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Homer's Odyssey: A Sampling of Editions in English 1616-2017

Ronald Patkus

The epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey, long attributed to Homer, have histories that extend back millennia. Of course their precise origins are unknown, but the scholarly consensus is that they were first performed orally by singers. By the fifth century Bce there were written versions of the poems, though oral performances continued. Around 150 Bce Hellenistic scholars in Alexandria produced a Vulgate text, which largely has survived down to the present. The poems circulated in Antiquity on papyrus, and during the Middle Ages on parchment. Homer was largely neglected in the West during the medieval period, but in the Byzantine Empire (the eastern part of the Roman Empire), interest continued. Homer was rediscovered in the West during the Renaissance, and the first printed edition of the epic poems, the so-called “editio princeps,” appeared in Florence in 1488. Since then literally hundreds of versions of Homer have been published, in a variety of languages. To date there have been over sixty translations of the Odyssey into English, some in verse, others in prose. Many of them are accompanied by interesting illustrations created by key artists.

During the Fall of 2017, a course titled Homer’s Odyssey: From Oral Composition to Digital Editions was offered at Vassar, cross-listed in Greek and Roman Studies and Media Studies. Professor Rachel Friedman (author of the essay that follows) and I were co-instructors, and together with our students we read the Odyssey and examined in class various editions that appeared over the centuries. The course itself was therefore something of a journey, which took us to different times and places and challenged us to think critically about manuscript both papyrus and parchment, and printed artifacts of the great poem that have been passed down to us. A focus of the course for the students was the writing of a long paper on a particular printed edition of the Odyssey. For this assignment they were asked to consider not only the text and paratexts of their book, but also its physical characteristics (binding, paper, illustrations, etc.),  and its readers.

The Spring 2018 exhibition in the Vassar College Library originated from the course, and students played an active role in its development. Titled Homer’s Odyssey: A Sampling of Editions in English, 1616–2017, it explores key works housed in Vassar’s Archives & Special Collections Library and Main Library. Nineteen books, about a third of the total number of English translations, are on display. They include some high points in printing and Homeric studies. The first work is George Chapman’s edition of Homer, made famous by the poem about it that was penned by the Romantic John Keats “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.” The most recent example in the exhibition is University of Pennsylvania Professor Emily Wilson’s translation, the first by a woman. In between are books notable for their literary qualities and/or aesthetic aspects: John Ogilby’s folio with large engraved illustrations; early editions by the philosopher Thomas Hobbes and by Alexander Pope; several eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English offerings by writers such as William Cowper and William Morris; the first American translation, by William Cullen Bryant; a number of fine press editions, including the beautiful book designed by Bruce Rogers; and several mid and late twentieth-century examples, which have reached wide audiences. Together these works indicate an ongoing interest in the poem, while at the same time showing very different presentations.

There are many people to thank for their contributions to this project. I’d first like to thank my colleague Rachel Friedman, for her thoughtful collaboration in both the course and the exhibition; it’s been a pleasure to work with her every step of the way. Of course the students in GRST 289/MRST 289 are to be thanked for their willingness to take part in the making of the exhibition and to contribute their insights to various aspects. I hope this experience will be a fond memory of their college years. Though most of the books in the exhibition come from the Library collections, some were recently acquired through the assistance of the Greek and Roman Studies Department, and the Vassar Club of the United Kingdom; for these compelling additions to our holdings, which will benefit students well into the future, we are extremely grateful. I’m also thankful to Debra Bucher in the Main Library for allowing us to display some recent books that are part of that collection. George Laws of the Vassar Communications Office again helped us with design issues, this time by producing creative caption labels and signage for the exhibition. Sharyn Cadogan in the Library photographed our books and provided colorful images for this publication. Jeff Macaluso in the Communications Office worked on the exhibition website, allowing us to document our work and share it with others virtually. 

Mr. Patkus is Associate Director of the Libraries for Special Collections and Adjunct Associate Professor of History

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