In the small hours of an October morning in London, a young man made the walk from Clerkenwell to Southwark. His footsteps, his breath, his heartbeat all marked time as his mind wandered. He had been up all night, drinking with a friend. The two men read aloud from an old translation of Homer, shouting out in sheer delight. This was 1816 and it was the English romantic poet John Keats who, walking across the Thames, heard in his own heartbeat and footsteps the rhythms of George Chapman’s Homer “out loud and bold.”
Chapman was the first to translate Homer’s epics into English, complete and unabridged. His Iliad came out in 1611, the same year Shakespeare’s Tempest and Winter’s Tale made their stage debuts. Although Chapman would use iambic pentameter — five syllabic pairs, one stressed one unstressed — in his Odyssey a few years later, his Iliad is written in rhymed fourteeners — seven pairs of the same — the common measure of both prayer books and Philip Sidney. For about a century, Chapman reigned supreme as the greatest conduit to Homer for the English-speaking population, though the likes of Thomas Hobbes and John Dryden did put forward their own challenges. Then, between 1715 and 1720, Alexander Pope published his translation of the Iliad. Pope’s Homer was, until that October night, all Keats had known. Like his predecessors, Pope lopped off Chapman’s four extra syllables. Unlike Hobbes’s and Dryden’s, Pope’s translation all but put Chapman’s out of print.
If it weren’t for the names, the dates, the claret in London lodgings, this could be a modern story. The pace at which translations have gone in and out of favor has only sped up. Over the past decade, we’ve been moving at a rate of one new Iliad every two years; Emily Wilson’s is the most recent. We’ve seen Homer dressed in the writing styles fashionable during every literary period, watched as the poems shed their rhymes, meter, even line breaks. Scores of expensively educated men (and they were all men, until Caroline Alexander joined their ranks in 2015) lined up to take their shot at the literary and commercial success of Pope’s translation. Many criticized. Few surpassed. Of the critics, the Victorian academic and poet Matthew Arnold is the most canonical. Homeric verse, Arnold argued in an 1860 series of Oxford lectures, had four key qualities: it is rapid, noble, and plain and direct in both syntax and thought.
Noticeably absent from Arnold’s prescription is a regular rhythm. In the last century, English translations of Homer have tended toward loose, five or six beat lines. In the lengthy introduction to her Iliad, Wilson argues that nonmetrical free verse versions are “written for the page, not the tongue and the ear.” Hers aims to correct this, to provide for the anglophone reader or listener an experience that is, if not the same as, closely related to that of hearing the dactylic hexameter — six sets of stresses, one long, two short — of the original Greek.
We mostly associate Homer’s cantering meter with ancient epics. But if you were listening to hip hop in the 2010s, you heard it in the Drake remix of the Migos track “Versace.” “Drownin’ in / compliments, / pool in the / backyard that / look like Me / tropolis” is a perfect line of dactylic hexameter. Drake makes it look easy — it isn’t, especially in English. Greek is a polysyllabic language; because of the conjugation structure of verbs, the writer of Greek can create a rolling rhythm of long-short-short without even trying. Erchomai (I come), pneiontes (breathing), gignetai (he became) — these are all dactyls.
While English has many polysyllabic words, they often belong to a higher register and are largely the opposite of plain and direct. Wilson’s return to iambic pentameter transposes the lyrical quality of Homeric verse into a key English speakers recognize from their own literary history. This is the meter of Shakespeare and Milton. This is music both formal and familiar.
Cowards and Heroes
Wilson’s Odyssey, published in 2018 to widespread fanfare, was also written in blank verse. Though she did not attempt a line-for-line translation, she did confine herself to the same number of lines that Homer used. Thankfully, she gave up this Oulipian constraint for her Iliad. The freedom has given Wilson’s latest translation space to breathe, to expand and contract around the sublime moments of stillness that give it soul.
We often think of the Iliad as a war poem, but we have kept reading it for so many centuries because it is also a poem about love, about family and friendship, about grief and anger. The French philosopher Simone Weil identified force, in every sense of the word, as its true subject. Force, she argued, robs a person of their humanity. We see it when Hector imagines his wife’s future as a slave after his death; when Dolon reaches for Diomedes’s chin, offering ransom for his life, only to be killed; when Priam kisses Achilles’s hands to beg for the return of his son’s mutilated body.
In Homer’s world, there is no force more powerful — or more frustrating — than that wielded by the Olympian gods. The action of the Iliad takes place in the final year of the Trojan war. Greeks and Trojans have been battling for nine years by the time Homer’s poem starts, and will go on clashing when it ends. In Book 3, the entire war is nearly resolved prematurely by a duel between Menelaus, Helen’s lawful husband, and Paris, who abducted her. Just when it looks like Menelaus might win, Aphrodite swoops down and whisks Paris off to his “fragrant, perfumed bedroom,” where she terrifies Helen into having sex with him.
This kind of divine intervention is not unusual. Fate is decided by Zeus’s golden scales; it is futile to resist, and the characters know it. After an embassy from Agamemnon tries to persuade Achilles to give up his “cataclysmic wrath” and join the fighting, he is at his most nihilistic:
A man who fights his hardest in the war
gets just the same as one who stays behind.
Cowards and heroes have the same reward.
Do everything or nothing — death still comes.
