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The Iliad and Odyssey of Homer (review)
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Reviewed by
Alexander Pope, The Iliad and Odyssey of Homer, 2 volumes, intro. Steven Shankman, illus. Avery Lawrence. Chestertown, Maryland and New Castle, Delaware: Chester River Press and Oak Knoll, 2009. Pp. xxii + 599, 434. 52 illustrations. $350.

Neither Homer nor Pope nor Cortez comes to mind when first looking into this fine-press edition, but rather Shakespeare’s King Lear: “O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars / Are in the poorest thing superfluous. / Allow not nature more than nature needs, / Man’s life is cheap as beast’s.” If one wants to read Homer, there are more faithful or more modern translations; if one wants to read Pope’s Homer (keeping in mind Johnson’s evaluation: “a performance which no nation could hope to equal”), the Twickenham edition more than suffices (it does not have facing Greek, but it does have all Pope’s annotations, indispensable for the scholar, along with some fine illustrative materials). There are also several solid paperback editions from Penguin Books. Indeed, the present edition is uncomfortable, its weighty folio volumes (12.5 × 14.5 inches) being too heavy to hold comfortably in one’s hands or lap. They must be read at a table.

I begin thus because the reviewer’s task for these volumes is certainly not to weigh the value of Homer nor of Pope’s translation of him. It also seems unnecessary to evaluate the splendid brief introduction by Mr. Shankman, our leading scholarly expert on Pope’s Homer; one does not recommend this expensive edition based on his contribution to it. The same is true, for this reviewer at any rate, of the Avery Lawrence illustrations, primarily imitations of Greek pottery artists, ranging from the sixth to the third century BCE, and some statuary in the Hellenistic Baroque style. To quote the publication announcement: “More than 50 color drawings [in black, orange, and white] in Greek vase styles. . . . Every drawing portrays a specific scene from each of the forty-eight books making up the Iliad and Odyssey, with smaller medallions adorning pages throughout.” Mr. Lawrence’s work is elegant, at times inspired and inspiring, but the art market will determine its worth. For Scriblerian readers, the value of the project must lie elsewhere.

To complete a physical description of this edition: it is handsomely bound in black Dutch cloth, with heavy black stock [End Page 73] end papers, glossy black and orange dust jackets, with the Greek titles writ large on the spines. The paper is of substantial weight, the full-page illustrations on even heavier stock; the Greek text is printed on facing pages with Pope’s translation. One might wish for a colophon describing the typeface and specifications of paper used, but an informed collector does not require it—only an ignorant reviewer.

Keeping in mind the Scriblerian mantra to reviewers that “description is not evaluation,” what then is the task of the reviewer in evaluating this edition? To my mind, it raises several fundamental and painful questions, epitomized in the quotation from King Lear with which I began. For an overwhelming portion of the population, this work is irrelevant and meaningless, and hence unneeded: they read neither Homer nor Pope. In my university of 50,000 students, perhaps forty every year read something by Pope—and now that the English department has lost its last eighteenth-century professor to emeritus status, that number will probably shrink to none; we do have a Greek department, with perhaps a dozen majors; I doubt if Homer is taught in translation, except perhaps in excerpts in a humanities course—he is, after all, rather long-winded for our very busy students.

We live, without doubt, in a nonliterary age, and the few signs of life—the popularity of Jane Austen (a tribute to film versions) or Emily Dickinson (a tribute to brevity)—seem merely false symptoms of recovery even while the disease spreads. Even for the few nonprofessionals with an interest in literature, Pope’s translations would be very far down on their reading lists, if they appear at all. The remaining audience (remember, art lovers have already been accounted for) are those who read eighteenth-century literature...