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   Jacket 31 — October 2006        link Jacket 31 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Michael Leddy reviews

Homer: Iliad. 12 CDs. Parmenides Audio. 2006. US$42. ISBN 1-930972-08-3

Homer: Odyssey. 10 CDs. Parmenides Audio. 2006. US$42. ISBN 1-930972-06-7

translated and read by Stanley Lombardo

Audio. Please select a link (to Parmenides Publishing’s internet site) below to listen to an MP3 sample of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, translated and narrated by Stanley Lombardo.
Iliad — Chapter 1 sample (6min 48sec/7.8MB)
Odyssey  — Chapter 1 sample (8min 11sec/9.4MB)

This review is about 7 printed pages long.

Wonderland of voices

This piece is 2,900 words or about 6 printed pages long.

Homer makes us Hearers (Alexander Pope)

Line 12,110, the last line of the Odyssey, is a wonderful thing. Zeus and Athena have worked out an ending for the story, terms of peace between Odysseus and the vengeance-seeking fathers and brothers of the now-dead suitors: Odysseus will rule Ithaca for the rest of his life, while the suitors’ relations will be made to forget the deaths of their sons and brothers. Like Aeschylus’ Oresteia, in which trial-by-jury supplants revenge-killing, Homer’s poem ends with a new god-made means to resolve conflict, as Ithacan culture escapes the spiral of vengeful violence that structures the world of Iliad and has threatened to turn Odyssey 24 into a replay of 22. The Odyssey closes though not with a final epic clang of the name Odysseus, nor with a hymn to the pleasures of peace, but with a reminder that when Athena brought the king and his people to terms, she was looking and sounding like the old family friend Mentor (whose form she first assumed in book 2):

Mentori eidomenê êmen demas êde kai audên

This line seems to end the poem on an aside — a quirky, lightly comic, extra piece of detail, a reminder of Athena’s many incarnate performances in the poem, some of which are amusingly unlikely (in book 8, for instance, in the land of the Phaeacians, the goddess turns up as a track and field official). But this line ends the poem on a profound note too, with a reminder that one has been listening, always, to a human performance, that all of the poem’s men, women, gods, and goddesses have been speaking through one poet. The last word of line 12,110, Homer’s last word as a poet, is audên, voice.

Odysseus and Elpenor: Attic red figure pelike, c. 475 BC. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Odysseus and Elpenor: Attic red figure pelike, c. 475 BC. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Odyssey 24 is itself a wonderland of voices, bringing together for the first and only time in Homer’s poetry the three realms of the dead, the deathless, and the living: we hear the shades of Agamemnon and Achilles and the suitor Amphimedon in the underworld, Zeus and Athena in their conference room in the sky, and Odysseus and company in Ithaca. The talk ranges from lengthy Iliadic speechifying to Athena’s playful interrogation of her father (“Tell me what is hidden in that mind of yours” [491]) to Laertes’ joyful anticipation of fighting alongside his son and grandson (“What a day, dear gods!” [534]).[1] There are sixteen voices in all in this final episode.

But what kind of voice can we associate with Homer? William Butler Yeats knew for one exactly how Homer must have sounded: like Yeats Himself. Hugh Kenner recounts a story of Yeats reading “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” reading it

as he read everything, in a peculiar half-chant in which Ezra Pound heard keening, and other Americans heard Celtic melancholy, and Dublin heard Willie Yeats putting on airs. A no-nonsense American lady asked him to kindly infarm the audience (he recalled the sound she made as “infarm”) why he read his poetry in that fashion. He replied that every poet since Homer had read in that fashion. She asked him to further infarm them how he knew that Homer had read in that fashion. He replied that the ability of the man justified the presumption (53).

Yeats’ Homer seems to hover like a distant but mighty cloud over the best-known recordings of the Iliad (abridged) and the Odyssey, those of Robert Fagles’ translations, read by Derek Jacobi and Ian McKellen, respectively. Jacobi and McKellen are in their way brilliant readers, but to my ear, their majestic voices tend to overpower Homer’s poetry, tending to reduce a multiplicity of tones to a single unvaryingly eloquent texture — tragic intensity (Jacobi) or avuncular storytelling (McKellen).

