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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. 145-152.




(From “On Translating Homer” — A Series of Lectures delivered at Oxford.)

(And now may Apollo and Artemis be gracious,
And to all of you, maidens, I say farewell.
Yet remember me when I am gone;
And if some of the toiling pilgrim among the sons of men
Comes and asks: “O maidens,
Who is the sweetest minstrel of all who wander hither,
And in whom you do you delight most?
Make answer with one voice, in gentle words,
The blind old man of Chios’ rocky isle.

HOMER, in “Hymn to Apollo.”


“THE most really and truly Homeric of all the creations of the English muse is,” says Mr. Newman’s critic in the National Review, “the ballad poetry of ancient times; and the association between meter and subject is one that would be true wisdom to preserve.” “It is confessed,” says Chapman’s last editor, Mr. Hooper, “that the fourteen-syllable verse” (that is, a ballad verse) “is peculiarly fitting for Homeric translation.” And the editor of Dr. Maginn’s clever and popular “Homeric Ballads” assumes it as one of his author’s greatest and most undisputable merits, that he was “the first who consciously realized to himself the truth that Greek ballads can be really represented in English only by a similar measure.”

This proposition that Homer’s poetry is ballad poetry, analogous to the well-known ballad poetry of the English and other nations, has a certain small portion of truth in it, and at one time probably served a useful purpose, when it was employed to discredit the artificial and literary manner in which Pope and his school rendered Homer. But it has been so extravagantly over-used, the mistake which it was useful in combating has so entirely lost the public favor, that it is now much more important to insist on the large part of error contained in it, than to extol its small part of the truth. It is time to say plainly that, whatever the admirers of our old ballads may thing, the supreme 146 form of epic poetry, the genuine Homeric mold, is not the form of the Ballad of Lord Bateman. I have myself shown the broad difference between Milton’s manner and Homer’s; but after a course of Mr. Newman and Dr. Maginn, I turn round in desperation upon them and upon the balladist who have misled them, and I exclaim: Compare with you, Milton is Homer’s double; there is, whatever you may think, then thousand times more of the real strain of Homer in —

Blind Thamyris, and blind Mæonides,
And Tiresias, and Phineus, prophets old,

than in —

Now Christ thee save, thou proud portèr,
Now Christ thee save and see,

or in —

While the tinker did dine, he had plenty of wine.

For Homer is not only rapid in movement, simple in style, plain in language, natural in thought; he is also, and above all noble. I have advised the translator not to go into the vexed question of Homer’s identity. Yet I will just remind him that the grand argument — or rather, not argument, for the matter affords no data for arguing, but the grand source from which conviction, as we read the Iliad, keeps pressing in upon us, that there is one poet of the Iliad, one Homer — is precisely this nobleness of the poet, this grand manner; we feel that the analogy drawn from other joint compositions does not hold good here, because those works do not bear, like the Iliad, the magic stamp of a master: and the moment you have anything less than a master work, the coöperation or consolidation of several poets becomes possible, for talent is not uncommon; the moment you have much less than a master work, they become easy, for mediocrity is everywhere.

I can imagine fifty Bradys joined with as many Tates to make the New Version of the Psalms. I can imagine several poets having contributed to any one of the old English ballads in Percy’s collection. I can imagine several poets, possessing, like Chapman, the Elizabethan vigor and the Elizabethan mannerism, united with Chapman to produce his version of the Iliad. I can imagine several poets, with the literary knack of the twelfth century, united to produce the Nibelungen Lay in the form in which we have it, — a work which the Germans, in their joy at discovering a national epic of their 147 own, have rated vastly higher than it deserves. And lastly, though Mr. Newman’s translation of Homer bears the strong mark of his own idiosyncrasy, yet I can imagine Mr. Newman and a school of adepts trained by him in his art of poetry, jointly producing that work, so that Aristarchus himself should have difficulty in pronouncing which line was the master’s, and which a pupil’s.

But I cannot imagine several poets, or one poet, joined with Dante in the composition of his “Inferno,” though many poets have taken for their subject a descent into Hell. (2) Many artists, again, have represented Moses; but there is only one Moses of Michael Angelo. So the insurmountable obstacle to believing the Iliad a consolidated work of several poets is this: that the work of great masters is unique; and the Iliad has a great master’s genuine stamp, and that stamp is the grand style.

