Christopher Logue is not exactly unknown, but neither is he at the forefront of many people’s consciousness. Too American-influenced for the Brits, too British for the Yanks, unfashionably concerned with form and antiquity, he is respectfully reviewed but not widely loved—not widely enough for my taste, anyway. He is one of the great translators of our time, and one of the great war poets; his life’s work is a series of “accounts” (as he calls them) of Homer’s Iliad. It began in 1959 when David Carne-Ross asked him to write a script for the BBC based on some Homeric excerpts; not knowing Greek, Logue worked from existing translations, absorbing the story, the ideas, the similes, and reworking them into language that is as fresh and vivid as anything written in my lifetime. I will never forget the moment when I first picked up “War Music” (the ongoing title of the series) and read:
These colours came before the Sun
Lifted above the ocean,
Alike to mortals and Immortals.
And through this falling brightness,
Through the by now:
Gliding across the azimuth,
With armour the colour of moonlight laid on her forearms;
Her palms upturned;
Her hovering above the fleet;
Her skyish face towards her son.
Gripping the body of Patroclus
Naked and dead against his own,
While Thetis spoke:
His soldiers looking on;
Looking away from it; remembering their own;
“Grieving will not amend what Heaven has done.
Suppose you throw your hate after Patroclus’ soul.
Who besides Troy will gain?
See what I’ve brought…”
And as she laid the moonlit armour on the sand
And the sound that came from it
Followed the light that came from it,
Made in Heaven.
That’s the start of “Pax,” his version of Book 19. When I read those lines, I don’t care that Homer could not possibly be talking about mosques (at another point “bronze flak” is mentioned, and Aeneas taunts: “Crapulous mammoth!”), I just know that something glorious and true is being said, and (amazingly) something true to Homer. Garry Wills, in his 1992 NYRB review of the first edition of War Music, said:
It is this care in re-creating literary effects that makes Logue’s work the very thing he refuses to say it is: the best translation of Homer since Pope’s. In fact, on its own partial scale, it is as good as the very best English version, Chapman’s, to which it owes a great deal.
The latest installment is All Day Permanent Red; there are excerpts here and here. There was recently a staged version that I’m very sorry I missed, and there is a set of recordings that I’d love to hear. Finally, totally unrelated to Homer, there’s a mordant little squib called “London Airport.” Enjoy.