The Odyssey

This morning, I skipped breakfast to read the final pages of The Odyssey. That’s saying something, because there’s two things I can’t do without in the early hours of the day: a hot steaming shower, and a good breakfast.

What surprised me most was that despite its age and subject matter, The Odyssey was actually quite modern. Well, not so much modern as relevant to the 21st century. Of course, the predominant theme was divine intervention, and this was what made it such a finely-crafted, homogenous poem, but beneath the epic – and extrinsic – elements, the Odyssey was just a depiction of humanity’s values and flaws.

Each Book had a title, and I found the very first one – A Goddess Intervenes – to be an extremely adequate summation of the thematic feel of the poem. From the very first stanzas, it was established that this was a story of the intertwined – and often troubled – relations between the gods and mankind. What more can I say that hasn’t been said before over the centuries? The least I can possibly do is to offer my thoughts on the various translations.

Embarking upon the pages of Fitzgerald’s Odyssey, I was delighted that I could finally understand Homer. Yet I was also disenchanted by the lack of lyricism that I had expected from a translation described as “the best poetic version of The Odyssey to have appeared this century” (Hugh Lloyd-Jones). Suddenly, an understanding of the text was not enough to appease me. I wanted pure ornate poetry, but where was I to find it?

Then I remembered the inspired sonnet of Keats:

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Til I heard Chapman speak 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

This was how Keats felt on first looking into Chapman’s Homer, and this was how I wished to feel as I read the Odyssey. So, despite feeling intimidated by the formidable 17th century poet, I decided to read my Wordsworth copy of Chapman alongside Fitzgerald. And I’m glad I did, because it proved to be an enriching experience.

I didn’t particularly prefer one translation over the other; they were merely different, and each had its own merits. Here is an extract from the Fitzgerald translation; the description of Calypso’s island, which I particularly liked:

Upon her hearthstone a great fire blazing
scented the farthest shores with cedar smoke
and smoke of thyme, and singing high and low
in her sweet voice, before her loom a-weaving,
she passed her golden shuttle to and fro.
A deep wood grew outside, with summer leaves
of alder and black poplar, pungent cypress.
Ornate birds here rested their stretched wings –
horned owls, falcons, cormorants – long-tongued
beachcombing birds, and followers of the sea.
Around the smoothwalled cave a crooking vine
held purple clusters under ply of green;
and four springs, bubbling up near one another
shallow and clear, took channels here and there
through beds of violets and tender parsley.

And here is the corresponding passage from Chapman’s translation:

A sun-like fire upon the hearth did flame,
The matter precious, and divine the frame;
Of cedar cleft and incense was the pile,
That breathed an odour round about the isle.
Herself was seated in an inner room,
Whom sweetly sing he heard, and at her loom,
About a curious web, whose yarn she threw,
In with a golden shuttle. A grove grew
In endless spring about her cavern round,
With odorous cypress, pines and poplars crown’d,
Where hawks, sea-owls and long-tongu’d bitterns bred
And other birds their shady pinions spread –
All fowls maritimal; none roosted there,
But those whose labours in the waters were.
A vine did all the hollow cave embrace,
Still green, yet still ripe branches gave it grace.
Four fountains, one against another pour’d,
Their silver streams and meadows all enflower’d,
With sweet balm-gentle and blue violets hid,
That decked the soft breasts of each fragrant mead.

I have to say I preferred the Fitzgerald for that particular extract, but on the whole, the Chapman translation was somewhat softer and more eloquent. Take the first part of Book Sixteen, for instance. The Fitzgerald:

But there were two men in the mountain hut –
Odysseus and the swineherd. At first light
blowing their fire up, they cooked their breakfast
and sent their lads out, driving herds to root
in the tall timber.
When Telemakhos came,
the wolvish troop of watchdogs only fawned on him
as he advanced. Odysseus heard them go
and heard the light crunch of a man’s footfall –
at which he turned quickly to say …

And the Chapman in comparison:

Ulysseus and divine Eumaeus rose
Soon as the morning could her eyes unclose,
Made fire, brake fast, and to their pasture send
The gather’d herd, on whom their swains attend.
The self-tire barking dogs all fawn’d upon,
Nor bark’d, at the sight of Ulysses’ son.
The whinings of their fawning yet did greet
Ulysses’ ears, and sounds of certain feet,
Who thus bespake Eumaeus …

It did make for rather clunky reading, though – I would read two or three Books of Fitzgerald, then read the equivalent Books from the Chapman translation. Needless to say, I won’t be reading the Fagles translation after this. Fitzgerald did a more than adequate job transforming Homer’s Epic into a text that was accessible to me. And Chapman satiated my craving for opulent, unadulterated prose. I’m done with the Odyssey now; time for something new. Maybe The Canterbury Tales? Or maybe Utopia? I decided to save The Aeneid until last, because I’m having trouble finding the Fitzgerald translation.

