If Homer had walked the English soil in 1597 he would have felt that he had lived in vain. At that date no English poet had a substantial knowledge of either the Iliad or the Odyssey. Although the statutes of grammar schools made proud boasts that Greek was studied in the higher forms, it's likely that by the end of the 16th century only a handful of schoolchildren could read more than a few lines of Homer in the original. Those who fancied themselves as scholars could cite the odd tag from the Iliad and the Odyssey (Odysseus's assertion 'let there be one king' was a favourite), but even literate people would have had only a general idea that the Odyssey was about a magical journey home and that the Iliad was about war. The few who actually read Homer at this time tended to read Latin translations, such as those by Eobanus Hessus and Lorenzo Valla. These translations made Homer look familiar. They often quoted or adapted lines from Virgil when they translated sections of Homer which Virgil imitated, so that Homer appeared inextricably fused with a Latin tradition that was part of the life blood of English readers. Even writers who wanted to be thought of as classicists usually needed a Latin crib to help them through Greek poetry in this period. Ben Jonson, who famously drew attention to Shakespeare's 'small Latine, and lesse Greeke', probably got most of what he knew of Homer from an anthology of Greek verse which had a Latin translation facing each page.
LRB 27 June 2002 | PDF Download