Alexander Pope taught the world that to be inspired by greatness could earn you your own name in history. In addition to his credentials as the third most quoted literary figure by The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, topped only by Shakespeare and Tennyson, and a celebrated poet and essayist, Pope is best known for his translations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. On the translation of the Iliad, Garry Wills of The New York Times writes:
In 1713, when he was only 25 years old, Alexander Pope assumed a momentous risk. Barred by his Roman Catholic religion from the normal apparatus of Government and private patronage, he took subscriptions for a large-scale project that filled his life for the next seven years and established his absolute pre-eminence among the poets of his time. The result was a version of Homer’s ”Iliad” that Samuel Johnson pronounced the greatest translation ever achieved in English or in any other language.
When Pope decided to take on the enormous prospect of translating Homer’s Iliad, he did so in subscriptions, offering one volume of the work each year for six years. Before Pope’s translation, the English translation of the Iliad was available in a long-line ballad metre version by George Chapman in 1958. The original version was praised for its “great rhetorical power,” as it left room for Homer’s figures of speech as well as new ones, while offering explanations in parenthesis throughout the work.
Though the Iliad and the Odyssey were Homer’s works originally, each translation to English creates a poetic work in its own right. Alexander Pope’s translations of the works introduced to the world the heroic couplet, a syntactical form that would become famous for future translations as well as other epics. The Rare Subscribers Issue: First editions of the celebrated translations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey by Alexander Pope fully captures the transition of Homer’s into Pope’s storytelling by his own hand, with pencil annotations and notes throughout.
In his lectures On Translating Homer, Matthew Arnold identifies four essential poetic qualities of Homer which the translator much honor:
[i] that he is eminently rapid; [ii] that he is eminently plain and direct, both in the evolution of his thought and in the expression of it, that is, both in his syntax and in his words; [iii] that he is eminently plain and direct in the substance of his thought, that is, in his matter and ideas; and, finally, [iv] that he is eminently noble.
Alexander Pope’s fascination with Homer’s poetic style carried out into his own writings. He began his own epic work, The Rape of the Lock, in the style of the Odyssey, which was to enter the story in the middle of the plot, or en media res. During his translation of the Odyssey, Pope was assisted by Elijah Fenton and William Broome, which is clearly captured the pencil notes of multiple hands. The subtleties of each tactical decision made within the entire process of Pope’s translations of Homer’s works, in which he ultimately makes them his own, is fabulously highlighted throughout the first editions of these timeless tales.
You can view our rare, first editions of Alexander Pope’s translations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey here.