The Iliad by Homer, translated by Herbert Jordan (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008)

It is noteworthy that when the freedman Livius Andronicus (c. 250 B.C.) gave the Romans their first translation of Homer it was the Odyssey, not the Iliad he chose to render in the old Saturnian verse: Virum mihi Camena, insece versutum, “Tell me, O Muse [actually an Italic water nymph] about that ingenious man.” For all their culture’s prowess in war, Livius must have felt that the martial Iliad was too complicated and mature a poem to impress the Roman audience of his time. His perception continues to the modern day, when the Odyssey overshadows the Iliad in general education courses.

The Odyssey’s exciting narrative, much of which takes place in the fantastic world of folktale, its unusual preoccupation with female characters, and not least its happy ending combine to make the Odyssey the classical epic most students are apt to encounter in school. But the Iliad is a greater poem, more constrained in physical scope but deeper in its human vision, the foundational monument of Western literature, and one well-presented in a new translation by lawyer and amateur classicist Herbert Jordan, who recounts in his preface how his father’s bedtime stories of Achilles and Hector at the walls of Troy inspired in him a life-long desire to learn the Greek language and retell these tales for a contemporary audience. He is in good company. Heinrich Schliemann, excavator of Mycenae and Troy, came to Greek in much the same way.

In a comprehensive introduction to this translation, E. Christian Kopff of the University of Colorado expertly traces the history of the Iliad‘s text. Thanks to the groundbreaking studies of oral poetry done by Milman Parry and Albert Lord in the 1930s, we are now able to see how Homer stands at the beginning of our literary tradition but the end of his own, heir to a process stretching back into the high Mycenaean period itself (c. 1200 B.C.), during which oral formulas and story patterns narrating the great deeds of the heroes at Troy were developed generation by generation, culminating in an unusually full version of the Achilles and Odysseus epics finally committed to writing around 700 B.C., when the Phoenician alphabet was adapted by the Greeks and proved a much more flexible instrument for recording their language than had their first syllabic system, the so-called Linear B borrowed from the Minoan civilization of Crete, and confined, so far as we can tell, to prosaic record keeping. Whether there was an actual single composer of the Iliad and the Odyssey called Homer was debated in antiquity and can never be certainly known, although the thematic cohesion of the poems, especially the Iliad, makes some version of the unitarian position more compelling.

The verse form that evolved to narrate Greek epic poetry is the dactylic hexameter: five dactyls, for which a spondee may substitute, and a final spondee or trochee in the last foot. It is a long line, its length and rhythm not really sustainable in English. The author of a poetic translation must then first decide about his medium. Herbert Jordan opts for blank verse and has made each line correspond more or less to a line in Greek. Some rearrangement and compression become necessary, which Jordan describes in his preface. He has changed word order, since English is not an inflected language, omitted the particles, which often denote a tone of voice and so are difficult to translate, and removed many of the epithets, words or phrases that describe a character and in Greek are metrically bound to the name itself. “Swift-footed Achilles” and “Hector of the flashing helmet” are examples. This last decision was, I think, unfortunate, since the mythic fixity of Homer’s heroes lies as much in their repetitive linguistic identity as in the action of their lives.

Jordan’s version is at its best when the narrative is strongly propelled forward, and its directness is an advantage, for example in Hector’s rallying his men in Book 11:

Trojans, Lycians, close-fighting Dardanians!
Be men, my friends! Summon your hard-charging valor!
Their leader is gone! Glory is mine, a gift
from Cronus’ son! So drive your strong-hoofed teams
at the bravest Greeks! Win proud victory!

It is perhaps less successful at the ornamental moments of the poem, the many similes that connect the battle at Troy to the larger natural world. Take for instance a famous description of an insignificant warrior’s death in Book 8. Jordan has, “As when a garden poppy’s ripe seed-head / bows to the sudden weight of summer rains, / so then Gorgythion’s heavy helmet sagged.” The ornate style available to Alexander Pope better mirrors the several poetic mannerisms of the original three lines: “As full blown Poppies overcharg’d with Rain / Decline the head, and drooping kiss the Plain; / So sinks the Youth: his beauteous Head, depress’d / Beneath his Helmet, drops upon his Breast.” I noticed the occasional inaccuracy in Jordan’s reading of the Greek, as in Book 24 when Achilles says of his father Peleus, that “though a mortal, [he] made a goddess his wife.” The gods are responsible for this union in Homer—a minor point, to be sure, and perhaps an intentional departure from literal rendering.

