MATTHEW ARNOLD, ON TRANSLATING HOMER (1861)

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ON TRANSLATING HOMER.

… Nunquamne reponam ?

I.

IT has more than once been suggested to me that I should translate Homer. That is a task for which I have neither the time nor the courage ; but the suggestion led me to regard yet more closely a poet whom I had already long studied, and for one or two years the works of Homer were seldom out of my hands. The study of classical literature is probably on the decline ; but, whatever may be the fate of this study in general, it is certain that as instruction spreads and the number of readers increases, attention will be more and more directed to the poetry of Homer, not indeed as part of a classical course, but as the most important poetical monument existing. Even within the last ten years two fresh translations of the Iliad have appeared in England : one by a man of great ability and genuine learning, Professor Newman[1] ; the other by Mr. Wright[2], the conscientious and painstaking translator of Dante. It may safely be asserted that neither of these works will take rank as the standard translation of Homer ; that the task of rendering him will still be attempted by other translators. It may perhaps be possible to render to these some service, to save them some loss of labour, by pointing out rocks on which their predecessors have split, and the right objects on which a translator of Homer should fix his attention.

It is disputed, what aim a translator should propose to himself in dealing with his original. Even this preliminary is not yet settled. On one side it is said, that the translation ought to be such “that the reader should, if possible, forget that it is a translation at all, and be lulled into the illusion that he is reading an original work ; something original,” (if the translation be in English), “from an English hand.” The real original is in this case, it is said, “taken as a basis on which to rear a poem that shall affect our countrymen as the original may be conceived to have affected its natural hearers.” On the other hand, Mr. Newman, who states the foregoing doctrine only to condemn it, declares that he “aims at precisely the opposite : to retain every peculiarity of the original, so far as he is able, with the greater care the more foreign it may happen to be ;” so that it may “never be forgotten that he is imitating, and imitating in a different material.” The translator’s “first duty,” says Mr. Newman, “is a historical one ; to be faithful.’’ Probably both sides would agree that the translator’s “first duty is to be faithful ;” but the question at issue between them is, in what faithfulness consists.

My one object is to give practical advice to a translator ; and I shall not the least concern myself with theories of translation as such. But I advise the translator not to try “to rear on the basis of the Iliad, a poem that shall affect our countrymen as the original may be conceived to have affected its natural hearers ;” and for this simple reason, that we cannot possibly tell how the Iliad “affected its natural hearers.” It is probably meant merely that he should try to affect Englishmen powerfully, as Homer affected Greeks powerfully ; but this direction is not enough, and can give no real guidance. For all great poets affect their hearers powerfully, but the effect of one poet is one thing, that of another poet another thing : it is our translator’s business to reproduce the effect of Homer, and the most powerful emotion of the unlearned English reader can never assure him whether he has reproduced this, or whether he has produced something else. So, again, he may follow Mr. Newman’s directions, he may try to  be “faithful,” he may “retain every peculiarity of his original ;” but who is to assure him, who is to assure Mr. Newman himself, that, when he has done this, he has done that for which Mr. Newman enjoins this to be done, “adhered closely to Homer’s manner and habit of thought ?” Evidently the translator needs some more practical directions than these. No one can tell him how Homer affected the Greeks ; but there are those who can tell him how Homer affects them. These are scholars ; who possess, at the same time with knowledge of Greek, adequate poetical taste and feeling. No translation will seem to them of much worth compared with the original ; but they alone can say, whether the translation produces more or less the same effect upon them as the original. They are the only competent tribunal in this matter : the Greeks are dead ; the unlearned Englishman has not the data for judging ; and no man can safely confide in his own single judgment of his own work. Let not the translator, then, trust to his notions of what the ancient Greeks would have thought of him ; he will lose himself in the vague. Let him not trust to what the ordinary English reader thinks of him ; he will be taking the blind for his guide. Let him not trust to his own judgment of his own work ; he may be misled by individual caprices. Let him ask how his work affects those who both know Greek and can appreciate poetry ; whether to read it gives the Provost of Eton[3], or Professor Thompson[4] at Cambridge, or Professor Jowett[5] here in Oxford, at all the same feeling which to read the original gives them. I consider that when Bentley[6] said of Pope’s translation, “it was a pretty poem, but must not be called Homer,” the work, in spite of all its power and attractiveness, was judged.

Ὡς ἂν ὅ φρόνιμος ὁρίσειεν—“ as the judicious would determine”—that is a test to which everyone professes himself willing to submit his works. Unhappily, in most cases, no two persons agree as to who “the judicious” are. In the present case, the ambiguity is removed : I suppose the translator at one with me as to the tribunal to which alone he should look for judgment ; and he has thus obtained a practical test by which to estimate the real success of his work. How is he to proceed, in order that his work, tried by this test, may be found most successful ?

