Dear Grammarians,

A gaping hole in my reading remains: the classical epics. This summer I aim to read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, and Dante’s Divine Comedy. I decided this over a month ago, and I’ve finally gotten underway.

Weeks ago I emailed Professor Longenbach to ask which translation of Homer was the best. He recommended the one by Robert Fagles for its ease of reading, pointing out that “as Matthew Arnold said so rightly and so long ago, speed is good for Homer.” He also said he liked Robert Fitzgerald’s, saying it was more difficult but “appropriately hieratic.” I had to look up “hieratic.” According to the O.E.D. (I love the O.E.D. I might write an entire entry on its joys):

Pertaining to or used by the priestly class; used in connexion with sacred subjects. spec. a. Applied to a style of ancient Egyptian writing, which consisted of abridged forms of hieroglyphics.

This distinction doesn’t mean much to me, so I still didn’t know which one to get. Today, however, I was in a (wonderful) store called Book Culture on 112th and Broadway, where I found the Fitzgerald versions of the Iliad and Odyssey greatly discounted. Next to them, less discounted, was the Fagles in a boxed set. I compared the opening lines of the Iliad; Fitzgerald was clearly using a more difficult syntax, and spelling names in “Greek” transliteration rather than Latinate (e.g., Akhilleus instead of Achilles, and some even more obscuring for me–descended myriad-great grandchild of Latin that I am–such as Aias for Ajax). But why would I want something easier?

I was also immediately drawn to Fitzgerald’s fourth line, “and crowded brave souls into the undergloom”.

The clincher was that the Fagles was printed with those rough-cut edges that make it hard to flip through a book. Know what I mean? I can’t stand those.

So I bought the pair of Fitzgeralds and took them home.

I immediately read the Iliad‘s introduction, by Andrew Ford. As introductions go, even at 28 pages it is perhaps the most absorbing and tangibly worthwhile introduction that I’ve ever read. Usually I begin reading an introduction knowing it is intended to enrich my reading, and after a few pages I realize I’m too distracted by my eagerness to read the work to actually pay attention to the intro, and so I ditch the rest. Also, it often seems as though introductions are written assuming that the reader has already read the work, and thus it seems a waste of time to read them first. Ford, however, justifies himself in plainphrased prose as invaluable to be read before reading this version (Fitzgerald’s) of the Iliad, while assuming that the reader might have read others, and even that the reader might be more interested in a different version and a different approach than that which Fitzgerald takes. It was as much an introduction to Fitzgerald as to Homer. It was tightly written, interesting, and enjoyable, especially the last section, “Style and Translation.” When I get to that topic more seriously–literature in translation–I’m sure I’ll have occasion to come back to it.

In any case, so far I am quite pleased with my choice of the Fitzgerald version, and so with that, on with the epics.

Most sincerely,


P.S. I will be getting on to my listed “upcoming topics,” really. It simply seems there will be a few unannounced interludes now and then.