North American Scholar

FAGLES, Robert

  • Image
  • Date of Birth (YYYY-MM-DD): 1933-09-11
  • Born City: Philadelphia
  • Born State/Country: PA
  • Parents: Charles, a lawyer, and Vera Voynow F., an architect.
  • Date of Death (YYYY-MM-DD): 2008-03-26
  • Death City: Princeton
  • Death State/Country: NJ
  • Married: Marilyn Duchovny, June 17, 1956.
  • Education:

    B.A., Amherst College, summa cum laude, 1955; L.D.H., 1990; Ph.D. Yale (English), 1959; D.Litt. (hon.) Princeton, 2002.

  • Professional Experience:

    Instr. English, Yale, !959-60; Instr. English, Princeton, 1960-2; asst. prof., 1962-5; asso. prof. 1965-6; asso. prof. English & comp. lit., 1966-9; prof. comp. lit., 1970-92; Arthur W. Marks '19 Prof. comp. lit., 1992-2002; dir., Program in Comparative Literature, 1966-75; chair, Dept. Comp. Lit., 1975-2002; Borestone Mountain Poetry Award, 1972; Harold Morton Landon Translation Award of the Academy of American Poets, 1991; Academy Award in Literature from American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1996; National Humanities Medal, 2006; PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation, Howard T. Behrman Award for Distinguished Achievement in the Humanities at Princeton, 1989; memb., AAAS; APhS., American Academy of Arts and Letters.

  • Dissertation:

    “The Conquest of the Mind: A Study of the Augustan Odyssey”  (Yale, 1959).

  • Publications:

    BOOKS: Bacchylides; Complete Poems (trans.), foreword Sir Maurice Bowra; introduction and notes, Adam M. Parry (New Haven:Yale U. Press,1961; repr. Greenwood Reprints, 1976); Homer: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. with George Steiner (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962); The Twickenham Edition of the Poems of Alexander Pope: The Iliad and the Odyssey, vols. VII-X, ed. with Maynard Mack, William Frost, Douglas Knight, & Norman Callan, (London: Methuen & New Haven: Yale U. Press, 1967); Aeschylus, The Oresteia, trans. with intro. & notes with W.B. Stanford (New York: The Viking Press & London: Wildwood House, 1975; Penguin Classics, 1977; Bantam Books edition, 1976; Bantam Classics, 1982; repr. The Folio Society of London, 1984. intro. Peter Levi); Vincent: Poems from the Pictures of Van Gogh (Princeton: Princeton U. Press, 1978); Sophocles, The Three Theban Plays: Antigone. Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, intro. & notes by Bernard Knox (New York: The Viking Press; London: Allen Lane, 1982; Penguin Classics ed., 1984); Homer, The Iliad, intro. & notes by Bernard Knox (New York & London: Viking Press, 1990; Penguin Classics edition, 1991; Folio Society edition, 2006; Penguin/HighBridge Audio Cassette, read by Derek Jacobi, introduced by Maria Tucci, 1992.  

    TRANSLATIONS: "Seamen's Epitaphs from the Greek Anthology: Callimachus, Leonidas of Tarentum, Archias of Byzantium," The Fat Abbot (Summer-Fall 1961), 9-11; Bacchylides, “V, XVI, XIX,” The Literary Review (Spring 1961), 433-43; Catullus “IV, VII, XIII, XVII, XXXI,” The Literary Review (Spring 1961) 444-7; Pindar, “Olympia I, II,” Arion 3,1 (Spring 1964) 24-41; Pindar, “Olympia III, VII, XII,” Arion 3,2 (Summer 1964) 28-45; Pindar, “Olympia IV, XIII, XIV,” Arion 3,4 (Winter 1965) 102-15; “Pindar, Olympia VI, IX,” Arion 4,1 (Spring 1965) 52-63; Cavafy, "The God Abandons Antony," Arion 5.1 (Spring 1966), 23; Seferis, “Euripides the Athenian,” “Pentheus.” Arion 5,1 (Spring 1966) 23; Aeschlylus, “Agamemnon 11.1-350,” Arion 5,4 (Winter 1966) 526-53; Aeschylus “Agamemnon, 11.503-680,” Arion 6,2 (Summer 1967) 244-51; “‘Writing It Out’, Translations of Stefan George's ‘Nietzsche’ and ‘The German and the Jew,’ Panache 9 (1972) 56-58; Sophocles, “Oedipus the King 11.1311-1661,” Kenyon Review n.s. 4,2 (Summer 1982) 55-67; Sophocles, Oedipus the King 11.767-953,” TriOuarterly 54 (Spring 1982) 52-59; “Homer, Iliad. Book 3: Helen Reviews the Champions,” Grand Street 8,1 (Autumn 1988) 50-64; “Homer, Iliad. Book 18: The Shield of Achilles", Grand Street 8,3 (Spring 1989) 147-65; “Homer, Iliad. Book 6: Hector Returns to Troy,” TriOuarterly 77 (Winter 1989-90) 302-19; “Homer, Iliad. Book 22: The Death of Hector,” Grand Street 9.3 (Spring 1990) 113-28; “Homer, Odyssey. Book 11: Odysseus and Anticleia in the Underworld," Princeton Alumni Weekly (January 26, 1994) 14-15.

