BMCR 2004.03.15

The Homeric Hymns. With Introduction and Notes by Nicholas Richardson

, The Homeric hymns. Penguin classics. London: Penguin Books, 2003. xxxvii, 174 pages ; 20 cm.. ISBN 0140437827 £8.99.

This stylish new Penguin Classic contains Jules Cashford’s free verse translation of the Homeric Hymns and Nicholas Richardson’s introduction to and notes on the hymns. The introduction contains short pieces exploring the nature and purpose of the Homeric Hymns, composition and performance, authorship and dates of composition, structure and themes, style and poetic quality, and, in a novel finale, influence, firstly in general terms and secondly in relation to the Hymn to Demeter. There follows a short conclusion, notes, hints on further reading and a one-page translator’s note. Appended at the end of the book are 55 pages of explanatory notes on the Homeric Hymns.1

Just as the Homeric Hymns often describe the birth, the nursing and sanctuary of a god and how he once entered the Olympian Pantheon, so the publication of the Homeric Hymns in Penguin Classics marks the entry of this work into a literary pantheon alongside the Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, Pride and Prejudice and Gulliver’s Travels. It is a significant triumph for these little-known hymns that have in recent years attracted enormous attention, recently at the rate of two translations and editions a year. The series is designed for the intelligent general reader who may be sitting on the tube to Neasden, on the subway to Manhattan or in a rickshaw in Delhi, providing access to the greatest works and priding itself on full notes, updated bibliographies and expert introductions.

Richardson’s (henceforth R.’s) introduction is packed with clear and concise information. His comments on ‘influence’ can nowhere else be found with such authority: he is indeed the father-figure of all Oxford hymnologists. He traces the influence of the hymns right up to 1995 and 1996 when the Australian composer Carl Vine chose to use the Greek text of the hymns to Earth, Moon and Sun in his Choral Symphony no.6. R. fully expounds on the Hymn to Demeter for which he has published the authoritative edition and for which he has given full help to Cashford (henceforth C.) in the formation of the text.

Otherwise the Greek text employed is ‘basically’ from nearly a century ago, that used by Hugh G. Evelyn-White in the early Loeb version from 1914, which in turn follows closely the Oxford text established by Allen in 1912. This would be understandable if a new Loeb text and translation had not appeared in the spring of 2003 carried out by Martin West in an almost adjacent dreaming spire to R.’s. C. and R. have, however, made use of new papyrus finds from the first hymn, and of R.’s earlier improvements to the second.

This translation is a Herculean Labour with a capital ‘λ’, as R. uses on p. xv. C. writes in her translator’s note that she has not kept to the dactylic hexameter of the hymns and has been loosely guided by the nature of the goddesses and gods as to what form the hymn should take. In contrast to Athanassakis, she has not translated the recurring epithets, such as ‘white-armed Hera’, in exactly the same way each time they occur, on the grounds that their sense may change slightly with different rhythms and different contexts of meaning. The result visually resembles Charles Boer’s translation (1970 and 1979) and paginal design whereby he places text in the centre of the page (in his Hymn to Demeter) or experiments with textual architecture (in his Hymn to Hermes). C. also goes for variety of metre in her Hymn to Hermes. That C. plumps for free verse is in stark contrast to Crudden’s recent rendering into bold and beautiful English hexameters.

Faced with dactylic hexameter, every translator has to decide for him- or herself how to render it in English. Some poets settle for iambic pentameter; some favour a longer, seven-foot line, iambic or otherwise; and others have opted for the six-stress line, whose rhythm is so subtle as to be almost indiscernible. Sargent (1975) attempted a compromise — to convey the flavour of the rhythm of the Greek but within the comfortable framework of the five-foot line. Sometimes, to relieve the monotony, she threw in a four-, six- or even seven-foot line, and her ‘dactyls’ are often amphibrachs or anapaests. Athanassakis (1970) is even more frank: ‘poetry is untranslatable, and the present translation does not claim to be poetry.’ His rendering is a line-by-line English version of the original Greek, aiming for accuracy rather than for poetic effect, although striving to preserve the vigour and beauty of the original, wherever possible. Athanassakis refused to lengthen or truncate lines for metrical or symmetrical purposes and made an effort to keep to an iambic flow, though preferring to violate this flow rather than to sacrifice accuracy. His reason for a verse translation was simple: the reader could refer to lines more easily and thus compare the Greek and English texts. In addition to this, a straight prose translation, such as Evelyn-White’s (1914) or West’s (2003), would bear even less resemblance to the original, in Athanassakis’ view. This reviewer has not yet seen Diane Rayor’s translation and edition of the Homeric Hymns (February 2004).

