From The Bibliophile Library of Literature, Art, & Rare Manuscripts, Volume I, compiled and arranged by Nathan Haskell Dole, Forrest Morgan, and Caroline Ticknor; The International Bibliophile Society, New York-London; 1904; pp. 310-313.
THERE would have been less controversy about the proper method of Homeric translation, if critics had recognized that the question is a purely relative one, that of Homer there can be no final translation. The taste and the literary habits of each age demand different qualities in poetry, and therefore a different sort of rendering of Homer. To the men of the time of Elizabeth, Homer would have appeared bald, it seems, and lacking in ingenuity, if he had been presented in his antique simplicity. For the Elizabethan age, Chapman supplied what was then necessary, and the mannerisms that were then deemed of the essence of poetry, — namely, daring and luxurious conceits. Thus in Chapman’s verse Troy must “shed her towers for tears of overthrow”; and when the winds toss Odysseus about, their sport must be called “the horrid tennis.”
In the age of Anne, “dignity” and “correctness” had to be given to Homer, and Pope gave them by aid of his dazzling rhetoric, his antitheses, his netteté, his command of every conventional and favorite artifice. Without Chapman’s conceits, Homer’s poems would hardly have been what the Elizabethans took for poetry; without Pope’s smoothness, and Pope’s points, the Iliad and Odyssey would have seemed tame, rude, and harsh in the age of Anne. These great translations must always live as English poems. As transcripts of Homer they are like pictures drawn form a lost point of view. Again, when Europe woke to a sense, an almost exaggerated and certainly uncritical sense, of the value of her songs of the people, of all the ballads that Herder, Scott, Lönnrot, and the rest collected, it was commonly said that Homer was a ballad minstrel; that the translator must imitate the simplicity, and even adopt the formulæ, of the ballad. Hence came the renderings of Maginn, the experiments of Mr. Gladstone, and others. There was some excuse for the error of critics who asked for a Homer in ballad rhyme. The epic poet, the poet of gods and heroes, did indeed inherit some of the formulæ of the earlier Volks-lied. Homer, like the author of “The Song of Roland,” like the singers of the “Kalevala,” uses constantly recurring epithets, and 311 repeats, word for word, certain emphatic passages, messages, and son on. That custom is essential in the ballad; it is an accident, not the essence, of the epic. The epic is a poem of consummate and supreme art; but it still bears some birthmarks, some signs of the early popular chant, out of which it sprung, as the garden rose springs from the wild stock. When this is recognized, the demand for balladlike simplicity and “ballad slang” ceases to exist, and then all Homeric translations in the ballad manner cease to represent our conception of Homer. After the belief in the ballad manner follows the recognition of the romantic vein in Homer; and as a result came Mr. Worsley’s admirable Odyssey. This masterly translation does all that can be done for the Odyssey in the romantic style. The liquid lapses of the verse, the wonderful closeness to the original, reproduce all of Homer, in music and in meaning, that can be rendered in English verse. There still, however, seems an aspect of the Homeric poems, and a demand in connection with Homer, to be recognized and to be satisfied.
Sainte-Beuve says, with reference probably to M. Leconte de Lisle’s prose version of the epics, that some people treat the epics too much as if they were sagas. Now the Homeric epics are sagas; but then they are the sagas of the divine heroic age of Greece, and thus are told with an art which is not the art of the Northern poets. The epics are stories about the adventures of men living in most respects like the men of our own race who dwelt in Iceland, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. The epics are, in a way, and as far as manners and institutions are concerned, historical documents. Whoever regards them in this way must wish to read them exactly as they have reached us, without modern ornament, with nothing added or omitted. He must recognize, with Mr. Matthew Arnold, that what he now wants — namely, the simple truth about the matter of the poem — can only be given in prose, “for in a verse translation no original work is any longer recognizable.” It is for this reason that we have attempted to tell once more, in simple prose, the story of Odysseus. We have tried to transfer, not all the truth about the poem, but the historical truth, into English. In this process Homer must lose at least half his charm: his bright and equable speed, the musical current of that narrative, which, like the river of Egypt, flows from an indiscoverable source, and mirrors the temples and the palaces of unforgotten gods and kings. Without this music of verse, only a half truth about 312 Homer can be told; but then it is that half of the truth which at this moment it seems most necessary to tell. This is the half of the truth that the translators who use verse cannot easily tell. They must be adding to Homer, talking with Pope about “tracing the mazy lev’ret o’er the lawn,” or with Mr. Worsley about the islands that are “stars of the blue Ægean,” or with Dr. Hawtrey about “the earth’s soft arms,” when Homer says nothing at all about the “mazy lev’ret,” or the “stars of the blue Ægean,” or the “soft arms” of earth. It would be impertinent indeed to blame any of these translations in their place. They give that which the romantic reader of poetry, or the student of the age of Anne, looks for in verse; and without tags of this sort, a translation of Homer in verse cannot well be made to hold together.
There can be then, it appears, no final English translation of Homer. In each there must be, in addition to what is Greek and eternal, the element of what is modern, personal, and fleeting. Thus we trust that there may be room for “the pale and far-off shadow of a prose translation,” of which the aim is limited and humble. A prose translation cannot give the movement and the fires of a successful translation in verse; it only gathers, as it were, the crumbs which fall from the richer table, only tells the story without the song. Yet to a prose translation is permitted, perhaps, that close adherence to the archaisms of the epic, which in verse become mere oddities. The double epithets, the recurring epithets of Homer, if rendered into verse, delay and puzzle the reader, as the Greek does not delay nor puzzle him. In prose he may endure them, or even care to study them as the survivals of a stage of taste which is found in its prime in the sagas. These double and recurring epithets of Homer are a softer form of the quaint Northern periphrases, which make the sea the “swan’s bath,” gold the “dragon’s hoard,” men the “ring givers,” and so on. We do not know whether it is necessary to defend our choice of a somewhat antiquated prose. Homer has no ideas which cannot be expressed in words that are “old and plain”; and to words that are old and plain, and as a rule, to such terms as, being used by the translators of the Bible, are still not unfamiliar, we have tried to restrict ourselves. It may be objected, that the employment of language which does not come spontaneously to the lips is an affectation out of place in a version of the Odyssey. To this we may answer that the Greek Epic dialect, like the English of 313 our Bible, was a thing of slow growth and composite nature; that it was never a spoken language, nor, except for certain poetical purposes, a written language. Thus the Biblical English seems as nearly analogous to the Epic Greek, as anything that our tongue has to offer.
* By permission of the publishers, Macmillan & Co., Ltd.