    POEMS: “Achilles and Penthesileia,” “Achilles and Cycnus,” “Achilles and Hector,” “For Marc Blitzstein,” Quarterly Review of Literature 16 (Winter-Spring 1969), 39-43 (repr. Quarterly Review of Literature 30th Anniversary Poetry Retrospective 19 (1974), 1-2; “Achilles and Penthesileia,” repr. Quarterly Review of Literature 50th Anniversary Anthology (1993), 413-14); “Crows Over the Wheat Field,” Malahat Review 12 (October 1969); “The Gracchi:  In Memoriam R.F.K.,” Arion, 9.2, 3 (Summer-Autumn 1970), 326-29; “Orestes,” Yale Review 52,1 (Autumn 1972), 79-80 (repr. Best Poems of 1972Borestone Mountain Poetry Awards, Vol. 25 (Palo Alto, CA: Pacific Books, 1973); “The Centaur,” Sewanee Review 81,3 (Summer 1973), 660; “The Starry Night,” University Magazine 80 (Summer 1979); “Snow Watch,” Ontario Review 18 (Spring-Summer 1983), 82-3; “The Exiles,” Antaeus 52 (Spring 1984), 52-53 (repr. in The Anthology of Magazine Verse and Yearbook of American Poetry for 1985); “Relativity,” Southern Review (Winter 1985), 120-1; “The Scream,” “To the Parents of Our Adopted Children,” Kenyon Review 8,2 (Spring 1985) 67-8; “Death,” Grand Street 5,1 (Autumn 1985) 53 (repr. in The Anthology of Magazine Verse and Yearbook of American Poetry for 1986-1987); “Aerial Reconnaissance,” Grand Street 5.4 (Summer 1986) 213-15; “Rain, Steam and Speed,” FMR, no. 19, English Edition, vol. IV; “Medical History,” “Wild Geese,” Sewanee Review 97,4 (October-December 1989) 503-5; “Crazy Horse,” “After Robert Capa: Spare Nothing,” Sewanee Review 100,1 (Winter 1992) 55-9; “The Pair-Oared Shell,” “Rain, Steam and Speed,” Sewanee Review 101,1 (Winter 1993) 33-4.

  • Notes:

    The chief characteristic of Robert Fagles’s career was his ability to enter fully into the mind of another artist. Everything he did involved the translation not only from one language to another but from the sensibility of one artist to another. His interest appears as early as his dissertation on Pope’s translation and continued into his creative works in which he translated from one medium to another, such as his poems “Rain, Steam, and Speed (after the painting by Turner),” “After Robert Capa: Spare Nothing,” and his collection I, Vincent based on paintings of Vincent Van Gogh.  

