BMCR 2010.03.22

Homer, The Iliad

, Homer, The Iliad. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. viii, 464. ISBN 9780472116171. $35.00.


Rodney Merrill has offered the world a very musical Iliad, one which pays full homage to the trance-inducing powers of Homeric meter. Among the midwives of this work listed in the acknowledgments are some of the foremost scholars in Homeric studies, not least Gregory Nagy of Harvard and Stephen Daitz, the great performer of Homer whose striking reconstruction of ancient rhapsodic technique is the best available. Merrill’s Iliad is in general a mighty success as a scholarly rendering and as a literary work of English poetry. My discussion of what I regard as its limitations should not diminish the eagerness of prospective readers; the book delivers a week’s rich reverie in an armchair, and surely makes an excellent classroom text. It is musical, muscular, generally quite accurate, and suffused with the passion of a genuine lover of Homeric poetry.

Translation is an affair of spectra; for meaning, there is a spectrum connecting the ultra-literal (e.g., Jebb’s prose Sophocles) on one side to mere adaptation without concern for accuracy on the other. For meter, another spectrum ranges from the daunting and no doubt wrong-headed ambition to render the Greek meter as instantiated in the Greek poem beat for beat, over to the other extreme where one simply forgets all about it and goes for prose. There are many other such spectra (e.g., diction, from the more archaic to the less), but these are the big two, and Mr. Merrill is ambitious for both accuracy of sense and an English metricality as Homeric in spirit as he can find. The difficulty is that dactylic hexameter has not had much of a natural life in English literature hitherto, apart from various achievements in the translating of Homer and Vergil. There are also normative moments of irregular hexameter poetry in Whitman, whose long line sometimes has six stresses (“My TONGUE, every ATom of my BLOOD, FORMED from this SOIL, this AIR,”), but in English, hexameter has not flourished as the iambic pentameter has. So an English hexameter Homer is a somewhat rare animal whose literary norms would seem rather flexible and ambiguous.

Merrill is admirably committed to the rule that each line’s final foot must be a spondee; his III, 3 ends “up toward heaven,” and though the stress is much stronger on the first syllable of “heaven,” convention in either language easily rounds it out to a fairly spondaic sound (indeed the Iliad’s first four Greek lines end in short syllables). But here are lines 10-11: “As in the peaks of the mountains the south wind spreads a mist over, / not to the shepherd a friend, to the thief much better than nighttime—” Not bad, but “spreads a mist over” seems to me troublesome: either you put the natural, strong stress on “mist,” in which case “over” pales into a rather stressless pyrrhic and violates the rule, or you keep “mist” very light and stress the first syllable of “over.” Whatever you think of the two outcomes, the trouble is that in order to reach one you have to stop and choose, rather than be swept along in the flow. That is inevitable in a work of this size and type, and each reader will judge whether or not this kind of brief metrical impasse occurs so frequently as to limit the excellence of the result.

Merrill has a tendency to end enjambed lines with semantically weak elements like prepositions and linking verbs, which does not happen very often in good English-language verse. At I, 346-7 we have “out of the cabin the fair-cheeked daughter of Briseus he led and / gave her to them to take back…” To be sure, the feminine ending “and” gets picked up smoothly by the strong opening monosyllable of the next line’s main verb, “gave.” The trouble, if there is one, is that ending a line of English poetry with the word “and” is jarringly contrary to familiar artistic practice; part of the reader’s attention may now be diverted to the question whether this is a bad choice within old rules or perhaps a good one within the special new constraints of an idiosyncratic project. While Homer does end some lines with the conjunction “te,” one does not find him ending lines with “kai”.In Act III scene ii of Hamlet, the Player King says “Faith, I must leave thee, love, and shortly too.” English “too” resembles Greek “te” in that these conjunctions tend to occur after both of the elements they conjoin (so their occurrence in the final position at the end of a line is perhaps weak, but not awkward). But “and” resembles “kai,” in that these are conjunctions that tend to occur between the elements they conjoin. So ending a line in “and” (which I can’t find Shakespeare doing) or “kai” (which I can’t find Homer doing) seems disadvantageous.

