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Robert Fagles and I met several times in his office at Princeton, where he is Arthur W. Marks ’19 Professor of Comparative Literature, to discuss our forthcoming interview at the Unterberg Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y. White-haired, tall and spare, he moves with the air of preparedness, flexibility and covert attentiveness of someone who, I correctly guess, has played a lot of tennis. His conversation is flecked with stanzas of poetry and quotations he values, often from W. H. Auden, whose lines he quotes as if he were reverting to a private native tongue. His manners are fine in the way that Americans, having not yet evolved a word, still inappropriately describe as courtly, a word that misses the lack of ostentation and the deliberate grace that are at the heart of democratic elegance.

His office is stark on first impression, but comes to seem increasingly peopled, in part because most of its ornaments, like the poster of a mosaic Orpheus singing the beasts into harmony, are gifts from other people—the sign of a man for whom partnerships and collaborations are cherished matters, an ideal temperament for a poet-translator. On his work table are several photographs, a sculptural valentine from his wife Lynne, and an origami bird, fashioned from her program by a blind student of his at a performance of Aristophanes’s The Birds. Nearby is an open paperback version of Virgil’s Aeneid, his next translation project. The poster on the far wall is of the image he submitted for the cover for his Iliad, a bronze votive offering of a fierce warrior from 500 b.c. A table opposite him holds a tape player on which he reviewed the raw tapes of the actors Derek Jacobi and Ian McKellen performing his translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey respectively, “listening for a kinship in the cadence of what they were trying to read and what I was trying to write.” This must have been a task of joyful absorption for someone who never forgets that Homer was a singer and was himself an amateur singer. The tape player concentrates the atmosphere of the office, which has something of the shelllike ambience of a recording studio, a space artfully hollowed to create the best acoustics for the concert of voices Fagles is working to bring to life.

A pair of regal Gothic Revival windows, which used to remind his young daughters of a king and queen, look out on a tree-filled courtyard and on Nassau Hall, where the Continental Congress met during the American Revolution. Placed parallel with the windows, resting on a stand, is the mammoth, “inevitable” Liddell-Scott, as Fagles calls it, the standard Greek-English lexicon, the great open dictionary seeming like a stately window itself, opening onto an incalculable number of views.

 

INTERVIEWER

I thought we would start with the classic Homeric question, in the words of Queen Arete from the Odyssey, “Who are you? Where are you from?”  

ROBERT FAGLES

Well, I’m the son of a lawyer and an architect, and I grew up outside of Philadelphia, in a household beset by my father’s illness and filled with my parents’ kindness. I’m an only child, and that’s a curse and a blessing both according to the old wisdom, and it’s true. I was educated in public schools in the Philadelphia suburbs, then I went to Amherst College for undergraduate work, and Yale for graduate work in English, and I’ve been teaching literature at Princeton since 1960, where I’m a “lifer,” and lucky to be one too. There I live with my wife of more than forty years—the greatest luck of all—and there we’ve raised two daughters. They cover the real world—one’s a physician and the other a businesswoman—while I’ve been hiding out in Homer for the last twenty years.  

INTERVIEWER

Was there anything in your childhood that was a bridge to Greek?  

FAGLES

Probably what I was reading and what my mother read me as a child. Many kinds of adventure stories on the one hand—Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, James Fenimore Cooper (when I could understand him), Jack London—and on the other, the newspapers, full of breaking news about the world at war. Adventure and violence, something like the Odysseyand the Iliad, perhaps, and so a kind of bridge-in-the-making to Homer and both his poems.  

INTERVIEWER

You did graduate work with a great Alexander Pope scholar, Maynard Mack?  

FAGLES

He was a superb mentor—and still is—for many reasons. He would draw my eye to the fine points of Pope’s great translation of Homer and then expand into Pope’s entire epic vision, his notion of what Homer’s all about. Thanks to Maynard, I came to realize, early on, that Pope’s Homer is really an original English poem on the order of Dryden’s translation of the Aeneidand Milton’s Paradise Lost. An important lesson, I think, and not only in literary history; it may have prompted in me a kind of epic ambition that I’ve tried to follow ever since.  

INTERVIEWER

So you came to Greek really as a young adult?  

FAGLES

I began the language late . . . my junior year of college. English friends will always scold me for not having come from the womb fluent in ancient Greek. So I’ve always felt behind and struggled to catch up. That’s not false modesty. It’s just a fact.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you think that Greek and Latin should be taught as a matter of course in the high schools?  

FAGLES

I certainly do. And if we can’t do that, by all means let’s teach Greek and Latin literature in translation. And if the translations are worth their salt, they just may win recruits to learn the old languages themselves.  

INTERVIEWER

Your first volume of translations was Bacchylides, the choral-lyric poet. Published in 1961, followed in succession by the Oresteia, a volume of your own poems, Sophocles’s Theban Plays, and then Homer. There’s a natural progression from lyric to tragedy to epic.  

FAGLES

Yes, by virtue of twenty-twenty hindsight, I suppose, not by some determined plan. Now that I look back on it, I see that I began with lyric poetry, moved to choral-lyric, which forms the spine of Greek tragedy, then to what we think of as our first tragedy, the Iliad, and then to its necessary sequel, the Odyssey, its comic sequel—not in the sense of something side-splittingly funny but as a commedia, a story of adversity overcome, a song of things harmonious and normal, set to rights.  

INTERVIEWER

You acknowledge Robert Graves in your introduction to Bacchylides. What was your connection to him?  

FAGLES

Oh, just a passing in the night—and a folly of youth. I was translating Bacchylides, and I felt kind of good about it, for no very good reason. So I sent a draft to Robert Graves on Majorca, an idiotic thing to do, chutzpah of the worst sort. And back it came, almost by return mail, with a letter from the master pointing out a lot of errors I had made, things gone wrong in tone or sense, and he signed off by saying, Excuse me for looking a gift horse in the mouth, but a bit of dentistry won’t hurt. I writhe every time I think of it, but I’m grateful for it too, and so it goes.