First of all, there are certain negative counsels which I will give him. Homer has occupied men’s minds so much, such a literature has arisen about him, that everyone who approaches him should resolve strictly to limit himself to that which may directly serve the object for which he approaches him. I advise the translator to have nothing to do with the questions, whether Homer ever existed ; whether the poet of the Iliad be one or many ; whether the Iliad be one poem or an Achilleis[7] and an Iliad stuck together ; whether the Christian doctrine of the Atonement is shadowed forth in the Homeric mythology ; whether the Goddess Latona[8] in any way prefigures the Virgin Mary, and so on. These are questions which have been discussed with learning, with ingenuity, nay, with genius ; but they have two inconveniences ; one general for all who approach them, one particular for the translator. The general inconvenience is, that there really exist no data for determining them. The particular inconvenience is, that their solution by the translator, even were it possible, could be of no benefit to his translation.

I advise him, again, not to trouble himself with constructing a special vocabulary for his use in translation ; with excluding a certain class of English words, and with confining himself to another class, in obedience to any theory about the peculiar qualities of Homer’s style. Mr. Newman says that “the entire dialect of Homer being essentially archaic, that of a translator ought to be as much Saxo-Norman as possible, and owe as little as possible to the elements thrown into our language by classical learning.” Mr. Newman is unfortunate in the observance of his own theory ; for I continually find in his translation words of Latin origin, which seem to me quite alien to the simplicity of Homer : “responsive,” for instance, which is a favourite word of Mr. Newman, to represent the Homeric ἀμειβόμενος :

Great Hector[9] of the motley helm thus spake to her responsive.

But thus responsively to him spake god-like Alexander.

And the word “celestial,” again, in the grand address of Zeus to the horses of Achilles,

You, who are born celestial, from Eld and Death exempted !

seems to me in that place exactly to jar upon the feeling as too bookish. But, apart from the question of Mr. Newman’s fidelity to his own theory, such a theory seems to me both dangerous for a translator and false in itself. Dangerous for a translator ; because, wherever one finds such a theory announced, (and one finds it pretty often), it is generally followed by an explosion of pedantry ; and pedantry is of all things in the world the most un-Homeric. False in itself ; because, in fact, we owe to the Latin element in our language most of that very rapidity and clear decisiveness by which it is contradistinguished from the German, and in sympathy with the languages of Greece and Rome : so that to limit an English translator of Homer to words of Saxon origin is to deprive him of one of his special advantages for translating Homer. In Voss’s[10] well-known translation of Homer, it is precisely the qualities of his German language itself, something heavy and trailing both in the structure of its sentences and in the words of which it is composed, which prevent his translation, in spite of the hexameters, in spite of the fidelity, from creating in us the impression created by the Greek. Mr. Newman’s prescription, if followed, would just strip the English translator of the advantage which he has over Voss.

The frame of mind in which we approach an author influences our correctness of appreciation of him ; and Homer should be approached by a translator in the simplest frame of mind possible. Modern sentiment tries to make the ancient not less than he modern world its own ; but against modern sentiment in its applications to Homer the translator, if he would feel Homer truly—and unless he feels him truly, how can he render him truly ?— cannot be too much on his guard. For example : the writer of an interesting article on English translations of Homer, in the last number of the National Review, quotes, I see, with admiration, a criticism of Mr. Ruskin[11] on the use of the epithet φυσίζοος, “life-giving,” in that beautiful passage, in the third book of the Iliad, which follows Helen’s[12] mention of her brothers Castor and Pollux as alive, though they were in truth dead :

ὣς φάτο· τοὺς δ᾽ ἤδη κάτεχεν φυσίζοος αἶα

ἐν Λακεδαίμονι αὖθι, φίλῃ ἐν πατρίδι γαίῃ.*[13]

“The poet,” says Mr. Ruskin, “has to speak of the earth in sadness ; but he will not let that sadness affect or change his thought of it. No ; though Castor and Pollux[14] be dead, yet the earth is our mother still,—fruitful, life-giving.” This is just a specimen of that sort of application of modern sentiment to the ancients, against which a student, who wishes to feel the ancients truly, cannot too resolutely defend himself. It reminds one, as, alas ! so much of Mr. Ruskin’s writing reminds one, of those words of the most delicate of living critics : “Comme tout genre de composition a son écueil particulier, celui du genre romanesque, c’est le faux.” The reader may feel moved as he reads it ; but it is not the less an example of “le faux” in criticism ; it is false. It is not true, as to that particular passage, that Homer called the earth φυσίζοος because, “though he had to speak of the earth in sadness, he would not let that sadness change or affect his thought of it,” but consoled himself by considering that “the earth is our mother still,—fruitful, life-giving.” It is not true, as a matter of general criticism, that this kind of sentimentality, eminently modern, inspires Homer at all. “From Homer and Polygnotus[15] I every day learn more clearly,” says Goethe, “that in our life here above ground we have, properly speaking, to enact Hell*[16] :”—if the student must absolutely have a key-note to the Iliad, let him take this of Goethe, and see what he can do with it ; it will not, at any rate, like the tender pantheism of Mr. Ruskin, falsify for him the whole strain of Homer.

