Poetry Friday: The Original Verse Novel?

When my friend from undergraduate honors English sent this book to me for my birthday, she gave me the out to trade it in for something I really wanted to read. I found out later that it was one of those gifts that you give someone because it’s what YOU want. I assumed she also had a copy and that we’d be reading it together to revisit our freshman year of college. Nope. I was on my own and I decided to go for it.

It’s a hefty volume with an extensive introduction and translator’s note, but when I looked at the table of contents and saw that it contains 24 “books” (or chapters) it occurred to me that I could “eat this elephant one bite at a time.” I divided the introduction/translator’s note into seven chunks and over the course of January, I reread this classic!

If you’ve never read THE ODYSSEY, I highly recommend this translation. The introduction itself is an education (or re-education if it’s been decades since your first read). Wilson prepared me so well for the ins and outs of each of the books that I did not need to skip to the endnotes as I read to clarify the action. (The endnotes contain a one-paragraph summary of each book, along with some clarifying information about characters, lineage, word definitions, and puns woven into the Greek that she attempted to replicate in her translation.)

In the translator’s note, Wilson elaborates on what makes her version different from others. She states, “THE ODYSSEY is a poem, and it needs to have a predictable and distinctive rhythm that can be easily heard when the text is read aloud.” She goes on, “I used iambic pentameter, because it is the conventional meter for regular English narrative verse…”

“Homer’s music is quite different from mine, but my translation sings to its own regular and distinctive beat.”

p.82 THE ODYSSEY by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson

In the translator’s note she also talks about word choice, length (hers has exactly the same number of lines as the original), staying true to the “Homeric style,” dealing with Homer’s repeated epithets, what it means to be a woman translating “a poem that is deeply invested in female fidelity and male dominance,” and her treatment of slavery and sexism…among other things. She states

“Throughout my work on this translation, I have thought hard about my different responsibilities: to the original text; to my readers; to the need to make sense; to the urge to question everything; to fiction, myth, and truth; to the demands of rhythm and the rumble of sound; to the feet that need to step in five carefully trotting paces, and the story that needs to canter on its way. I have been aware, constantly, of gaps and impossibilities in providing escort to Homer from archaic Greece to the contemporary anglophone world, as I have woven, unwoven, and woven up again the fabric of this complex web.”

p.90 THE ODYSSEY by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson

Doesn’t she make you want to read her version? Go for it. Savor it a bit at a time over the course of a month. It will stay with you forever.

Carol has this week’s Poetry Friday roundup.

23 thoughts on “Poetry Friday: The Original Verse Novel?”

  1. It’s been a very long time but I bookmarked it. My library has copies and many holds! I will try to give it a go sometime this year, Mary Lee. I enjoyed your post and Wilson’s words about her journey.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As an avowed verse noveler, this is a salient reminder of the genre’s ancient beginnings. I was reading recently about Homer’s Odyssey, so I thank you for further highlighting this iconic work, Mary Lee. I shall be starting a new reading odyssey…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A little light reading my candlelight, Mary Lee? Impressive! Love the excerpts re. translation you shared. I would never have thought of “The Odyssey” and “iambic pentameter” in the same sentence. Translators are a special breed, and this sounds like a worthy tome to tackle.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This sounds intriguing Mary Lee, thanks for sharing it! In my class this morning in addition to art we were talking about books, as we’re all readers, and one of my students just read the Odyssey this past fall, with the assistance of an online instructor that gave background/info along the way–sounds like what you picked up from Wilson, though I like her perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Never have I ever, more than a bit here and there, but look how serendipitous–a new translation with a woman’s perspective coming at me with YOUR recommendation just as I’m in the middle of the related CLOUD CUCKOOLAND, which I am just fainting with delight over. YES, the original verse novel–you’ve convinced me!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Ooh, interesting. It’s been, um, decades since I read this. And maybe that was only an excerpt, anyway. I really don’t remember. But you’ve sparked an interest. At the moment, picture books are the longest book I can handle, but maybe this summer…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Either “don’t get me started” or “you asked for it!”

      In the introduction I marked this: “Homer is usually described in Greek sources not as a singer (aoidos) or a rhapsode (“song-stitcher”), but as a poet, poetes — a word that means “maker.” ”

      She went on at length on the topic of hospitality, which is a central concept in the story. Both xenia (a word that means both hospitality and friendship) and xenos (which can mean both stranger and friend).

      I won’t find and list them all, but my friend remembers that when we read this as college freshman we made fun of “rosy-fingered Dawn” every time it was repeated. Not so in this translation. I don’t think Wilson ever repeated the way she wrote about sunrise.


  7. Oh, wow – since my undergrad concentration was British and American Lit, I didn’t get into the Odyssey or the Iceland sagas until I was an adult and reading translations just for fun. Reading a confident version which recaptures the poetry of it would be a joyful experience, I would think. I’m genuinely glad to know someone not teaching it enjoyed it.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Yes, she DOES make me want to read her version!
    It’s been a long time since I tackled Homer. I just put it on my wish list. (Now we’ll see when I actually get to it. :)) But you’ve definitely intrigued me.


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