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The Illiad

by John Sledge

The English poet John Keats (1795-1821) made it famous for us moderns in his sonnet "On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer." His much-anthologized poem reads:

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 demsene,

Yet did I never breathe its pure serene,

Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold,

Then I felt 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,

Looked at each other with a wild surmise,

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

If Keats’ sonnet is widely known among 20th century American college graduates, the work it praises is hardly familiar anymore. Now, after being out of print for several years, Chapman’s immortal translation of "The Iliad" is once again available in an affordable edition, allowing contemporary readers to "breathe its pure serene" as did Keats.

Chapman’s Homeric translations stand with Shakespeare’s plays and the King James Version of the Bible (published in 1611, the same year as Chapman’s "Iliad") as the towering literary achievements of the Elizabethan Age. Make no mistake, the archaic English of Chapman’s Homer will require some getting used to, just as with Shakespeare or the Bible. The introduction to the present volume reassures the reader, however. "Read slowly," editor Allardyce Nicoll writes, "the ‘Iliads’ may seem ‘difficult’; read rapidly, it presents surprisingly few stumbling blocks in the way of complete appreciation." A short glossary is in place to assist with the more unusual words and spellings, but on the whole, the usage and pronunciations are the same as in Modern English, and in short order, one will find oneself breezing through the text, caught up in the tale.

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Chapman’s efforts at an English translation of "The Iliad" led to several earlier versions, the first one being "Seaven Bookes of the Iliades of Homere, Prince of Poets" published in 1598. The work was printed by John Windet, and was sold "at the signe of the Crosse-Keyes near Paules Wharffe." As with most significant literary works of the period, "The Iliades" had a patron. It was dedicated to the Earl of Essex, whom Chapman extolled as "the most honored now living instance of the Achillean virtues." In 1608, Chapman published another, fuller text, this time consisting of twelve books, or half the total length of the original poem. Three years later, in 1611, the completed work, twenty-four books, was at last published, this one dedicated to the "High Borne Prince of Men, Henrie Thrice, Royall Inheritor to the United Kingdoms of Great Brittaine, and etc."

In his introduction, Chapman declared that "of all bookes extant in all kinds, Homer is the first and best." He went on to observe that poetry represented an effective method of excavating truth. "Nor is there any such reality of wisdome’s truth in all humane excellence," he wrote, "as in the Poet’s fictions." Chapman also wrote a short section on Homer himself, but was as limited in his facts as we are today. He sagely concluded of Homer that "what he was his workes shew most truly."

For the work itself, Chapman employed a difficult and little-used poetic technique, that of the fourteener in rhyming couplets. The fourteener refers to the fourteen syllables of which each line in the poem consists. Within each line, there is usually a break, or caesura, at eight syllables and six, though Chapman often varied it to avoid a monotonous rhythm. In the poem’s very first lines for instance, we see this pattern demonstrated:

"A/chil/les’ bane/full wrath re/sound,(pause) O/ God/desse, that im/posd (8 & 6)

In/fin/ite sor/rowes on the Greekes, (pause) and ma/ny brave soules losd (8 & 6)

From breasts He/ro/ique-sent from farre, (pause) to that in/vis/i/ble cave (8 & 7)

That no light com/forts; and their lims to dogs and vul/tures gave." (5 & 9)

Chapman chose to use the fourteener because he believed it was closest in spirit to the original Greek. If sometimes a labor for the general reader, these stately lines do give the poem a terrific cumulative power and resonance.

The critical reaction to Chapman’s translation has been admiring down the centuries. In 1651, Samuel Sheppard wrote his opinion in a short verse:

On Mr. Chapman’s incomparable translation of Homers Workes,

What none before durst ever venture on,

Unto our wonder is by Chapman done,

Who by his skill hath made Great Homer’s song,

To vaile its bonnet to our English tongue,

So that the learned may well question it,

Whether in Greek or English Homer writ.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) expressed a balanced view when he wrote, "Chapman’s was Greekified English,--it did not want vigor or variety, but smoothness and facility." He continued, "Detached passages could not be improved; they were Homer writing in English." The British poet Algernon Charles Swineburn (1837-1909) commented on Chapman’s lines’ "romantic and sometimes barbaric grandeur" and "their freshness, strength, and inextinguishable fire." The critic George Saintsbury (1845-1933) wrote that "For more than two centuries they were the resort of all who, unable to read Greek, wished to know what Greek was. Chapman is far nearer Homer than any modern translator in any modern language." And modern critic Gary Wills writes that Chapman’s poem "caught fire" because of "the consonance" between the "semi-divine heroism of the ‘Iliad’s’ warriors and Renaissance humanism."

Strangely, we know not much more about Chapman personally than we do about Homer. He was born in 1559 in Hertfordshire to a family of probably middling means. He went to Oxford and displayed what one contemporary called "a contempt of philosophy" but "a close attention to the Greek and Roman classics." For reasons unknown, he did not graduate, but rather traveled to London to write for the theatre. He produced both tragedies, like "Bussy D’Ambois" (1607) and comedies, like "May Day" (1611) and "The Widow’s Tears" (1612). It is not known whether he met Shakespeare, but he did work with Ben Jonson on at least one play, "Eastward Ho" (1605). Clearly he was diligent, and worked fast. Of his character we have only a brief assessment from someone who knew him: Chapman was, "a person of most reverend aspect, religious and temperate, qualities rarely meeting in a poet." Like Homer then, what Chapman was "his workes shew most truly."