    Fagles was arguably the most successful translator of Greek and Latin epics since Dryden and Pope. As his great predecessors Richmond Lattimore and Robert Fitzgerald had done, he began his career with translations of lyric poets before turning to theatrical works. These works were distinguished not only for their accuracy, accessibility, and vitality but they were eminently playable as dramas. His Antigone was produced over 20 times in America, Great Britain, and Australia. His Oedipus the King was produced over eighteen times, Agamemnon ten times, and his Oresteia over eight times. His translation of Aeschylus’s Oresteia employed an anachronistic, almost Shakespearean diction in keeping with the nature of the playwright’s own diction. In his introduction he noted that Dryden’s goal was to “speak the living language of the day. And not in a way that caters to its limits, one might add, but that gives its life and fibre something of a stretching in the process.” His Oresteia won the Borestone Mountain Poetry Award in 1972 and was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1977.  When he turned to epics, as had his predecessors, he employed a much freer style and managed to seamlessly incorporate into his text explanations of terms, rituals, and ambiguities that eliminated for the general reader the interruption and inconvenience of footnotes. This made his translation of Homer and Virgil standard for nearly a generation, selling over two million individual copies and reaching untold numbers of students in countless textbooks and anthologies, especially Wilkie & Hart’s Literature of the Western World (1992), his Doktorvater Maynard Mack’s Norton Anthology of Western Literature (1992) and Bernard Knox’s Book of Classical Literature (1992).  Fagles’ success is due, as Knox said of his Oresteia, to the fact “that Fagles is more solicitous of the needs of the Greekless reader.”   

    Born and raised in Philadelphia, he was 14 when his father died, prompting a lifelong interest in fathers and sons in literature.  His mother never used her architecture degree professionally but turned her life over to raising her family. Fagles entered Amherst College as a pre-med major, but after reading translations of Greek classics, he longed to read them in the original (he had studied German at Lower Merion Senior High School). He became an English major, read Greek on the side with Adam Parry and John Andrew Moore, and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year. After graduation he moved on to Yale where he concentrated on the study of English translators of the classics under Maynard Mack and read Greek with Bernard Knox, who in time wrote introductions to Fagles’ translations of Sophocles, Homer, and Virgil, and included Fagles’ translations in his portion of The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces (1979),and The Norton Book of Classical Literature (1993).

    Following the success of his translations from Greek drama, he turned to his own poetry, drawing over 40 poems from the pictures of Vincent Van Gogh. The poems are considered original, though taking the subjects of a painterly artist and creating word-pictures from them can rightly be viewed as another kind of translation. The poems are drawn from approximately 40 paintings and sketches of the artist, with whom Fagles deeply identified and about whom he knew a great deal. His friend and colleague Victor Brombert praised the poems’ “technical prowess in its flexible and forceful prosody, its experiments in meter and rhythm, as well as typographical disposition and form.” The poems are also revealing of personal motifs through repeated stress on self-portraits, on Van Gogh’s religion of work, his sense of art as a vocation and as a permanent combat, capable of transforming musings on mortality and anguish into color and form. Not all of the poems were successful and the book received mixed reviews. Despite the later urgings of his friend James Dickey to “dig into yourself for a change, instead of into Homer and Virgil,” Fagles never published an original poem or book of original poems after 1993. 

    Fagles returned to Greek drama with his translations of Sophocles’ Theban Plays in 1982, accompanied by introduction and notes by his former teacher Bernard Knox. This began a collaboration that continued through the rest of Fagles’ major translations and enhanced their value by virtue of Knox’s clarity and deep knowledge. The reviews were not as overwhelmingly positive as they were for his Aeschylus. Fagles’ skill as a translator is obvious but the plays seemed not to take on a life of their own and the occasional recherché word or expression proved jarring. Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Regius Professor at Oxford, gave a jaundiced compliment in the New York Review of Books, calling them “the least inadequate versions of the three plays in modern times.”