Any translation of the Iliad must stand or fall on the portrait it gives us of Achilles, who is absent from the entire middle of the poem, yet nonetheless dominates it like a sword of Damocles hanging over the action. The key to Achilles’ character lies in something he says to Odysseus in Book 9, when he is rejecting the appeals made to him to return to battle after his disastrous quarrel with Agamemnon: “I hate like Hades’ gates a man / who says one thing but hides the honest truth.” Achilles is incapable of dissimulation, and because all of his emotions—love, hatred, rage, remorse—exist on a hard brilliant level derived from his goddess mother, and he cannot help expressing them as they are, everything he feels and does has ramifications not only for himself, but for everyone around him, Greek and Trojan alike. The Trojans are so terrified when he returns to fighting after Patroclus’s death that they cannot even sit when they take counsel over what their plan should be. “I have a sickening fear of Achilles,” says Polydamas in Book 18. Much has been written about the excellence of Hector, whose civic dedication and tender feeling for his wife will always compel admiration. But in the end there is about him, as the famous Hellenist John Finley used to say to undergraduate classes at Harvard, a slightly Rotarian quality that must ultimately yield before Achilles’ god-like splendor. There is no more sadly frightening moment in the poem than when Hector is forced to face Achilles, who is compared to the newly risen sun: “The brilliance caused Hector to tremble and lose heart. / He left the gates behind and started to run.” This is not cowardice; it is sheer animal instinct when the weaker man meets the stronger.

What separates Hector and Achilles in battle prowess is not, however, as potent as what binds them together, their understanding of the human condition and the burdens placed on honorable men who cannot escape it. Both of them know that they are fated to die in the Trojan War, yet both of them continue to fight. In the great scene of Hector and Andromache’s farewell in Book 6, the hero, much as he loves his wife and son, must return to battle because he cannot bear the shame that would come from his shrinking back in the city. He has no illusions about the final outcome: “Yet deep in my soul I know, without doubt, / the day will come when sacred Ilium falls” and when Andromache will be taken as a slave. And yet Hector fights on because honor demands it. Similarly Achilles accepts the fact of his own imminent death, prophesied to him by his mother as occurring soon after the killing of Hector.

The theme of universal human suffering reaches its climax in the final book, when Priam comes to Achilles’ hut to ransom his son’s body. Once powerful and confident, both men are now brought low. Achilles tells Priam of the two jars that stand on the threshold of Zeus, one full of good fortune, the other of evil. The man who receives his life’s course from both jars should count himself happy; some have their portion only from the jar of bad luck. Those men “must stagger hungry over the earth’s face, / roaming, honored by neither gods nor men.” From this knowledge of life comes not a transformation of personality, which could not be imagined by the epic tradition, but rather the recognition of a common fate:

Achilles listened and longed for his father.
He gently removed the elder king’s arms,
then both men mourned. Old Priam lamented Hector,
crouched at Achilles’ feet, shedding tears.
Achilles wept awhile for Peleus then Patroclus,
and moans echoed from both mourners.

These excerpts will suggest something of the flavor of Jordan’s new translation. It is particularly welcome now, for a cultural reason not often faced directly. The Iliad is uncompromisingly a man’s poem, while entertainment today becomes steadily more gynocentric. Young people have no patterns surrounding them that take seriously the way men think and act, their sense of duty, loyalty, and friendship, and how these things are nobly cultivated. Popular culture has completely eliminated constructive male companionship as a theme, unless, as in the film Brokeback Mountain, it can be made homosexual. Every television police detective now must have a woman partner. She will be smarter and calmer than he is, sometimes physically his superior, always more personally powerful. Young men in groups are depicted as dangerous gang members if of the lower classes, potential fraternity rapists if of the middle or upper. The role of trial judge in these dramas is overwhelmingly female, with an exception made for plots that require malfeasance or mental derangement, where a man may then be admitted to the bench. Never have we been more in need of the virtue that stands at the heart of the Iliad, which might be described as patriarchal love, the love of a father for his son, a son for his father; the love of a friend for his comrade, of a husband for his wife. All the violence and destruction and death in Homer’s poem is ultimately redeemed by its affirmation of this fundamental human value. If his translation of the Iliad makes the experience of patriarchal love meaningful to its readers Herbert Jordan will have served admirably both the cause of art and the needs of modern times. 

Reprinted with the gracious permission of Modern Age, Summer 2010.

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The featured image is “Achilles Lamenting the Death of Patroclus” (between 1760 and 1763) by Gavin Hamilton (1723–1798) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.

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