Anyway, back to the Odyssey. Although in the past, I complained about my Wordsworth edition, it proved to be a rich source of information. The poem came with a lengthy introduction which included brief biographies of both Chapman and Homer, as well as a bibliography and an excellent discussion on the contextual elements of the translation. The introduction on its own made for interesting reading. Here is an extract from the segment titled ‘Homer’:

Critics are still divided over the question of whether Homer was a single man, or simply an authorial fiction devised to give unity to poetry composed by many people. Certainly, both poems were first made before the invention of writing: they bear the hallmarks of works designed to be memorised and recited, passed down by oral tradition through generations of professional bards over what may have been centuries. Some modern scholars think of the name ‘Homer’ as a convenient way of designating these anonymous bards; others think that there was a single individual called Homer, who lived in ancient Greece in the seventh century BC, and who composed both works [the Iliad and the Odyssey] drawing on this rich oral heritage.

Once I had read through Fitzgerald’s translation, I had no difficulty at all with the language of Chapman’s. In hindsight, I don’t think it was the language so much as knowledge of the characters and plot. When I had previously attempted the Chapman, ‘Grey Pallas’ and Mentas were complete strangers, and the translator certainly didn’t bother to elaborate on their identities (assumed knowledge, perhaps?) Fitzgerald, on the other hand, took the time to explain that Telemachus was Ulysses’ son and alluded to ‘Grey Pallas’ as ‘Grey-eyed Athena’ instead, which I was very thankful for.

As for the poem itself – I was completely immersed, after beginning the Chapman translation. There is probably one more thing I should mention though; again, here is an extract from the Introduction of the Wordsworth edition:

Chapman’s Odyssey has an unfortunate reputation as a relatively inaccurate rendering of Homer’s original; but this is one critical judgement that is worth challenging. The consensus of most critics is that the tone and timbre of Chapman is more ornate, more quaint and more explicitly moral than Homer.

I didn’t see this as a large issue, though. Books tend to be didactic in nature; the Odyssey doesn’t have to be an exception. And if Chapman felt that an ornate and quaint translation of the original Greek – or Latin, or whatever language it was originally composed/recited in – was necessary to retain its breadth and power, then so be it. I loved the Chapman translation! The only aspect in which I preferred Fitzgerald’s translation was the spelling of names in the Greek manner, whereas Chapman used the Latin – Telemachus, instead of the Greek Telemakhos, for instance. It was only a minor thing, though.

Reading The Odyssey was a valuable and enriching experience, and I look forward to reading the other books on my Really Old Classics list. As well as becoming acquainted with the figures of Greek mythology, I have also come away with a deep regard for “Homer” – whether he be the [widely accepted] blind bard, or an ambiguous term for several generations of poets. After reading The Odyssey, I think I was truly able to understand why this poem is considered one of the cornerstones of the Western literary canon.


11 thoughts on “The Odyssey

  1. Sounds so awesome! I think I’m going to start it after the first of the year (or when I finish what I have out from the library now…)

    I don’t think I have the energy to read two translations at a time. But now I’m torn as to which to read first. Thank you so much for those passages. I agree that Chapman’s was most beautiful for the book 16 quote!

  2. Rebecca – it was rather hard to read both at one time. I’ll definitely be sticking to one translation for each text from now on. But I’m having so much fun with this challenge; I never knew I’d enjoy reading Homer, and I’ve learnt so much in the process :)

  3. Before this classics challenge, I never really thought much about different translations. When I read the Odyssey a while ago, it was just one of those mini-Barnes and Noble classics for $4.95, translated by T. E. Lawrence (?). It’s amazing how different two translations can be. I have a fascination, as I imagine most readers do, with word choices and how words are arranged, and all the possible combinations of words and the different effect changing just one word can have on the mood or tone of a piece, so these comparisons are so interesting.

  4. Chain Reader – I never really thought about translations before this challenge either. In fact, I bought my Chapman translation “by accident” and for a while grumbled about how inaccessible the language was. Now I see that it’s a valuable addition to my library :)

  5. Two translations at once? Wow, you’re adventurous, and your comparisons were so interesting. I read .V. Rieu’s translation (Penguin Classics) of The Odyssey freshman year of high school and loved it.

    1. Well I didn’t really set out to read two translations at once, but it just happened that way! Wow, V Rieu – haven’t even heard of her/him. Penguin must update their translations very frequently. That must be at least four so far, just from Penguin: Fitzgerald, Fagles, Wright, Rieu .. I think Wordsworth only offers the Chapman!

  6. I read two translations at once when I did The Iliad. I was comparing the verse edition to the prose. Odyssey is on my list to re-read. I’ll check your update and review. :)

    1. That’s what I wanted to do with Aeneid, but I never managed to find a verse edition! I’m still hunting around for one. Hm, I’ve never read the Iliad – maybe I should add it to my TBR list~

    1. I assume you’re referring to the latest Penguin translation by Fagles, because incidentally, the prose edition I read was also published by Penguin – only in 1959! Hahah :)
      I’ve tried getting ahold of the Fagles one, but no library near me seems to have a copy! All of theirs are outdated

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