Chapman on Homer
George Chapman (1559? – 1634), Renaissance poet and playwright, produced a plethora of original work following the fashionable humanist beliefs and style prevalent in his day. Yet Chapman is best-known for his translated works of poetry. Through his translations of the Greek epic poet Homer, Chapman sought to establish himself as an artist on par with the most famous poet of the ancient world. Chapman’s translations were the first of their kind in their break from the literal interpretation of the text toward a more stylistic approach which allowed the poet to change words to help his reader understand the nuances of the ancient Greek. Worth’s edition contains Chapman’s earlier translations and commentary on the Iliad and Odyssey as well as Chapman’s own verse commemorating his work process and his patrons, written in both Latin and English.
Image 1: George Chapman, The Whole Works of Homer, prince of Poetts: In his Iliads, and Odysses. Translated According to the Greeke (London, 1616-1634), portrait of Chapman.
Born in Hertfordshire, England, around the year 1559, George Chapman was educated at Oxford but, taking no degree, moved to London to begin his career as a poet where he gained recognition amongst Jacobean dramatists for his poems and plays. Most of Chapman’s works beyond his translations were concerned with character driven exploration of heroic virtues; his surviving works primarily consist of tragedies and translations. In the year 1605 he was imprisoned with fellow poets Ben Jonson (1573?-1637) and John Marston (1575-1634) for their play, Eastward Ho, which offended King James I (1566-1625) because of its offensive depiction of the Scots. Although an independent artist, Chapman gained most of his recognition on account of his translated works. His first attempts of translation appeared in print in the year 1598 in the work, Seaven Bookes of the Iliad. Yet it was not until the 1616 publication of The Whole Works of Homer, that his completed version of both the Iliad and the Odyssey appeared in print.
Image 2: George Chapman, The Whole Works of Homer, prince of Poetts: In his Iliads, and Odysses. Translated According to the Greeke (London, 1616-1634), title page.
Chapman’s translation of the Homeric texts into English breaks from previous translation norms. The biggest change from tradition relates to Chapman’s self-proclaimed identity. Chapman considered himself to be a true Hellenist and emphasized that his translation was direct from the Greek, rather than based on previous Latin editions of the texts, as had been the custom among his predecessors. This distinction is evident throughout his introduction to the reader as well as in his commentary, as he commonly refers to his laborious process of interpreting the Greek. Above all, Chapman used his title to draw attention to this approach, emphasizing that his work was ‘Translated According to the Greeke’. In comparison with other titles of this period, his is one of the few works that notes this difference. In his translation, Chapman departs from the traditional Homeric use of poetic meter. Originally composed in didactic hexameter, Chapman’s English translation is written in iambic pentameter and heptameter. This departure from the classical epic meter serves as Chapman’s imposition of his own style on the Homeric text.
The 1616 edition of Chapman’s translation includes a series of engravings by the artist, William Hole (d. 1624). Chapman would work with Hole on several occasions over the course of his career as a poet. During their relationship, Chapman often requested specific design details to be included in the engravings. Namely details like the Latin inscription included on Chapman’s portrait: ‘Haec est laurigeri facies divini Georgi’ or ‘Here is the divine figure of George, crowned with laurels’ translated into English. Although Chapman is not depicted wearing a laurel crown, the traditional crown of a loved poet in the classical period, the implication of this inscription is that Chapman is on par with the divinely inspired Homer.
On the title page of the work there is an ornately decorated depiction of the Greek hero, Achilles, and the Trojan hero, Hector, facing each other and framing the title of the work. Above the title is a portrait of Homer, crowned with laurel leaves. Homer is positioned above the mortal heroes of his work as a means of establishing him as a divinely inspired artist, who is raised to a heavenly status. Beside Homer are two seated deities from the Greco-Roman pantheon further asserting Homer’s position as an almost divine figure: on the left ‘Mulciber’ (another name for Hephaestus) and, on the right, Apollo, holding his lyre. Depicting Apollo in this engraving makes logical sense, as Apollo was viewed as the patron deity of poetry and plays a major role within the Iliad of Homer, but the inclusion of the figure of Mulciber/Hephaestus is less obvious. The presence of this deity could be an evocation of embracing personal struggle. Mulciber/Hephaestus is usually depicted as a disabled god yet one who can craft the powerful weapons of the gods. As such Mulciber/Hephaestus might be read as a parallel for Homer who, though blind, was able to compile and create these great stories.
