Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.10.14

Allardyce Nicoll (ed.), Chapman's Homer. The Iliad.   Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1998.  Pp. 613.  ISBN 0-691-00236-3.  $19.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Edward Gutting, Princeton University (
Word count: 1673 words

"What none before durst even venture on,
Unto our wonder is by Chapman done,
Who by his skill hath made great Homers song,
To vaile its Bonnet in our English tongue,
So that the Learned well may question it,
Whether in Greek or English Homer writ."
Samuel Sheppard, "Mr. Chapmans Incomparable Translation of Homers Workes."

So an early admirer wrote in 1656, 45 years after Chapman published his translation of the Iliad. Since then his reputation has waxed and waned. He was the darling of the seventeenth century, replaced as the premier English Homer by Pope in the eighteenth century, then crowned again in the nineteenth century by English Romantics who found Pope too artificial. The new paperback has laudatory blurbs from Swinburne, Saintsbury, and, of course, Keats. But it has had to avoid the comments of such weighty figures as Pope and Arnold. Pope accepts Chapman's claim that he wrote as Homer himself would have written in English, but adds the damning twist that it is only as Homer would have written "before he arriv'd to Years of Discretion." Perhaps Pope had an axe to grind; after all, he includes the criticisms in his own 1715 translation of the Iliad. Arnold, on the other hand, forbore to translate Homer himself, but did offer 178 pages of advice on how to do so (On Translating Homer. London: Smith, Elder 1896). He proposes four benchmarks of a good translation of Homer: simplicity in thought, directness in style, quick completion of the work before loss of inspiration, and nobility. Chapman certainly must take the crown for the third of these; he claims he took fifteen weeks for his translation of the last twelve books of the Iliad. But Arnold found our author's taste for Elizabethan fancy too great with a resulting loss of simplicity and directness. Others have a mixed view. Coleridge praises the originality of Chapman's poetry, but finds faults, again with the poet's Elizabethan style, and in the end judges the poetry of his translation as almost midway between Ben Johnson and Milton in his sonnets.

So what of Chapman today? Currently, the standard available edition is the two volume Chapman's Homer (Princeton University Press, 1956, second edition 1967), edited by Allardyce Nicoll and comprising the Iliad, Odyssey, and Lesser Homerica. Princeton University Press's 1998 release, Chapman's Homer, is little more than a reprint of the Iliad section of Allardyce's work. The only changes are that the "Textual Notes" and "Commentary" sections of the original have been removed (although the glossary of Elizabethan usages has been kept) and a short introductory piece by Gary Wills added.

The loss of the "Textual Notes" section is fair enough. Chapman published several dry runs of partial translations of the Iliad before his 1611 translation of all 24 books. The "Textual Notes" section compares alternate readings from these different translations, and would be of interest primarily to scholars of Elizabethan literature. Some of these differences between Chapman's translations are, for example, use of 'and' instead of an ampersand, changes in capitalization, or omissions of hyphens. Rarely are the differences anything more. In the "Commentary" Nicoll glosses difficult Elizabethan phrases. For example, Book 9.338 "this kil-man Hector's fright" is glossed as "fear of this murderous Hector." But the glosses are few and far between (as little as nine glosses for the whole of Book 8), and often leave the reader wanting. Those that do not do this are often unnecessary, such as at 6.156 "His exile grew since" which explains "He was exiled because". So, the "Commentary" section in Nicoll's edition perhaps was not worth reprinting. A new, better set of notes would have been welcome, though is not essential as Chapman is no more difficult going than Shakespeare's tragedies. The removal of these two sections from the new printing make sense given the publisher's goal of a popularizing edition. Its greatest value will be as a paperback that might catch one's eye at Barnes and Noble, and eliminating 125 pages of appendix helps to keep the book in an appropriate price range for that purpose.

Fortunately, the push to trim down the book has not gone too far. It still contains, aside from Chapman's 1611 translation of the Iliad, Chapman's own (very brief) commentaries on his work, the first two books in his 1598 dry run translation Seven Bookes of the Iliades (these are the only two books that are significantly different from the 1611 edition), and his 1598 translation Achilles' Shield (again different from the 1611 version, in this case because it is in a different meter), and the dedicatory and prefatory material to all three publications. These last are of particular interest because in them Chapman puts forward his own literary theory of translation. In addition, Nicoll's excellent introduction is retained.

