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by Jerome Weeks 13 Mar 2008

Tracy Lee Simmons reviewed Alberto Manguel’s Homer’s The Iliad and the Odyssey: A Biography Sunday for the the Washington Post. As a biography — that is, a history  — of the epic poems themselves, most of Manguel’s book throws — — a pleasing light on the many ways these poems have come down to us through the […]

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Tracy Lee Simmons reviewed Alberto Manguel’s Homer’s The Iliad and the Odyssey: A Biography Sunday for the the Washington Post.

As a biography — that is, a history  — of the epic poems themselves, most of Manguel’s book throws —

— a pleasing light on the many ways these poems have come down to us through the years. Christians spun them out for their own purposes, Muslims for theirs. … Milton wrote with epic Homeric aspirations. English literature is barely imaginable without Alexander Pope’s translation of the Iliad and its influence on Keats, among others, and certainly the history of the 20th century would have been singularly different had we been deprived of that benchmark of modernism, James Joyce’s Ulysses. This isn’t just a matter of toting up allusions; every writer since the Iliad and the Odyssey were composed belongs to the fraternity of the Homeridae, the descendants of Homer.

One problem with this passage — and I would have brought it up to the WashPost directly except, for some reason, online comments are turned off for this article — Keats was certainly a member of the Homeridae. But he wrote one of his finest sonnets about his excitement “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” (italics added) — not Pope’s Homer.

It was George Chapman’s more vigorous translation from 1616 that excited Keats, not Pope’s heroic-coupleted version, published over the years 1715-1726. Keats, in fact, dismissed the Augustan poets and their verse style, writing, “They rode upon a rocking horse/And called it Pegasus.”

But perhaps Manguel’s book presents a different argument and Simmons is only reflecting that.

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