“The Iliad” Opening Stanza: Poetic Interpretations

"The Wrath of Achilles," Michel Drolling, 1819, Wikipedia photo.
“The Wrath of Achilles,” Michel Drolling, 1819, Wikipedia photo.

On this winter morning when the sea is galing wild and sand is streaking on the beach, I turned to Clark’s copy of The Iliad to explore translations of masters: Wilkinson, Chapman, Pope, and Bryant. This translation comparison relied upon William C. Wilkinson’s 19th century textbook, A Preparatory Greek Course in English, of which I have an original 1887 edition. [1]

According to Wilkinson, the opening stanza of The Iliad has “been much admired for the simplicity, the beauty, and the melody with which they set forth poet’s theme. [2] Influenced by the aforementioned writers, translations have varied in meter and verse, providing more “poetic interpretations” than literal translations, and thus, is the topic of this blog.

Whilst there is no “original” English translation, per se, Thomas Clark provides a near-literal interlinear translation of the opening first stanza:

Sing, O Goddess (Muse), (the) destroying [pernicious] anger, Achilles son-of-Peleus, which placed (caused) innumerable woes to (the) Achæans, but (and) prematurely-sent many brave souls of-heroes to-Oreus, and made them preys to-dogs, and to-all birds-of-prey; but (the) will of-Jove was-being-fulfilled: out-of (from) what (time) indeed – first both (the) son-of-Atreus (the) king of-men and divine Achilles having-contended stood-apart (separated). [3]

In his textbook, Wilkinson, provided his own translation that he described as “though metrical, is strictly, very strictly, faithful to the Greek…”

The anger, goddess, sing of Peleus’ son
Achilles, – anger dire, that on the Greeks
Brought myriad woes, and many mighty souls,
Too soon of heroes unto Hades sent,
And gave themselves a ravin to the dogs
And to all birds of prey – howbeit the will
Of Zeus fulfilled itself – even from the time
That first they two, Atrides, king of men,
And high Achilles, wrangling fell apart. [4]

One of the pioneers of English Homeric translation, George Chapman, poetic interpretation was written in fourteen-syllabled lines, which Wilkinson stated was “full of freedom and fire.” [5]

Achilles’ baneful wrath resound, O Goddess, that imposed, Infinite sorrows on the Greeks, and many a brave soul los’d From breasts heroic; sent them far to that invisible cave That no light comforts; and their limbs to dogs and vultures gave; To all which Jove’s will gave effect; from whom first strife begun Betwixt Atrides, king of men, and Thetis’ godlike son. [6]

Whilst not an interpretation of Homer’s The Iliad, upon reading Chapman’s English translation, John Keats wrote the following sonnet:

“On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer”
Much I have travel’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seem;
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’s Homer rule 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 stared at the Pacific – and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien. [7]

Of note is Alexander Pope’s poetic interpretation of the opening stanza of The Iliad:

Achilles’ wrath, to Greece the direful spring
Of woes unnumber’d, heavenly goddess, sing!
That wrath which hurled to Pluto’s gloomy reign
The souls of mighty chiefs untimely slain;
Whose limbs unburied on the naked shore,
Devouring dogs and hungry vultures tore:
Since great Achilles and Atrides stove,
Such was the sovereign doom, and such the will of Jove! [8]

Popes’ translation concludes with a 12-sylable Alexandrine, which by definition includes a medial cæsura (or pause) between the sixth and seventh syllables.

The poetic translation or interpretation of William Cullen Bryant is as follows:

O Goddess! Sing the wrath of Peleus’ son,
Achilles; sing the deathly wrath that brought
Woes numberless upon the Greeks, and swept
To Hades many a valiant soul, and gave
Their limbs to prey to dogs and birds of air, —
For so had Jove appointed, — from the time
When the two chiefs, Atrides, king of men,
And great Achilles, parted first as foes. [9]

These poetic interpretations tend to include key elements of Clark’s more literal interpretation: goddess, muse, Achilles, innumerable and premature deaths, dogs and birds of prey, and the altercation between Achilles and King Atrides. They are well crafted, rhythmic and stand on their own as fine examples of English interpretations of the opening stanza of Homer’s The Iliad.

Whilst not of caliber of great masters, this brief study concludes with my own poetic interpretation of the opening stanza:

Upon the muse, O! goddess sing of wrath and
Warring woe, Achilles loosed upon Achæans,
Souls of untold fighting heroes killed, prematurely
Lost, their limbs to dogs and birds of prey thus
Given, the will of Jove fulfilled, upon the fates,
Achilles and King Atrides met, and in embattled
Strife such nobles fell apart as foes.

1. Preparatory Greek Course in English, William Cleaver Wilkinson, Revised edition, Chautauqua Press, New York, 1887.

2. Wilkinson, p. 128.

3. The Iliad of Homer with an Interlinear Translation, Thomas Clark, David McKay Company, Inc., New York, 1952, p. 9.

4. Wilkinson, p. 128.

5. Wilkinson, p. 128.

6. The Works of George Chapman, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, George Chapman, Chatto & Windus, London, 1903, online version.

7. “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer,” John Keats, online sources.

8. The Iliad of Homer, Translated by Alexander Pope, with notes by the Rev. Theodore Alois Buckley, An Electronic Classics Series Publication, 2004 -2012.

9. The Iliad of Homer, Translated by William Cullen Bryant, Vol. I, Fields, Osgood, and Co., Boston, 1871, online version.

Social profiles