These are negative counsels ; I come to the positive. When I say, the translator of Homer should above all be penetrated by a sense of four qualities of his author :—that he is eminently rapid ; that he is eminently plain and direct both in the evolution of his thought and in the expression of it, that is, both in his syntax and in his words ; that he is eminently plain and direct in the substance of his thought, that is, in his matter and ideas ; and, finally, that he is eminently noble ;—I probably seem to be saying what is too general to be of much service to anybody. Yet it is strictly true that, for want of duly penetrating themselves with the first-named quality of Homer, his rapidity, Cowper[17] and Mr. Wright have failed in rendering him ; that, for want of duly appreciating the second-named quality, his plainness and directness of style and diction, Pope[18] and Mr. Sotheby[19] have failed in rendering him ; that for want of appreciating the third, his plainness and directness of ideas, Chapman[20], has failed in rendering him ; while for want of appreciating the fourth, his nobleness, Mr. Newman, who has clearly seen some of the faults of his predecessors, has yet failed more conspicuously than any of them.

Coleridge says, in his strange language, speaking of the union of the human soul with the divine essence, that this takes place,

Whene’er the mist, which stands ’twixt God and thee,

Defæcates to a pure transparency ;

and so, too, it may be said of that union of the translator with his original, which alone can produce a good translation, that it takes place when the mist which stands between them—the mist of alien modes of thinking, speaking, and feeling on the translator’s part—“defæcates to a pure transparency,” and disappears. But between Cowper and Homer—(Mr. Wright repeats in the main Cowper’s manner, as Mr. Sotheby repeats Pope’s manner, and neither Mr. Wright’s translation nor Mr. Sotheby’s has, I must be forgiven for saying, any proper reason for existing)—between Cowper and Homer there is interposed the mist of Cowper’s elaborate Miltonic[21] manner, entirely alien to the flowing rapidity of Homer ; between Pope and Homer there is interposed the mist of Pope’s literary artificial manner, entirely alien to the plain naturalness of Homer’s manner ; between Chapman and Homer there is interposed the mist of the fancifulness of the Elizabethan age, entirely alien to the plain directness of Homer’s thought and feeling ; while between Mr. Newman and Homer is interposed a cloud of more than Ægyptian thickness—namely, a manner, in Mr. Newman’s version, eminently ignoble, while Homer’s manner is eminently noble.

I do not despair of making all these propositions clear to a student who approaches Homer with a free mind. First, Homer is eminently rapid, and to this rapidity the elaborate movement of Miltonic blank verse is alien. The reputation of Cowper, that most interesting man and excellent poet, does not depend on his translation of Homer ; and in his preface to the second edition, he himself tells us that he felt—he had too much poetical taste not to feel—on returning to his own version after six or seven years, “more dissatisfied with it himself than the most difficult to be pleased of all his judges.” And he was dissatisfied with it for the right reason—that “it seemed to him deficient in the grace of ease.” Yet he seems to have originally misconceived the manner of Homer so much, that it is no wonder he rendered him amiss. “The similitude of Milton’s manner to that of Homer is such,” he says, “that no person familiar with both can read either without being reminded of the other ; and it is in those breaks and pauses to which the numbers of the English poet are so much indebted both for their dignity and variety, that he chiefly copies the Grecian.” It would be more true to say : “The unlikeness of Milton’s manner to that of Homer is such, that no person familiar with both can read either without being struck with his difference from the other ; and it is in his breaks and pauses that the English poet is most unlike the Grecian.”

The inversion and pregnant conciseness of Milton or Dante are, doubtless, most impressive qualities of style ; but they are the very opposites of the directness and flowingness of Homer, which he keeps alike in passages of the simplest narrative, and in those of the deepest emotion. Not only, for example, are these lines of Cowper un-Homeric :

So numerous seem’d those fires the banks between

Of Xanthus, blazing, and the fleet of Greece

In prospect all of Troy ;

where the position of the word “blazing” gives an entirely un-Homeric movement to this simple passage, describing the fires of the Trojan camp outside of Troy ; but the following lines, in that very highly-wrought passage where the horse of Achilles answers his master’s reproaches for having left Patroclus[22] on the field of battle, are equally un-Homeric :

For not through sloth or tardiness on us

Aught chargeable, have Ilium’s sons thine arms

Stript from Patroclus’ shoulders ; but a God

Matchless in battle, offspring of bright-hair’d

Latona, him contending in the van

Slew, for the glory of the chief of Troy.

Here even the first inversion, “have Ilium’s sons thine arms Stript from Patroclus’ shoulders,” gives the reader a sense of a movement not Homeric ; and the second inversion, “a God him contending in the van Slew,” gives this sense ten times stronger. Instead of moving on without check, as in reading the original, the reader twice finds himself, in reading the translation, brought up and checked. Homer moves with the same simplicity and rapidity in the highly-wrought as in the simple passage.

It is in vain that Cowper insists on his fidelity : “my chief boast is that I have adhered closely to my original :”—“the matter found in me, whether the reader like it or not, is found also in Homer ; and the matter not found in me, how much soever the reader may admire it, is found only in Mr. Pope.” To suppose that it is fidelity to an original to give its matter, unless you at the same time give its manner ; or, rather, to suppose that you can really give its matter at all, unless you can give its manner, is just the mistake of our pre-Raphaelite school of painters, who do not understand that the peculiar effect of nature resides in the whole and not in the parts. So the peculiar effect of a poet resides in his manner and movement, not in his words taken separately. It is well known how conscientiously literal is Cowper in his translation of Homer. It is well known how extravagantly free is Pope ;

So let it be !

