Feature of the month: 300 years of Pope’s Iliad

The Iliad of Homer
Trans. by Alexander Pope
2nd edn
London: B. Lintot, 1720
*XFJ H7G 720

The year 2015 marks the 300th anniversary of the publication of the first volume of Alexander Pope’s Iliad.

Pope had first read Homer’s epic poem in John Ogilby’s translation at the age of about eight. In 1707, when Pope was 19, he stated his resolution to go on translating Homer. In October 1713 came the public announcement of his intention, ratified by a contract with the publisher Bernard Lintot in March 1714. The translation took Pope six and a half years, at the rate of about fifty lines per day, and Pope said that he “dreamed often of being engaged in a long journey and that I should never get to the end of it”. His method involved reading previous English translations of part or all of the Iliad, reading recent French Homeric criticism, and consulting various Latin compendia for information on specific points. The result is a poem in couplets preceded by “An essay on the life, writings and learning of Homer”, and accompanied by a summary of each book, geographical explanations and detailed commentary.

Both contemporary and later reactions to Pope’s translation have been mixed. Samuel Johnson hailed it as “the noblest version of poetry which the world has ever seen” and Samuel Coleridge called it “an astonishing product of matchless talent and ingenuity”, while the Cambridge classicist and philologist Richard Bentley (1662-1742) said that it was a good translation, but that “you must not call it Homer”. The criticism has endured that rather than transmitting faithfully Homer’s concrete, plain-spoken Greek, Pope assimilated Homer to the social and religious norms of eighteenth-century England and to stylistic expectations concerning epic decorum derived from Virgil and Milton. The result is a poem which comprises part of an English literary canon.

Whereas the first edition (1715-20) was a folio, the edition featured here is a duodecimo, demonstrating how speedily Pope’s version of the Iliad moved from a publication for the elite to a cheap item for wide readership. Senate House Library has numerous editions of Pope’s Iliad. Noteworthy among those held in the special collections is the breadth of their sources: former owners include George Grote (1794-1871) as a classical historian (1760 edition), Bishop Beilby Porteus (1731-1809) as a reader of roughly contemporary literature (1736 edition), Augustus De Morgan and Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence as nineteenth-century readers, Cecil Crofton (1858-9-1935) as a collector of little books (five duodecimo editions from 1771 to 1825) and Sir Louis Sterling, who had a Nonesuch Press edition from 1931 as an example of fine printing. The edition featured here was acquired by purchase in early 1950.

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