‘I’m the Top Goddess – How Could I Fail to Make Trouble?’
By Homer (translated by Peter Green)
University of California Press, 2015
Renowned historian, classicist, and translator Peter Green has at long last delivered himself of an Iliad, joining a very healthy Homeric showing for the young 21st century (and there are more to come; 2015 alone will see at least two others). In fact, in his opening comments he has a bit to say about this congregation of translations and their various approaches to the endemic difficulties of the text, the repeated epithets, the in medias res assumptions on the narrative’s part, the arcana of the ancient Greek gods and goddesses:
As far as possible I have done nothing to remove those features – not so many as might be supposed – that are often alleged to mitigate against modern acceptance. The leading characters, and other entities, all retain their repetitive personal epithets. A reader or listener very soon acclimatizes to these, and comes to appreciate the subtly ironic ways in which they are often employed. The formulaic oral phraseology governing familiar activities like eating and drinking is no odder than the da capo repetition of a dominant theme in, say, a string quartet …
And at the bottom of the page, he adds a somewhat testy footnote:
Indeed, a similar argument, and comparison, could be made in justification of yet another translation of the Iliad: would anyone ever raise serious objections to one more interpretation of J. S. Bach’s six unaccompanied suites for cello?
The obvious rejoinder – that an objection could be raised if the new interpretation of Bach were bad – is, thankfully, nothing that need concern readers of the Peter Green Iliad. After decades of translating the classics (including his superb Argonautika from 1997) and teaching them to students, he knows the apparatus of the craft as well as it can be known. And he knows the antecedents of his present undertaking, including the landmark 1962 translation by Richmond Lattimore. “My own version,” Green writes, “a generation later than [Lattimore’s] has the same objectives in view, with another one added: the determination, when dealing with a poem so oral in its essence, that what I have written should be naturally declaimable.”
That quality, declaimability, is a tricky thing, as subjective as it is argumentative – almost pulmonary, and hence intensely variable. The implication of Green’s comment is that the Lattimore Iliad isn’t actually declaimable itself – a judgement with which I’d whole-heartedly agree, but plenty of readers have disagreed, and the Lattimore version has been used on stage with adherents specifically praising its declaimability. And note that declaimability isn’t the same thing as simple sayability; there’s a roll to declaiming, an inbuilt drama, a resonance that arises from the pace and stretch of the words in their arrangement. It’s an easy thing to aim at, but it’s a mighty tough thing to achieve.
Green doesn’t quite achieve it, and two main reasons for this suggest themselves. The first, ironically, is that he’s too much of a classicist for it, and this shows itself right at the start of the first book of the epic, the famous clarion-call opening lines of the Iliad. This is how Green renders it:
Wrath, goddess, sing of Achilles Peleus’s son’s
calamitous wrath, which hit the Achaians with countless ills –
many the valiant souls it saw off down to Hades,
souls of heroes, their selves left as carrion for dogs
and all birds of prey, and the plan of Zeus was fulfilled –
from the first moment those two men parted in fury,
Atreaus’s son, king of men, and the godlike Achilles.
It makes for fine reading, but Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat, try declaiming it. What will a newcomer to Homer make of that very first line, for instance? Since there’s no comma after “sing,” the “wrath” is cut completely adrift and the “goddess” becomes a mystery – what on Earth, that newcomer will rightly ask, is going on in that line? Is “Wrath” somebody’s name, perhaps the name of that goddess? And that string of “Achilles Peleus’s son’s” has the declaiming reader hissing like a snake for absolutely no reason at all. The Greek won’t have you hissing. Most English-language translations won’t have you hissing. Even Lattimore won’t have you hissing. And what about “the souls of heroes, their selves left as carrion”? Aren’t souls selves? What happened to the dead bodies of the heroes, the dead bodies every other translation mentions in that line? Glad you asked! If you consult the first of the page’s footnotes (go ahead, stop reading – sorry, declaiming – at line four ), Green the classicist has an explanation all ready for you:
The word “selves” … strikingly emphasizes the epic’s intense preference for this mortal physical existence over any vague insubstantial afterlife. The physical body is the real them. This is what Achilles has in mind when he famously says in Hades (Od. 11.88-91) that he’d rather be a hireling and alive than king of the dead.
