Sunday, March 30, 2008

IN MEMORIAM: Robert Fagles, 1933-2008

Bob Fagles died on Wednesday, March 26. He was the founder of the Comp Lit Dept. from which I got my degree and was its only chairman until several years ago. Shortly after I got to Princeton, Fagles published his translation of the Iliad in 1990. In 1996 came the Odyssey. The Aeneid appeared in 2006. It's daunting to think he managed to do all that in so short a time. But I remember talking to him about his work habits: in the office every day, hours before the university began its operations, so that he could do his translating for the day before the office work began. Then, during any lulls that might occur, or even while taking calls and meetings, no doubt, he would turn over in his mind the choices he’d made for rendering whatever passage he’d been working on. Then, last thing before bed, he’d check over the passage and make sure he was still convinced by it.

I was pleased, while at Princeton, to think that the head of our department was a poet and translator rather than yet another literary critic or historian. And I was greatly pleased when he showed up at a reading I gave of my own poems while a grad student and stayed to offer a few kind words at the end. Fagles was “old school,” cut from that cloth that I associate with Auerbach and Curtius: the champions of that great canon of Western classics that stand -- apart from whatever ideologies the ideologues of the day find in them -- for rare achievements of human spirit, creativity, ingenuity, and, yes, genius. For Fagles the tradition was always vital and to recreate Homer and Vergil after his own fashion, in a muscular, brawny idiom that recalls cinematic effects of action and focus, was the kind of service that a poet / translator / scholar such as himself should be prepared to undertake. In other words, he had the moxie and the ability to look for the means to render these classics for an age rather less literary than when Robert Fitzgerald produced his version of the epic hat-trick.

When I told him I was reading his new translation of the Iliad aloud to my daughter, Fagles inscribed the book “to a comparatist and a friend who likes to read aloud -- the only way Homer should be read.” So let me close with Achilles’ greeting to Odysseus in the underworld, as rendered by Fagles:

Royal son of Laertes, Odysseus, man of tactics,
reckless friend, what next?
What greater feat can that cunning head contrive?

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