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Chapman's Homeric Hymns and Other Homerica

Chapman's Homeric Hymns and Other Homerica

by Homer, Stephen Scully (Introduction)

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George Chapman's translations of Homer--immortalized by Keats's sonnet-- are the most famous in the English language. Swinburne praised their "romantic and sometimes barbaric grandeur," their "freshness, strength, and inextinguishable fire." And the great critic George Saintsbury wrote, "For more than two centuries they were the resort of all who, unable to read


George Chapman's translations of Homer--immortalized by Keats's sonnet-- are the most famous in the English language. Swinburne praised their "romantic and sometimes barbaric grandeur," their "freshness, strength, and inextinguishable fire." And the great critic George Saintsbury wrote, "For more than two centuries they were the resort of all who, unable to read Greek, wished to know what the Greek was. Chapman is far nearer Homer than any modern translator in any modern language."

This volume presents the original text of Chapman's translation of the Homeric hymns. The hymns, believed to have been written not by Homer himself but by followers who emulated his style, are poems written to the gods and goddesses of the ancient Greek pantheon. The collection, originally titled by Chapman "The Crowne of all Homers Workes," also includes epigrams and poems attributed to Homer and known as "The Lesser Homerica," as well as his famous "The Battle of Frogs and Mice."

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Princeton University Press
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Bollingen Series (General) Series
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With a New afterword by the author
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Chapman's Homeric Hymns and Other Homerica

Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2008
Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-13675-2


Stephen Scully

George Chapman's Renaissance translation of the Homeric Hymns is its first rendering into English. Chapman's efforts stride with robust Shakespearean vigor and are a source of delight even for modern readers, both as poems in our tongue and as lovely stories of the Greek gods. The Hymns are a collection of thirty-three poems celebrating the gods and goddesses of the Greek Pantheon from Mother Earth, the Sun, and Moon to Zeus, his children, and his children's children. Though gathered under Homer's name, they are anonymous compositions, varying in length and excellence, the best having the concentration and splendor of Homer's own achievements. Like all Greek narrative poems, they are composed to entertain and enthrall even as they also reveal and honor a deity's deeds and powers. The many modern translations of these hymns testify to the pleasure they continue to bring both to students of Greek literature and to the general reader.

The Hymns, like the poems of Homer and Hesiod, are epea: epic songs in dactylic hexameter in an artificial poetic dialect. The hybrid collection, consisting of five long poems followed by twenty-nine short ones, vary in length from six hundred lines to just three. Yet, even within suchvariation, most of the poems exhibit a common form: (1) a formulaic opening identifies the god invoked and draws attention to the poem itself as a "beginning"; (2) the middle describes the god's birth or a telling attribute-in brief or at length; (3) a formulaic close bids farewell to the deity and again draws attention to the activity of singing as the composer indicates that he is about to move on to a new song. Often in this context the singer will ask the god to favor him over other poets in a competitive performance. To the best of our knowledge, the form is very old, invoking both a god and the performative nature of the song.

The date of the collection is uncertain. It appears to be late, compiled by scholars at the Library of Alexandria in the second century bce. In all likelihood, the compilers were also the first to attribute the multiple hymns to Homer, although variations in diction, style, and geographical perspective indicate that most of the poems were composed at different times and places on the Asia Minor coast and the Greek mainland roughly between 675 and 450 bce in the Archaic and Classical periods. The earliest extant references to the collection come from two very different authors in the first century bce, the Epicurean teacher of philosophy Philodemus and the historian Diodorus Siculus, both of whom refer to "Homer in the hymns." Even though shared dialect, meter, and certain elements of style, especially in the splendor of the long narratives, might serve to remind later audiences of Homer, there were certainly many in this period who questioned the Homeric authorship of these poems. Such may be inferred from the scant reference to the collection in antiquity, including the surprising absence of any allusion to the Hymns in the ancient commentaries to the Iliad or Odyssey. But if not to Homer, the source of the poems could reasonably have been attributed to the Homeridae (Sons of Homer), a clan or school of rhapsodes in the Archaic and Classical periods who claimed descent from Homer; or, even more appropriately, attributed to Hesiod, Homer's contemporary, who in his Theogony and Catalogue of Women wrote about the gods, their births, attributes, and love affairs.