Fascinating. Now where were we?
This classicist fussing and clarifying is carried on throughout this version of the poem; the footnotes are always ready, like the PR flak of a willful Hollywood star, to rush in and explain whatever it is that raised eyebrows up in the spotlight. To the extent that it makes for the century’s most intelligent and complicated Iliad, those footnotes, that critical apparatus, is as glorious here as it was in Green’s version of Ovid or Catullus. Those footnotes make this Iliad a marvel of lively scholarship, but they repeatedly reach out and throttle declaimability.
And they aren’t all. No, the second thing working against Green’s goal of declaimability is Green’s own pedagogical instinct. He’s been teaching and explaining this poem, bringing it alive and making it immediate to students for many decades; his instincts for doing that work against something as arch and Lionel Barrymore as declaiming anything. And the oddest thing about this Iliad, its standout feature, happens not in the translation itself nor in its ever-so-helpful footnotes but in its voluminous end-notes, which neither track down the ineradicable yearnings for kleos aphthiton nor shine a light on bouncy anapestics. Instead, they do something irrepressibly remarkable: they appoint themselves the Greek Chorus to the whole damn thing. Take the passage in Book 14 when the Argive High King Agamemnon, his confidence shattered, floats the idea that his failing troops should quietly start slipping their ships down to the water in order to make a furtive nighttime escape from the rampaging Trojans. He’s roundly upbraided by an indignant Odysseus, and Green renders it this way:
Angrily eyeing him, resourceful Odysseus responded:
“Son of Atreus, what words have escaped the barrier of your teeth!
Accursed man, you should be in command of some other
miserable ragtag army, not lord over us, to whom Zeus
has given the task, from youth to old age, of winding
the skein of grim war, till we perish, every last man!
Are you really so eager to leave the Trojans’ spacious city,
for which we’ve endured so much hardship? Be silent,
in case some other Achaian hears this statement
that you’ve just made, words no man should ever utter,
let alone one who knows in his mind what’s proper to say,
who’s a sceptered king, to whom as many owe their allegiance
as the number of Argives over whom you have lordship!
I wholly despise your thinking, in what you just said,
for telling us, when warfare and combat are in progress,
to relaunch our well-benched vessels, so that the Trojans,
with the upper hand already, may win yet more of their hopes,
while we suffer sheer destruction! The Achaians won’t pursue
this war any further once our vessels are seaborne;
they’ll be looking elsewhere, disengaging from the conflict,
and it’s then your advice will destroy us, commander in chief!”
Again, you’ll be forced to notice that not much of this is declaimable. “Let alone one who knows in his mind what’s proper to say” is about as resounding as a Gerald Ford State of the Union, and that “I wholly despise your thinking, in what you just said” isn’t exactly anything to write home about either (Green dismissively comments that critics have given the Iliad of George Chapman too easy a ride, but Chapman’s version of “I wholly despise your thinking, in what you just said” is “This counsell lothes mine eares” – which declaims just fine, thank you very much). But when we turn to the end note for the passage, everything changes: the air clears, the energy of it all comes rushing back in, and at once we hear Green the teacher holding the attention of crowds of students:
Agamemnon replies: … The wall and the ditch are breached, they’re fighting at the ships – Zeus must mean the Achaians to perish here! So, we should launch the ships overnight and run for it: better that than being captured. Odysseus is scathing: You should be leading some third-rate army, not be king over us! Shut up, and don’t let the Achaians see or hear you! Once they see the ships being hauled beachwards, they’ll never fight!
