31 July 2015

On first looking into Chapman's Homer

In recent weeks I have been sorting through Pierre MacKay's boxes and drawers and shelves and desks. The last project so far was the heavy glass-fronted bookcase beside his bed full of, he said, his father's poetry books. Most of these were late 19th-century and early 20th-century editions of all the English poets, perhaps not as interesting to me as they should be. One book stood out, and its photograph is above.

There are several thousand books in this house, quite a few of them important. I have rarely been interested in an old book or a first edition. Books to me are primarily tools. I read with a pencil, fold down corners, make notes, break spines (though not intentionally). A beautiful edition is very nice to look at, but otherwise useless. So nothing in my life had prepared me for the thrill of this book. The blackening along the top edge has a very faint charred smell, souvenir of its surviving a fire in Princeton.  This book that touched fire was, is, Chapman's Homer. This is the book Keats wrote about.

When George Chapman began translating Homer, he issued it in installments beginning in 1598.  It was not until 1616 that he issued his complete Homer -- the first complete translation in English -- with copious marginal notes, fulsome dedicatory poems and prefaces, and remarkable etchings.

Wikipedia has an excellent article about Chapman, a prolific playwright, and possible the rival poet mentioned in Shakespeare's Sonnets.  When Chapman was reissued in 1998 and 2001, the London Review of Books published an eloquent discussion of the man and his work. I will not try to repeat them here, but I urge you to read the LRB because it so well explains how magic happens.  Chapman translated the Iliad in iambic heptameter and rhyming couplets.  Take this of Phoenix from Book 9 -- the spelling takes getting used to:

O thou that like the gods art fram'd: fince (deareft to my heart)
I us'de thee fo, though lov'dft none elfe; nor any where wouldft eate,
Till I had crownd my knee with thee, and caru'd thee tendrest meate,
And given thee wine for much, for love, that in thy infancie,
(Which ftill difcretion muft protect, and a continuall eye)
My bofome lovingly fuftain'd; the wine thine could not beare;

Here is a view from the Odyssey, this in iambic pentameter and rhyming couplets, Odysseus speaking to Nausicaa: 

 And here, John Keats describes what happened to him when he read Chapman's Homer, and what happened to me when I found it in that dark corner of the bookcase:

Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
   And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
   Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
   That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
   Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
   When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
   He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—
   Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
                                                           John Keats

1 comment:

  1. For people who want a reading edition, there's a Classics of World Literature edition, with modern spelling, which I bought new for a bargain £1.50 (about $2.30). It's a bit more on Amazon, but secondhand copies are available for peanuts.

    It doesn't take long to get used to the stately tread of fourteeners, to such an extent that I found the Odyssey in conventional heroic couplets a bit of a comedown. Chapman's version is pretty close to the original, more so than most later versions except maybe Lattimore's, and Chapman's archaism seems to me easier to take than being dragged over the sharp rocks of Lattimore's language. Also, I have a feeling that old poems should sound old.

    By the way, there is a long ſ in Unicode, 017F hex, so you don't need to use f. In Word, type 017F and press Alt-x. After that, put the character into the clipboard and paste it whenever needed.


I will not publish Anonymous comments.