While the collection itself is late, the genre of these hymns almost certainly dates back to Homer's-and Hesiod's-time. When quoting from what he calls the Hymn to Apollo (with no reference to Homer), Thucydides refers to the song as a prooimion, or prelude (3.104). Plato uses the same term to describe a song that Socrates composes to Apollo while waiting in prison to drink the hemlock (Phaedo 60d). Pindar refers to something of the sort as a "prelude": "Just as the Homeridae, / singers of woven stories, very often / began with a prooimion from Zeus, so this man ..." (Nemean 2.1-3). It was the custom in ancient recitations of long narrative epic about heroes, sometimes called an oimê (literally, a "path" or "poem"), to begin with a short poem to a god, a pro-oimê. One Alexandrian librarian, Crates of Mallos by name, apparently knew of an edition of the Iliad which began with such a hymn: "Of the Muses I sing, and of Apollo, famous for his bow." Evidence from Homer suggests such practices already existed in his time: when in the Odyssey the Phaeacian bard Demodocus "begins from the god" when about to sing the story of the Wooden Horse at Troy (Od. 8.499). If the Homeric Hymns are a residue of that tradition, it is easier to imagine that the shorter hymns in the collection offer a closer approximation of the Archaic "prelude" than do the long poems, even though Thucydides identifies the long Hymn to Apollo as a prooimion. Indeed, it is tempting to see in the five long poems at the beginning of the collection the evolution of an introductory poem into a new literary form. Even if the Homeric Hymns seem to have seen themselves as fulfilling that introductory function, they do not refer to themselves as prooimia. Rather, they call themselves "songs" (aoidai), and their composers "singers" (aoidoi) who "sing" (aeidein), also commonplace terms in Homer and Hesiod for epic singing. On rare occasions, the Homeric Hymns also identify themselves as "hymns" (humnoi), a term used rather vaguely once in Homer to refer to an after-dinner song and also found once in Hesiod. More pointed perhaps is the verb "to hymn" (humnein) [a song in praise of] a god, which is found in Hesiod and often in the Homeric Hymns but never in Homer. It is from the verb that the noun came to specify a song in celebration of a god or goddess.

Even the shortest of the Hymns, a three-liner to Demeter, manages to convey much of the genre's formulaic structure: Of Demeter, golden-haired, revered goddess, I begin to sing, both her and her daughter, the exceedingly beautiful Persephone. Hail and farewell, goddess, and save this city here, and begin my song. (Homeric Hymn to Demeter #13)

The lovely six-line Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite #10 conveys almost all of the basic features:

The Cypriote-born Cytherea I shall sing, you who to mortals give honeyed gifts. On her alluring face, there is always a smile; an alluring bloom shines over it. Hail and farewell, goddess, ruler of well-founded Salamis And of all Cyprus: grant an alluring song. And I shall remember both you and another song. (Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite #10)

While the short poems can do little more than list a god's spheres of influence or principal activity, the long songs magnificently narrate the story of a god's birth or some other defining episode in the deity's life, in a manner and style which rivals Homer and Hesiod at their best.

Like Hesiod's Theogony and Works and Days, some of the hymns, and especially the long ones, identify the honored deity with a particular place. It is possible that these hymns were performed in the context of religious festivals at those places, even perhaps as part of ritual or cult. Those less tied to place could have been performed in a variety of settings, ranging from large formal affairs such as the poetic competitions at public festivals or funeral games to more intimate gatherings at private banquets. In all settings, these songs may well have been accompanied by dance.