Poets who cannot work in the grand style instinctively seek a style in which their comparative inferiority may fell itself at ease, a manner which may be, so to speak, indulgent to their inequalities. The ballad style offers to an epic poet, quite unable to fill the canvas of Homer, or Dante, or Milton, a canvas which he is capable of filling. The ballad measure is quite able to give due effect to the vigor and spirit which its employer, when at his very best, may be able to exhibit; and when he is not at his best — when he is a little trivial or a little dull — it will not betray him, it will not bring out his weaknesses into broad relief. This is a convenience; but it is a convenience which the ballad style purchases by resigning all pretensions to the highest, to the grand manner. It is true of its movement, as it is not true of Homer’s, that it is “liable to degenerate into doggerel.” It is true of its “moral qualities,” as it is not true of Homer’s, that “quaintness” and “garrulity” are among them. It is true of its employers, as it is not true of Homer, that they “rise and sink with their subject, are prosaic when it is tame, are low when it is mean.” For this reason the ballad style and the ballad measure are eminently inappropriate to render Homer. Homer’s manner and movement are always both noble and powerful: the ballad manner and movement are often either jaunty and smart, so not noble; or jog-trot and humdrum, so not powerful.

The Nibelungen Lay affords a good illustration of the qualities of the ballad manner. Based on grand traditions, which 148 had found expression in a grand lyric poetry, the German epic poem of the Nibelungen Lay, though it is interesting, and though it has good passages, is itself anything rather than a grand poem. It is a poem of which the composer is, to speak the truth, a very ordinary mortal, and often, therefore, like other ordinary mortals, very prosy. It is in a measure which eminently adapts itself to this commonplace personality of its composer, which has much the movement of the well-known measures of Tate and Brady, and can jog on, for hundreds of lines at a time, with a level ease which reminds one of Sheridan’s saying that easy writing may be often such hard reading. but, instead of occupying myself with the Nibelungen Lay, I prefer to look at the ballad style as directly applied to Homer, in Chapman’s version and Mr. Newman’s, and in the “Homeric Ballads” of Dr. Maginn.

First I take Chapman. I have already shown that Chapman’s conceits are un-Homeric, and that his rhyme is un-Homeric; I will now show how his manner and movement are un-Homeric. Chapman’s diction, I have said, is generally good; but it must be called good with this reserve, that, though it has Homer’s plainness and directness, it often offends him who knows Homer, by wanting Homer’s nobleness. In a passage which I have already quoted, the address of Zeus to the horses of Achilles, Chapman has —

                “Poor wretched beasts,” said he,
“Why gave we you to a mortal king, when immortality
And incapacity of age so dignifies your states?
Was it to haste [taste?] the miseries poured out on human

There are many faults in this rendering of Chapman’s, but what I particularly wish to notice in it is the expression “Poor wretched beasts.” This expression just illustrates the difference between the ballad manner and Homer’s. The ballad manner — Chapman’s manner — is, I say, pitched sensibly lower than Homer’s. The ballad manner requires that an expression shall be plain and natural, and then it asks no more. Homer’s manner requires that an expression shall be plain and natural, but it also requires that it shall be noble. ’A δειλώ is as plain, as simple, as “Poor wretched beasts”; but it is also noble, which “Poor wretched beasts” is not. “Poor wretched beasts” is, in truth, a little over-familiar, but this is no objection 149 to it for the ballad manner: it is good enough for the old English ballad, good enough for the Nibelungen Lay, good enough for Chapman’s “Iliad,” good enough for Mr. Newman’s “Iliad,” good enough for Dr. Maginn’s “Homeric Ballads”; but it is not good enough for Homer.

To feel that Chapman’s measure, though natural, is not Homeric; that though tolerably rapid, it has not Homer’s rapidity; that it has a jogging rapidity rather than a flowing rapidity; and a movement familiar rather than nobly easty, — one has only, I thing, to read half a dozen lines in any part of his version. I prefer to keep as much as possible to passages which I have already noticed, so I will quote the conclusion of the nineteenth book, where Achilles answers his horse Xanthus, who has prophesied his death to him.

               Achilles, far in rage,
Thus answered him: It fits not thee thus proudly to presage
My overthrow. I know myself it is my fate to fall
Thus far from Phthia; yet that fate shall fail to vent her gall
Till mine vent thousands. — These words said, he fell to horrid
Gave dreadful signal, and forthright made fly his one-hoofed

For what regards the manner of this passage, the words “Achilles Thus answered him,” and “I know myself it is my fate to fall Thus far from Phthia,” are in Homer’s manner, and all the rest is out of it. But for what regards its movement, who, after being jolted by Chapman through such verse as this, —

Gave dreadful signal, and forthright made fly his one-hoofed

who does not feel the vital difference of the movement of Homer?

But so deeply seated is the difference between the ballad manner and Homer’s, that even a man of the highest powers, even a man of the greatest vigor of spirit and of true genius, — the Coryphæus of balladists, Sir Walter Scott, — fails with a manner of this kind to produce an effect at all like the effect of Homer. “I am not so rash,” declares Mr. Newman, “as to say that if freedom be given to rhyme as in Walter Scott’s poetry,” — Walter Scott, “by far the most Homeric of our poets,” as in another place he calls him, — “ genius may not arise who will 150 translated Homer into the melodies of ‘Marmion.’” “The truly classical and the truly romantic,” says Dr. Maginn, “are one; the moss-trooping Nestor reappears in the moss-trooping heroes of Percy’s ‘Reliques‘;” and a description by Scott, which he quotes, he calls “graphic, and therefore Homeric.” He forgets our fourth axiom, — that Homer is not only graphic; he is also noble, and has the grand style.