Image 3: George Chapman, The Whole Works of Homer, prince of Poetts: In his Iliads, and Odysses. Translated According to the Greeke (London, 1616-1634), dedication to Henry, Prince of Wales.
The 1616 translation of the works of Homer contains a specially engraved dedication to the patron of George Chapman’s translated works, Henry, Prince of Wales (1594-1612). The inclusion of this engraving is worth noting, as Prince Henry would have already been dead for four years at the time of its printing. Traditionally, these dedicatory engravings would only be completed for living patrons, and engravings for dead patrons would only be retained in re-printings of works. The two columns evoke the pillars of Hercules, presenting Prince Henry as a figure in line with this famous Greek hero, noted for his unshakeable morals. Inscribed on each column is the title of each of works, ‘Ilias’ and ‘Odysses’, an inclusion which sought to imply that the longevity of Chapman’s text would be the means and parameters by which Prince Henry would be remembered. Notably, the banner connecting the two pillars, inscribed with the Latin: ‘Musar Hercul Colum’ shapes the dedication into the shape of the letter ‘H’. At the same time, by including a memorial to the deceased prince and his role of patron Chapman sought to ratify his own position as a renowned poet and gain acclaim from everyone, from the common reader to the king.
Image 4: George Chapman, The Whole Works of Homer, prince of Poetts: In his Iliads, and Odysses. Translated According to the Greeke (London, 1616-1634), p. 347 ‘OF HOMERS ODYSSES’.
Worth’s copy of Chapman’s Homer was bound by the ‘Worth Bindery’, identifiable by its distinctive rolls, gouges and naturalistic motifs on the spine. Within the gold-tooled covers it holds secrets, for the text consists of the 1634 edition of the Iliad and the 1616 prefatory material and 1616 text of the Odyssey. The cataloguer of the ‘1730’ catalogue (perhaps looking no further than the prefatory material with its iconic images), deemed the edition to be the earlier 1616 edition – and certainly the running title of the Odyssey section (as may be seen above), lacks the apostrophe which was later added in the 1634 edition. However, we are clearly not dealing with a complete text from 1616, for the running title of the Iliad section includes the apostrophe and italicizes Homer’s name – a characteristic of the 1634 edition.
Image 5: George Chapman, The Whole Works of Homer, prince of Poetts: In his Iliads, and Odysses. Translated According to the Greeke (London, 1616-1634), p. 2, dedication of the Iliad to Henry, Prince of Wales.
Worth’s copy is unusual for another reason – it lacks the extra 1634 title page and it is bound in the wrong order – following the engraved plate dedicated to Henry, Prince of Wales, the unsuspecting reader is met with another dedication (this time to Robert Carr (1585/6?-1645), Earl of Somerset (the dedicatee of the 1616 edition of the Odyssey), which follows on immediately. This, in turn, is immediately followed by the dedication to Prince Henry, and the 1634 text of the Iliad. Did Worth buy the two texts separately and have them bound together? Or did he purchase the text block in its current form and have it rebound, not realizing that one section was, one might say, displaced both in time and space! Was this the arrangement preferred by a previous owner, Benjamin Mead (fl. 1703), whose signature may be found on the dedication to ‘Lord Walden’ (possibly Theophilus Howard (1584-1640), 2nd Baron Howard de Walden)? It is impossible to know.
Image 6: George Chapman, The Whole Works of Homer, prince of Poetts: In his Iliads, and Odysses. Translated According to the Greeke (London, 1616-1634), dedication to Queen Anne.
Chapman’s translations of the Iliad and Odyssey mark a shift in approaches to translated literature. Chapman changed specific language while translating to make the text more accessible to his wider reading audience. In doing so he adapted the position of the translator and transformed it into the role of an interpreter. His commentary in the margins of the text serves to illuminate changes and instances of heroism and morality. Chapman even goes so far as to assert that Homer intended ironic readings for passages which do not fall in line with his own views on morality. He preferred stable continuity throughout character arcs and plot lines that was not found within the text. Rather than interpreting these as literal digressions, through his commentary Chapman argued that these were moments of satire rather than instances of contrariness. Therefore, through each insertion of commentary Chapman pushed to establish himself as the sole authority on all things related to Homer.