Wilson’s language here performs a neat trick. The word she renders as “reward” — timē in the Greek — is often translated as “honor” or “respect.” By leaning on its other meanings — “prize” and “value” — instead, Wilson allows us to sit in the passage’s ambiguity for a moment. In the next thirty lines, it will become clear that the honor for which soldiers fight is directly tied to the trophies (read: women) and treasure (often also women) they plunder from their enemies. But in Wilson’s version, the reward for battle is, for a moment, death.
That Achilles would care so much about Agamemnon requisitioning his “trophy” Briseis that he could ask his goddess mother Thetis to ensure his compatriots suffer in battle — just to teach them a lesson — seems mad. Words like “childish” and “petty” are often levelled at his actions, and Wilson’s Achilles sulks as much as any other, complaining to Agamemnon, “You always get a better one than mine.” But the stakes of war in Homer’s world are on a different level. When your fate is sealed, controlled by gods who are as fickle and fallible as humans, honor and glory are everything. In the same speech rejecting Agamemnon’s embassy, Achilles explains why, in some sense, death really would be a reward:
If I stay here and fight, besieging Troy,
my chance of ever going home is lost,
but I shall have a name that lasts forever.
Or if I go home to my own dear country,
I lose my glory but I gain long life.
Right Through the Belly
The classicist Richard Bentley’s sneering view of Pope’s translation, that it “is a pretty poem . . . but you must not call it Homer,” has always struck me as harsh. It is a pretty poem, and shouldn’t that count for quite a lot? Wilson translates like a verbal detective, alive to the penumbra of meanings surrounding each Greek word and the ways a line’s microlinguistic qualities can be mimicked in English.
When the Greek is slowed down by a bevy of polysyllabic words or sped up by a torrent of verbs, Wilson tries to do the same. When alliteration or internal rhymes of the Greek echo the crashing of waves against a cliff or the uncompromising ringing of sword against sword, Wilson tries to do the same. When the Greek is all short sharp syllables, Wilson tries to do the same.
At its best, Wilson’s Homer has a pretty poetry of its own. Right after the Catalog of Ships, which has practically bludgeoned us over the head with the sheer number of soldiers fighting in this war, Book 3 opens with the two sides marching toward each other. The Trojans shout as they march, their war cries taking up six lines of extended simile. In contrast, “The Greeks marched silently, breathing aggression, / their hearts determined to protect each other.” The sibilant sounds of this first line and the way the vowels spill out of the mouth not only mimic the Greek — hoi d’ar isan sigē menea pneiontes Achaioi — but also bring the soldiers’ breath to audible life. Wilson’s use of the psychologically inflected “aggression” is justified — in this case.
There are other moments when her word choice may be justified but doesn’t quite land. In the midst of battle,
. . . Pandarus, Lycaon’s splendid son,
yelled out to him,
“Got you, right through the belly!”
Suddenly, we are pulled from ancient Troy to a pub brawl in rural England. Did the “long-haired” and “well-oiled” Greeks, we find ourselves wondering, have bellies? Richmond Lattimore’s version — “Now you are struck clean through the middle” — avoids the Americanized “got you” and juvenile “belly,” which lower the stakes of combat.
Wilson has attempted to put to bed the monolithic voice of past Homeric translations, arguing that there are many voices and perspectives — not to mention dialects — within the poem. Indeed, the action of the Iliad jumps around a lot. We’re on the battlefield, in Helen’s bedroom, on Mount Olympus; we follow soldiers as they are gutted and beheaded, wives as they worry about the fathers of their children, and gods as they bicker over whose favorite will triumph that day; we see, through extended simile, wild beasts, fields and farmland, and outer space.
Imagining Homer’s world requires a certain suspension of disbelief. We accept all this jumping around because of an implicit contract we’ve entered into — that we’ll take the poem seriously and take it at its word. Fairly or unfairly, when that word is at odds with our expectations of ancient epics, the result is jarring. Throughout the Iliad, even minor characters are afforded the dignity of names and often lineages, too; when the text slips into a register that plays as undignified, the contract threatens to dissolve. In judging Wilson’s text as a piece of poetry in its own right, these are the moments — when words like “belly” or “daddy” cut through the gravity of the surrounding passage — that disappoint.
The challenge Wilson faced is not simple: How do you avoid archaizing the Iliad — thereby suggesting its world of vengeance, desire, and grief is one from which we’ve moved on — without sacrificing its grandeur? Despite occasional moments when the register seems odd, most of the time she succeeds. Her use of the epic meter of English verse, her decision to eschew contractions of all kinds, and her embrace of some of the stranger idioms (death is often described as the loosing of limbs) all help create a sense of timelessness.
Wilson’s language and tone weave a screen separating our own world and Homer’s. It’s this screen that allows us to relate comfortably to the otherworldly action happening on the page, and this screen that is punctured when the words in heroic mouths sound unnaturally slangy.
When she strikes the perfect balance between propulsive pacing, accessible language, and elevated sensibility, Wilson’s translation is easy to keep reading. When she does this while also listening to the way words sound, it’s even fun. Just as Keats, on first looking into Chapman’s Homer, felt a sense of amazed discovery, so too will readers of Wilson’s Iliad find fresh and absorbing clarity in this ancient poem.