Eloquence is indeed a preoccupation of Fagles’ translations. “Yeats is always the most useful,” Fagles has told an interviewer from the Daily Princetonian, citing 3.190 from his Iliad, in which the Trojan elders look at Helen and exclaim “Beauty, terrible beauty!” (Graham). (That line could serve as a standard test of one’s poetic hearing — an echo that sounds absolutely inspired or absolutely contrived.) In a Paris Review interview, Fagles speaks of his intent to convey the “gravitas, the weight and majesty” of the Iliad (Storace 157). Yet the result is often a ponderous, stagy diction that leaves Homer’s people sounding mightily ill at ease in English.

Consider Priam’s words to Achilles in Iliad 24, which Fagles says took great effort to translate:

I have endured what no one on earth has ever done before —
I put to my lips the hands of the man who killed my son. (590-91)

The first line ends oddly; one would expect endured not done, and before seems superfluous. The second line though is downright clunky: the ungainly music of “I put to my lips the hands of the man” makes the line sound like translationese, something from an awkwardly-rendered libretto or a badly-subtitled film. Stanley Lombardo’s translation of these lines, graceful and plainspoken, is just one example of the marked differences between his Homer and Fagles’:

                                 I have borne what no man
Who has walked this earth has ever yet borne.
I have kissed the hand of the man who killed my son. (541-43)

When Fagles aims for a less exalted tone, he also falters. Consider a line from Odyssey 10, when Odysseus takes on the responsibility of investigating the fate of his men in Circe’s house. In Fagles’ translation, Odysseus announces, “I must be off. Necessity drives me on” (301). The breezy first sentence might be spoken by someone leaving a coffeeshop, but it’s followed by pompous self-dramatization, a clash of tones made worse by the dissonance of off and on. (Which is it, Odysseus? Are you off or on?) Lombardo’s translation of Odysseus’ words departs from the literal sense of the Greek (which involves anankê, constraint, force, necessity) but gives us something that a man of war in an urgent situation might plausibly say: “I’m going, though. We’re in a really tight spot” (293).[2] Anachronism, Lombardo suggests in the preface to his Iliad, is “the condition for taking the great poem into its own future” (xiv). That future now includes Lombardo’s readings of his Iliad and Odyssey, 15 and 12.25 hours in length. These are unique performance endeavors, the only complete recordings of the poems in English by one reader, a reader who also happens to be their translator.[3]

Lombardo’s strengths as a performer are several. His readings establish an intimate setting: one imagines not a spotlit figure in a darkened auditorium but a poet seated among a small group of listeners. Within that imaginary space, Lombardo’s Iliad offers a virtuoso performance of voices and tones: Agamemnon’s self-pitying, tyrannical blindness (“I’m not going to be the only Greek without a prize” [1.127]); Hector’s exasperation with his playboy brother (“Paris, you desperate, womanizing pretty boy!” [3.45]); Nestor’s long-winded wisdom (“No one will have a better idea / Than I have now, nor has anyone ever” [9.108-9]); Ajax’s earnest bluntness (“Show some generosity / And some respect” [9.662-63]). The rage of Achilles is here in all its explosive indignation: his fourth speech in book 1 and his rambling, barely coherent reply to Odysseus in book 9 are especially startling in their fury. Lombardo’s Zeus speaks with a sleek brutality, sorting out who lives and who dies; Hera is a sardonic matron, undercutting her brother-husband at every opportunity: “Oh my. The awesome son of Cronus has spoken” (1.584). The words of Trojan women, Hector’s mother Hecuba and his wife Andromache, carry great poignancy in Lombardo’s performance: war may be “the work of men,” as Hector says (6.517), but Homer has a particular awareness of the grief that it brings to wives and mothers. As Andromache, whose father and brothers were killed by Achilles and whose mother died shortly thereafter, tells Hector: “you are my father, you are my mother, / You are my brother and my blossoming husband” (6.451-52). Gathering all these voices is the voice of the poet himself, a witness to the suffering of battle for all involved:

It was glorious to see — if your heart were iron,
And you could keep from grieving at all the pain (13.355-56).

