From 1715 to 1720, Alexander Pope published in six volumes his translation of Homer’s Iliad. These six volumes were produced at great expense by Bernard Lintot and were sold by subscription to some of the most important names of the early 18th century. Pope arranged a deal for himself unheard of at that time for a writer and secured his financial future. A little later he published his translation of the Odyssey, but with the help of two uncredited poets named Fenton and Broome.
The Iliad had, of course, been published in English prior to pope, most notably by George Chapman in rhyming fourteeners and by John Ogilby in heroic couplets. Pope himself was taught to read by a loving aunt from the large, illustrated version by Ogilby.
With the Aeneid having been translated into English heroic couplets just a few years before by JohnDryden, and with Pope’s literary star on the rise, he was encouraged to take on Homer, and so he did. The great 18th century biographer Samuel Johnson, in his Life of Pope, said this of it. "It is certainly the noblest version of poetry which the world has ever seen; and its publication must therefore be considered as one of the great events in the annals of learning." Consider the majesty of the opening lines of Book I.
Achilles’ wrath, to Greece the direful spring
Of woes unnumbered, heavenly goddess, sing!
That wrath which hurled to Pluto’s gloom reign
The souls of mighty chiefs untimely slain,
Whose limbs, unburied on that naked shore,
Devouring dogs and hungry vultures tore.
While great Achilles and Atrides strove,
Such was the sovereign doom, and such the will of Jove.
Or consider these from Book V in which the acts of my favorite of the Greek warriors, Diomedes, son of Tydeus, are depicted with such raging force.
Thus toiled the chiefs, in different parts engaged;
In every quarter fierce Tydides raged.
Amid the Greek, amid the Trojan train
Rapt through the ranks, he thunders o’er the plain;
Now here, now there, he darts from place to place,
Pours on their rear or lightens in their face.
Thus from high hills the torrents, swift and strong,
Deluge the plains and sweep the trees along
Through ruined moles the rushing wave resounds,
O’erwhelms the bridge, and bursts the lofty bounds!
The yellow harvests of the ripened year
And flatted vineyards, one sad waste appear
While Jove descends in sluicy sheets of rain,
And all the labours of mankind are vain.
So raged Tydides, boundless in his ire,
Drove armies back, and made all Troy retire.
I have collected a fair number of translations of Homer and Vergil, but Pope’s version of the Iliad is still the one to get my blood pumping!
For years I have wanted to see a first edition of Pope’s Iliad translation. I have found them in rare bookstores on the Internet, but have never seen or held one in person…until our family vacation. We had stopped in Midtown Scholar, a delightful bookstore in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It was enormous, with three floors of used, rare, and new books. I had ventured to the basement and, after perusing aisle after aisle, turned a corner into another store housed within the larger store. It was called Robinson’ Rare Books and Fine Prints. Most of the works were in locked, wood and glass cabinets arranged by century. I asked the man working there if they had any Pope, and he checked his computer to find that they had a nine-volume set of his collected works, so I asked him to show it to me. As he was unlocking its cabinet, I spotted the volumes of Pope’s Iliad and Odyssey nearby and asked if I could see one. I withdrew the first volume of the Iliad, nearly shaking and with my heart beginning to beat fast. I took it to a table where I could look at it and quickly opened to its frontispiece. My eyes raced down the page whose reproduction I had seen so often, and there I found the date. 1715. I was holding and looking at a first edition of my most sought-after book in the world.
I quickly called for my wife and children to join me, and our son took several pictures of me with the book. It was in astoundingly good shape for being exactly 300 years old, and I thrilled to see the original opening lines that Pope changed for later versions.
The wrath of Peleus’ son, the direful spring
Of all the Grecian woes, o goddess, sing!
I had had only one other experience like that with a book and, unsurprisingly, it was with another edition of Pope’s Iliad. When we were living in Texas, Melissa and I had visited a perfectly ordinary bookstore. I was perusing the Classics section, and suddenly my eyes lit upon a Penguin edition of Pope. It was October 26, 1996, and I recorded the moment on a note I now use as a bookmark in that volume.
Ineffable was the feeling when by the grace of God I chanced upon this volume of Pope’s Iliad. The edition is indeed nothing remarkable, and yet when I happened upon it quite by accident in the most commercial of bookstores, I was rendered truly senseless. My sense of balance lost, I was forced to support myself upon a nearby bookcase. Quite truly the sight of that volume, there, unobtrusively standing amidst other great works, whose bookshelf was itself surrounded by a sea of vain publications, “eripit sensus mihi: nam simul te, Papa, aspexi, nihil est super mi, lingua sed torpet, tenuis sub artus flamma demanat, sonitu suopte tintinnant aures, gemina teguntur lumina nocte.”*
This is what it means to say education is a shared journey of discovery. I want to kindle in my students the spark of learning's passion by drawing them close to my own burning flame. These upper level students know of Greco-Roman epics, and the Latin V students have read Vergil. They know of Pope and they know of the challenges and the artistry of literary translation. They know the excitement of discovery through archaeological finds and through their own experiences with Classical literature. It is important that they know their teacher is no less passionate and is in fact wildly excited about the field of their study. This is how to start the school year.
*These lines are from Catullus 51, which he wrote upon falling in love at first sight, albeit from across the room, with Clodia Metella. The only word I changed was the name of the addressee. "It snatches my senses from me, for as soon as I have laid eyes on you, Pope, there is nothing left for me, but my tongue grows numb, a slight flame runs down my limbs, my ears ring with their own pounding, and my eyes are covered with darkness."