks’ request in a powerful and moving speech finely rendered by Chapman – Agamemnon’s slight was no petty insult but a tearing down of the whole value system by which Achilles had lived and with which he daily faced danger and death:
‘Their suit is wretchedly enforc’d to free their own despairs,
And my life never shall be hir’d with thankless, desperate pray’rs;
For never had I benefit, that ever foil’d the foe:
Ev’n share hath he that keeps his tent and he to field doth go;
With equal honour cowards die, and men most valiant,
The much performer, and the man that can of nothing vaunt.
No overplus I ever found, when with my mind’s most strife
To do them good, to dangerous fight I have expos’d my life.
But ev’n as to unfeather’d birds the careful dam brings meat,
Which when she hath bestow’d, herself hath nothing left to eat:
So when my broken sleeps have drawn the nights t’extremest length,
And ended many bloody days with still employed strength . . .
I have been robb’d before their eyes . . . ’
Chapman understands the importance of a hero’s honour, understands the conflict between the hero’s duty to himself and, as a leader of men, his duty to his companions and allies. He examines Achilles and Hector as political leaders not as individuated ‘heroes’; their regret for their falling out with Agamemnon and Polydamas respectively are stressed by Chapman as political rather than personal lessons. Compared to a twentieth-century individualistic sense of the hero, these are figures shaped by their society’s demands. Both Achilles’ and Hector’s tragedy, Chapman brings out, is that they are brought down by the conflicting demands of what is due to themselves and what should be suppressed in their duty of care to others: Achilles is affected by his attempt to divorce his personal loyalty to Patroclus and his Myrmidons from the claims on him of his comrades-in-arms – Ajax, Diomedes etc. Meanwhile Hector’s rashness in going against Polydamas’ advice is shown as personal rather than tactical; his death at Achilles’ hands is brought on at least in part through his sense that he has let down those he has been trained to regard, the people of Troy. He is a prince, not a hero, and his rush to assert himself as a hero is a mistake that destroys him.
Chapman’s understanding of these issues may be informed by Renaissance, Roman-derived ideas on the Stoic hero’s need to align state and private duty; it may be informed by his knowledge of Elizabethan rather than Greek society (although his notes show his competence in Greek, it is not clear how comprehensive a Greek scholar he was). In any case, the result is that he holds up to his heroes exemplary models, by whose standards the heroes fail. The point of contact with Greek society is that Homer’s heroes also have a consciousness (
) by which they judge their own behaviour: Hector, for example, examines himself on his reasons for not fleeing Achilles and concludes that he is inhibited by his failing as a leader of men and by the elders watching him. The Greek text, in emphasising his
sensibility of what is expected of him, carries a strong sense that at the last he is in some way crippled by this consciousness. In a sense, therefore, Chapman engages with the problem of the hero in society in the same way as the heroes themselves do.
The Story of the
is one of the stories of ‘Ilium’ – Troy. It is the story of the tragic consequences of Achilles’ ‘baneful wrath’. The story is set in the ninth year of the war fought by the Greeks against the Trojans for harbouring Paris and the runaway wife Helen. The King of Mycenae, Agamemnon, and his brother Menelaus, the wronged husband, lead a coalition of forces under their various chiefs from all round Greece against Hector, son of King Priam of Troy. Hector too leads allies – from Greek-speaking Asia Minor, and from North of the Troad (the Dardanelles) – including the sympathetically portrayed Sarpedon.
The main story, of the consequences of Agamemnon’s insult to the best Greek fighter, Achilles, and Achilles’ withdrawal, starts Book 1. The story broadens to include Mount Olympus where the gods feast unconcerned, to the women and old men in Troy, to the heroes and casualties of the battlefield. The main story comes back in Book 9, when Agamemnon, realising that he cannot manage without Achilles, sends a delegation to soothe Achilles’ hurt pride. The rest of the tragedy comes from Achilles’ refusal to be soothed. In Book 13, Patroclus begs Achilles to let him appear in Achilles’ armour to give heart to the Greeks; he throws caution to the wind, and Book 16 has his and Sarpedon’s tragic deaths. The rest of the epic concerns Achilles’ incapacity to deal with the death of his beloved friend Patroclus – with his insane vengeful rage as he tries to find appropriate compensation for the death. Even human sacrifice and the killing of Patroclus’ killer Hector are insufficient: he carries on violating Hector’s dead body. In Book 23 he has to accept that the only thing he can do for Patroclus is to bury him with fine funeral games, games over which he presides, negotiating and rewarding rival claims to excellence. The
finishes with the frail Priam’s visit to ‘man-slaying’ Achilles to beg back the body of Hector. They join in tears of common grief, in a shared sense of tragic pity, as Priam weeps over the hands that killed his son and Achilles over the reminder of his own father, soon to weep over
son now doomed to die at Troy.
The trouble starts with a girl. The Greek commander Agamemnon is reluctant to give his prize, the beautiful Chryseis, back to her father, Phoebus Apollo’s priest. When Apollo forces his hand by sending a plague on the Greek camp, and he is compelled to give the girl back, he angrily demands compensation from his chiefs. He takes Achilles’ girl, Briseis, against all propriety. This rouses Achilles’ ‘baneful wrath’, the theme of the poem, not just because he cares for the ‘bride of his spear’. Achilles is incensed by the injustice of losing his prize, given to him as a mark of his exertion and risk-taking in a battle fought to get back someone else’s wife – Helen. Achilles is checked by Athene from killing Agamemnon but neither she nor the old and wise Nestor can persuade him to heal the rift. All he sees is that to continue to fight would be to continue to bring honour to the man who insulted him. Achilles withdraws to his tent; Agamemnon says he can do very well without him, but of course he cannot. Achilles is the best fighter among the Greeks and his stature is demonstrated by how badly the war goes without him.
There is a parallel falling out among the powers that be on Mount Olympus, where Hera, Queen of the Gods, accuses Zeus of dallying with Achilles’ mother Thetis. (Thetis has come to him to beg for the gods’ help in demonstrating the Greeks’ need for Achilles and, in ritual supplication, has thrown her arms round Zeus’ knees.) There is a pettishness and bluster similar to Agamemnon’s about Zeus’ assertion of authority when he is in the wrong. But when he blusters, the mountain shakes – the King of the Gods may not have moral authority but he has tremendous power.
The insult to Achilles’ honour brings death and tragedy to Greeks and Trojans alike – it is literally a deadly insult. The insult to the Queen is quickly resolved by the clowning of their crippled son Hephaestus. Since the gods are immortal, nothing has lasting or grave consequences for them.
Agamemnon is shown up in Book 1 as forgetful of the responsibilities of command and of his duty to keep together and reward the forces he has summoned to avenge, as Achilles pointed out, a domestic wrong. He is exposed further in Book 2. Having received a ‘pernicious’ dream from Zeus that, after nine years of vain effort, he is about to capture Troy, he decides to test the army by reporting that the dream advised flight. The army delightedly takes up the proposition that they return to their homes and families and it needs all the guile and oratory of Odysseus to dissuade them from setting sail.