Professors Monthly is a new monthly column on the official Southern Virginia University blog. Each month’s guest post will be provided by a Southern Virginia professor on a topic of their choice. This month, Dr. Scott A. Dransfield, professor of English and director of university writing, analyzes the text of “The Iliad” as translated by Robert Fagles and in relation to English poetic vernacular.
Beauty, Terrible Beauty
Those of you who have taken Classics of Western Literature, which features that great epic, “The Iliad,” by Homer, may have run up against what seems the irrationality of the Trojan War as presented in the poem: 10 years of grueling and violent war, fueled by testosterone-crazed notions of honor, all over the possession of the beautiful woman, Helen. How could one woman possibly be worth the death, destruction, and mayhem, you may ask. Well, the Trojans and Greeks also asked this question, and their conclusion is a bit surprising, though it has everything to do with the imaginative logic of “The Iliad.”
And catching sight of Helen moving along the ramparts,
they murmured one to another, gentle, winged words:
‘Who on earth could blame them? Ah, no wonder
the men of Troy and Argives under arms have suffered
years of agony all for her, for such a woman.
Beauty, terrible beauty!’
“Terrible beauty” has always struck me as a striking paradox and, as a very economic phrase, captures the essence of the epic. Perhaps we also see a “terrible beauty” embodied in the notion of kleos: a glory achieved through the ultimate strife of warfare. After all, heroic deeds become the beauty of poetry. But did Homer write these exact words, “terrible beauty”? Let us remember we are reading in translation: Robert Fagles uses this expression in the translation that we read, but, after a bit of investigation of the Greek text, it really doesn’t appear this way in the ancient Greek language.
Flash forward several millennia and some centuries: It’s now the early twentieth century and Irish nationals are fighting bitterly for their independence from British rule. We don’t see so much organized military operations as much as daring and devoted individuals taking up the cause by leading insurrections. A sensitive and idealistic poet named William Butler Yeats, an Irish nationalist himself (though without the revolutionary fervor), witnesses the great Easter Uprising of 1916, and while he is shocked by the violence, he can’t help but be moved by these heroic efforts. He watches as the rebellion is suppressed; the leaders of the insurrection are all court-martialed and executed, and Yeats’s response is to write one of his best poems, “Easter 1916.” In the poem he celebrates the lives of the revolutionaries and their impact on the whole movement for independence, which, six years later, was successful. But something has happened in the meantime. Even though the Easter rebellion was squashed, there is a palpable transformation: the “casual comedy” of Ireland has been
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
And, like “The Iliad,” there is a beautiful woman inspiring, indeed taking part in, these events: Maud Gonne, a revolutionary as violent as the rest of them, some say a terrorist, whom Yeats pined for throughout his life. She was his Helen, and he wrote many poems about this Helen whose beauty was equal to her force.
1990: Robert Fagles’ translation of “The Iliad” is published to overwhelming acclaim. It has become the preferred translation for “modern Greekless readers,” as one reviewer puts it, and has supplied countless classrooms, like those at Southern Virginia, with a text of the poem that is vibrant and alive. How is it that this translation of the ancient poem succeeds with young, 21st-century readers, for whom the ancient world can seem remote and foreign? It is quite clear that Fagles meets the challenge of translation by drawing upon the cultural resources of his own English poetic vernacular, a language that has developed through succeeding generations of poets who have contributed to a tradition that still nonetheless connects to Homer. If Yeats is an influential figure in this ongoing, developing tradition (and he is), how can we approach Homer untouched by the modern poet’s influence? In other words, how can we envision the “terrible beauty” of Helen without experiencing, even indirectly, something of Yeats’s “Helen”? Fagles clearly sees an opportunity in taking from this vibrant resource and thus quotes a modern poet in the project of translating an ancient one. It is a beautiful collaboration of generations.
(Post by Dr. Scott A. Dransfield. Based on an essay to be published in a forthcoming issue of “Philological Quarterly.”)