The scope of Lombardo’s accomplishment as a reader becomes clear when one moves to his Odyssey: it’s as if one is hearing another voice. The Iliad begins with wide-open spaces and public speaking; in the Odyssey, all is intimate and domestic. Only a hundred-odd lines of the poem go by before we enter an oikos (household); bread, meat, and wine are served; and Athena and Telemachus begin to talk. Lombardo’s performance honors the contours of this new world: his voice is less urgent, more mellow, and often marked by a quiet, dry wit. Telemachus is every adolescent at a loss for words: “How should I go up to him, Mentor, /And what should I say? I’m not used / To making clever speeches” (3.23-25). Calypso gamely flaunts, to no avail, her self-claimed superiority to Penelope: “I don’t mind saying she’s not my equal / In beauty, no matter how you measure it” (5.211-12). Running into trouble from Poseidon on the journey to the land of the Phaeacians, Odysseus sounds a bit like Roger Thornhill, the reluctant action hero of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest: “Not this. Not another treacherous god / Scheming against me” (5.358-59).[4] Polyphemus is the paragon of drunken vulgarity: “Be a pal and give me another drink” (9.352). Alcinous, king of the Phaeacians, is the hollow aesthete for whom Odysseus’ painful story is nothing more than an entertainment: “Sit in our hall and tell us of your woes / For as long as you can bear. I could listen until dawn” (11.385-86). Odysseus’ grandfather Autolycus sounds like a cantankerous oldster: “I come here as one who is odious, yes, / Hateful to many for the pain I have caused” (19.445-46). And Lombardo beautifully suggests Athena’s effort not to be exasperated by her charming, skeptical mortal: “Let it go, Odysseus. Some people trust / Their puny human friends more than you trust me” (20.49-50).

Book 19 may be the high point of this performance, the semi-private conversation between Odysseus (disguised as a beggar) and Penelope in which — it seems — he tries to let her know who he is and she — it seems — lets him know that she knows. There is a considerable range of opinion among classicists as to what in fact happens in book 19; Lombardo is among those who see in this episode a complex performance of Odysseus and Penelope’s homophrosunê, their likemindedness, strongly suggested by their thoughtfulness and attention as they speak and listen, Odysseus always with his mind teeming, Penelope always watching him carefully.[5] Lombardo’s reading of Penelope’s command to Eurycleia — “Eurycleia, rise and wash your master’s — that is, / Wash the feet of this man who is your master’s age” (388-89) — is perfectly measured; it’s impossible to tell whether Penelope’s pause marks an unconscious slip or a calculated mistake made for her partner’s benefit. There is nothing showy or overtly dramatic in Lombardo’s handling of this episode, but for anyone who (like Odysseus and Penelope) is really listening, it’s an immensely rewarding Homeric moment.

I have been reading and teaching the Iliad and the Odyssey in Lombardo’s translations for several years, and I’m delighted by the ways in which listening to these readings allows nuances of the poems to register. I’ll cite just two such instances. In Iliad 2, Lombardo’s rendering of Zeus’ directive to the dream sent to deceive Agamemnon — “‘Go, deadly Dream’” (12) — immediately revealed its sinister (and now unmistakable) echo of Edmund Waller’s “Go, lovely rose.” (Why hadn’t I heard it before?) And in Odyssey 14, the details of the swineherd Eumaeus’ first appearance in the poem have become newly interesting to me. When we first see Eumaeus, he is “fitting sandals to his feet, / Cutting the tanned leather to size” (26-27). These lines follow a description of the fence and twelve sties that Eumaeus has built to hold Odysseus’ swine. Thus every detail associates the swineherd with measuring and ordering. Homer also mentions in passing that Eumaeus “could have commanded a platoon in war” (25), hinting at the swineherd’s role as a pseudo-Odysseus: as we soon learn, Eumaeus is the displaced child of a king and queen; Laertes and Anticleia raised him with Odysseus’ sister Ctimene; and in book 16, Telemachus calls him atta (a term of endearment for elders, analogous to father or uncle). But there’s more: Eumaeus’ first appearance foreshadows Laertes’ first appearance in book 24. Laertes too is doing humble work — spading a plant — when we first see him, and he too is associated with ordering, as Odysseus recounts the numbers of trees in orchard rows that his father gave him many years before.

