Twice removed


Rummaging in the charity shop produced this:


I couldn’t see a translator’s name but bought it anyway, and settled in for an iliac evening while I cooked and washed and dusted.

In fact, it turned out to be an abridgement of William Cowper’s version, and I was at first dismayed.  The Iliad is enormously alien to our own time, and it is a stretch of the imagination to inhabit that world.  Translation via eighteenth century verse, an almost equally alien idiom, must veil it to a further remove.

I was quite wrong.  It took a little time to get an ear in, but, thanks to Cowper himself and Anton Lesser’s clear and sympathetic reading, the obscuring centuries clarified and wisped away.  We can never hear Homer as the Greeks heard him, but even for us listening can be a more ‘authentic’ and satisfying way to receive the poetry than reading from the page.  The repetitions and formulae become less obtrusive and more helpful, and I think I visualised better too.

And I was reminded of Homer’s power:  the terrible dramatic irony, the sense of puppetry which the doctrine of free will abolished in Europe, the conflicts of morality – not our morality, but one which Homer enlarges us to understand.  I also noticed for the first time a curious outbreak of self-awareness on the part of Achilles.  When Priam visits Achilles to ransom the body of Hector, Achilles not only has mixed feelings of anger, empathy, respect, suspicion, and hatred, he knows he is having them, and consciously manages his own behaviour, choosing which responses he will allow, while simultaneously aware of the risk that other feelings may overcome him against his own will.  Homer achieves a psychological subtlety in his protagonist which seems to me (classicists may wish to correct me) very unusual for the time and context.  Placed as it is at the climax of The Iliad, the sequence compels the listener’s belief in Achilles as a greater and more magnanimous man than his contemporaries, however ill-considered and egotistical his actions.

And a final nod to this particular recording for the music, well chosen and well distributed.  I was lucky to get this one for the audiobook library; having it to hand will be a bulwark against the grim and grub of life’s more dreary menial labours.


2 responses »

  1. I’d love to read the classics one day, for the same reason… it’s like a window in a mythical time, of Gods and mortals, magic and wisdom, that was both totally fantastic and also totally grounded in the reality of the time.

    The only thing, I feel, that could beat it would be to read a tome recovered from Atlantis…

    • I’ve read a bit, but not as widely as I would like – I find I really do need quite a bit of the historical/cultural background to get into anything before about 900 BCE in Europe, and have never had the oomph to try any of the Chinese or Indian classical literature. One day …

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