Not all of Merrill’s semantic choices are entirely clear to me in their motivation. At I, 461, the verb ὠμοθέτησαν is translated “fastened upon,” whereas the form only seems to warrant a notion of placement without attachment: to “place” or “lay” raw pieces of flesh on the fat of the sacrifice. At VIII, 398, we have the construction “aroused up,” where the preposition “up” seems redundant after the prefix “a-“; the translator should perhaps choose one but not use both. At IX, 17 a vocative begins with “Oh” instead of “O.” Some English words occur that struck this reader as odd: “currish” (VIII, 483), “clandestinely” (VI, 161), and “outpowers” (XI, 558). At XXVII, 6, we have “So now over Patroklos bestrode light-haired Menelaos,” which is lovely, but I think it oddly redundant to make “bestride” take the preposition “over,” whose sense it already includes. Like the abundant use of the demonstrative pronoun “that” and the conjunction “also,” it suggests metrical padding. So does the construction “inside of,” when it is used adverbially (e.g., I, 432) and not as part of a noun phrase. At II, 798 the disguised Iris says, “Certainly many the battles among men which I have entered.” This will do, but it feels strange that there is time for “certainly” and “which” but no time to state the understood main verb.

Then there are the moments of what might be called excessive faithfulness, as at the start of the Catalogue of Ships: “Now will I tell those leaders of galleys and all of the galleys.” That is exactly what the Greek says: ἀρχοὺς αὖ νηῶν ἐρέω νῆάς τε προπάσας. But this repetition of the Greek word for “galley” is colored and alleviated by its change in noun case, whereas the repetition in this English line sounds merely strange and artless.

All this is of little importance compared to the two great strengths of the Merrill translation: its theoretical integrity, and its many beautiful plumes of elegant problem-solving. By “theoretical integrity” I mean a set of choices that includes: to translate into hexameters; not to translate the names in the Catalogue of Nymphs, but to transliterate them instead, preserving their awesome music; to scan “-eus” as one syllable (except in over-familiar forms like Achilles); to render Homer’s formulaic repetitions (and his anaphora, e.g., II, 382-4) undiminished; and so on. The gems are worth the price of the book:

summoning quickly to lofty Olympus the hundred-handed
Creature the gods Briareus call, whereas all men name him (I, 402-3)

nor of the Muses, who sang in lovely antiphonal voices. (I, 604)

As at its coming the west wind stirs the deep grain to commotion (II, 147)

holding aloft the magnificent aegis, immortal and ageless (II, 447)

hither and thither are flying, as they in their wings are exulting;
clamorous, ever advancing they settle, the meadow reechoes— (II, 462-)

Hektor, advancing to stand near Ajax, struck at the ash-wood
shaft with his great sword under the spear-point close to the socket
utterly cutting it off, and the scion of Telamon Ajax
futilely shook in his hand that stump of the spear, and the brazen
spear-point onto the ground faraway from him plummeted clanging. (XVI, 114-)

also the rage that arouses a man, though prudent, to raging,
anger that, sweeter by far than the honey from honeycombs dripping,
waxes to rage like smoke from a blaze inside of a man’s breast (XVIII, 108-10)

One could go on and on; the point is that this translation can boast a long list of excellent lines and blocks of lines. The text flows, but it also stumbles on some infelicities, especially when lines end with loose conjunctions, prepositions, or linking verbs. Merrill’s Iliad is generally alive and striding, but it sometimes seems conspicuously fitted together, paced by a somewhat artificial repertoire of verbal padding techniques whose important metrical workings might be better concealed behind the poetry. On the whole, a remarkable achievement, deserving of a place on the shelf with Lattimore and the other heavyweights.