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But here Pope again reveals his ignorance or his carelessness,
“As on some ample barn's well-hardened floor,
Light leaps the golden grain, resulting * from the ground."
pass to one of the most engaging and one of the sweetest
* That is, leaping back.
" And barns are whitened with the rising cloud." FOURTH SERIES, VOL. XXIV.-24
beyond the middle of the Iliad that he ventured to acquaint his friends with what he intended to do, for he feared, with good reason, that it might otherwise appear problematic whether he would complete his work. Some of his friends, indeed, were not a little disappointed that one who had recently developed such extraordinary powers as an independent wooer of the Muses should stoop to the apparently lower level of a translator of the writings of another. And so Cowper's letters, written in his inimitable playfulness, are rather of an apologetic tone about this time, as if deprecating the censure which he felt he half deserved. Thus to the Rev. John Newton he wrote, December 3, 1785 : "Homer, in point of purity, is a most blameless writer; and, though he was not an enlightened man, has interspersed many great and valuable truths throughout both his poems. In short, he is in all respects a most venerable old gentleman, by an acquaintance with whom no man can disgrace himself. The literati are all agreed to a man that, although Pope has given us two pretty poems under Homer's titles, there is not to be found in them the least portion of Homer's spirit, nor the least resemblance to his manner. I will try, therefore, whether I cannot copy him somewhat more happily myself. I have, at least, the advantage of Pope's faults and failings, which, like so many buoys upon a dangerous coast, will serve me to steer by, and will make my chance more probable. These and many other considerations, but especially a mind that abhorred a vacuum as its chief bane, induced me so effectually to the work, that ere long I mean to publish proposals for a subscription to it."
Cowper had in his unusually close acquaintance with Homer, and Homer's modes of thought and of expression, a fine preparation for his work. Years before he had read and re-read his immortal works in company with a friend equally devoted to classical pursuits. They had studied him by himself, they had compared with him and with each other the older English versions, and Pope's, which was still all the rage, had particularly disgusted them. “I never saw," he wrote at a later date, *
a copy so unlike the original. There is not, I believe, in all the world to be found an uninspired poem so simple as those of Homer; nor in all the world a poem more bedizened with
* Letter to Rev. John Newton, December 10, 1785.
ornament than Pope's translation of them. Accordingly, the sublime of Homer in the hands of Pope becomes bloated and tumid, and his description tawdry. Neither had Pope the faintest conception of those exquisite discriminations of character for which Homer is so remarkable. All his persons, and equally upon all occasions, speak in an inflated and strutting phraseology as Pope managed them; although in the original, the dignity of their utterance, even where they are most majestic, consists principally in the simplicity of their language. Another censure I must needs pass upon our Anglo-Grecian, out of many that obtrude themselves upon me, but for which I have neither time to spare nor room, which is, that with all his great abilities he was defective in his feelings to a degree that some passages in his own poems make it difficult to account for. No writer more pathetic than Homer, because none more natural; and because none less natural than Pope in his version of Homer, therefore than he none less pathetic."
The utter failure of his great predecessor (avowedly a great poet when he undertook to give expression to his own thoughts) in the attempt to reproduce Homer's writings in English verse, Cowper ascribed in great part to the fact that Pope had trammeled himself with rhyme. He regarded it an utter impossibility for a poet, no matter how skillful he might be in the use of language, to give the sense of a foreign work with strict fidelity if he burdened himself with the requirement that his lines should be rhyming couplets. In blank verse the problem might be solved, in rhymed verses never. Not that it is easier under ordinary circumstances to compose blank verse than to rhyme; on the contrary, while almost every body can write tolerable verses, such is the fatal facility of the Euglish language but few can form respectable blank verse, so great is the care and variety which the successful prosecution of this species demands. But it is impracticable to find a form of words with similar terminations that shall adequately express the sense of any given passage in a poem written in a foreign language.
With these views Cowper undertook to translate the Iliad and the Odyssey, the former of which he published in 1791. If his performance did not completely realize his high expectations, it was not from any defect in his general plan. He was undoubtedly correct in his choice of a metre, and he had the right view of the translator's province as limited to the close reproduction of his original. But he was less fortunate in the execution, despite the assurances with which his letters abound, that he would allow no defective line to escape his attention and correction. No one can deny that his versification is often rongh, the flow of words irregular and interrupted, the constructions involved and harsh ; in fine, very unlike the calm, inajestic movement that every-where characterizes Homer's own hexameters. Take, for instance, so favorable an example of his style as that contained in the twelfth book of the Iliad, where Hector indignantly rebukes Polydamas for giving heed to the unfavorable augury derived from the circumstance that a bird in its flight had dropped a serpent between the contending armies :
"To whom, dark-lowering, Hector thus replied:
* The various translations of the famous line (243) in the Greek,
Είς οιωνός άριστος, αμύνεσθαι περί πάτρης, are themselves a study:
Voss: Ein Wahrzeicheu nur gilt: das Vaterland zu erretten.
The best of omens is our country's cause.
One-far o'er all-to guard my country-mine.
That we are bravely fighting to defend
But if thou shrink thysell, or by smooth speech
Pierced by this spear, incontinent thou diest.”—230, etc.
Cowper's Homer inaugurated a new series of translations. The view which he promulgated, and endeavored to put into practice in his own work, has come to be generally accepted as sound and judicious. It is now admitted almost npon all sides, that the paramount obligation resting upon the translator is accuracy; that care in the selection of corresponding idioms, in the adoption of equivalent epithets, in the similar distribution of the matter, is not labor thrown away. A few critics, it is true, continue to advocate the old theory and practice, according to which a very loose paraphrase is allowed to assume the name of a translation, however unfaithful it may be to the form, and even the spirit, of the original. Thus a recent writer in the “ North American Review” (October, 1870) is in favor of nothing that lies between a simple rendering of the Greek into Pope : (free as usual,)
Without a sign, his sword the brave man draws,
And asks no omen but his country's cause.
For our own land.
One augury is best, to fight for native land.
One omen's best--to fight for fatherland.
Edinburgh Review," January, 1865.