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Book Review: Barry Powell’s Iliad

By (December 10, 2013) 2 Comments

The Iliadbarry powell iliad

by Homer, translated by Barry Powell

Oxford University Press, 2013


Classics professor Barry Powell, in the Introduction to his new translation of Homer’s Iliad, sets the fateful date of his personal inspiration as the day he watched that dear old clunker of a movie, Helen of Troy, in a theater in Sacamento, California in 1956. Anybody who’s seen the movie will know that such a deep emotional impact could have gone either way; many’s the stockbroker and sheet metal worker who might otherwise have embraced the classics if their first exposure to it weren’t to boring old Cedric Hardwicke wheezing the bombastic words of hack screenwriter John Twist. But where stronger but perhaps less imaginative souls emerged from the movie theater determined to avoid Homer at all costs, Powell had the opposite reaction: somehow, the vaporous swishings of the movie sparked his curiosity in the Homeric world (just as, indeed, The Private Life of Helen of Troy – both the wretched runaway bestseller and the wretched hit movie, had inspired the previous generation), and his new Iliad is so strange and graceful and bracing that 21st Century Homer-fans owe a debt to that bad old blockbuster that they can never fully repay.

This version is strange and graceful mainly because it’s an oddly personal vision of Homer’s world, the carefully-considered result of a lifetime’s study, rather than a translator-for-hire’s job of two years. In the place in his translator’s remarks where grand linguistic theories are often propounded, Powell gives a refreshingly simple nod to the ‘because I can’ justification that so seldom gets the recognition it deserves in work of this kind:

When I told friends about this project, they said, “But hasn’t Homer already been translated many times?” Yes, sure, I tried to explain, but not by me – here was a chance to put into English what the Greek had come to mean to me, how it sounded, what the words meant, what was their power that had, indirectly, entranced me as a youth through the medium of film. Too often in modern translations the translator tries to impose a modern sensibility on the style, as if in this way Homer can be made “relevant.” I have avoided such affectations, trying always to communicate in a lean direct manner what the Greek really says, to put in English how Homer in Greek might have sounded to a contemporary listener.

And what of the work itself? Certainly it consistently tries for “lean direct manner” (certainly more than Homer himself tries for it) and very often achieves a fusion of Robert Fitzgerald’s pitched phrasing and Richmond Lattimore’s heavy-toed marching. His lines can flow and jerk into each other in something similar to the way Homer’s own do, always pulling the reader along with carefully deployed deflations and odd juxtapositions, until a kind of low-key mania is induced in which the various hot fevers of Homer’s world can have full run. At the poem’s climax, when heroic Hector finds himself outside the high walls of Troy facing the oncoming rush of Achilles alone, Powell follows Homer inside the warrior’s darting thoughts with hardly a misstep:

Or what if I set my bossed shield aside and my powerful

helmet, and lean my spear against the wall and myself go up

to the relentless Achilles and promise that we will give up Helen

and with her all the treasure that Alexandros took to Troy

in the hollow ships for the sons of Atreus to take away –

the beginning of this dread conflict … And in addition, what if

we were to divest ourselves of half of all the things the city

contains? I will take from the Trojans an oath sworn by the elders

on behalf of the Trojan people that they will not conceal anything,

but will divide in half all the wealth that our lovely city holds within …

The precise slurring in the middle of that passage, with both Alexandros and the Atreidae taking things away, is so well-done it’s likely to confuse its readers (who might already be a bit confused at the idea of a helmet being powerful), but there’s a very catchy preponderance of single-syllable words that seem to chip and plink at the scene like tossed pebbles. And Powell effectively carries the momentum into the the lines that follow, the single most depressing moment in the Iliad, where Hector first wakes himself up from the folly that he might ever talk with Achilles:

But why am I having this conversation with myself?

I must not go to him! He will not pity me nor have any regard.

He will kill me right there, all unarmed, as if I were a woman,

once I have taken off my armor. There is no way, as if from

an oak or a rock, I may exchange pleasantries with him,

such as when a young girl chats with a youth – a young girl!

a youth! Better to fight this out, and the sooner the better,

Then we will know to which man Zeus the Olympian gives glory.

… and then, in the very next lines, Hector’s courage simply fails him, and in full view of his city, his wife, and his parents, he turns and runs for his life. It’s the end of what little heroism there is to be found in the poem. There follows petty barbarity, desperate gambles, and  funeral games, and Powell, using this same catchy, almost jagged line-rhythm, takes us all the way to the end. This Oxford volume is beautifully made, with illustrations of the poem’s signature events taken from ancient Greek pottery (it’s at first jarring and then wondrously enchanting to realize that if Pericles had this volume in his hand, he would recognize instantly what it was simply by the illustrations), but its chief adornment is Powell’s very entertaining, almost idiosyncratic rendition of the work itself. The 21st Century, only barely begun, is already well-furnished with Homers of its own.