Saturday, March 29, 2008

Robert Fagles is no longer with us

Dear readers, I bear ill news. Robert Fagles, classicist, scholar, and prolific translator (best known for his compulsively readable yet erudite translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey) died this last week, on Wednesday, at age 74. There is a beautiful obituary for him here at the Denver Post. This is a great loss to all who are interested in myth and the classics. It was Fagles who introduced me to The Odyssey, and to a love for Greek. Read this passage aloud, and you will see what this poet and scholar of ancient languages achieved in English:

Cables cast off, the crew swung to the oarlocks.
Bright-eyed Athena sent them a stiff following wind
rippling out of the west, ruffling over the wine-dark sea
as Telemachus shouted out commands to all his shipmates:
"All hands to tackle!" They sprang to orders,
hoisting the pinewood mast, they stepped it firm
in its block amidships, lashed it fast with stays
and with braided rawhide halyards hauled the white sail high.
Suddenly wind hit full and the canvas bellied out
and a dark blue wave, foaming up at the bow,
sang out loud and strong as the ship made way,
skimming the whitecaps, cutting toward her goal.
All running gear secure in the swift black craft,
they set up bowls and brimmed them high with wine
and poured libations out to the everlasting gods
who never die--to Athena first of all,
the daughter of Zeus with flashing sea-gray eyes--
and the ship went plunging all night long and through the dawn.

Ah, what a sea-sway rocking of poetry that is! The best obituary I think for any writer is to read from his or her work. Fagles showed English readers that Homer was meant to be read on a hill, the listeners swept up in the foaming of the waves.

Over the past decades Fagles had also published a translation of the Aeneid and of many of the Greek tragedies. He retired from the faculty at Princeton only a few years ago, in 2002, and last year was awarded an honorary doctor of humane letters; the faculty of Princeton awarded it to him for "four decades of feats on behalf of Princeton, as the founding father of comparative literature, as a gracious and wise colleague and as an inspiring mentor and teacher." To his credit had gone also the PEN/Ralph Manheim prize for lifetime achievement, the National Humanities Medal, and many other prestigious awards. The Denver Post article even reports that a reader once wrote to Robert Fagles asking him to suggest a name for his new cat. The classicist replied not "Aristotle" or "Pericles" but "Bobcat." Which is fitting: while a human being may look up to Aristotle or Pericles, I suspect a cat will probably look up to such an intimidating and athletic animal as a bobcat. We all have our own heroes.

I mourn the passing of one of mine.

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