In Book 18, Green gives us his gorgeous architecture of verse-and-footnote in the passage where Zeus and Hera (he renders it “Here”) are bickering about her support for the Argives, but then when we turn to the end note for those verses, we get actual bickering: “Zeus to Here: Well, you got your way: you’ve roused Achilles! The Achaians must be your own flesh and blood! Here replies: I’m the top goddess – how could I fail to make trouble for the Trojans?” Likewise, for instance, the end-note for the section of Book 8 in which Zeus upbraids Here and Athena, who’ve impulsively begun arming themselves to aid the Argives. “What’s wrong with you two? He asks Here and Athene. You couldn’t have won, you were scared stiff before you got anywhere near the fighting, and I’d have flattened you anyway … I don’t give a rap for your anger.”
Or take a longer example, the wonderful moment in the middle of heated action in Book 15, when Poseidon has gone to the battlefield and is laying about with terrific power against the Argives. Zeus notices this infraction of his will and sends meek little goddess Iris as his messenger, instructing her to tell Poseidon to quit the battlefield at once. In one of those quintessential Homeric moments, at once sacrilegious and psychologically perfect, Poseidon rounds on her in a towering rage of amour-propre:
“Look now, great though he is, he’s speaking arrogantly
if he means to restrain me, his equal in honor, by force,
against my will! Three brothers were born to Rhea by Kronos:
Zeus and I, the third being Hades, lord of the dead.
All was divided three ways: each of us got his domain –
I was allotted the grey sea to dwell in forever when
the lots were shaken, while Hades obtained the murky darkness,
and Zeus won the wide airy firmament and the clouds;
but the earth and lofty Olympos remain common to us all.
So I will in no way walk as Zeus is minded – let him,
powerful though he is, stay at ease in his own third portion,
not try to scare me with toughness, as though I were some
mere weakling: better for him to threaten with violent words
his own sons and daughters, those he sired himself,
who’ll be obliged to obey him, whatever he commands.”
There’s a nice cadence of lessening phrases in many of those lines, and “So I will in no way walk as Zeus is minded” is quite good, but “not scare me with toughness” could scarcely help but be improved no matter what you did with it, and the Book of Common Prayer echoes of a line like “I was allotted the grey sea to dwell in forever” are, to put it mildly, jarring. But he captures the neat, unexpected turns of the encounter, when long-suffering Iris endures the barrage and then quietly asks the god of the sea if he wants her to convey his answer to Zeus in just that way, only to have Poseidon instantly think better of his intemperate outburst. We get it all in vivid shorthand in the relevant end-note:
Iris flits off, delivers the message, and adds that if Poseidon disobeys, Zeus will come in person and fight him. Poseidon, nothing fazed, replies that he, Zeus, and Hades shared out power in equal thirds. Let Zeus stick to his third and stop trying to strong-arm his equals! Iris says: You want me to report this? You don’t want to soften the message a little? Don’t forget: the Furies back the older in a dispute! You’re right, says Poseidon. A good thing when the messenger knows what’s what! So, I’m furious, but I’ll yield for now.
And if you’d like all that burnished into true declaimability, try Alexander Pope:
What means this haughty Sov’reign of the skies,
(The King of Ocean thus, incens’d, replies)
Rule as he will his portion’d realms on high;
No vassal God, nor of his train am I.
Three Brother Deities from Saturn came,
And ancient Rhea, earth’s immortal dame:
Assign’d by lot, our triple rule we know;
Infernal Pluto sways the shades below;
O’er the wide clouds, and o’er the starry plain,
Ethereal Jove extends his high domain;
My court beneath the hoary waves I keep,
And hush the roarings of the sacred deep:
Olympus, and this earth, in common lie;
What claim has here the tyrant of the sky?
Far in the distant clouds let him controul,
And awe the younger brothers of the pole;
There to his children his commands be giv’n,
The trembling, servile, second race of heav’n.
Go ahead, read it out loud.
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.