The Printed Homer: A 3,000 Year Publishing and Translation History of the Iliad and the Odyssey by Philip H. Young
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Printed Homer was spectacular on almost all counts, with only one problem that I’ll mention at the end. This book is a tour de force through the history of printed editions of the Iliad and the Odyssey, as well as providing background and history about the works themselves. There were 5,586 printings of Homer from the Renaissance to the year 2000 CE, and the author goes to great lengths to list them and highlight various translations.
The meat of the book is Part 1, where Young discusses Homer, who or what he was, and theories on how the text was created and passed down through the ages. Part 2 lists all the printed editions from 1470-2000. Part 3 is a set of appendices that break down editions by publisher, city of publication, translator, and when the first edition appeared in vernacular languages. The book is worth its value for the bibliography (part 2) and the cross references (part 3).
Homer was mostly lost in Europe after the fall of Rome. Scholars knew the name and some fuzzy information about the Trojan War, but there were few details. Knowledge of Greek itself was sparse and the texts weren’t translated into Latin until 1444. But, in the Byzantine Empire (formerly the eastern part of the Roman empire), Greek flourished and Homer was studied by scholars and schoolboys for centuries. When refugees fled the collapse of the Byzantine empire in 15th century, they came through Italy and up into Europe, bringing wth them the language of the Greeks and Homer.
When discussing particular translations, Young often focuses on the Iliad’s proem (prelude), which gives the theme of the poem to follow. In the Iliad, Young gives an interlinear translation that is just so cool that I have to quote it:
Menin aeide, thea, Peleiado Achilleos
Wrath sing, O goddess, of Peleus’ son Achilles,
oulomenen, [h]e muri Achaiois alge etheken,
destructive, which to many Achaians pains caused
pollas d’iphthimous psychas Aidi proiapsen
many and brave souls to Hades sent
[h]eroon, autous de [h]eloria teuche kunessin
of heroes, them and prey prepared for dogs
oionoisi te daita– Dios d’eteleieto boule–,
for birds and feasts–of Zeus and was fulfilling will–,
ex [h]ou de ta prota diasteten erisante
from which they first parted contended
Atreides te anax andron kai dios Achilleus
son of Atreus king of men and godlike Achilles.
I also enjoyed the burlesque editions of the 18th century. Some were hilarious, e.g. Thomas Bridge’s from the 18th century. It was so bawdy, that it was cleaned up when it was republished in the Victorian era (1889):
Come, Mrs. Muse, but, if a maid,
Then come Miss Muse, and lend me aid!
Ten thousand jingling verses bring,
That I Achilles’ wrath may sing,
That I may chant in curious fashion
This doughty hero’s boiling passion…
Young constantly points out neat things. For example, almost every single translator of Homer lamented the end of their translation project. They grew attached to the text and felt sad to be finished their work with it. Young tells of the discovery of a lost ancient Greek letter, the digamma, which would have had a “w” sound and was critical for linking words in the text to fit the proper meter and aid in the flow of the text (p. 92). Petrarch, an Italian poet and scholar, was ecstatic upon receiving a copy of Homer in Greek, even though he read no Greek yet. Still, he embraced the volume, hoping to one day “hear” him speak (p. 78).
The one problem I alluded to is the author asking why we should study Homer. He says its trendy to “deride or intentionally ignore” works from the dead white European male curriculum (p. 3). He says he’ll explain why it’s important to read Homer, and even that it’ll be fun, but he never explores why that curriculum has been contested for the last few decades. The rest of Part I lays out an excellent case for studying Homer, and Young even suggests we read not only Homer but novels from outside the Western canon as well. But, at the end, it feels like he backpedals, and his last few pages sound like a tirade against technology and changes in education and Western/American culture.
But, as I said, this book is amazing by being informative, entertaining and an indispensable reference source.