Portents and prodigies are lost on me :

that is Pope’s rendering of the words,

Ξάνθε, τί μοι θάνατον μαντεύεαι; οὐδέ τί σε χρή·*[23]

Xanthus[24], why prophesiest thou my death to me ? thou needest not at all.

yet, on the whole, Pope’s translation of the Iliad is more Homeric than Cowper’s, for it is more rapid.

Pope’s movement, however, though rapid, is not of the same kind as Homer’s ; and here I come to the real objection to rhyme in a translation of Homer. It is commonly said that rhyme is to be abandoned in a translation of Homer, because “the exigences of rhyme,” to quote Mr. Newman, “positively forbid faithfulness ;” because “a just translation of any ancient poet in rhyme,” to quote Cowper, “is impossible.” This, however, is merely an accidental objection to rhyme. If this were all, it might be supposed that if rhymes were more abundant, Homer could be adequately translated in rhyme. But this is not so ; there is a deeper, a substantial objection to rhyme in a translation of Homer. It is, that rhyme inevitably tends to pair lines which in the original are independent, and thus the movement of the poem is changed. In these lines of Chapman, for instance, from Sarpedon’s speech to Glaucus[25], in the twelfth book of the Iliad :

O friend, if keeping back

Would keep back age from us, and death, and that we might not wrack

In this life’s human sea at all, but that deferring now

We shunn’d death ever,—nor would I half this vain valour show,

Nor glorify a folly so, to wish thee to advance ;

But since we must go, though not here, and that besides the chance

Propos’d now, there are infinite fates, &c.

here the necessity of making the line,

Nor glorify a folly so, to wish thee to advance ;

rhyme with the line which follows it, entirely changes and spoils the movement of the passage.

῎Ουτε κεν ὐτὸς ἐνι πρώτοισι μαχοίμην

ουτε κε σὲ στέλλοιμι μάχην ἐς κυδιάνειραν·[26]*

Neither would I myself go forth to fight with the foremost,

Nor would I urge thee on to enter the glorious battle :

says Homer ; there he stops, and begins an opposed movement :

νῦν δ᾽—ἔμπης γὰρ κῆρες ἐφεστᾶσιν θανάτοιο—

But—for a thousand fates of death stand close to us always—

this line, in which Homer wishes to go away with the most marked rapidity from the line before, Chapman is forced, by the necessity of rhyming, intimately to connect with the line before.

But since we must go, though not here, and that besides the chance—

the moment the word chance strikes our ear, we are irresistibly carried back to advance and to the whole previous line, which, according to Homer’s own feeling, we ought to have left behind us entirely, and to be moving farther and farther away from.

Rhyme certainly, by intensifying antithesis, can intensify separation, and this is precisely what Pope does ; but this balanced rhetorical antithesis, though very effective, is entirely un-Homeric. And this is what I mean by saying that Pope fails to render Homer, because he does not render his plainness and directness of style and diction. Where Homer marks separation by moving away, Pope marks it by antithesis. No passage could show this better than the passage I have just quoted, on which I will pause for a moment.

Robert Wood[27], whose Essay on the Genius of Homer is mentioned by Goethe as one of the books which fell into his hands when his powers were first developing themselves, and strongly interested him, relates of this passage a striking story. He says that in 1762, at the end of the Seven Years’ War, being then Under-Secretary of State, he was directed to wait upon the President of the Council, Lord Granville[28], a few days before he died, with the preliminary articles of the Treaty of Paris. “I found him,” he continues, “so languid, that I proposed postponing my business for another time ; but he insisted that I should stay, saying, it could not prolong his life to neglect his duty ; and repeating the following passage out of Sarpedon’s speech, he dwelled with particular emphasis on the third line, which recalled to his mind the distinguishing part he had taken in public affairs :

ῷ πέπον, ἐι μὲν γὰρ πόλεμον περὶ τόνδε φυγόντε

αἰεὶ δὴ μέλλοιμεν ἀγήρω τ᾽ ἀθανάτω τε

ἔσσεσθ᾽, οὔτε κεν αὐτὸς ἐνι πρώτοισι μαχοίμην,*[29]

οὔτε κε σὲ στέλλοιμι μάχην ἐς κυδιάνειραν·

νῦν δ᾽—ἔμπης γὰρ Κῆρες ἐφεστᾶσιν θανάτοιο

μυρίαι, ἃς οὐκ ἔστι φυγεῖν βρότον οὐδ᾽ ὑπαλύξαι—

ἴομεν. . . .

His Lordship repeated the last word several times with a calm and determinate resignation ; and after a serious pause of some minutes, he desired to hear the Treaty read, to which he listened with great attention, and recovered spirits enough to declare the approbation of a dying statesman (I use his own words) ‘on the most glorious war, and most honourable peace, this nation ever saw.’”*[30]

I quote this story, first, because it is interesting as exhibiting the English aristocracy at its very height of culture, lofty spirit, and greatness, towards the middle of the last century. I quote it, secondly, because it seems to me to illustrate Goethe’s saying which I mentioned, that our life, in Homer’s view of it, represents a conflict and a hell ; and it brings out, too, what there is tonic and fortifying in this doctrine. I quote it, lastly, because it shows that the passage is just one of those in translating which Pope will be at his best, a passage of strong emotion and oratorical movement, not of simple narrative or description.

