To paraphrase his translation of the tagline from Homer that I've paraphrased for this post's title, "the soul of Robert Fagles has drifted down to the House of Death." (It's Iliad VII.330 if you want to check it; I've just changed the number of the noun from plural to singular, and changed the verb accordingly.)
Sadly, it is a little out of the ordinary that a classicist's passing gets mentioned in the national media. It's not like there are classics groupies or anything like that. Heck, most people aren't really clear on what it is classicists do in the first place.
But Fagles was different. As the Paper of Record noted, he is one of the few people to have attempted tackling the three biggest epic poems of classical antiquity: the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid. Not only did he tackle all three, but he produced bestsellers with his translations. And that is a singular accomplishment in this diminished age when reading itself is on the decline, and when the classics are no longer exactly flying off the shelves.
I'm not surprised at the success of his works, however. I haven't yet made the acquaintance of his Aeneid (but I'm putting it on my wishlist for birthday and/or Christmas gifts), but I've had the immense pleasure of devouring both his Iliad and his Odyssey. I've taught Homer in the original Greek, and I can attest from bitter personal experience that making sense out of his text is not always an easy thing. Making not only good poetry, but good poetry that is both readable and captures something of the flavors of the original, takes a translator with more on the ball than I've got. In addition to the originals, I have four (I think it's four) translations of each of Homer's epics on the shelf behind me in the office: the Classics Club's edition of Samuel Butler's translation, Robert Fitzgerald's poetic rendering, Richmond Lattimore's more-or-less word-for-word translation, and Fagles's.
The last two are the two I'm most likely to pull off the shelf, though for different reasons. The Butler is the one I cut my teeth on as a wee sprout in junior high. It's stilted, archaic, and prosy. (But even with all those faults, it was good enough to keep me turning the pages; I think I'd read both the Iliad and the Odyssey two or three times apiece before I hit high school.) The Fitzgerald I forget how I came by. It may have been a required text for one of my high school classes, or it may have been a Christmas or birthday gift from my folks. I know plenty of people who swear by Fitzgerald's translation, but it's always left me cold. He uses a very odd transliteration scheme for the common names, and while he keeps to a poetic form, I never felt it singing to me. The Lattimore was a college text, and it's the one I reach for if I want a fairly precise rendering in English. Lattimore was no slouch as a translator, but given his decision to stick closely to the original, it can be a little dense in places.
But Fagles's translation, on the other hand, not only sticks to at least a mostly six-beat line (echoing the epic hexameters of Homer's original) and fairly closely to the original text, but manages to make it sing. His is the translation I pull down when I want a reasonably accurate rendering with some oomph behind it.
Of course, that skill makes his passing at a reasonably young age (he was 74) all the more tragic. If we're ever going to get more people reading the good stuff from antiquity, we need people who can turn them into bestsellers. And thus I will lament his death with words from another classical author (the Bard this time) and paraphrase the beginning of a famous soliloquy pronounced by the leading character in a play connected with Scotland,* "[he] should have died hereafter."
*One does never speak the name of the Scottish Play!