#Reviewing The Odyssey

The Odyssey. Homer, translated. by Emily Wilson. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company, 2018.

What do you do when you come home from war after twenty years? When the Greek warrior-king Odysseus strides through his own gate after twenty years’ absence, he is in disguise as a homeless wanderer, his life in danger from dozens of men who seek to marry his wife. He has had time for a hurried reunion with his son, but not his wife or father. In this precarious moment, the poet Homer stages a poignant encounter, one of the quiet emotional climaxes characteristic of his second great epic poem:

Argos, the dog that lay there, raised his head
and ears. Odysseus had trained this dog
but with no benefit—he left too soon
to march on holy Troy.[…]
     [N]ow he lay neglected,
without an owner, in a pile of dung
from mules and cows.[…]
          And when he realized
Odysseus was near, he wagged his tail,
and both his ears dropped back. He was too weak
to move towards his master. At a distance,
Odysseus had noticed, and he wiped
his tears away and hid them easily. (17.291-306)

This veteran’s reunion with his dog is not quite the heartwarming scene we might expect. For in a seemingly perverse denial, Odysseus refuses to betray his identity by going to his dog. Moments later, Argos dies: “Twenty years / had passed since Argos saw Odysseus, / and now he saw him for the final time— / then suddenly, black death took hold of him” (17.325-28). Cold strategy, not warm emotion, guides this warrior. While the dog dies happy, the master contents himself with hiding his tears.

The Odyssey, a sprawling epic poem that is also the first and most gripping adventure story in Western culture, is indelibly marked by its hero’s seemingly infinite capacity to muzzle eruptions of his inner life. As the most brilliant general of the ten-year Trojan War (itself recounted in Homer’s other great poem, The Iliad) wends his ten-year journey home, he and his crew encounter gods and goddesses, monsters and ghosts, succor and cruelty. Eventually, through their own foolhardiness, Odysseus’ men are lost, and the hero himself returns home only to find a mob of murderous suitors vying for his wife Penelope’s hand in marriage. With the help of his patron goddess, Athena, Odysseus slaughters each and every one of the suitors. Peace eventually prevails, but only after war has made itself felt at home.

As Odysseus navigates these complex currents, emotions of surpassing intensity repeatedly burst into the narrative only to be almost immediately hidden or denied. This is in part a technique to drive the larger narrative: across the 24 books of The Odyssey, each several hundred lines long, the poem builds tension with an almost excruciating lack of release. Only in Book 22, when Odysseus finally strikes against the suitors, does the tension explode in a huge climax. It is a cunningly constructed plot.

But there is more to it than that. The wily title character may display an uncanny facility in suppressing his feelings—what we would now call compartmentalizing—but his emotion is always deeply felt before it is suppressed. This peculiar rhythm of pang and denial, like a muffled heartbeat, generates a distinctive psychological tension in the poem. It is an acknowledgment that, however thrilling Odysseus’ adventures may be, they exact a personal cost, an emotional burden that only grows as the hero gets closer to home. Homecoming for this veteran is no easy thing.

This peculiar rhythm of pang and denial, like a muffled heartbeat, generates a distinctive psychological tension in the poem.

It is one of the signal achievements of Emily Wilson’s absorbing new verse translation of The Odyssey that it captures the text’s subtle tension between suppression and release even as it lucidly brings Homer’s sweeping vision before the contemporary reader. Wilson takes her place in a long line of English-language translators reaching back to George Chapman, who published a heroic rendering of The Odyssey in 1616. Dozens of versions have followed through the centuries, some in verse, others in prose. Among recent verse translations, most notable are those of Robert Fitzgerald (1961), Richmond Lattimore (1967), Robert Fagles (1996), and (slightly less well known) Stanley Lombardo (2000). Each is a brilliant achievement that has drawn generations of readers into the pleasures and challenges of Homeric poetry.

Why another Odyssey, and why now?