Pope translates the passage thus :

Could all our care elude the gloomy grave

Which claims no less the fearful than the brave,

For lust of fame I should not vainly dare

In fighting fields, nor urge thy soul to war :

But since, alas ! ignoble age must come,

Disease, and death’s inexorable doom ;

The life which others pay, let us bestow,

And give to fame, what we to nature owe.

Nothing could better exhibit Pope’s prodigious talent ; and nothing, too, could be better in its own way. But, as Bentley said, “You must not call it Homer.” One feels that Homer’s thought has passed through a literary and rhetorical crucible, and come out highly intellectualised ; come out in a form which strongly impresses us, indeed, but which no longer impresses us in the same way as when it was uttered by Homer. The antithesis of the last two lines :

The life which others pay, let us bestow,

And give to fame, what we to nature owe :

is excellent, and is just suited to Pope’s heroic couplet ; but neither the antithesis itself, nor the couplet which conveys it, is suited to the feeling or to the movement of the Homeric ομεν.

A literary and intellectualised language is, however, in its own way well suited to grand matters ; and Pope, with a language of this kind and his own admirable talent, comes off well enough as long as he has passion, or oratory, or a great crisis, to deal with. Even here, as I have been pointing out, he does not render Homer ; but he and his style are in themselves strong. It is when he comes to level passages, passages of narrative or description, that he and his style are sorely tried, and prove themselves weak. A perfectly plain direct style can of course convey the simplest matter as naturally as the grandest ; indeed, it must be harder for it, one would say, to convey a grand matter worthily and nobly, than to convey a common matter, as alone such a matter should be conveyed, plainly and simply. But the style of Rasselas[31] is incomparably better fitted to describe a sage philosophising than a soldier lighting his camp-fire. The style of Pope is not the style of Rasselas ; but it is equally a literary style, equally unfitted to describe a simple matter with the plain naturalness of Homer.

Every one knows the passage at the end of the eighth book of the Iliad, where the fires of the Trojan encampment are likened to the stars. It is very far from my wish to hold Pope up to ridicule, so I shall not quote the commencement of the passage, which in the original is of great and celebrated beauty, and in translating which Pope has been singularly and notoriously unfortunate. But the latter part of the passage, where Homer leaves the stars, and comes to the Trojan fires, treats of the plainest, most matter-of-fact subject possible, and deals with this, as Homer always deals with every subject, in the plainest and most straightforward style. “So many in number, between the ships and the streams of Xanthus[32], shone forth in front of Troy the fires kindled by the Trojans. There were kindled a thousand fires in the plain ; and by each one there sate fifty men in the light of the blazing fire. And the horses, munching white barley and rye, and standing by the chariots, waited for the bright-throned Morning.*[33]

In Pope’s translation, this plain story becomes the following :

So many flames before proud Ilion blaze,

And brighten glimmering Xanthus with their rays :

The long reflections of the distant fires

Gleam on the walls, and tremble on the spires.

A thousand piles the dusky horrors gild,

And shoot a shady lustre o’er the field.

Full fifty guards each flaming pile attend,

Whose umber’d arms, by fits, thick flashes send ;

Loud neigh the coursers o’er their heaps of corn,

And ardent warriors wait the rising morn.

It is for passages of this sort, which, after all, form the bulk of a narrative poem, that Pope’s style is so bad. In elevated passages he is powerful, as Homer is powerful, though not in the same way ; but in plain narrative, where Homer is still powerful and delightful, Pope, by the inherent fault of his style, is ineffective and out of taste. Wordsworth[34] says somewhere, that wherever Virgil[35] seems to have composed “with his eye on the object,” Dryden[36] fails to render him. Homer invariably composes “with his eye on the object,” whether the object be a moral or a material one : Pope composes with his eye on his style, into which he translates his object, whatever it is. That, therefore, which Homer conveys to us immediately, Pope conveys to us through a medium. He aims at turning Homer’s sentiments pointedly and rhetorically ; at investing Homer’s description with ornament and dignity. A sentiment may be changed by being put into a pointed and oratorical form, yet may still be very effective in that form ; but a description, the moment it takes its eyes off that which it is to describe, and begins to think of ornamenting itself, is worthless.

Therefore, I say, the translator of Homer should penetrate himself with a sense of the plainness and directness of Homer’s style ; of the simplicity with which Homer’s thought is evolved and expressed. He has Pope’s fate before his eyes, to show him what a divorce may be created even between the most gifted translator and Homer by an artificial evolution of thought and a literary cast of style.

Chapman’s style is not artificial and literary like Pope’s, nor his movement elaborate and self-retarding like the Miltonic movement of Cowper. He is plainspoken, fresh, vigorous, and to a certain degree, rapid ; and all these are Homeric qualities. I cannot say that I think the movement of his fourteen-syllable line, which has been so much commended, Homeric ; but on this point I shall have more to say by and bye, when I come to speak of Mr. Newman’s metrical exploits. But it is not distinctly anti-Homeric, like the movement of Milton’s blank verse ; and it has a rapidity of its own. Chapman’s diction, too, is generally good, that is, appropriate to Homer ; above all, the syntactical character of his style is appropriate. With these merits, what prevents his translation from being a satisfactory version of Homer ? Is it merely the want of literal faithfulness to his original, imposed upon him, it is said, by the exigences of rhyme ? Has this celebrated version, which has so many advantages, no other and deeper defect than that ? Its author is a poet, and a poet, too, of the Elizabethan age ; the golden age of English literature as it is called, and on the whole truly called ; for, whatever be the defects of Elizabethan literature, (and they are great), we have no development of our literature to compare with it for vigour and richness. This age, too, showed what it could do in translating, by producing a master-piece, its version of the Bible.