When George Chapman in 1624 and near the end of his literary life turned to translate these hymns, he had little or no understanding of the peculiar properties of the Homeric Hymns Understanding them as Homeric poems, though devoid of the heroic pathos that so drew him to the Iliad and Odyssey, he took it upon himself to translate the hymns, along with the Battaile of Frogs and Mise and Epigrams, also by Homer he thought, as his final and crowning tribute to the one he considered the greatest of all poets. As he says about himself, with these poems translated, the work he was "borne to doe is done." He published little else thereafter before he died in 1634. Chapman's renderings of the Hymns do not reach the majesty of his translations of the Iliad and Odyssey but even in these works we can witness his elegant command of poesie's form and sound rarely matched in later renderings of Greek epic poetry. Consider his translation of the 3-line poem to Demeter (To Ceres) (#13):

The Rich-hayr'd Ceres I assaie to sing; A Goddesse in whose Grace the naturall spring Of serious Majestie it selfe is seene; And of the wedded, yet in grace stil green, Proserpina, her Daughter, that displaies A Beautie casting every way her Raies. All Honor to thee, Goddesse! Keepe this Towne, And take thou chiefe charge of my song's Renoune!

Chapman was never one to resist embellishment or to strive for word-for-word translation, as his critics were wont to point out. His fondness for expansion and liberty of form can be only partly explained by his use of rhymed couplets. As he wrote in "The Preface to the Reader" to his 1611 translation of the Iliads: "if in some few places ..., I be something paraphrasticall and faulty-is it justice ... to drowne all the rest of my labour?" A truly faithful translator, for Chapman, was inspired by the "elegancie, height, intention and invention" of the original poems and strove to "clothe and adorne them with words and such a stile and forme of Oration as are most apt for the language into which they are converted." In one instance, the composer of the long Homeric Hymn to Apollo (#3) deviates from the standard practice of anonymity and draws attention to himself as well as to the occasion for his singing. The Greek lines are worth translating because, since antiquity, many have taken them to be a description of Homer himself. As we shall, Chapman does as well. From the Greek:

May now Apollo and his sister Atremis be gracious, and all you girls of Delos, welcome; about me-even in future times- be mindful, if ever someone of men upon this earth, a long-suffering stranger coming here, inquires, "O Maidens, who is for you the best of all the singers having traveled here; which of them causes you the most delight?" Then all of you need answer well in unison, "A blind man, who lives on rocky Chios," of all the songs his are by far the best. (h. Apoll. 3.165-73)

Chapman translates:

And you, O Delian Virgins, doe me grace, When any stranger of our earthie Race Whose restlesse life Affliction hath in chace Shall hither come and question you: "Who is, To your chaste eares, of choicest faculties In sacred Poesie, and with most right Is Author of your absolut'st delight?" Ye shall your selves doe all the right ye can To answer for our Name: "The sightlesse man Of Stonie Chios. All whose Poems shall In all last Ages stand for Capitall." (An Hymne to Apollo 259-69)

Even with its convoluted syntax, Chapman's lines can still- four hundred years after their time-cause strangers much delight. But it is his identification with Homer that I wish here to stress. When he published his translation of the Iliads in 1611, he imagined Homer (filled with poetic fire but "outward, blind") praising the Englishman's efforts: "thou didst english me"; and of himself he said that the ancient master "brought stay to all my state; / That hee was Angell to me; Starre, and Fate." Now when Chapman finds himself describing that "sightlesse man" after more than a quarter of a century of translating his works, we can almost see him looking in the glass and beholding himself as Homer: indeed on the engraved title page of this last volume the facial features of Homer and Chapman have an uncanny resemblance.

Both heights-and stumblings-of Chapman's translations can be seen in his version of the Hymn to Venus (#10), a rendering particularly gracious for its fluency, alliteration, enjambment, and end rhymes.

To Cyprian Venus, still my verses vow, Who gifts as sweete as honey doth bestow On all Mortality; that ever smiles, And rules a face that all foes reconciles; Ever sustaining in her hand a Flowre That all desire keepes ever in her Powre. Haile then, O Queene of well-built Salamine And all the state that Cyprus doth confine! Informe my song with that celestiall fire That in thy beauties kindles all desire. So shall my Muse for ever honour Thee, And any other thou commend'st to Me.