    Although notable translations of the Iliad by Robert Fitzgerald and Richmond Lattimore had appeared in 1961 and 1965, Fagles momentously chose to translate the poem for what he called “the channel-surfing age” because every decade if not every age needs its own translation, and, as he said, the Trojan War “ends but it never stops.” (Gray, 92) His Iliad appeared in 1990 and became almost instantly the standard: in six years it sold 22,000 copies in hardback, 140,000 copies  in paperback (through its 8th printing) and 35,000 copies of the audiotape version, not to mention its adoption by numerous textbooks and anthologies, most notably The Norton Anthology of Western Literature. It is significant that Fagles cut his translator’s teeth on drama (as had one of his heroes, Robert Fitzgerald), because, as he told Time, “[Homer] was a performer, and he can be re-performed.” Peter Green elaborated: “This is an Odyssey consciously crafted for performance…” [Fagles’s] intention was “to recreate, for those who have ears to hear, the ambience and the impact of the rhapsode’s magic, his voice, like that of Odysseus, ‘holding the spellbound down the shadow’d halls.’ It’s spoken force is what gives Fagles’ version its unique quality.” (Green, p. 35) To that end, it was essential that his translations be performed on audiotape by first-class actors. Derek Jacobi recorded the Iliad, Ian McKellen read the Odyssey, and later Simon Callow recorded the Aeneid. The tapes truly give the sense of what Matthew Arnold called Homer’s “speed, directness, and simplicity.”  

    If a translation is to be performed the audience must know the state of the action at every moment and to that end Fagles departs dramatically from his predecessors by making sure his readers know what the characters are doing and why they are doing it. Using lines of uneven length, he allows himself room to add short explanations of rites or epithets or cultural practices or a host of small things that, left unexplained, would confuse and delay the listener. The other crucial element in his translations is the addition of full and pellucid introductions by Knox, with maps and glossaries.    

    He was a beloved teacher who built the Comparative Literature program at Princeton up from almost nothing. He arrived in charge of the program in comparative literature, into which he added the art of translation and creative work alongside the existing traditional study of literature. His seminar worked through his Iliad and Odyssey, providing a unique experience for his students. The program grew under his direction to a fully-fledged department in 1975. Said his colleague Lionel Gossman, “His way of getting to the inner shape and meaning of a text was to recreate it, not to apply theories to it or use it to illustrate theories.”  His “daily diet” for over 40 years at Princeton was teaching either the epics of Homer or the tragedies of Aeschylus.” As he told playwright Gideon Lester, translation “is forever a tightrope act. You look back to the great original behind you, trying to be as faithful to it as possible, trying to convey as much of what it says as possible, but the conveyance takes place in a modern medium that has both limitations and opportunities for a kind of expansiveness. It’s a balancing act between the ancient and the modern.” 

    He is remembered by students and friends alike for his gentle, self-effacing spirit, his generous soul and his easy wit. He told the New York Times that “Some days were Iliadic,—you felt you were in a war—and some were more like the Odyssey, when all you wanted to do was go home.” A colleague remembers Fagles hosting him at the Princeton Faculty Club, then, at the end of the meal, the expressionless waitress formulaically said, “Have a nice day, Mr. Fagles.” On the way out the wine steward robotically repeated “Have a nice day, Mr. Fagles.” Finally, when the Maître d’hôtel said automatically, “Have a nice day, Mr. Fagles,” Fagles bore a look of exasperation and replied, “Thank you, but I’ve made other plans.” 

    Unlike predecessors like Dryden who limited himself to Virgil and Alexander Pope who limited himself to Homer, Fagles followed his admired predecessor Robert Fitzgerald in translating both the Greek and Roman epics. Diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2006, he raced the clock to complete his Aeneid. Like Virgil he was not granted the extra years he needed to revise and refine his work. As Denis Feeney wrote, “His Vergil is in many respects his most impressive of all: more stringent in form than his Homer, it rises to the challenge of the aspect of Vergil that makes him such a nightmare to translators, his combination of highly wrought expression and intense passion….The result is strikingly successful, since a translator-poet with a commitment to the elemental has accommodated himself to a poet who works his effects through traditions of high formalism.” 

  • Sources:

    Paul Gray, “Scoring a Homer,” Time 148, 20 (28 Oct. 1996) 90-92; Peter Green, “War and Peace,” The New Republic 216, 8 (24 February 1997) 30-6; Charles McGrath, NYTimes (29 March 2008); Ruth Stevens, Princeton News (28 March 2008); Bernard M.W. Knox, “Greek for the Greekless,” New York Review of Books 23, 1 (5 February 1976); Crux: The Letters of James Dickey, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli and Judith S. Baughman (New York: Knopf, 1999) 510; Denis Feeney, CW 101, 4 (Summer 2008) 541-2; Victor Brombert, PAPhS 153,3 (Sept. 2009) 323-6.

  • Author: Ward Briggs