My noticings make me wonder about the ways in which ancient audiences must have anticipated and found renewed pleasure in passages cherished over years of traveling through the poems in performance — the elegiac scene of vintage on Achilles’ shield in Iliad 18, for instance, or the simile in Odyssey 21 that likens Odysseus stringing his bow to a musician stringing a harp. When Odysseus plucks the string, an ancient poet no doubt heightened the audience’s response by sounding a string on his harp, becoming, in yet another way, a voice in his poem. Homer, in so many ways, makes us hearers.

A note on production: These recordings are beautifully edited, and the discs are well-protected in cardboard pockets (the packaging is far better than that of some boxed-sets from major music labels). A brief synopsis read by Susan Sarandon precedes each episode as a separate track. Each episode begins and ends with a brief piece of modal music (a single piece for each poem); as one moves through the poems, these musical passages take on a surprising emotional weight when they return beneath the final lines of episodes. Less welcome to my ears is the ambient music under each of Homer’s similes. As Lombardo explains in the preface to his Iliad, he regards Homer’s similes as possessing “a poetic life of their own” (x): he pauses before and after them in performance, and they are indented and italicized on the page. The music is an ingenious way to highlight this aspect of Homer’s poetry, but pauses could have served as well.


[1] Unless otherwise indicated, quotations of Homer’s poetry are from Stanley Lombardo’s translations.

[2] It seems no more than a coincidence that “a tight spot” turns up in the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?, another vernacular reinvention of Homer’s poetry. Trapped in a burning barn, Ulysses Everett McGill says “Damn! We’re in a tight spot!” four times. Lombardo’s Odyssey was published in March 2000; O Brother, Where Art Thou? premiered in May 2000.

[3] Ennis Rees and Robert Fitzgerald are, to my knowledge, the only other translators of the Iliad and the Odyssey on record. Rees recorded excerpts from his translations on two LPs for the Spoken Arts label (1960); Fitzgerald recorded Iliad excerpts on two LPs for the Yale Series of Recorded Poets (1974). For those who can hear in Greek, Stephen G. Daitz has recorded the Iliad (1990-92) and the Odyssey (1995-98) in “restored pronunciation” for J. Norton, available from Audio-Forum.

[4] A Odysseus-Thornhill connection may be more than coincidence: Thornhill too gets help on his journey, from “The Professor” and Eve Kendall, whose character combines elements of Athena, Circe, the Sirens, and Penelope. The Professor has Thornhill’s would-be killer Leonard killed by a rifle-shot from above. And Thornhill is, like Odysseus in Polyphemus’ cave, Nobody. His middle initial O, he says, stands for “Nothing.”

[5] In an interview, Lombardo says that “Homophrosunê in the Odyssey is key. The poem can be seen as the development of homophrosunê between Odysseus and the women whom he encounters. . . . I can imagine Homer performing Book 19 and having complete mastery over the audience. They’re leaning forward — are Odysseus and Penelope going to get to overt recognition? Because clearly they’re there. But they don’t, and Homer must have loved it” (Leddy).

Works Cited

Fagles, Robert, trans. The Iliad. New York: Penguin, 1990.

——— , trans. The Iliad (abridged). 6 cassettes. Read by Derek Jacobi. St. Paul: Penguin-Highbridge, 1992.

——— , trans. The Odyssey. New York: Penguin, 1996.

——— , trans. The Odyssey. 12 cassettes. Read by Ian McKellen. New York: Penguin Audiobooks, 1996.

Graham, Elyse. “Fagles Brings Aeneas into Modern World.” Daily Princetonian. 24 Feb. 2005.

Kenner, Hugh. A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.

Leddy, Michael. “Michael Leddy Interviews Stanley Lombardo.” Jacket 21 (2003).

Lombardo, Stanley, trans. Iliad. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997.

——— , trans. Odyssey. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2000.

Storace, Patricia. “Robert Fagles: The Art of Translation.” [Interview.] Paris Review (151) 1999: 142-164.

Michael Leddy

Michael Leddy

Michael Leddy has published widely as a poet and critic. His essay “Four or Five Hectors,” on four translations of one line from the Iliad, recently appeared in Agora at His review of Simon Pettet’s More Winnowed Fragments appeared in Jacket 29. He blogs at