Homer's Iliad in the Modern Age

Ever since Homer’s poems emerged at the beginning of Classical Antiquity, they have remained important touchstones in European literature and philosophy. Although The Odyssey has arguably proven more influential over the centuries, with many translations and retellings, the Iliad has nevertheless managed to sustain much interest throughout the modern period. In particular, The Iliad has an uncommonly rich history of translation into the English language. Alexander Pope completed the first major translation of the poem into English in 1715, and many still consider his rendering unsurpassed. However, there are many other contenders. Translations of The Iliad really began to take off in the nineteenth century when nearly fifty poets and classicists tried their hand at rendering Homer’s verse. Though the twentieth century has not seen quite as many attempts to translate The Iliad, several important translations by the likes of Richmond Lattimore (1951), Robert Graves (1959), Robert Fitzgerald (1974), Robert Fagles (1990), Stephen Mitchell (2011), and, most recently, Caroline Alexander and Peter Green (both 2015) have appeared. If the ongoing industry of translation offers any indication, The Iliad remains alive and well in the modern literary imagination.

In addition to the many translations that have appeared through the centuries, numerous poets and novelists have offered creative retellings of The Iliad. Among the most important poetic reimaginings is Christopher Logue’s long-term project in which he sought to compose a poetic “account” that would retell the events of Homer’s poem in a modernist style. Logue used numerous translations of The Iliad as references while composing a version that emphasized a loose, Imagist style that did away with many of the formal conventions typically associated with Homeric verse. Logue’s poem initially met criticism from classicists when the first installments of the work appeared in 1981, but the project eventually achieved recognition, with Logue receiving the prestigious Whitbread Poetry Award in 2005 for the installment titled Cold Calls. Though not completed before his death in 2011, Logue’s project includes accounts of Books 1–9 and 16–19, all of which were originally published separately and later collected in one volume titled War Music

Despite the significance of Christopher Logue’s work, novelistic retellings have proven much more numerous in the modern age than poetic accounts. Several important fictional retellings have appeared in recent years, starting with Stel Pavlou’s 2005 novel, Gene, a speculative thriller in which a soldier who fought in the Trojan War gets reincarnated seven times, each time being forced into another confrontation with the enemy. Terence Hawkins’s 2009 novel, The Rage of Achilles, retells the events of The Iliad in a realist mode that reflects Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind, which hypothesized that the modern form of consciousness first arose during the Mediterranean Bronze Age. Madeleine Miller’s 2012 novel, The Song of Achilles, retells The Iliad from Patroclus’s point of view, and Miller imagines Patroclus to be Achilles’s lover. Most recently, Pat Barker’s 2018 novel, The Silence of the Girls, offers a retelling from the perspective of the poem’s female characters, particularly Briseis, the woman Achilles won after sacking the city of Mynes and slaying her husband. The compulsion that so many modern writers have felt to reimagine the events of The Iliad from the perspectives of various characters or using speculative storytelling methods demonstrates the enduring importance of the original, Homeric material.