In Chapman's expansion of three Greek words, "grant an alluring song," into a full rhyming couplet: "Informe my song with that celestiall fire / That in thy beauties kindles all desire," one can sense that he is addressing Venus in his own voice, and masterfully. But earlier in the same passage, he had stumbled into an awkward misunderstanding, rendering the Greek "a lovely bloom runs over" Aphrodite's face as "Ever sustaining in her hand a Flowre" that keeps alive her eternal "Powre." Chapman loses his footing here because, turning his back to the Greek text, he has his eye on the usually reliable word-for-word Latin gloss accompanying it. Trying to make sense of the Latin et amabilem fert florem, "and she bears a lovely flower," rather than the difficult Greek phrase, eph' himerton theei anthos, Chapman gives us the banal image of Venus forever holding a flower in her hand.

Chapman also has little understanding of the form and occasion of the ancient hymns. This is particularly evident from his renderings of the formulaic opening and close of the Homeric Hymns, lines which offer internal evidence that the hymns may well have prefaced epic narration. Nine of the hymns explicitly open with, "I begin by singing of" (with a deity named), drawing the audience's attention to the activity of performance and to the fact that these hymns are "beginnings." Chapman takes great liberties especially with the formulaic close. In the Greek, ten of the hymns end with the formula "And I shall be mindful both of you and another song (aoidê)," a repetition that one would never guess from Chapman's diverse endings:

Both thee and others of th' Immortall state, My song shall memorize to endless date. (To Apollo, 3.836-37) So all salutes to Hermes that are due, Of whom, and all Gods, shall my Muse sing true. (To Hermes, 4.1010-11) So shall my Muse for ever honour thee, And (for thy sake) thy faire Posteritie. (To Venus, 6.31-32) And thus, all honor to the shepherd's King! For Sacrifice to Thee my Muse shall sing! (To Pan, 19.83-84) Haile then, Latona's faire-hayrd seede, and Jove's! My song shall ever call to Minde your Loves. (To Diana, 27.35-36)

These many variations show the enormous liberties Chapman took, especially in his later years, and his difficulty in understanding the genre he was translating. Two of the very late hymns explicitly say that the poet will next celebrate the famous deeds of heroes, characteristic of epic poetry. The way Chapman expands these references is in itself striking and suggestive of what he found meaningful in these hymns. In one instance, the Greek reads:

A) having begun with you (Helios), I shall celebrate the race of mortal men, heroes whose deeds the gods revealed to mankind. (31.18-19)

And the other reads:

B) ... having begun with you (Selene), I shall sing of the famous tales of mortal heroes, whose deeds singers, servants of the Muses, make famous from their enchanted mouths. (32.17-20)


Excerpted from Chapman's Homeric Hymns and Other Homerica
Copyright © 2008 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This

William H. Gass
It should be very satisfying to sing hymns to gods whom everyone can agree exist, so tune up your pipes for Apollo, the archer and fair king of days, or for Venus, the soft skinned, because both beauty and sunshine deserve our adoration. How appropriate that the voice you can choose here should be Elizabethan, queen of the Enlightenment, and patron of the poets, George Chapman so much among them, who made the old world new, and heard the voice of heroes in all of Homer's songs.
John Keats
Oft of one wide expanse had I been toldThat deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;Yet did I never breathe its pure sereneTill I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold
John Keats, "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer"
Chapman's versions inspired English poets for centuries after his time. They rest on a minute and perceptive reading of the texts. And they retain their power to fascinate and provoke anyone interested in Homer and his afterlife, in Renaissance ideas about classical and modern poetry, or in the development of the language of English poetry.
Anthony T. Grafton, Princeton University

Meet the Author

Stephen Scully is associate professor of classical studies at Boston University.

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