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by John Sledge

He is the first of all our poets, and arguably still the greatest. Yet we know so little of him. Even his name is enigmatic, Homer, meaning simply "the hostage." He lived sometime during the eighth century B.C. in the western portion of Asia Minor. According to ancient legend he was blind.

Homer was a bard, or singer of tales, who earned his keep by reciting heroic poems to audiences of aristocratic warriors. The stories he related were very old, harkening back to the early Bronze Age, around 1200 B.C. Homer was only the latest in a long line of poets to recite these verses, yet by common consent, it was he who first committed them to writing. They deal with all sorts of themes: battles between heroes and the gods, fantastic journeys through all sorts of difficulties and the importance of family and tradition.

The two great pillars of his achievement are The Illiad which describes the final weeks of the Trojan War between the Achaeans (Greeks) and the Trojans, and The Odyssey, which relates the difficult return voyage from Troy of the wily Odysseus. These epics were originally written down in Greek, and were copied throughout the Middle Ages. Since the 17th century, they have been oft translated into English; by George Chapman in 1611, Alexander Pope in 1715, Richard Lattimore in 1951 and Robert Fagels in 1990, among many others.

Of the various translations of "The Iliad," that of George Chapman is the most famous. Yet it is little read today, a great pity, since Chapman’s Homer has a power and majesty unmatched by any other. Today’s Books page is devoted to this epochal translation, which is happily once again available in a new paperback edition.

My special thanks to Jeffrey Goodman of the Alabama School of Math and Science for helping me to understand Elizabethan poetry in general and the complex fourteener in particular.