Wills' introduction, which, to judge by the prominence of his name on the cover, is to be the book's great selling point, is too short (6 pages with half the space taken up in quotes from the poem) to be of much interest. Since this is the only new addition to what was available in 1956, one would have hoped for something more substantial. But it is good within its limitations. Half of it concerns Chapman's interest in parallels between the demi-god status of Homer's heroes as reflected in star imagery and Renaissance humanism's use of cosmological symbolism. Wills makes this interesting enough to leave the reader wanting much more. The last half of his essay is even better, especially in light of the book's goal of being useful to the non-specialist. It offers a very good basic introduction to Chapman's meter, and this is invaluable to anyone who wishes to read the poetry aloud.

And it is Chapman's poetry that makes the translation still important. Indeed, simply as translation it does not measure up well to modern standards. His Greek has clear weaknesses that occasionally lead him to rely too much on Andreas Divus' Latin translation which accompanied the Greek text (edited by Spondanus). Millar MacLure (George Chapman, University of Toronto Press, 1966 pp.173-4), in a comparison of Calchas' speech at 1.74-100 to the Greek and to Divus' Latin, shows how the Latin translation could pull him away from the Greek. Moreover, people today probably would not like Chapman's willingness to take liberties with the original text. For example, he will compress similes and even turn speeches into brief paraphrases. In other cases, Chapman adds to the Greek in order to make his interpretation the most immediate, obvious reading. He has certain ways in which he wants to read the poem, and his translation will stray far from the original in order to bring out what he must have considered latent but important themes in the poem. As an example, consider Athena's speech to Achilles in Book 1.204-215 in which she convinces him not to attack Agamemnon. I have italicized those parts that are departures from the Greek original:

"I come from heaven to see
Thy anger settled, if thy soule will use her soveraigntie
In fit reflection. I am sent from Juno, whose affects
Stand heartily inclind to both. Come, give us both respects
And cease contention. Draw no sword. Use words, and such as may
Be bitter to his pride, but just. For trust in what I say,
A time shall come when thrice the worth of that he forceth now
He shall propose for recompense of these wrongs. Therefore throw
Reines on thy passions, and serve us."

Chapman has decided to stress Achilles as a moral hero, as if he took Stoic ideas about Odysseus in the Odyssey to heart and decided to apply them (through an Elizabethan filter) to Achilles in the Iliad. Thus he stresses the soul as a moral decision-making faculty, and preemptively characterizes the coming abuse and insults as justly directed against Agamemnon's sinful pride. These techniques may jar current sensibilities, but certainly raise interesting and valid issues regarding the nature of translation. And, at any rate, Chapman is subtle enough about his liberties that they are only noticeable if you start to look. Even if you know your Homer well, you will still feel you are reading the Iliad.

Whatever one believes about the function of translation, Chapman's poetry should impress. He is a master of sound and rhythm, particularly when the poetry is loud and forceful. He writes fourteen syllable iambic lines in rhymed couplets. The need to breathe creates a natural caesura after the eighth syllable, and this results in a dangerous tendency in readers towards a sing-song trotting, but Chapman is virtuoso at mixing things up enough to prevent this. His use of rhyme is particularly pleasing. The long lines make the rhyme at times imperceptible, especially because of liberal use of enjambment. But when Chapman wants to push the rhyme forward for a deliberate effect, or simply to make more narrative, scene-setting lines move quickly, he does so with ease by making the rhythms of each line in the couplet sufficiently parallel that the end rhymes are thrown into relief. Chapman marshals an army of sound in a manner most reminiscent of Homer, and it is in this that -- despite his excessively Latinate structures and lack of parataxis, his obscurity in place of Homer's clarity, and his Elizabethan rhetorical figures -- Chapman is in the end faithful to Homer.

So, in sum, this 1998 re-release of Chapman is essentially a stripped down, less expensive version of what we have had available since 1956. What has been removed will be missed by few. We have here, instead of a new Chapman, a new marketing strategy for Chapman. And this is very welcome. A reasonably sized paperback edition with large distribution will bring Chapman's translation to many new readers. This is particularly valuable today in light of the most recent translations of Homer. Fagles and Lombardo have produced impressive works, but the poetry of each shows a marked prosaic tendency. Chapman is the complete opposite and so well complements our current translation style.

Read Latest
Index for 1999
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:26:31, Friday, 03 April 2009