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Upon a peak in Darien – discovering afresh the wonder of Homer’s Iliad

October 7, 2018

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I have written before in this blog about Homer’s Iliad. I’ve been familiar with the story since I was at primary school and have been lucky enough to have had the chance to read it in the original Greek. I am of the opinion that it is not only one of the earliest works of literature but also one of, if not, the greatest. However, despite that I hadn’t come across the translation by George Chapman, published in 1611. I read it when on holiday in the summer and it was if I had come across Homer for the first time, seeing it with a new brightness and insight which I hadn’t seen before.

I shared this experience with John Keats who wrote a beautiful poem to celebrate his discovery of Chapman’s translation.

“Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.”

Keats’ images of a unique discovery, such as that of a new planet or the explorer Cortez and his men seeing the Pacific Ocean for the first time are rather bold but I did not think overstated, a tribute both to the power of the original but also to Chapman’s dramatic translation of the poem into the compelling and resonant English of Shakespeare and the King James’ Bible.

Homer’s story gets to the very heart of the human condition. How do we face up to our own mortality and what meaning do we give to our lives as a result? These are the dilemmas faced by the Greek and Trojan heroes who are the centre of the Iliad, and, in particular, the Greek Achilles whose bitter anger starts the story and the Trojan Hector whose funeral finishes it.

Chapman’s translation is respectful of Homer’s original but is not totally bound by it. What he does achieve is to bring out in stark clarity the tragic drama of the story and its principal protagonists.

It also heightens Homer’s realistic and horrific description of war and conflict. It has struck me, over the last four years, as we have been marking the centenary of the First World War, how much the Trojan War, so familiar to many who fought in the Great War, seems to the battles of the Western Front. There is the same air of fatality combined with moments of boldness and death-defying bravery, the same brutality in the scenes of death and destruction, the same loyalty to comrades and wild instinctive commitment to protect or revenge. While the key characters in the Iliad are princes there are also many descriptions of more ordinary soldiers meeting their ends such as Axylus, renowned at home for his hospitality but whose generosity was of no use in warding off his death.

Chapman’s translation also brings out well the role of the Gods in determining the outcomes of the conflict. It is possible to see this in a too literal sense but, for me, it captures the very real sense in all human activities of what is in our direct control and the impact of chance and luck on what turns out. It is a reminder of the need, understood by Homer’s characters and all too readily forgotten by or own generation, for humility in our thinking and actions.

The Iliad has many brilliant moments but there are two that stand out, both brought relayed powerfully through Chapman’s translation.

The first is the description of the death of Hector, the Trojan prince. If there is a good guy in the Iliad, it is Hector, something which Chapman’s translation recognises perhaps even more than Homer himself. Strong and courageous, and intrinsically decent, he represents the main hope of survival of the city of Troy. He has led the Trojans to some measure of success while Achilles is absent form the battle and has killed Patroclus, Achilles’ companion. In the end, despite the love which both men and gods bear him, he has to face his death. Strong though he is, he is not strong enough to beat Achilles. As his parents and others watch he is chased three times round the walls of the city. Finally, knowing his fate but showing the ultimate bravery in facing it, he stops.

But when they reacht the fourth time the two founts
Then Jove his golden skiles with’d up and tooke the last accounts
Of Fate for Hector

His consolation is that, while Achilles can take his life, he can not take away his reputation which will resound through the generations.

But Fate now conquers; I am hers. And yet not she shall share
In my renowne; that life is left to every noble spirit

The second is in the last book of the Iliad when Priam, Hector’s father is guided in disguise to the tent of Achilles to beg back the body of his son for burial. In a scene of the most profound poignancy Achilles’s anger melts and he takes pity on his foe. In doing so he recognises the universality of human suffering saying to Priam.

Sit and settle we our woes, though huge, for nothing profits it.
Cold mourning wastes but our lives heates. The gods have destinate
That wretched mortals must live sad.

Priam returns with Hector’s corpse to the city and with his funeral the story finishes, a story of the human condition relevant in 2018, as it was in the dark days of the First World War, as it was when it was first told nearly 3000 years ago.

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