Chapman died in London in the year 1634 after releasing several more original works, as well as another translation of the Homeric works entitled, The Crowne of all Homers Works in 1624. His legacy was defined by his translations of the works of Homer, gaining praise from generations to follow, the most famous coming in the form of a poem by the English poet, John Keats (1795-1821) entitled: On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer. This poem credits the use of descriptive language as a gateway into the world of Homer.
Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
John Keats, On First Looking into Chapmans Homer, 1816.
The poem ignited a further surge in popularity of Chapman’s translations. Keats swayed public perception of Chapman’s translations, portraying them as the interpretation which best encapsulated the poetic intentions of the poet Homer. Through this poem Chapman as an artist and scholar lives on and serves as a continual agent for creativity amongst other artists as well as a gateway into understanding the ancient texts.
Chapman’s use of his own unique style and artistry captivated readers and has continued to spark discourse among scholars. His translations have continued to persist in the consciousness of the modern classicist and reader, despite the many other translators who have tackled the writings of Homer. Modern scholars and translators, while acknowledging the role which Chapman has played in maintaining the study of Homer, assert that his translations uphold his own beliefs on morality, rather than allow a literal word-for-word translation to speak for itself. These modern commentators condemn Chapman for his overuse of Christian and Humanist themes within his translations and maintain that it is the imposition of these ideas that betray Chapman’s translation. Yet George Chapman’s translations of the Iliad and Odyssey remain as prevalent interpretations and entry ways into Homeric material, despite the proliferation of newer translations. Chapman’s Homer has continued and will remain a staple of discourse within the study of classics.
Text: Ms Sofia Podgorski, Third Year Student, Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies, Boston University, USA.
Adams, J. Q., ‘Eastward Hoe and Its Satire against the Scots’, Studies in Philology, 28 (4) (1931), 689–701.
Anon, ‘Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales’, online post on the Westminster Abbey website (2023).
Buchtel, J. A., ‘Book Dedications and the Death of a Patron: The Memorial Engraving in Chapman’s “Homer”’, Book History, 7, (2004), 1–29.
Buenger, T.A., ‘The Classics and the Protestant Reformation’, The Classical Weekly, 11 (5) (1917), 34–37.
Chaix Rouchon, Beatrice, ‘«Onely Paine Crownes Worth » : George Chapman et la difficile gloire du Poète-traducteur’, Études Épistémè, (42) (2022).
Keats, John, ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’ (1816).
Miola, R. S., ‘On Death and Dying in Chapman’s ‘Iliad’: Translation as Forgery’, International Journal of the Classical Tradition, 3 (1) (1996), 48–64.
Miola, R. S. (ed.), George Chapman: Homer’s Iliad, MHRA Tudor and Stuart Translations 20 (Cambridge:, 2017), vol. 20.
Presson, R. K., ‘Wrestling with This World: A View of GeorgeChapman’, PMLA, 84 (1) (1969), 44–50.
Slote, Bernice, ‘Of Chapman’s Homer and Other Books’, College English, 23 (4) (1962), 256–260.
Steiner, T. R. (ed.), English translation theory: 1650-1800 (Assen and Amsterdam, 1975), vol 10.
Swinburne, A. C., George Chapman: A critical essay (London, 1875).
Wolfe, Jessica, Homer and the question of strife from Erasmus to Hobbes (Toronto, 2015).
 Presson, R. K., ‘Wrestling with This World: A View of George Chapman’, PMLA, 84 (1) (1969), 44–50.
 Buchtel, J. A., ‘Book Dedications and the Death of a Patron: The Memorial Engraving in Chapman’s “Homer”’, Book History, 7, (2004), 6.
 Ibid., 12.
 Wolfe, Jessica, Homer and the question of strife from Erasmus to Hobbes (Toronto, 2015), p. 243.