Page images

Of John Cabanis' wrath...

and the fall

Of Rhodes' bank that brought unnumbered woes

And loss to many, with engendered hate.

A little later come the lines,

Say first,

Thou son of night, called Momus, from whose eyes

No secret hides. . . .

and, two pages farther on, this patent burlesque of the opening of

the second book of Paradise Lost,

High on a stage that overlooked the chairs ...

Sat Harmon Whitney, to that eminence,

By merit raised in ribaldry and guile,

And to the assembled rebels thus he spake.1

1 Cf. P. L., i. 1-4, 27; ii. 1-10.



BLANK verse was first employed, outside of the drama, in Surrey's translation of two books of the Aeneid (1557). The use to which the new measure was put was not due entirely to chance; for to Englishmen who have loved the literature of Greece and Rome, who have grown up with it at school, have escaped to it from the pressure of affairs, and have mellowed their old age with its serenity, - to such men, and they have fortunately been many, the impulse to translate their favorite authors has been strangely potent. It has led to the making of hundreds of translations that have never appeared, and of hundreds of others the printing of which has been a costly luxury to their authors or publishers; yet published a large number of them are, notwithstanding the few purchasers or readers they find. Even the feverish life and scholarship of America have in recent years felt this impulse (which is the reverse of utilitarian) to no slight degree.

But the significance of Surrey's work lies not so much in its being a translation as in its being written in blank verse; and, the more we think of it, the more fitting it seems that our first unrimed poem should be a rendering of one of the great poems of antiquity. For, notwithstanding the merited popularity of Dryden's Virgil and Pope's Homer, lovers of Greek and Latin have never been entirely satisfied with the heroic couplet as an English equivalent of the classical hexameter. Even in Pope's day there were many who thought with Bentley, "The verses are good verses, but the work is not Homer." Indeed, far more serious objections could be urged against rime in the eighteenth century than at present; for the couplet had become a highly-finished, brilliant medium associated

1 This chapter I would gladly have left unwritten, for to do it justice one ought to have experience in verse translation and a wide and thorough knowledge of Greek and Latin literature, of Dante, and of various modern writers. Even then the amount of time required might prove disproportionate to the results. Yet blank-verse translations are so numerous and important, and they are under such a heavy debt to Milton, that in a study of his influence they cannot be ignored. I hope that what I have written, unsatisfactory as it is, may give some idea of this extensive but neglected field of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century poetry. The inaccuracy with which the originals are rendered is stressed in J. W. Draper's Theory of Translation in the Eighteenth Century (Neophilologus, Groningen, Holland, vi. 241-54).

2 Pope's Works (ed. J. Warton, 1797), iv. 23 n.

in every one's mind with argument, wit, satire, and artificiality, with such works as Absalom and Achitophel, the Essay on Criticism, the Rape of the Lock, and The Dunciad.

Yet in any age the difficulties of rimed translation are very great. It is hard enough to reproduce accurately, simply, and pleasantly the mere meaning of a poem written in a notably-condensed foreign language; it is far harder to render the manner and spirit of the original, to give approximately the same impression that it gives, of robust vigor, for example, or natural ease, or exquisite art; but it is most difficult of all to make the work not simply faithful but fresh, natural, and interesting, to make it read well a hundred pages at a time, like an original production. To achieve these three things will test the mettle of the ablest writer; and, if the fetters of rime be added, which are much heavier in translation than in an original work, where the thought can be modified to fit the meter, the task becomes almost impossible. In the words of a well-known translator, "The exigencies of rhyme positively forbid faithfulness."1 It is like a woman's undertaking to act Hamlet, an exceedingly difficult part at the best. In a rimed translation the thought or the spirit or the verse usually suffers, and sometimes all three. J. S. Blackie makes light of the difficulties of rime, and later translators in general have less to say about them than did the earlier. But the opposition has not so much decreased as shifted its ground: modern poets feel more subtle objections. Rime seems to them, in the words of E. H. Plumptre, "to introduce an element more or less incongruous, to fetter the free flow of thought by the periodicity of the same sound recurring at fixed intervals, to present a temptation, very difficult to guard against, to expansion and over-ornamentation for the sake of it." 2

Even the Augustans, practically all of whom tried their hands at translation, of course felt "the troublesome and modern bondage of riming," but accepted it in the main as a necessary evil. Yet Dryden is said to have declared, "Nor would I have done my Virgil in rime if I was to begin it again"; and, when Lyttelton expressed surprise that Pope had not used blank verse for his Iliad, the master of the heroic couplet did not defend his measure but answered that rime was easier for him. The Augustans also felt that riming was a modern bondage and thus misrepresented the original, just as the

1 F. W. Newman, The Iliad, faithfully translated (1856), preface, p. vii.

2 Tragedies of Sophocles (2d ed., 1867), p. xi.

3 Joseph Richardson, Explanatory Notes on P. L. (1734), p. cxx.

4 Percival Stockdale, Memoirs (1809), ii. 44.

actress's sex would misrepresent the Prince of Denmark. Even so early as 1766 one writer anticipated Matthew Arnold's chief objection to the couplet. "Rhyme," he wrote, "besides obliging you to end the line with a good sound, serves also as a barrier between each in a couplet."