Chapman’s translation has often been praised as eminently Homeric. Keats’s fine sonnet[37] in its honour everyone knows ; but Keats could not read the original, and therefore could not really judge the translation. Coleridge, in praising Chapman’s version, says at the same time, “it will give you small idea of Homer.” But the grave authority of Mr. Hallam[38] pronounces this translation to be “often exceedingly Homeric ;” and its latest editor boldly declares, that by what, with a deplorable style, he calls “his own innative Homeric genius,” Chapman “has thoroughly identified himself with Homer ;” and that “we pardon him even for his digressions, for they are such as we feel Homer himself would have written.”

I confess that I can never read twenty lines of Chapman’s version without recurring to Bentley’s cry, “This is not Homer !” and that from a deeper cause than any unfaithfulness occasioned by the fetters of rhyme.

I said that there were four things which eminently distinguished Homer, and with a sense of which Homer’s translator should penetrate himself as fully as possible. One of these four things was, the plainness and directness of Homer’s ideas. I have just been speaking of the plainness and directness of his style ; but the plainness and directness of the contents of his style, of his ideas themselves, is not less remarkable. But as eminently as Homer is plain, so eminently is the Elizabethan literature in general, and Chapman in particular, fanciful. Steeped in humours and fantasticality up to its very lips, the Elizabethan age, newly arrived at the free use of the human faculties after their long term of bondage and delighting to exercise them freely, suffers from its own extravagance in this first exercise of them, can hardly bring itself to see an object quietly or to describe it temperately. Happily, in the translation of the Bible, the sacred character of their original inspired the translators with such respect, that they did not dare to give the rein to their own fancies in dealing with it. But, in dealing with works of profane literature, in dealing with poetical works above all, which highly stimulated them, one may say that the minds of the Elizabethan translators were too active ; that they could not forbear importing so much of their own, and this of a most peculiar and Elizabethan character, into their original, that they effaced the character of the original itself.

Take merely the opening pages to Chapman’s translation, the introductory verses, and the dedications. You will find :

An Anagram of the name of our Dread Prince,

My most gracious and sacred Mæcenas,

Henry Prince of Wales,

Our Sunn, Heyr, Peace, Life :

Henry, son of James the First, to whom the work is dedicated. Then comes an address,

To the sacred Fountain of Princes,

Sole Empress of Beauty and Virtue, Anne Queen

Of England, &c.

All the Middle Age, with its grotesqueness, its conceits, its irrationality, is still in these opening pages ; they by themselves are sufficient to indicate to us what a gulf divides Chapman from the “clearest-soul’d” of poets, from Homer ; almost as great a gulf as that which divides him from Voltaire. Pope has been sneered at for saying that Chapman writes “somewhat as one might imagine Homer himself to have written before he arrived at years of discretion.” But the remark is excellent : Homer expresses himself like a man of adult reason, Chapman like a man whose reason has not yet cleared itself. For instance, if Homer had had to say of a poet, that he hoped his merit was now about to be fully established in the opinion of good judges, he was as incapable of saying this as Chapman says it—“Though truth in her very nakedness sits in so deep a pit, that from Gades[39] to Aurora, and Ganges, few eyes can sound her, I hope yet those few here will so discover and confirm that the date being out of her darkness in this morning of our poet, he shall now gird his temples with the sun”—I say, Homer was as incapable of saying this in that manner, as Voltaire[40] himself would have been. Homer, indeed, has actually an affinity with Voltaire in the unrivalled clearness and straightforwardness of his thinking ; in the way in which he keeps to one thought at a time, and puts that thought forth in its complete natural plainness, instead of being led away from it by some fancy striking him in connection with it, and being beguiled to wander off with this fancy till his original thought, in its natural reality, knows him no more. What could better show us how gifted a race was this Greek race ? The same member of it has not only the power of profoundly touching that natural heart of humanity which it is Voltaire’s weakness that he cannot reach, but can also address the understanding with all Voltaire’s admirable simplicity and rationality.

My limits will not allow me to do more than shortly illustrate, from Chapman’s version of the Iliad, what I mean when I speak of this vital difference between Homer and an Elizabethan poet in the quality of their thought ; between the plain simplicity of the thought of the one, and the curious complexity of the thought of the other. As in Pope’s case, I carefully abstain from choosing passages for the express purpose of making Chapman appear ridiculous ; Chapman, like Pope, merits in himself all respect, though he too, like Pope, fails to render Homer.

In that tonic speech of Sarpedon, of which I have said so much, Homer, you may remember, has :

ἐι μὲν γὰρ, πόλεμον περὶ τόνδε φυγόντε

αἰεὶ δὴ μέλλοιμεν ἀγήρω τ᾽ ἀθανάτω τε

ἔσσεσθ᾽—

if, indeed, but once this battle avoided,

We were for ever to live without growing old and immortal—

Chapman cannot be satisfied with this, but must add a fancy to it :

if keeping back

Would keep back age from us, and death, and that we might not wrack

In this lifes human sea at all ;

and so on. Again ; in another passage which I have before quoted, where Zeus says to the horses of Peleus[41] :

τί σφῶϊ δόμεν Πηλῆϊ ἀνάκτι

θνητῷ; ὑμεῖς δ᾽ἐστὸν ἀγήρω τ᾽ ἀθανάτω τε·*[42]

Why gave we you to royal Peleus, to a mortal ? but ye are without old age, and immortal ;

Chapman sophisticates this into :

Why gave we you t’ a mortal king, when immortality

And incapacity of age so dignifies your states ?

Again ; in the speech of Achilles to his horses, where Achilles, according to Homer, says simply, “Take heed that ye bring your master safe back to the host of the Danaans[43], in some other sort than the last time, when the battle is ended,” Chapman sophisticates this into :

When, with blood, for this days fast observd, revenge shall yield

Our heart satiety, bring us off.

In Hector’s famous speech, again, at his parting from Andromache[44], Homer makes him say : “Nor does my own heart so bid me,” (to keep safe behind the walls), “since I have learned to be staunch always, and to fight among the foremost of the Trojans, busy on behalf of my father’s great glory, and my own.”*[45] In Chapman’s hands this becomes :

The spirit I first did breathe

Did never teach me that ; much less, since the contempt of death

Was settled in me, and my mind knew what a worthy was,

Whose office is to lead in fight, and give no danger pass

Without improvement. In this fire must Hectors trial shine :

Here must his country, father, friends, be in him made divine.

You see how ingeniously Homer’s plain thought is tormented, as the French would say, here. Homer goes on : “For well I know this in my mind and in my heart, the day will be, when sacred Troy shall perish :”

ἔσσεται ἦμαρ, ὅτ᾽ ἄν ποτ᾽ ὀλώλῃ ῎Ιλιος ἱρή.

Chapman makes this :

And such a stormy day shall come, in mind and soul I know,

When sacred Troy shall shed her towrs, for tears of overthrow.

I might go on for ever, but I could not give you a better illustration than this last, of what I mean by saying that the Elizabethan poet fails to render Homer because he cannot forbear to interpose a play of thought between his object and its expression. Chapman translates his object into Elizabethan, as Pope translates it into the Augustan of Queen Anne[46] ; both convey it to us through a medium. Homer, on the other hand, sees his object and conveys it to us immediately.

And yet, in spite of this perfect plainness and directness of Homer’s style, in spite of this perfect plainness and directness of his ideas, he is eminently noble ; he works as entirely in the grand style, he is as grandiose, as Phidias[47], or Dante, or Michael Angelo. This is what makes his translators despair. “To give relief,” says Cowper, “to prosaic subjects,” (such as dressing, eating, drinking, harnessing, travelling, going to bed), that is, to treat such subjects nobly, in the grand style, “without seeming unreasonably tumid, is extremely difficult.” It is difficult, but Homer has done it ; Homer is precisely the incomparable poet he is, because he has done it. His translator must not be tumid, must not be artificial, must not be literary ; true : but then also he must not be common-place, must not be ignoble. I have shown you how translators of Homer fail by wanting rapidity, by wanting simplicity of style, by wanting plainness of thought : in a second lecture I will show you how a translator fails by wanting nobility.

Texte conforme à l’édition originale, basé en grande partie sur le texte électronique disponible sur E-Texts for Victorianists  http://www.ajdrake.com/etexts/

[1] Francis William Newman (1805-1897). His translation of the Iliad was published in 1856. An English scholar, Francis Newman was Cardinal John Newman’s brother and was influenced by Anglicanism and Calvinism. After studying mathematics and the classics at Oxford, he left for Baghdad in 1830 to work there as a missionary, coming back to England three years later. He became an academic, teaching the classics at Bristol, Manchester and London (University College). Gradually he grew more and more interested in Theism. He is known for the papers he wrote on various topics ranging from religion to politics and social issues.

[2] Ichabod Charles Wright (1795-1871). An Oxford graduate, he worked as a banker but developed a passion for literature, more specifically Italian culture. His translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy was published in between 1833-1840. Between 1859 and 1864, he worked on the translation of the Iliad.

[3] Edward Craven Hawtrey (1789-1862). He specialized in modern languages, and translated an excerpt from the Iliad, praised by Matthew Arnold. Hawtrey was Provost of Eton between 1852 and 1862.

[4] William Hepworth Thompson (1810-1886). Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, he is well known for his critical edition of the works of Plato.

[5] Benjamin Jowett (1813-1897).  A classical scholar and theologian, he taught Greek at Oxford. He translated Plato, Aristotle and Thucydides.

[6] Richard Bentley (1662-1742). A classical scholar and a theologian, he is very well known for his critical essays and for developing a new, historical approach of philology. He is considered as having started the English school of Hellenism

[7] Composed by the Latin poet, Stace, the Achilleis relates the life of Achilles. This epic poem was never completed.