A good example of C.’s free and easy rendering are the famous lines (170-171) from the Hymn to Apollo:

Girls, who is the sweetest man of all the singers
Who comes here to you?

Her language verges on the colloquial at times: ‘the sort of thing thieves get up to/in the dark time of the night.’ (4, 67). ‘I can well believe/you broke into a good many/well-built houses last night.’ At times the translator is psalmodic as in 30,7 ‘Blessed in the one you honour’, but this reflects the cultic text in the original. C. rarely expands words, so that ‘people who sing songs/ and play the lyre’ in hymn 25 slightly jars for ἀοιδοί, κιθαρισταί.

A typical example of Cashford’s paginal architecture à la Boer is the following, from hymn 27 to Artemis:

of high mountains
the forest
in darkness
with the terrible howling
of wild animals,
the earth itself shudders,
even the sea
alive with fish.

I now give comments on the first fifteen hymns and notes. The alternation of centered text and a left-hand margin together with the variation in length of verse-blocks can be seen to illustrate how the nature of the goddesses and gods has loosely guided C. as to what form the hymn should take.

Hymn 1: The page layout resembles that of Boer. The notes specifically refer to West’s article (ZPE 134 (2001), 1-11) that contains newer information than Merkelbach’s (ZPE 12 (1973), 212-215), which was available to earlier translators, including Crudden (2001). C. and R. steer a more cautious course than West, however. It seems clear that both the Loeb and Penguin versions went to press at the same time so that R. cannot refer to West’s Loeb edition except in the bibliography.

Hymn 2: The notes for this hymn are R.’s tour de force, his strongest suit. C. uses both double-barrelled adjectives (‘loud-thundering’, ‘far-seeing’) and adverbial phrases (‘with the slender ankles’) or both together (‘fast-flowing sea full of fishes’). In general the lines are four-, five- or six-footed, though speeches have a shorter metre, except for those of Demeter and Metaneira.

Hymn 3: The first part, that of Delian Apollo, is divided into three-line verse-sections, while the Pythian part is broken up into larger chunks. R. discusses unity both in the introduction and in the notes. He argues that ‘whatever the original circumstances of composition, the hymn as we have it is evidently intended to be treated as a single work, and that is how we should read it today’ (introd. xiii). West, in contrast, has described the poem as a ‘pantomime horse’ (2003,9). C.’s translation is easy to read throughout: she out-Boers Boer in switching line-and verse-lengths.

Hymn 4: This mercurial hymn reads particularly well in C.’s version. R. posits a lacuna at l.109 but this is not shown in the translation. The intelligent English or American reader is duly warned of potentially corrupt passages in the notes. Apollo’s and Hermes’ speeches are rendered in short, colloquial lines.

Hymn 5: R. explains the significance of allusions to Aeneas, in this poem seen as the son of Anchises and Aphrodite. Sometimes one feels that the ‘intelligent, general reader’ might have wanted fuller explanations and references such as Crudden (2001) has given. C. opts for double-barrelled adjectives such as ‘soft-skinned’, ‘laughter-loving’, thunder-loving’, ‘bright-eyed’, ‘deep-breasted’, ‘deep-roaring’, ‘golden-haired’, ‘golden-throned’, ‘flower-like’ and ‘rich-crowned’.

Hymns 6 and 7: Here for the first time C. employs Boer’s paginal design, this time centered, which makes for a contrast to the first five hymns.

Hymn 8: Here C. has broken up the massive Greek line into two lines, e.g. ‘Supremely strong Ares, /golden-helmeted chariot-rider’. I note particularly felicitous phrases such as ‘shrill rage’ and ‘chilling din’. Boer, by contrast, broke the line up into three parts: ‘Ares, superior force,/ Ares, chariot rider,/ Ares wears gold helmet.’