Opposition to rime increased through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as greater control was gained over blank verse and as a more scrupulous faithfulness came to be demanded of the translator. But the most important development since Pope's time is the growth in popularity of prose translations, which the Augustans apparently did not consider at all but which to-day are probably read more than any others. Yet, though the average reader may prefer prose, poets and men of learning as a rule do not. To them the Iliad, the Aeneid, and the Divine Comedy are first of all poems, and no other aspect of such works is it so important to convey to the reader as the poetic. Prose versions of these masterpieces, they object, are like black-and-white reproductions of a Turner or a Monet, in which no attempt is made to render the artist's supreme excellence, color. To the retort that no color is better than bad color, they reply that the color, though of course far short of the original, need not be bad. But it is not simply the loss of beauty that poets complain of; it is something more fundamental. A great poem, they remind us, is conceived as a poem and expressed in the language and figures of poetry; if it had been conceived and expressed as prose it would be something entirely different. Prose, they insist, misrepresents it as much as French Alexandrine verse would misrepresent Bacon's Essays, for the language and style of poetry seem unnatural in a prose work. Certain it is that the production of new poetic translations is, if anything, on the increase in recent years and that the older verse translations are frequently reissued. Pope's Homer, Cary's and Longfellow's Dante, all have a steady sale, and cheap reprints of the Earl of Derby's Iliad and Cowper's Odyssey have recently appeared.

Almost every possible and some impossible meters have been employed for translation of the classic epics, the Spenserian and

1 That is, between each pair of lines in a couplet and those that precede or follow it. The comment is Robert Andrews's (Works of Virgil, 1766, p. 2). Cf. Arnold, On Translating Homer (1861), lecture i, p. 15: "Rhyme inevitably tends to pair lines which in the original are independent, and thus the movement of the poem is changed."

2 This simile is H. D. Sedgwick's (Dante, New Haven, Conn., 1918, p. 173).

* It is illuminating to learn that Lewis Campbell began his version of Sophocles in prose, "but soon found that, for tragic dialogue in English, blank verse appeared a more natural and effective vehicle than any prose style which he could hope to frame" (Sophocles, the Seven Plays, 1883, prefatory note, p. xxvi).

other stanzas, the octosyllabics of Marmion, a ballad meter consist-
ing of a tetrameter and a trimeter half-line, the quatrains of Omar,
rimed or unrimed pentameter or hexameter, hendecasyllabics, and
fourteeners. The unrimed dactylic hexameter, which theoretically
would appear to be the best medium for rendering the Greek and
Latin hexameter, has been strongly urged by so sympathetic and
discriminating a classicist and so eminent a critic as Matthew
Arnold. Yet there are grave difficulties. It would seem obvious
that a great translation of Homer or Virgil must be in a meter which
has domesticated itself in English, as the hexameter had in Greek
and Latin; otherwise, however excellent in itself, it would sound
academic and strange and thus false to the original. Furthermore,
good hexameters such as Arnold describes are even more difficult
than rimes,1 and to employ them in a poem as long as the Iliad,
without sacrificing any of its spirit or meaning, is a task to which no
one as yet seems to have been equal. Arnold himself acknowledges
that "a good model, on any considerable scale, of this metre, the
English translator will nowhere find"; but he sweeps aside the diffi-
culty in his most Olympian manner by declaring, "This is an objec-
tion which can best be met by producing good English hexameters." 2
Well, sixty more years have passed and they have not yet been
produced! Except for Southey's far from successful Vision of Judge-
ment, Clough's humorous Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich, and the much-
criticized meter of Evangeline and the Courtship of Miles Standish, in
which no one wishes to read Homer, they remain academic exercises.
These lame hexameters the strong-wing'd music of Homer!
No but a most burlesque barbarous experiment,


Tennyson exclaimed of some of them; and in a matter of this kind his opinion, particularly when it is reinforced by that of Swinburne and of Landor, carries no less weight than Arnold's.

1 One reason for this is suggested by Cranch in the preface to his translation of the Aeneid (Boston, 1872, pp. v-vi): "To say nothing of the greater advantage the Latin has in its winged and airy vowel-syllables, the trouble is to find in English pure spondaic words enough, without which the lines must be overloaded with dactyls; the result being... fatiguing and monotonous. . . . I cannot but think that the hexameter belongs exclusively to the costume of the antique ages, and that the less the epic muse has to do with it, the better."

2 On Translating Homer, lecture iii, pp. 80, 76.

[ocr errors]

In Quantity: On Translations of Homer. "Some," he remarked on another occasion, .. have endeavoured to give us the Iliad in English hexameters, and by what appears to me their failure have gone far to prove the impossibility of the task. I have long held by our blank verse in this matter" (note to his Specimen of a Translation of the Iliad, in Works, ed. Hallam Tennyson, N. Y., 1913, p. 925).

"At best what ugly bastards of verse are these self-styled hexameters," wrote Swinburne (Essays and Studies, 1875, p. 163); and Landor, who felt,

[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »