The Odyssey, translated by Samuel Butler

Manuscript title page
Autograph manuscript, early 1890s (II/3/4)

Butler’s education at Shrewsbury School gave him an excellent grounding in Classical languages and literature, which he pursued at St John’s, graduating with First Class Honours in 1859. Thirty years later, researching for his dramatic oratorio Ulysses, Butler revisited the Greek text of the Odyssey and decided to translate it into English prose ‘for the use of those who cannot read the original’.

Butler took delight in the very domestic and mundane aspects of the Odyssey. ‘Nothing can well be more franchement bourgeois & unheroic’, he wrote to his sister, calling Ulysses (Odysseus) a ‘servant’s hall hero’. While his down-to-earth approach annoyed Classical scholars, contemporary reviewers praised Butler’s ‘vivid and direct’ language. Butler’s is said to be one of only two translations James Joyce used in writing his epic Ulysses (1922).

Inside the manuscript
(II/3/4 - detail)

This photograph shows the style of Butler’s work in progress – with additions and improvements squeezed between the lines, or cut out and pasted over the top. The red crayon lines mark phrases and passages that crop up in the original Greek versions of both the Odyssey and the Iliad – evidence, as far as Butler was concerned, that the poems had different authors.

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