Hymn 9: The poem is divided into a four- and five-line strophe, three three-line verses and finally a four-line verse.

Hymn 10: This poem is cut up into two- and one-line verses.

Hymn 11: This hymn is composed of four verses of three lines each.

Hymn 12: C. has reworked the text into short sentences: ‘Her mother is Rhea./ She is queen of the immortal gods,/ she is pre-eminent in beauty,/ she is the sister of thundering Zeus,/ she is also his wife./ She is the glorious one.’ West’s prose version reads: ‘…whom Rhea bore to be queen of the immortals, of supreme beauty, sister and wife of Zeus the loud-booming: glorious one.’ This is to illustrate the lengths to which C. goes to rework her text.

Hymn 13: The text here is left-justified.

Hymn 14: The text here is centered. The word κλαγγή is rendered by two English words: ‘the howling (of wolves) and the growling of (bright-eyed lions).’ This Penguin version is obviously not designed as a translation crib, but the English reads well.

Hymn 15 is arbitrarily split up into one, two, three or more lines while Hymn 16 is neatly divided into four two-line verses.

There seems to be deliberate variation in page layout. Of the following hymns, 18, 19, 22, 26 and 27 are centered while 17, 20, 21, 23, 24, 25, 28, 29-33 are left-justified.

In his introduction and notes, R. opts for a neutral tone: ‘there is no consensus` (p.157), ‘some scholars…but this is not universally accepted` (p.160), ‘some scholars have thought’ (p.173). The direct allusion to West’s work on p.149 is an exception to this rule. R. seeks a balanced and non-controversial line of commentary, for example, on composition and performance on pp. x-xii. At times R. refers to textual corruption and difficulties (hymn 4,473 n., hymn 2,387-404 n. ‘from here to Receiver of Many (404) the manuscript is torn, and parts of verses are missing, but the general sense can be reconstructed with some certainty.’). It would be a new Herculean Labour to go through this translation with a toothcomb and pick out words that would be different had West’s text been used. The bibliography makes no reference to works or translations in languages other than English, but that can be seen to conform with the Penguin agenda.

As I wrote concerning Crudden, ‘the English or American reader of the Homeric Hymns is pampered and mollycoddled by a plethora of good translations’ and now I should add, ‘of commentaries’.2 Although the academic reader will have Crudden’s glossary and references to scholarly articles at his elbow, this Penguin Classic is fully worthy of its aura and imprimatur and fulfils its agenda. The sense of delight and joy running through the hymns is preserved in C.’s translation. The hymns stand now as works of great poetic force, full of grace and lyricism, and ranging in tone from irony to solemnity, ebullience to grandeur: the variations in metre and line- and verse-length help to emphasise these contrasts. Their richness of language evokes the rich beauty of the natural world, of whose power and splendour the Greek gods are the manifestation. This is why these poems, stemming from a distant past and informed with this new and balanced commentary and translated in varying ways, continue to speak to us still with so clear a voice even today.


1. Comparable versions are listed on p. xxxvii: Athanassakis, A., Baltimore 1976, Boer, C., Dallas 1979 (but in my copy Connecticut 1970, 2nd ed.), Crudden, M., Oxford 2001, Evelyn-White, H.G., Cambridge, Mass., 1914, rev. 1936, Sargent, T., New York 1975, West, M.L. Cambridge, Mass., 2003. I omit Edgar (1891) and Lang (1899) as being outdated. It is important to emphasise that Boer and Sargent have no notes and that Crudden has useful summaries of recent scholarship on the hymns. West has a new and corrected version of the Greek text, including his own improvements and conjectures, together with numerous observations on content. This was reviewed by Scott Garner (BMCR 2003.07.36). Càssola’s Italian edition and translation (Inni Omerici, 1992) is fuller than Zanetto’s (1996). One could now add Diane Rayor’s forthcoming introduction, translation and notes (University of California Press, February 2004).

2. BMCR 2002.03.33, Evans on Crudden.