One answer is that The Odyssey is always in some danger of being overshadowed by its companion poem, The Iliad. Modern scholars are no longer sure whether both poems were in fact written by a single historical figure, “Homer.” What we can be reasonably confident of is that both works originate from the 8th century B.C.E. and that they were the products of an oral culture of storytelling. What is in least doubt is that both poems have exerted a profound influence on Western literature and culture. Even now, many Americans know the titles of both poems—and if they know anything about the stories each poem tells, they probably know that The Iliad is a story of war.

In fact the two poems propose two different ways for understanding war and human experience more generally: The Iliad centers on violent conflict itself, The Odyssey on wide-ranging adventure. The tale of the Trojan War often seems more relevant to a modern world torn apart by world war. But I often wonder if The Odyssey isn’t the more influential text. It’s a story about the countervailing pain and pleasure of struggling against the unknown in quest of home. With its hero of the mind and his hard-won return, it offers a world marked by violence but nonetheless open to beauty and the possibility of peace.

In this sense, a new translation of The Odyssey helps us to reconsider a poem sometimes treated more as escapism than serious fare. But why should we read this new Odyssey in particular? As Wilson promises in her “Translator’s Note,” this Odyssey is meant to be read here and now—a translation seeking not to convey a false sense of ancient poetry through simulated archaisms and inflated language, but rather to bring contemporary readers into visceral contact with Homer through a vivid, clear, readable style.

If plain-spoken, swift poetry is Wilson’s goal, she amply succeeds. The clarity and momentum of her verse will appeal to new readers and revitalize the poem for those who have journeyed through it many times.

A quick comparison with another leading translation will help demonstrate Wilson’s technique. Here is Robert Fagles at the opening of Book 3, when a ship pulls into a harbor at dawn:     

As the sun sprang up, leaving the brilliant waters in its wake,
climbing the bronze sky to shower light on immortal gods
and mortal men across the plowlands ripe with grain—
the ship pulled into Pylos, Neleus’ storied citadel. (3.1-4)

The scene unfolds in luxuriant and stately long lines of variable length. Our ship arrives in grand style, tacking this way and that. Here, by contrast, is Wilson at the same moment:

Leaving the Ocean’s streams, the Sun leapt up
into the sky of bronze, to shine his light
for gods and mortals on the fertile earth.
Telemachus arrived in Pylos. (3.1-4)

"Odysseus Returns Chryseis to Her Father" by Clause Lorrain (Wikimedia)

The sun is not the only thing that leaps. This is swift verse, its iambic pentameter lines snapping like a whip. Yet the swiftness does not come at the cost of detail. Wilson captures what Fagles captures, even if she prefers the identity of the sailor, Odysseus’ son Telemachus, to Fagles’ image of his ship. Nor are Wilson’s lines unpoetic: the sun leaps from one line to the next. The decisive clarity of the phrasing only enhances the effect.

Yet Stanley Lombardo achieves a strikingly similar plainness and clarity:

The sun rose from the still, beautiful water
Into the bronze sky, to shine upon the gods
And upon men who die on the life-giving earth.

The ship came to Pylos, Nestor’s great city. (3.1-4)

Lombardo is just as direct and plainspoken as Wilson, but his phrasing is rather more natural, his imagery more graceful. Still, Wilson’s crisp meter propels the reader forward in a way Lombardo’s more relaxed lines do not.

Elsewhere, Wilson’s quest for snappy readability can lead to the odd clunky or unidiomatic phrase. Perhaps the worst offense comes when Wilson’s Odysseus describes languishing on a raft: “I could not do my exercise routine,” he declares to the Phaeacian court (8.234). Small wonder that in response to this jarringly unpoetic nod to modern colloquialism, “The crowd was silent” (8.235).

This example suggests the extent to which Wilson is willing to court the casual in order to promote the contemporary style she desires. Yet plain contemporary English need not be casual. If her masterly overall achievement is never in doubt, Wilson’s Odyssey can at times lapse into a simplified if not simplistic idiom that risks momentarily diminishing a sense of Homer’s complexity.

