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Homer, Sweet Homer : THE ILIAD : translated by Robert Fagles introduction and notes by Bernard Knox (Viking: $35; 683 pp.) : THE ODYSSEY OF HOMER : A New Verse Translation translated by Allen Mandelbaum with 12 engravings by Marialuisa de Romans (University of California Press: $35; 526 pp.)

December 09, 1990|John Espey | "Strong Drink, Strong Language" (John Daniel) is Espey's current book of reminiscent sketches

If you were lucky enough to be introduced to Homer in your youth without any of the trappings of scholarship or the tempting snares of translation theory, you know that the whole point about Homer is that he is a terrific storyteller who has a couple of terrific stories to tell. Once you've read them--or, better yet, had them read to you--you have, whether you realize it or not, a standard against which to measure what you will probably be taught later to call "narrative" and "character" and "descriptive action." And if you are so rash as to attempt writing your own stories, you will almost certainly find yourself from time to time suffering a degree of depression.

Luckily, you can console yourself by reflecting that you are not, after all, able to take advantage of the far-seeing aid of some powerful divine figures who prove to be as devious and self-serving a bunch as any latter-day crew of con artists.

No matter what your age is on first reading, the chances are you will not be too greatly concerned over whether one voice or many lie behind the stories, but you will probably feel something of the differences between the swinging action of the siege of Troy, with all its direct confrontations and bloody encounters, and the wily quality of Odysseus as he takes the longest possible way home.

It was this seeming contradiction that led Samuel ("Way of All Flesh") Butler to put forward his characteristically cranky theory that whereas "The Iliad" was clearly an active, masculine tale, "The Odyssey," on the other hand, could have been written only by a clever, brilliant woman, laughing at all the brawny stupid males boasting of their powerful biceps. For Odysseus--"the man of many wiles," as Mandelbaum chooses to translate his formulaic description--relies more on his brains than his brawn, and though he does his best to look after his impetuous men, he alone wins home in the end.

With so many translations in both prose and verse available by now, the chief interests, particularly in verse translations, are the choices the translator has made in undertaking what is, after all, a tremendous, daunting task. So far as the enormous accretion of scholarship is concerned, with the endless debates concerning the unity of voice, the influence of the oral tradition, the patterning of fairly constricting formulas, Bernard Knox's introduction to "The Iliad" summarizes both the history and the shifts in scholarly assumptions with an even hand. He concludes with a persuasive presentation of Achilles as "the model for the tragic hero of the Sophoclean stage."

For his handling of Homer's metrics, Fagles has worked with "a loose five- or six-beat line but inclining more to six" that he expands "at times to seven beats--to imply the big reach of a simile or some vehement outburst in discourse or the pitched fury of combat on the field." Sometimes he contracts this "to three, to give a point in speech or action sharper stress." The result is a heightened conversational tone than can rise to the rhetoric of:

Three times the brilliant runner

Achilles charged him,

lunged with his bronze spear,

three times he slashed at cloud--

then at Achilles' fourth assault like

something superhuman

his terrifying voice burst out in

winging words:

"Now, again, you've escaped your

death, you dog,

but a good close brush with death

it was, I'd say!"

. . . through the conversational level of Helen's speech:

Homer, Sweet Homer

"That's Laertes' son, the great

tactician Odysseus.

He was bred in the land of Ithaca.

Rocky ground

and he's quick at every treachery

under the sun--

the man of twists and turns."

. . . to the entertainingly prosy:

Seeing his anger flare, field

marshal Agamemnon

smiled broadly and took back his

taunts at once . . .

Mandelbaum takes up the traditional problems of Homeric scholarship in an afterword, acknowledging his debt to the landmark six-volume edition of "The Odyssey" published by Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, remarking wryly: "Translation exacts and invites much micro-labor, many days in the burrows. (Though the frequency of controversy in questions Homeric often makes the burrows seem like trenches.)" The conflict between the Dismemberers and the Unitarians continues, and Mandelbaum is entertaining on "the wens, warts, and blebs on the body of scholarly controversy."

For this translation itself, Mandelbaum has chosen to work within a quite different pattern from Fagles', using what appears to be a more traditionally English line, a freely handled iambic pentameter, but one that is underpinned by the basic four-stress rhythm, frequently accompanied by the alliterative echoes, of Anglo-Saxon verse. It is reminiscent of Pound's "making new" of a part of Book XI of "The Odyssey" in "Canto I."

Mandelbaum stakes out his ground in the opening passages of Book I with an occasional line that actually goes beyond the original model. We have, for example:

--he still could not depend

upon fair fortune or unfailing


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