Like many other lovers of the Great Books and the Great Tradition, I yield to the truth that Homer’s epics are the magnificent profane fountain that gave birth to our imagination. Having tasted deeply from the sacred fountains that brought forth living waters, I am mostly in agreement with Glenn Arbery’s assertion that “Of all the poems in the history of the West, actual scripture aside, but including The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, and all the devotional lyrics ever written, God loves the Iliad the most.” (from Arbery’s essay “The Sacrifice of Achilles” in Why Literature Matters)
You have to read Homer and Arbery’s essay to see if you agree. This blog is prompted by a fine new translation and a re-issuing of the “gold standard” of Homeric translations. Anthony Verity’s Iliad is lyrical without being poetic and he does not even pretend to sustain the meter of the original. (xxix) The mark by which all other translations have been compared is Richmond Lattimore’s Iliad. In truth, when read aloud, closely imitating the demanding dactylic hexameter and providing the “speed and rhythm analogous” of the original (67), it sings like the Muse. The noble power, force, and flow of Lattimore’s translation crushes most others.
To be fair, most of the introductory material can be found in most introductions and is usually best read after one has read the work. Martin offers some helpful treatment of pace and scope of the literary world (43, 44), character speech (45), the art of the simile (47), and type scenes (49). Graziosi provides one insightful comment about the Muses (xv). Aside from what was just noted, the respective introductions written by Barbara Grazioso and Richard Martin (who also wrote the introduction for Stanley Lombardo’s translation) add little to a reader’s experience of the work.
I will confess that I tend to read poetry out loud to get the full enjoyment of the vocal and aural connection. I will also confess that I have used and partly appreciate what Lombardo does in his more paraphrastic translation. One finds when teaching such grand works to the modern mind, one goes to strange measures to get students to pay attention.
Beyond a fine translation of the Iliad, I would encourage all those who love reading accessible scholarship to have Eva Brann’s Homeric Moments: Clues to Delight in Reading the Odyssey and the Iliad. While more attention is dedicated to careful reading of the Odyssey, Brann so exemplifies what careful reading looks like that she is a superlative guide.
Now, for the really serious reader who wants to take that major step toward reading Homer in the original, a great place to begin is Homeric Greek: A Book for Beginners by Clyde Pharr, A Lexicon of Homeric Dialectic by Richard John Cunliffe, and A Homeric Dictionary by Georg Autenrieth.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.