Robert Fagles, the iconic 40-year Princeton professor whose historic translations of Homer and Virgil enjoyed unprecedented commercial and cultural success in the 1990s and 2000s, died on March 26th following a long struggle with cancer.
Fagles was not, strictly speaking, a classicist. He completed his PhD in English at Yale in 1959, though at a time when English more closely resembled Classics as it’s practiced at Princeton today than the colorful bricolage of sex-weaned theoretical approaches that has defined the field for the last thirty years. His dissertation was on “the Augustan Odyssey.”
After a year of teaching at Yale, he joined the Princeton faculty in 1961 as a lecturer in English. Had it not been for a feud with a long-ago Department chair, he might never have had to settle for founding Princeton’s Comparative Literature Program (and later Department), a field sufficiently incipient and indefinite that he was allowed to devote himself fully to teaching and translation while colleagues in English created editions of Spenser and minute commentaries on Chaucer.
His first translation project is surprising from our perspective: a slender yet sumptuous 1961 volume of the complete odes of Bacchylides, the splendid lyric father whose verse was known to post-classical readers only by hearsay until a papyrus was pulled from the sands of Upper Egypt in 1896.
The classics can be processed, very broadly, through two epistemological frameworks. The first sees a mass of fragments, infinitely open-ended indicators of an irrevocably lost heritage. For a translator, this conception of his text can reveal stunningly original poetic and linguistic potentialities, but can also lead to an exorbitant fetishization of an aesthetics of incompletion. Bacchylides, the constant object of reconstruction efforts, lends himself naturally to this aesthetic, yet it is with the other framework, the epic one, that we have learned to associate Fagles. This one takes the vestiges of Antiquity to be scanty but definitive, sufficient to reconstruct a heroic worldview and glean the “spirit of an age.” The Bacchylides translation was followed in 1975 by Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy, first performed at McCarter, and Sophocles’ Theban Cycle in 1982. After these smaller triplets, he went on to his stately, celebrated triptych of Iliad (1990), Odyssey (1996) and Aeneid (2006).
But the memory of Bacchylides (and of New Criticism) sounds a bold and defining strain in Fagles’s later, definitive work. He was no domesticating Pope or Fitzgerald, inviting Homer in to read at our neighborhood poetry salon. Individual lines are awkward, anxious, searching, over-interpretive. He often dispenses with the synthetic structure so characteristic of Greek both at the lexical and syntactic level, instead unfolding compound words into full sentences. But piled upon each other, his lines gather a gruff, majestic momentum that ends up recreating something of the pellucid swagger of the epic genre lost to us, and he does this more successfully than any other modern translator. His careful rhythm coupled with his boldness of punctuation, especially the introduction of italics and ellipses, awakens an orality inherent in the structure of Greek missing from all preceding translations.
When I was a sophomore working on a translation of the Hippolytos of Euripides (the one Greek poet Fagles disparaged and refused to touch), Fagles generously advised me on my manuscript. “That’s very good,” he told me. “Now take it apart and put it together in your own sweet way.”
“Girl of the rapid river,/O gentle Aegina,/Grand the honor/Cronion gives you/ In every game;/Light from its beacon/Fires Greece./Your fame excites/A dancer’s praise,/ As arching her neck/Again and again/Those dancing feet/Will prance her high/Off the worshipped ground,/Like a frisky fawn/In the blooming hills.”
– from 13th Nemean Ode, Bacchylides
“Marvels, the Earth breeds many marvels,
terrible marvels overwhelm us.
The heaving arms of the sea embrace and swarm
with savage life. And high in the no man’s land of night
torches hang like swords. The hawk on the wing,
the beast astride the fields
can tell of whirlwind’s fury roaring strong.
Oh but a man’s high daring spirit,
who can account for that? Or woman’s
desperate passion daring past all bounds?”
– Libation Bearers (Oresteia)
“So they fought to the death around that benched beaked ship
and Patroclus reached Achilles, his great commander,
and wept warm tears like a dark spring running down
some desolate rock face, its shading currents flowing.
And the brilliant runner Achilles saw him coming,
filled with pity and spoke out winging words:
‘Why in tears, Patroclus?
Like a girl, a baby running after her mohter,
begging to be picked up, and she tugs her skirts,
holding her back as she tries to hurry off—all tears,
fawning up at her, till she takes her in her arms.
That’s how you look, Patroclus streaming in tears.’”
– Iliad, Book XVI