However human his longing for return, Odysseus’ relentless refusal to give way to his emotions can lead to behavior that is unfeeling if not outright cruel. He initially confides only in his son Telemachus and, disguised as a homeless beggar, listens with a stony face while his wife voices deep sorrow at her husband’s long absence. Only after slaughtering the suitors does the warrior finally reveal himself to his own wife. But Penelope, understandably, is not quite ready to accept him back. With a wary pragmatism as steely as her husband’s own, she quizzes him about private details from their past life before finally embracing him.

Penelope is right to be wary. Odysseus has left the war behind, but in some ways the war refuses to leave him behind. The very final pages of The Odyssey threaten an ongoing cycle of violence, as the relatives of the slaughtered suitors attack Odysseus. By divine intervention a peace is at last made, but the chaotic violence of war has made itself felt at home. Is The Odyssey doomed to repeat The Iliad?

So deeply does its narrative engage with the complexities of delayed homecoming, it is tempting to regard The Odyssey less as a fantastic myth than as a vivid exploration of what it means for a veteran to come home. Yet a purely psychologizing account threatens to rob the narrative of its peculiar, lingering magic. Ultimately, The Odyssey is not The Iliad—nor is it a contemporary meditation on a veteran’s reintegration. For all its deep concern with the challenge of coming home, this is also a poem of unrestrained wonder:

There sat Calypso with her braided curls.
Beside the hearth a mighty fire was burning.
The scent of citrus and of brittle pine
suffused the island. Inside, she was singing
and weaving with a shuttle made of gold.
Her voice was beautiful. Around the cave
a luscious forest flourished: alder, poplar,
and scented cypress. It was full of wings.
Birds nested there but hunted out at sea:
the owls, the hawks, the gulls with gaping beaks.
A ripe and luscious vine, hung thick with grapes,
was stretched to coil around her cave. Four springs
spurted with sparkling water as they laced
with crisscross currents intertwined together.
The meadow softly bloomed with celery
and violets. He gazed around in wonder
and joy, at sights to please even a god. (5.58-74)

"Hermes Ordering Calypso to Release Odysseus" by Gerard de Lairesse (Wikimedia)

“He,” here, is a god—Hermes, the messenger god. Even he is dazzled, Homer tells us, at the scene before him, the island home of the nymph Calypso, where Odysseus has been waylaid. This is a domain at once natural and artificial, and its beguiling beauty lies in an intertwining of things growing and things made. While Odysseus longs to escape the island’s seductive delights, the poem unabashedly lays its sensuous splendor before the reader, inviting us to pause on the arduous and violent journey home. Here, in the service of unexpected wonder, all the virtues of Wilson’s translation make themselves felt: crisp forward motion, lively lines, vivid diction, a sense of action even though no action is occurring. The style is as clear as the sparkling water that crisscrosses Calypso’s paradisal island.

Ultimately, Wilson’s pellucid clarity—whatever its sacrifices for a certain casualness of style—opens a fresh window onto the richly imagined world of The Odyssey. What we see is a poem of extreme contrasts: neither an escapist fantasy nor a brief on post-traumatic stress, it is a blend of the mythical and the real, the beautiful and the gruesome, war and peace—one of Western culture’s great originals. Wilson’s compelling new translation will not replace Fitzgerald, Lattimore, Fagles, or Lombardo on my shelf, but it will certainly stand beside them, renewing contemporary readers’ engagement with a subtle masterpiece of ancient Greek epic.

Seth Herbst is assistant professor of English at the United States Military Academy (West Point), where he teaches electives on Shakespeare and poetry as well as introductory courses in literature and composition. He studies the English Renaissance and is currently at work on a book about the poet John Milton and his interest in music. The views expressed are the author's alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Military Academy, the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: The test of the great bow from The Odyssey.

Other Editions Cited

  • Homer. Odyssey. Translated by Stanley Lombardo. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2000.
  • Homer. The Odyssey of Homer. Translated by Richmond Lattimore. Harper & Row, 1967.
  • Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles. Penguin Classics, 1996.
  • Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fitzgerald. Doubleday & Company, 1961.