[8] In Greek mythology, Leto (known as Latona by the Latins) was Zeus’s mistress and the mother of Apollo and Artemis.

[9] Hector was King Priam’s oldest son and a Trojan warrior.

[10] Johann Heinrich Voss (1751-1826). This German poet translated Virgil’s Georgics. He also published a translation of the Odyssey in 1793. That same year his translation of the Iliad came out.

[11] John Ruskin (1819-1900). A writer and a painter, he is renowned as an art critic (Modern Painters), writing on various topics – the Italian primitives, Turner, the pre-Raphaelites, but also architecture (The Seven Lamps of Architecture)… In 1870 he was appointed Slade Professor of  Fine Art at Oxford.

[12] Helen was the wife of the Greek king of Sparta, Menelaus. Famous for her beauty, she was abducted by the Trojan prince, Paris.

[13] Asterisks indicate original footnotes by Matthew Arnold

* Iliad, iii, 243.

[14] In Greek mythology the twins, Castor and Pollux, are also known as the Disocuri. They are the brothers of Clytemnestra and Helen of Troy.

[15] Born in the 5th century B.C., this Greek painter decorated several temples, including that of the Dioscuri. His work mainly consists in frescoes representing various episodes of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

[16] * Briefwechsel zwischen Schiller und Goethe, vi, 230.

[17] William Cowper (1731-1800). An English poet, he is thought to have heralded the Romantic movement in England. He is also known as a hymnodist. His free verse translation of the Iliad and the Odyssey was published in 1791.

[18] Alexander Pope (1688-1744). An English poet, he was one of the founders of the Scriblerus Club. His poems include the satirical Dunciad and Rape of the Lock. He translated the Iliad between 1715 and 1720, which was acclaimed even if the respected literary critic, Richard Bentley, expressed a few reservations. Later, with the help of William Broome and Elijah Fenton, Pope translated the Odyssey, published in 1726.

[19] William Sotheby (1757-1833). A poet and a dramatist, he translated Virgil’s Georgics but also the Iliad and the Odyssey (1831).

[20] George Chapman (1559-1634). An English poet who translated the Iliad (1611) and then the Odyssey (1615). The Romantic poet John Keats was so taken by his translation that he wrote a sonnet entitled “On First Reading Chapman’s Homer”.

[21] John Milton (1608-1674). One of the greatest English poets, author of Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, Samson Agonistes and “Lycidas”…. Though very influenced by classicism, he developed his own style, his own stylistic traits.

[22] Patroclus, Greek warrior and Achilles’ bosom friend.

[23] * Iliad, xix, 420.

[24] Xanthus was one of Achilles’ immortal horses.

[25] Sarpedon, son of Zeus and Laodameia, fought on the side of the Trojans. He was killed on the battlefield and Glaucus, his brother-in-arms, asked the Trojans to retrieve his body.

[26]* Iliad, xii, 324.

[27] Robert Wood (1717-1777). A traveler and British civil servant and politician. He wrote the Essay on the Original Genius and Writings of Homer (1775).

[28] John Carteret, Earl of Granville (1690-1763). Lord Grandville, when he was very ill and while he was being read the preliminaries of the Treaty of Paris, quoted a few lines from Sarpedon’s speech in front of Robert Wood.

[29] * These are the words on which Lord Granville “dwelled with particular emphasis.”

[30] * Robert Wood, Essay on the Original Genius and Writings of Homer, London, 1775 ; p. vii.

[31] Rasselas or The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abysssinia by Samuel Johnson  (1709-1784) is an apologue about happiness.

[32] Xanthus, or Scamander, is the river of Troy.

[33] * Iliad, viii, 560.

[34] William Wordsworth (1770-1850). One of the great romantic poets, author of The Prelude and, together with Coleridge, of the Lyrical Ballads.

[35] Virgil (70-19 BC). Latin poet, author of the Georgics, Bucolics and the Aeneid.

[36] John Dryden (1631-1700). Poet Laureate (1668), critic, dramatist and translator, author of the satirical poems “MacFlecknoe” and “Absalom and Achitopel”. He translated the works of Juvenal, Horace, Ovid and Virgil but also excerpts from Homer’s epic poem.

[37] « On First Reading Chapman’s Homer ».

[38] Henry Hallam (1777-1859). British historian, author of the Introduction to the Literature of Europe.

[39] The city of Cadiz.

[40] François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire) (1694-1778). French writer and philosopher during the age of Enlightenment.

[41] Peleus, king of Phtia, is the father of Achilles. Two immortal horses (Balius and Xanthus) are offered to him as wedding presents by the gods. Later he gives the horses to his son.

[42]* Iliad, xvii, 443.

[43] « Danaans »  : this is how Homer  refers to the Achaeans (Greeks) on many occasions.

[44] Daughter of the King of Thebes and wife of Hector. After the fall of Troy, she becomes Achilles’ son’s captive.

[45] * Iliad, vi, 444.

[46] Queen Anne (1665-1714).

[47] Phidias (c. 490-430 B.C.). This famous classical Greek sculptor introduced a certain realism in his majestic representations of the human body.


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