By Dr Vaidehi Nathan
The Iliad, Homer, translated by Anthony Verity and Barbara Graziosi, Oxford University Press, Pp 470 (HB), £16.99
if you wanted to read Homer’s Iliad and did not know how to, there is a new translation of the epic from the Oxford University Press. Iliad is a lyrical poem, set to tune. Hence, while translating much of that beauty is lost. And yet, it makes a compelling story, of Achilles’ anger and the ensuing war which saw the death of mighty Hector.
To be uninitiated here is the story in brief: The scene is towards the end of the Trojan war, between the Trojans and the Greek. The Trojan priest Apollo offers wealth to the Greek, in return for his daughter Chryses, who is a captive of the Greek leader Agamemnon. He refuses the offer. Then Chryses prays to Apollo and he casts plague on the Greek. After nine days Achilles, the leader Myrmidon contingent and a great fighter calls an assembly and forces Agamemnon to agree. Agamemnon, while relenting returns Chryses but takes Briseis, a close confidant of Achilles, upon which he swears not to fight for Agamemnon and goes back. The war continues and the Greeks are cornered (there are a lot of things happening during war). Agamemnon concedes his mistake and sends an entourage loaded with gifts to call Achilles, who refuses to come. Finally, the death of Patroclus, his companion moves Achilles and he launches on in full fury on the Trojans and wins the war.
In the introduction to the translation (under review) Anthony Verity and Barbara Graziosi say “This poem confronts, with unflinching clarity many isssues that we had rather forget altogether: the failure of leadership, the destructive power of beauty, the brutalizing impact of war, and — above all — our ultimate fate of death. That the Iliad has been so widely heard and read is not just a testament to its immense power. It also speaks of the commitment of its many readers, who have turned to it in order to understand something about their own life, death, and humanity.”
There is a lot of speculation about the author Homer. There have been various theories. The poem is 15,000 lines long and according to Verity and Graziosi must have taken three days (or nights) to sing it fully, which required infrastructural or institutional support. This was available from the sixth century onwards. The date of Iliad is also constantly debated.
Speaking of the beauty of the poem, the translators say “One of the most striking features of Homeric epic, and the tradition from which it stems, is its repetitiveness. Achilles is called ‘swift-footed’ again and again.”
The introduction is comprehensive and sets the tone for reading the poem. “Rather than looking for the poet of the Iliad, it seems more fruitful to look for the poet in the Iliad and listen to his voice” Verity and Graziosi suggest.
Iliad is a heroic epic, not a religious one like our Ramayana or Mahabharata, though gods and angels participate freely in the war on both sides. It is a classic and requires passion and patience to read. The translation has made the reading easy, breaking down the complicated language in a form we can relate to.
Anthony Verity was Master of Dulwich College before his retirement and Barbara Graziosi is Professor of Classics at Durham University.
(Oxford University Press, Great Clarendon Street, Oxford OX2 6DP)