The Iliad

Translated by Richmond Lattimore.

Introduction and Notes by Richard Martin

University of Chicago Press. 608 pp. $15. nolead ends nolead begins

The Iliad
nolead ends nolead begins Translated by Stephen Mitchell.

Free Press. 544 pp. $35.

nolead ends nolead begins The Iliad
nolead ends nolead begins Translated by Anthony Verity.

Introduction and Notes by Barbara Graziosi

Oxford. 512 pp. $29.95

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Reviewed by John Timpane


We can never have too many translations of the Iliad. It's more than a case of "each age having its own." Each translator has his or her own - and it's worth seeing/hearing/feeling the poem through each singular lens and sensibility.

I read E.V. Rieu's stately Penguin version (published 1950) in high school. But I loved Richmond Lattimore's 1951 version, in which the poet, a Bryn Mawr faculty member for 36 years, produced long, pulsing lines evoking the rhythms of the original. (The sound and movement of the Greek are every bit as intoxicating as your teacher told you.) We now have a brand-new 60th anniversary edition, with updated scholarly helps by Richard Martin.

Robert Fitzgerald's 1974 translation brought a poet's hand to the task. So did Stanley Lombardo's famous 1990 rendering: Read aloud, it leaps off the page. And perhaps no one ever did it better than Robert Fagles, who, also in 1990, cast it into supple unrhymed pentameter.

The two new versions here are different, with different aims that account for their different pluses and minuses. Anthony Verity and Barbara Graziosi present the Iliad as a text for the classroom; Stephen Mitchell's is a labor of love that presents it as a poem.

Verity/Graziosi tell us up front that their aim is not a poetic translation but a direct, strictly accurate rendering, sticking to the sense and line numbers of the best editions of the original. Graziosi's introduction is less fun to read than Mitchell's more flamboyant and emotional (but still responsible) one - but it's helpfully true to the most recent scholarship. The notes are better than Mitchell's, with, chapter by chapter, summaries of the action and then the notes. The lists of names are comparable, but, unlike Mitchell, Graziosi cross-references them by page number, so you can find them in the poem.

Mitchell has the better map, and the more expansive overall physical layout; his Iliad is easier to read, with room for notes.

So Verity/Graziosi have created a valuable, faithful line-by-line rendering, in clear, modern English, and it's easy to imagine teacher and students using it to apprehend this massively wonderful poem.

Mitchell, however, gives us a poem. And I'm trying hard not to give him the victory just on this count. Verity has a few small wins. He renders the famous closing epithet as "Hector, breaker of horses," which I prefer to Mitchell's "Hector, tamer of horses," because the former emphasizes Hector's canniness with the latest Bronze Age technology.

But Mitchell gives us the sweep, the humanity, the vibrant energy of language. Here's a passage from the superb, ultraviolent book 16, where Patroclus kills the Trojan Thestor. First, Verity:

Next, Patroclus leapt at Thestor,

the son of Enops; he had been knocked out of his senses, and

was sitting hunched in his well-polished chariot, and the reins

had slipped from his hands; Patroclus stood close and stabbed him

with his spear on his jaw's right side, driving it through his teeth,

then hoisted him with his spear, and

dragged him over the chariot-rail,

like a man who sits on a jutting rock and drags a sacred fish out

of the sea with line and glittering bronze hook. So Patroclus

dragged Thestor, gaping, from his chariot on his shining spear,

and thrust him down on his face; and his life left him where he fell.

This hews close to the original. The student can note the simile of the spearfisher, the depiction (grim and graphic, but not without pity) of a violent death. The bronze hook and shining spear, a good teacher will point out, remind us this is Bronze Age poetry, written sometime around 700 B.C. but preserving memories of a war half a millennium before, plus glimpses of even older language and times.

But this prose is prosey. Line endings roll loosely round to the next line, and the mighty tension we expect isn't there.

Here's Mitchell:

Next, he rushed straight at Thestor, the son of Enops,

who was huddled up in his chariot, out of his mind

with terror; the reins had slipped from his hands, and Patroclus

came up and stabbed him on the right side of his jaw

and drove the spear through his teeth. Then, gripping the spear shaft,

he pivoted back and lifted him over the rail

like a fisherman who sits on a jutting boulder

and hauls a tremendous fish up out of the sea

at the end of his line, caught on the bright bronze hook:

just so did Patroclus haul him up out of his chariot,

mouth gaping around the spear point, and tossed him down

on his face, and he lay there flopping until life left him.

Mitchell works harder to find thewy, startling language. Huddled up is better than sitting hunched. Patroclus drives the spear through his teeth and does athletic things like rush, pivot, haul, and toss. Bright, bronze hook kicks, like a fish, at the end of the line. And even though flopping isn't what the Greek says, it is electrically faithful to the simile. So is that mouth gaping around the spear point!

And I can't get away without giving the same passage by Lattimore. Read it aloud, for the ancient-scented rhythms:

Patroclus in his next outrush

at Thestor, Enops' son, who huddled inside his chariot,

shrunk back, he had lost all his nerve, and from his hands the reins

slipped - Patroclus coming close up to him stabbed with a spear-thrust

at the right side of the jaw and drove it on through the teeth, then

hooked and dragged him with the spear over the rail, as a fisherman

who sits out on the jut of a rock with line and glittering

bronze hook drags a fish, who is thus doomed, out of the water.

So he hauled him, mouth open to the bright spear, out of the chariot,

and shoved him over on his face and as he fell the life left him.

"As a fisherman / who sits out on the jut of a rock with line and glittering / bronze hook drags a fish, who is thus doomed, out of the water" - an irresistible passage. And you have to admire mouth open to the bright spear.

This is a poem created before Greeks had a single name for themselves. Mixing up stories, characters, and kinds of Greek from different ages and places, it reaches back into a largely preliterate Eurasian past, a warrior culture of mountainous, decisive heroism linked fatally and ironically to the gods. Clad in bronze armor (with that fatal gap at the neck), master of horses, Hector is, besides other admirable things, a master of the advanced technologies of his age. With his destructive anger, Achilles is both a hero and a man alienated from his society. If Hector is among war's most tragic victims, Achilles may be its most tragic victor. His triumphalist desecration of Hector's body is one of the most repulsive war crimes in all poetry.

Above all, the Iliad sees the enemy (the Trojans) not as animals but as people. It's bloodthirsty all right, but it also cradles indelible human feeling. It depicts dozens of deaths, Achaean and Trojan alike, with attentive compassion, little life stories like poetic gravestones for each fallen man. It's often said the Iliad is where Western civilization begins - but, as Lattimore's, Verity/Graziosi's, and Mitchell's versions all show, the poem is rich proof it had already been there for eons.

Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406 or jt@phillynews.com, or follow him on Twitter at @jtimpane.