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The Iliad of Homer, translated by Alexander Pope, Penguin pounds 16. Whether Homer's termillennium has yet passed, nobody knows. If you believe Herodotus's dating, it's not for another 150 years. If the bard was alive about a quarter of a century after the events chronicled in the Iliad, it must be about now. But this is a matter of sublime irrelevance. With dates so obscure, there are no in-seasons and out-seasons for Homer. He is omnipresent, the seminal figure of European literature, and having a crack at retelling or translating him has therefore been the sport of intellectuals in every era since English emerged as a literary language in the 14th century.

George Steiner's anthology Homer in English (Penguin pounds 9.99) traces Homeric responses across the centuries, from Chaucer's sly and beautiful Trojan War romance Troilus and Criseyde to the stupendous contemporary "account'' of the Iliad by Christopher Logue, which has been slowly emerging since 1962 - War Music (pounds 6.99), Kings (pounds 5.99) and Husbands (pounds 6.99) are published by Faber. Along the way we meet a disparate (and sometimes desperate) Homeric gang of poets, academics, hacks and literary amateurs queuing up to measure themselves against the Mount Everest of world literature: playwright George Chapman, who completed Marlowe, went to gaol with Ben Jonson and inspired Keats; Thomas Hobbes, philosopher of Leviathan; Prime Ministers Gladstone and Lord Derby; Lawrence of Arabia. Often they do more than translate Homer, they transmute the blind bard: William Morris turning him into Sir Thomas Malory; I A Richards equating him with a Basic English instructor; James Joyce casting him as a blind Dublin beggar and Derek Walcott as a black James Joyce.

Of the Homeric translations (as opposed to echoes and responses) by great poets the most powerful are from Dryden, Tennyson, Pound and Robert Lowell. But of all the undisputed masters of English poetry, only Pope has produced a complete translation. Now, on the 50th anniversary of its Classics list, Penguin (already with three versions of the work in print) have brought out The Iliad of Homer, complete with Pope's copious but scintillating notes.

The Iliad was a decisive event in Pope's life, making him rich and at least partially secure from the corrosive envy and dog-eat-doggerel of coffee-house London in the early Georgian period. It was also a landmark in publishing history: not the first, but certainly the most successful publication of a literary work by subscription.

Dr Johnson, trying to raise the breeze for subscribers to his edition of Shakespeare, observed ruefully that "he that asks subscriptions soon realises he has enemies". Pope was no exception. As a young man he had a notably sweet disposition and an evident gift for friendship, but these qualities couldn't compensate for the fact that he was a Catholic who had never been up at University, was a young, witty and astonishingly accomplished versifier, and was physically deformed by osteo-tuberculosis. Ad hominem denunciations were hurled at him; the critic John Dennis had answered Pope's earlier "Essay in Criticism" (in which fun had been poked at him) by calling Pope "a hunchbacked Toad"; Richard Bentley, from Oxford, belittled the Iliad as "a very pretty poem but he must not call it Homer" and an anonymous pamphlet shouted ludicrously that "this Papish Dog has translated HOMER for the Use of the PRETENDER".

The most wounding stroke was the treachery of a man Pope regarded as his close friend, Joseph Addison. The Whig essayist had seemed at the outset to support the ten-year Iliad project, promising to find subscribers. But he did no such thing: just as Pope was about to issue the first instalment of his six-volume work, he discovered that Addison had in fact been helping with a rival version of the epic by one Thomas Tickell, a University man. The sole purpose of this lamentable effort was to discredit the version

of this uppity, papist, self-educated new kid on the block.

Addison and Tickell's spoiler flopped, if anything adding to the furore as the coffee houses and salons of London buzzed with talk of the genius of Mr Pope. No one has ever been so well paid for a work of poetry. Pope grossed about pounds 5,000 - Jeffrey Archer money. A generation earlier Milton had received pounds 5 from his publisher for Paradise Lost.

Pope's Iliad is a great book partly because it so brilliantly solves the root problem of all translation: how to marry the world of the original work with that of oneself and one's readers. On one side, Pope had to contemplate the enormity and savagery of Homer's conception - the Iliad is among the most violent and gory of all poems - while on the other fulfil the expectations of his readers, who wanted elevating grandeur seasoned with civilised wit. To achieve this he chose his customary metre, the rhyming pentameter, a closed form which easily falls into a pithy, epigrammatic mode and was for this reason the favoured verse medium of his day. Pope, a master of the epigram, made powerful use of this quality many times in the Iliad. But he could also produce from this metre much larger effects, by the sheer power of his poetic resources. They can be found in other available translations, of course, but never so reliably as in Pope.

A moment in Book I, which shows Achilles's state of mind as he seethes with psychopathic resentment against Agamemnon, is given in Martin Hammond's prose translation (Penguin pounds 1.99) as "wasting his heart out day after day, and yearning for the clamour of battle". In Robert Fitzgerald (World's Classics pounds 1.99) he "felt his valour staling in his breast / with idleness, and missed the cries of battle". Robert Fagles's verse translation (Penguin pounds 5.99) has "day after day he ground his heart out, waiting there / yearning, always yearning for battle cries and combat". How weak all of these seem against Pope's memorable lines:

Nor mix'd in combat, nor in council join'd

But wasting cares lay heavy on his mind:

In his black thoughts revenge and slaughter roll,

And scenes of blood rise dreadful in his soul.