10 May 2007

Poetry vs. Prose: Reading The Iliad

I've been rereading The Iliad. It's one of my Reread Once A Year Books. My translation is by Robert Fagles and while satisfactory, I find myself longing for the Shakespearean overtones of a more poetic interpretation. At least I thought I did. After poking about on the Internet, I found the verse versions translated by Alexander Pope and Ian Johnson, and the prose interpretation by Samuel Butler.

What's the difference? I think I bring different expectations to a poetry work than I do a prose work. It's not just that poetry doesn't fill the page, it's that poetry seems to depend on a richer imagery than a prose work. Poetry compresses thoughts to a narrower focus (perhaps that expectation thing) and the prose has a more leisurely build up. Every sound, every word in poetry is calculated for effect (or should be). I'm not as aware of this when I write fiction as when I write poetry. When I write poetic verse the emotion of the piece is paramount, not so much when I write novels or stories.

Poetry is a souped-up Mustang driving past the police station with one tail light out. Prose is a Cadillac on the Interstate headed for a nearby town. At least that's how it seems to me. Although I love reading Shakespeare, some days the overly flowery language is just one more thing I don't want to wade through. I also don't care for modern day four-letter-word fests in my reading. So where does that leave me? Buying multiple translations of The Iliad. Because I don't own enough books, especially multiple copies of the same one.

Each translation offers a different interpretation of events. While essentially the same, they offer enough variation for a word fanatic to feast on for many a thought. Hence the once a year reread. It's the same with poetry, by giving myself distance from the work, I find new understanding as my experiences throughout the year color my interpretation. I'll be rereading the same book the rest of my life, an alternatively cool and scary prospect.

(Verse Form)
The Iliad, Book I
Translated by Alexander Pope

Achilles' wrath, to Greece the direful spring
Of woes unnumber'd, heavenly goddess, sing!
That wrath which hurl'd 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.(41)
Since great Achilles and Atrides strove,
Such was the sovereign doom, and such the will of Jove!(42)

(Verse Form)
The Iliad, Book I
Translation by Ian Johnston:

Sing, Goddess, sing of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus—
that murderous anger which condemned Achaeans
to countless agonies and threw many warrior souls
deep into Hades, leaving their dead bodies
carrion food for dogs and birds—
all in fulfillment of the will of Zeus.

(Prose Form)
The Iliad, Book I
Translated by Samuel Butler

Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that
brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did
it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a
prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove
fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men,
and great Achilles, first fell out with one another.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

good points and the details are more specific than elsewhere, thanks.

- Murk