* * * * *

For those concerned about violence in entertainment, "The Iliad" could be exhibit A. It is a dark and bloody tale, full of rapine and murder, lust and strife, where the gods and goddesses behave as badly as men and women. It is a young man’s story, a warrior’s song, and is not for the faint of heart. It takes place during the final weeks of the Achaeans’ ten-year siege of the city of Troy. In the city are King Priam and his many sons, who include Paris and Hector. It is young Paris who has precipitated the war by kidnapping Helen, the beautiful wife of King Menaleus of Sparta. Menaleus begs his brother King Agamemnon for help, and a Greek invasion force is gathered.

"The Iliad" is full of remarkable things, which suggest it describes actual historical events. Among these is the famous catalogue of ships, a detailed list of the forces contributed to the host by the various Greek towns.

To Agamemnon everie towne her native birth commends,

In double fiftie sable barks. With him a world of men,

Most strong and full of valure went, and he in triumph then,

Put on his most resplendent armes, since he did overshine,

The whole heroique host of Greece in power of that designe.

Among the Greek heroes are Achilles, their mightiest warrior, Ulysses "in counsels great," the two Ajaxes and Diomed. Early in the poem, Achilles is angered when Agamemnon takes away a young Trojan woman he has won, Briseis. When Agamemnon’s heralds come to claim her, Achilles declares his withdrawal from the fray:

But, Heralds, be you witnesses, before the most ador’d,

Before us mortals and before your most ungentle king,

Of what I suffer-that, if warre ever hereafter bring,

My aide in question, to avert any severest bane,

It brings on others, I am scusde to keepe my aide in wane,

Since they mine honour. But your king, in tempting mischief, raves,

Nor sees at once by present things the future-how like waves,

Ills follow ills, injustices, being never so secure,

In present times, but after-plagues, even, then, are seen as sure.

While Achilles sulks in his tent, the Trojans, led by Hector, sally forth to meet the Achaeans and press hard. Much of the action throughout the poem is enriched by the use of similes, most of them relating to the weather or the hunt, as in the following example:

A grevious fight-when to the ships and tents of Greece the seas,

Brake loose and rag’d. But when they joynd, the dreadfull Clamor rose,

To such a height as not the sea, when up the North-spirit blowes,

Her raging billowes, bellowes so against the beaten shore,

Nor such a rustling keeps a fire, driven with violent blore,

Through woods that grow against a hill-nor so the fervent strokes,

Of almost-bursting winds resound against a grove of Oakes,

As did the clamor of these hoasts, when both the battels closd.

The realities of Bronze Age warfare are brutally conveyed, as when the Greek Peneleus kills the Trojan Iloneus:

The dart did undergore,

His eye-lid, by his eye’s deare rootes, and out the apple fell,

The eye pierc’t through: nor could the nerve that staies the necke repell,

His strong wing’d lance, but necke and all gave way, and downe he dropt,

Peneleus then unsheath’d his sword, and from the shoulders chopt,

His lucklesse head, which downe he threw, the helme still sticking on,

And still the lance fixt in his eye; which not to see alone,

Contented him, but up againe he snatcht and shewd it all,

With this sterne Brave: ‘Ilians, relate brave Ilioneus’ fall,

To his kind parents, that their roofes their teares may overrunne.

Achilles eventually relents, and allows his friend Patroclus to lead his men in his armor. Hector kills Patroclus, and in a vengeful rage Achilles rejoins the battle. His aspect is terrible: So every way Achilles and his speare,

Consum’d the Champanie, the blacke earth flow’d with the veines he tore.

And look how Oxen (yok’t and driven about the circular floore,

Of some faire barne) treade sodainly the thicke sheaves thin of corne,

And all the corne consum’d with chaffe; so mixt and overborne,

Beneath Achilles’ one-hov’d horse shields, speares and men lay trod,

His axel-tree and chariot wheels all spatterd with the blood,

Hurl’d from the steeds hoves and the strakes. Thus to be magnified,

His most inaccessible hands in humane blood he died.

Hector and Achilles meet in single combat, and Hector is killed. Achilles drags his body about the walls behind his chariot and declares that dogs will tear it apart. This the gods will not countenance, and Jove commands Hector be returned to his father. In a heartrending scene, King Priam enters Achilles’ tent to bring dead Hector home.

"The Iliad" concludes with Hector’s funeral rites. The stories of the Trojan Horse and Achilles’ death are told in later epic poems such as Virgil’s "Aenaid" (1st century B.C.).

The English author G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) once said that no work so expressed the deepest emotions of humanity as that of Homer. He concluded that the last man alive ought "to quote ‘The Iliad’ and die." Should this hypothetical last man speak English, he could do no better than to choose Chapman’s translation of this magnificent poem.