Lawrence’s Odyssey

A “Prosaic” Approach to Greatness
  • Stephanie Nelson
  • Maren Cohn


T. E. Lawrence’s translation of the Odyssey is a very funny one. But then that is appropriate, since the Odyssey is a very funny poem. This is true in both senses of the word: the Odyssey is funny in that it is highly idiosyncratic, in particular in contrast to the Iliad, and it is funny in that, properly read, it should make one laugh.1 The two senses are not unrelated—either in Homer or in Lawrence.


English Prose Cynical View Boar Hunt Heroic Myth Great Epic 


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  1. 1.
    On the question of humor in the Odyssey, in particular in relation to Lawrence, see H. Hazlitt, “On Translating Homer,” review of Lawrence’s Odyssey, in The Nation 135 (December 21, 1932); Robert Graves, “Colonel Lawrence’s Odyssey,” in Steps: Stories, Talks, Essays, Poems, Studies in History (London: Cassell, 1958); Maurice Bowra, “Two Translations,” review of The Odyssey of Homer, by T. E. Shaw (Lawrence), in The New Statesman and Nation, April 8, 1933, 449; H. A. Mason, To Homer Through Pope: An Introduction to Homer’s Iliad and Pope’s Translation (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1972), 10; Maurice Hewlett, trans., The Iliad of Homer (London: The Cresset Press, 1928), vi, ix. Lawrence had read and approved of Hewlett’s notes (Letter to B. Rogers, April 16, 1928, in D. Garnett, ed., The Letters of T. E. Lawrence [New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1938], 589). Lawrence himself, despite the humor of his translation, never finally accepted that Homer meant to be funny.Google Scholar
  2. 5.
    The Odyssey of Homer, trans. Robert H. Hiller, Winston Companion Classics (Philadelphia: John C. Winston Co., 1927), vi.Google Scholar
  3. 9.
    Letter to R. Isham, January 2, 1928, in M. Brown, ed., T. E. Lawrence: The Selected Letters (New York: Paragon House, 1992), 362. Lawrence also remarked that Butler failed to convey “all the picturesque side: the bric-à-brac: and most of the poetry has evaporated with Homer’s queer, archaic, dignity.” Letter to C. Shaw, June 4, 1928, quoted in J. Wilson, Lawrence of Arabia: The Authorized Biography of T. E. Lawrence (New York: Atheneum, 1990), 829.Google Scholar
  4. 10.
    Samuel Butler, The Authoress of the Odyssey, with a new introduction by David Grene (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 130.Google Scholar
  5. 11.
    The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998). Similarly, in the introduction to Fitzgerald, see Donald Carne-Ross on Helen: “a domestic figure but no doubt dressed in full rig and accompanied by two maid-servants bringing her golden distaff and a silver basket holding her yarn…. She is still as full of herself as she was in the Iliad, and freely admits, not without satisfaction, that her conduct has left much to be desired. Oh I was terribly wicked, I know, but how bravely they all fought for me!” (xiv)Google Scholar
  6. 14.
    S. H. Butcher and A. Lang, The Odyssey of Homer Done into English Prose (New York: Macmillan, 1888).Google Scholar
  7. 18.
    Here again the complexity of Lawrence’s attitude towards translation emerges. On the one hand he sought out translation as a way of avoiding artistic independence: “In translating you get all the craftsman’s fuss of playing with words, without the artist’s responsibility of their design & meaning.” Letter to E. M. Forster, August 28, 1928, in Garnett, 625. “No original stuff, of course: just translations. I hope not again to do anything of my own. It is not good for a man to make things.” Letter of November 22, 1923, in M. R. Lawrence, ed., The Home Letters of T. E. Lawrence and His Brothers (New York: Macmillan, 1954), 356. On the other hand, the Translator’s Note in itself witnesses his refusal simply to cloak himself under Homer’s mantle, and at times he acknowledges that he couldn’t help adding touches of his own to the translation: “I’m always trying to underline, to score heavier, to put in little bits to try and lift the thing to life.” Letter to B. Rogers, January 29, 1930, quoted in J. Wilson, “T. E. Lawrence and the Translating of the Odyssey,” Journal of the T. E. Lawrence Society 3 (Fall 1994), 55. Lawrence may well have submitted to the task of translating as humbly as he could, but perfect humility was not in the end possible for a nature such as his.Google Scholar
  8. 20.
    Douglas J. Stewart, The Disguised Guest: Rank, Role, and Identity in the Odyssey (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1976), 60–63, compares the position of Achilles in Hades to Falstaff’s attitude towards honor: “The point in both cases being that death makes a hero, a man honored for his dying bravery, and thus in a sense there are no heroes; there only have been heroes!” (61). William G. Thalmann, The Odyssey: An Epic of Return (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992), 120–21, points out that the poem’s return to Hades in book 24 reinforces the connection of heroism and death, and in so doing contrasts this conception of heroism to Odysseus.Google Scholar
  9. 21.
    Cedric H. Whitman, “The Odyssey and Change,” in Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Odyssey, ed. Howard W. Clarke (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1983), 90–99, sees Odysseus as representing the old world in the new. See also Anne Amory, “The Reunion of Odysseus and Penelope,” in Charles H. Taylor, Jr., ed., Essays on the Odyssey: Selected Modern Criticism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969), 111; and David Grene, “The Odyssey: An Approach,” in Midway, 1969, 47–68: “The smoke from the chimney, the bed made from the tree anchored in the room, the crooked paths up and down the hills of Ithaca—these are descriptions where the perceived externals fuse with some deeper aspect of meaning. They have nothing to do with the Sirens or the strait between Scylla and Charybdis” (57).Google Scholar
  10. 26.
    See Pierre Vidal-Naquet, The Black Hunter: Forms of Thought and Forms of Society in the Greek World, trans. Andrew Szegedy-Maszak, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1986), 15–38.Google Scholar
  11. 29.
    See Kevin Crotty, The Poetics of Supplication: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), 198–99. For the importance of Penelope’s deception of Odysseus, and so the revelation of his vulnerability, see Anne Amory, “The Reunion of Odysseus and Penelope,” 111; W. B. Stanford, “Personal Relationships,” 26, in Taylor, Essays on the Odyssey; and Marilyn A. Katz, Penelope’s Renown: Meaning and Indeterminacy in the Odyssey (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 165, 176–77.Google Scholar
  12. 32.
    T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom: a Triumph (New York: Doubleday, 1935), 565.Google Scholar

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© Charles M. Stang 2002

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  • Stephanie Nelson
  • Maren Cohn

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