Colin Burrow

  • Chapman’s Homer: The ‘Iliad’ edited by Allardyce Nicoll
    Princeton, 613 pp, £13.95, December 1998, ISBN 0 691 00236 3
  • Chapman’s Homer: The ‘Odyssey’ edited by Allardyce Nicoll
    Princeton, 613 pp, £13.95, January 2001, ISBN 0 691 04891 6

If Homer had walked the English soil in 1597 he would have felt that he had lived in vain. At that date no English poet had a substantial knowledge of either the Iliad or the Odyssey. Although the statutes of grammar schools made proud boasts that Greek was studied in the higher forms, it’s likely that by the end of the 16th century only a handful of schoolchildren could read more than a few lines of Homer in the original. Those who fancied themselves as scholars could cite the odd tag from the Iliad and the Odyssey (Odysseus’s assertion ‘let there be one king’ was a favourite), but even literate people would have had only a general idea that the Odyssey was about a magical journey home and that the Iliad was about war. The few who actually read Homer at this time tended to read Latin translations, such as those by Eobanus Hessus and Lorenzo Valla. These translations made Homer look familiar. They often quoted or adapted lines from Virgil when they translated sections of Homer which Virgil imitated, so that Homer appeared inextricably fused with a Latin tradition that was part of the life blood of English readers. Even writers who wanted to be thought of as classicists usually needed a Latin crib to help them through Greek poetry in this period. Ben Jonson, who famously drew attention to Shakespeare’s ‘small Latine, and lesse Greeke’, probably got most of what he knew of Homer from an anthology of Greek verse which had a Latin translation facing each page.

The only English language verse translation of Homer before 1598 would have made Homer, or anyone with an ear, groan. Arthur Hall, from Grantham in Lincolnshire, had trundled out ten books of the Iliad in flat, heavy fourteeners in 1581. Hall did not work from the Greek, or even from the Latin, but from Hugues Salel’s French translation, which was in turn translated from a Latin version. Hall, a political conservative who wished to see the power of Parliament limited, regarded the Iliad chiefly as a poem about political obedience: the rage of Achilles at Agamemnon’s confiscation of the slave girl Briseis is not portrayed as the righteous anger of someone wronged by an overlord, but as the destructive pique of a rebellious subject. ‘Let us obey that king, whome Jove hath set here in his place,’ Hall insists.

In 1598 things were to change. George Chapman, known chiefly as the author of a handful of comedies and a couple of punishingly obscure poems, printed the first instalment of his translation of Homer. This was to become Chapman’s most extended labour – for more or less the next twenty years he worked obsessively at it – and his best and best-known work. Chapman’s Homer appeared sporadically in sections, as he found time and inspiration to work on it, and patrons to support it. Seven books of the Iliad appeared in 1598. These were rendered in the long, sometimes lumbering fourteeners that Chapman claimed was the right form for so massive a poem. In 1608 he augmented the seven books to 12, and by 1611 he had completed the whole Iliad. At this point he set about adding notes to the translation. He also rewrote his original versions of the two first books and made revisions to the other sections. In the following years he laboured over the Odyssey, which he translated into wildly asymmetrical and violently enjambed heroic couplets. He worked at enormous speed: 12 books were probably ready by 1613, and the Odyssey was completed between 1614 and 1615. Around 1616, Chapman’s printer pieced together a complete folio edition of Homer from oddments of earlier editions, proudly called The Whole Works of Homer. The project was so long in the making that it outlived two of its patrons. The martial Earl of Essex, to whose ‘Achilleian vertues’ the 1598 Seaven Bookes were dedicated, and the model, in part, for Chapman’s Achilles, was executed in 1601 after his ill-fated rebellion against Elizabeth I; Henry, Prince of Wales, the dedicatee of the Odyssey, died in 1612 at the age of 18. Chapman kept plugging away.

The extended genesis of Chapman’s Homer is one of its defining and most frequently neglected features. Many modern translations try to appear as though they were produced in a single instant of scholarly insight. Chapman’s version is quite different. Like Christopher Logue’s violent adaptations of the Iliad, it testifies to a lifetime’s battle with thoughts and afterthoughts, a continual argument between the translator’s own preoccupations and his sense of what is distinctive to Homer. Chapman’s project took 18 years to complete, a period in which he grew bored, ran short of time, changed his mind, changed his patron, had moments of inspiration and phases of weariness. We know this because he tells his readers that it is happening. Time features almost as another character in his translation, and is frequently alluded to in the marginal commentary. Shortage of time meant that Chapman did not revise, or perhaps even seriously think much about Books 7-10 of the Iliad, and that he did not manage to write a ‘commentarius’ on Books 4-12. The second half of that poem, he insists repeatedly, was the part which saw the spirit of Homer fully enter him, and in his marginalia and prefatory material he hurries his readers on to this section, as he too ‘haste[s], sure of nothing but my labour’. He recognised that he was producing a patchwork-quality Homer, and he tells his readers so. Chapman’s translation is above all a work, a time-bound, growing and sprawling labour.

The effort involved in importing Homer into English is registered and transmitted to its readers partly by means of Chapman’s frequent use of mammoth portmanteau words (‘hony-sweetnesse-giving-minds’; ‘Fate-borne-Dogs-to-Barke’). These words force English to emulate Greek compound adjectives, and are often accompanied by marginal notes which fulminate against the feebleness of French and Latin translations that have lamely missed the point of the Homeric epithets that Chapman attempts to re-create. The pressure of time on the translation, and the late nights and lamp-oil of Chapman’s effort, are registered in a note which confesses that Book 12 of the Odyssey was the work of only 12 days. (Thomas Phaer had made similar boasts about his speed as a translator of Virgil in the 1550s.) These features make Chapman’s Homer a work to live with: the translator tells you which books he has on his desk and where he thinks they are wrong. He tells you when he’s tired or rushed, and apologises for the less good bits. There are certainly more ‘accurate’ translations of Homer, if accuracy is taken to mean the deliberate suppression of the presence of the translator, but there are none so honest about the fact that sometimes translations take fire and sometimes they misfire. No, ‘this is not Homer,’ as Matthew Arnold complained, since it frequently adds phrases and whole lines to Homer and sometimes simply gets him wrong; but for Chapman, translation is a dialectic between one life, one civilisation, and another.

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