Not so with Apollonius of Rhodes' Argonautica. Which is why the new translation by Aaron Poochigian is welcome.
(Normally, I would attach a picture of the book cover to this post, but I really hate the cover. So you get a bee-yootiful dog instead.)
This grand poem from Hellenistic Greece (3rd century BC) is not in the Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid canon maintained by (sadly, fewer) schools, and some would say for good reason.
Although it is always a treasure to have all the literature we have from the ancient world-- so much was lost-- the Argonautica is an epic that scholars traditionally place in the second rank. It is overlong, mannered, and full of digressions and trivia (as befits a poem written by a man who was the head librarian of Alexandria; sorry, don't mean to offend any present-day librarians).
The story concerns the hero Jason, who must fetch the Golden Fleece that is guarded by a dragon. Jason outfits the magic ship Argo and summons a group of heroes to help him on the way.
Adventures abound: among them, Harpies, a boxing king, and a miniature-golf-like hazard: a narrow strait with sea rocks that smash together before a ship can get through.
Once at their goal, Jason must obtain permission from the king of the land to fetch the fleece, but the king is jealous and sets Jason impossible tasks, including yoking two bronze fire-breathing bulls and plowing a field with them.
To the rescue comes princess and sorceress Medea.
Goddess of crushes Aphrodite gives Medea an irresistible crush on Jason, and she betrays her father, helps Jason with the impossible tasks, and elopes with him. Then it's back to Greece, where Jason claims his ancestral throne.
Sounds like fun, doesn't it? It might remind you of a certain silly little ground-breaking movie from long ago, made by one Ray Harryhausen.
But despite all the swashbuckling and romance, for me personally the story comes off as an eensy bit tedious. There's never much at stake for Jason. He's surrounded by heroes-- including the great Hercules through some of the voyage-- so always seems to get help where he needs it, with the result that nothing is in doubt. Nor does he change or mature.
Medea is more interesting as the teenage girl who battles against the spell Aphrodite has imposed on her. Her inner dialogue has its moments as psychological drama, and her sacrifice for Jason should be more affecting, but Apollonius makes it feel flat.
Benjamin Acosta-Hughes, who introduces the poem, must have been instructed to fight against impressions such as mine. Penguin Classics wants to recoup the investment in this poem that is less than a household name, and Acosta-Hughes accordingly plays up the excitement:
...[To] a modern reader, particularly one coming to the poem without much experience of its earlier models, [the Argonautica] may read much more like Tolkien in poetic form than anything else. And this would perhaps be right. In its combination of the real and the fantastical, its engagement with traditions of medicine, astronomy, and science, its magical vessel that speaks and yet serves as the plaything of water nymphs, heroes that have wings, and a king whose grandfather is the center of the solar system it is truly without exact parallel in previous or contemporary Greek literature.
To which any reasonable reader of Tolkien might reply, where exactly in Tolkien is there any of that catalogue that Acosta-Hughes enumerates?
Similarly, translator Aaron Poochigian and his notes on the translation come off to me as a bit more important-sounding than they need to be:
I have felt for years that Jason and the Argonauts needed a verse translation in which the poetic rhythms reinforce syntactic units as do the rhythms of the original, and in which the electricity of the language we expect in poetry is sustained.
I don't really know what that last sentence means, and I can't see it in the translation.
The lines are sometimes quite faithful iambic pentameters such as you'd find in Shakespeare. At other times, not so much.
Here is a nice example of an economical iambic "ba-BUMP" passage:
And Eros was descending all the while,
descending through the lustrous air, unseen
But the next lines break the spell:
but as rambunctious as the stinging fly
that oxherds call the "goad," the kind that nettles
As verse, it's hit and miss, but reading it simply for sense gets the job done. Advanced students of classics will appreciate both a contemporary translation that is faithful to the Greek, and the care taken with passages such as this one:
Her heart was fitful, restless in the way
a sunbeam, when reflected off the water
swirling out of a pail or pitcher, dances
upon the walls-- yes, that was how her heart
was quivering. And tears of pity flowed
out of her eyes, and anguish burned her insides
by smoldering into her skin and sinews,
even into the apex of her spine,
the point where torment peaks when the relentless
love gods have filled us up with agony.
Poochigian has made somewhat of a strait jacket for himself with his blank verse aspirations and his desire for electricity, so that the translation is sometimes very formal-sounding, at other times weirdly colloquial.
But I don't know that Poochigian has failed. In a way what he's done is pretty closely mirror Apollonius himself, who wrote at an in-between time for Greek, long after the heyday of Greek mythology, and before the golden age of Latin literature. His work is just a bit awkward and weird on its own, and Poochigian has captured that.
It's a valiant effort, even if Poochigian has trotted out the dreaded "cultured individual" as the poem's ultimate audience. I think Apollonius could have a larger audience-- he reached one via that movie-- but the translation would need to give up on electricity and pentameters and go completely on verve and charisma.
A final note on the Notes section in the back of the book: it would have served readers better for these notes to be more explanatory than appreciative. Many of the notes tend toward deep literary thoughts, rather than simply nuts and bolts definitions.
And one final final note: I do not understand how it was possible to mess up the cover of this book so badly. You've got a green Medea clutching the head of an overgrown brown snake with a yellow throat, while a green Jason looks the other way, expressionless. All of this with a bright yellow background and brown random snake coils. Brown, yellow, and green? Is that the best Penguin could do? It feels like someone is having me on.