Old Books Old Poetry

Some four or six years ago, I found myself on a classics kick. I was fascinated with culture that was meant to be physical, to be verbal, that had a protean naïveté as to genre. I read old Greek plays and tried to visualize them, I went to see dance up close in person, and I read Homer and tried to hear it.

Of course, when reading old things in modern English, you're never reading anything all that old. You're reading the old thing written in new language. And how is the new language different from the old language? You can read someone's opinion of that, of course, but why not see for yourself...

And that's the whole game with reading old literature, or foreign literature. How far out can you go? What alien waters can you ply and make familiar? I'll probably never make it out to Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but I have designs on Homer's Iliad.

Pope's Homer's Iliad

I've read through the Iliad one time in my adulthood, and it was Robert Fagles' translation. I don't remember my options at the time, and the whole topic is hardly top of mind for me right now, but reading the back cover I see it praised for being good to read aloud. That interests me: I wanted to read, and still want to read, works that gain something by being spoken, that are sapped of something by being speed read.

So as a result I believe that I at some point must have become interested in rhyming translations. And then I somehow became interested in Alexander Pope's translation as the next one for me to read through.


After all these years, it's a research project for me to say for sure why! I can say that I felt that his was the most notable translation to some generations of authors, and that Homeric quotes were likely to be taken from this translation. At an offhand Googling, though, I can't say that claim is well founded. Did I dream it?

Whether it was the truth or not, the idea didn't become firmly fixed in my mind until I set about acquiring a hard copy. I set myself one rule: I wanted to buy a physical copy in a physical bookstore.

This didn't seem like a big deal when I started. Translated works are as thick as YouTube lies in used bookstores, after all, and I made a habit of visiting used bookstores when traveling for work at the time. No doubt I'd run into one after a visit or two.

Yet I could not find this translation! In my mind, Pope's Iliad was the most famous translation of the work in the English language. And yet for all that, it is so unfashionable that it no longer meets the modern bar for "literature": that it be assigned reading in classrooms.

I finally did find it, though, at Moe's Books in Berkeley. (Berkeley is the place to go for used book stores, by the way.) It was published at 21 Astor Place and 142 Eight St. in New York City... in 1877! And this is what it looks like:

Pope's Homer's Iliad!

As it turns out, this translation is hard to find because it was not written to relate Homer's words to the modern ear. It is Homer's Iliad translated into an Alexander Pope poem. So, silly as "Pope's Homer's Iliad" reads, it's not an inaccurate title.

Reading Old Books

Any book in one's native tongue written in an unfamiliar style requires an adjustment period to enjoy. And the style of the past is unfamiliar.

But as I said, I was interested in this as literature in the spoken tradition. Pope was a poet; I wanted to hear it! So when I finally decided to finish up this project, I started reading it aloud in my armchair in the evening, a book at a time, like the impossible strange bachelor I am.

Soon I found that I wasn't having much of a good time reciting these words aloud in the accent I was using. (The "boring aspiring San Francisco weirdo reciting things aloud" accent) I kept on running across couplets like these:

There's no rhyme there. There's not even a near rhyme: "His silence here, with blushes, Paris brakes, 'Tis just my brother what your anger speeks."

Not doing any research of any kind, I cast about for other ways to hold my mouth and wend my tongue through the vowels that would bring this into a close rhyme. And so now I'm speaking it in a vaguely Irish way, and it makes much more sense.

Is it accurate? I have no idea... it sounds nice, though. It's hypnotizing. And sometimes, swept up in poetic reverie, I find myself transported to an unanticipated feeling.

Take this one from Book 3, for example. Paris, famous lover/kidnapper of Helen, has spent the entirety of the book taking it on the chin from everyone. Neither the Greeks nor the Trojans are particularly happy with him having taken Helen away, he fights a pitiful duel with a Greek king that ends in a cowardly divine rescue, Helen is asking about her dead brothers... it's a bad scene for handsome boy Paris.

And then I reach the following passage:

There want not gods to favour us above;
But let the business of our life be love:
These softer moments let delights employ,
And kind embraces snatch the hasty joy.
Not thus I loved thee, when from Sparta's shore
My forced, my willing heavenly prize I bore,
When first entranced in Cranae's isle I lay,
Mix'd with thy soul, and all dissolved away!"

And for a moment I envy him, author of discord...