I suppose that when Scott is in what may be called full ballad swing, no one will hesitate to pronounce his manner neither Homeric nor the grand manner. When he says, for instance,

I do not rhyme to the dull elf
Who cannot image to himself,

and so on, any scholar will feel that this is not Homer’s manner. But let us take Scott’s poetry at its best; and when it is at its best, it is undoubtedly very good indeed: —

Tunstall lies dead upon the field
His lifeblood stains the spotless shield;
Edmund is down, — my life is reft, —
The Admiral alone is left.
Let Stanley charge with spur of fire, —
With Chester charge, and Lancashire,
Full upon Scotland’s central host,
Or victory and England’s lost.

That is, not doubt, as vigorous as possible, as spirited as possible; it is exceedingly fine poetry. And still I say, it is not in the grand manner, and therefore it is not like Homer’s poetry. Now, how shall I make him who doubts this fell that I say true; that these lines of Scott are essentially neither in Homer’s style nor in the grand style? I may point out to him that the movement of Scott’s lines, while it is rapid, is also at the same time what the French call saccadé, its rapidity is “jerky”; whereas Homer‘s rapidity is a flowing rapidity. But this is something external and material; it is but the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual diversity. I may discuss what, in the abstract, constitutes the grand style; but that sort of general discussion never much helps our judgment of particular instances. I may say that the presence or absence of the grand style can only be spiritually discerned; and this is true, but to plead this looks like evading the difficulty. My best way is to take eminent specimens of the grand style, and 151 to put them side by side with this of Scott. For example, when Homer says, —

Be content, good friend, die also thou! why lamentest thou thyself on this wise? Patroclus too died, who was a far better than thou, —

that is in the grand style. When Virgil says, —

From me, young man, learn nobleness of soul and true effort: learn success from others, —

that is in the grand style. Dante says, —

I leave the gall of bitterness, and I go for the apples of sweetness promised unto my by my faithful Guide; but far as the center it behooves me first to fall, —

that is in the grand style. When Milton says, —

         His form had yet not lost
All her original brightness, nor appeared
Less than archangel ruined, and the excess
Of glory obscured, —

that, finally, is in the grand style. Now let any one, after repeating to himself these four passages, repeat again the passage of Scott, and he will perceive that there is something in style which the four first have in common, and which the last is without; and this something is precisely the grand manner. It is no disrespect to Scott to say that he does not attain to this manner in his poetry; to say so, is merely to say that he is not among the five or six supreme poets of the world. Among these he is not; but being a man of far greater powers than the ballad poets, he has tried to give to their instrument a compass and an elevation which it does not naturally possess, in order to enable him to come nearer to the effect of the instrument used by the great epic poets, — an instrument which he felt he could not truly use, — and in this attempt he has but imperfectly succeeded. The poetic style of Scott is — (it becomes necessary to say so when it is proposed to “translate Homer into the melodies of ‘Marmion’”) — it is, tried by the highest standards, a bastard epic style; and that is why, out of his own powerful hands, it has had so little success. It is a less natural, and therefore a 152 less good style, than the original ballad style; while it shares with the ballad style the inherent incapacity of rising into the grand style, of adequately rendering Homer. Scott is certainly at his best in his battles. Of Homer you could not say this: he is not better in his battles than elsewhere; but even between the battle pieces of the two there exists all the difference which there is between an able work and a masterpiece.

Tunstall lies dead upon the field,
His lifeblood stains the spotless shield:
Edmund is down, — my life is reft, —
The Admiral alone is left.

— “For not in the hands of Diomede the son of Tydeus rages the spear, to ward off destruction from the Danaans; neither as yet have I heart the voice of the son of Atreus, shouting out of his hated mouth: but the voice of Hector the slayer of men bursts round me, as he cheers on the Trojans; and they with their yellings fill all the plain, overcoming the Achaians in the battle.” — I protest that to my feeling, Homer’s performance, even through that pale and far-off shadow of a prose translation, still has a hundred times more of the grand manner about it than the original poetry of Scott.

Well, then, the ballad manner and the ballad measure, whether in the hands of the old ballad poets, or arranged by Chapman, or arranged by Mr. Newman, or even arranged by Sir Walter Scott, cannot worthily render Homer. And for one reason: Homer is plain, so are they; Homer is natural, so are they; Homer is spirit, so are they: but Homer is sustainedly noble, and they are not. Homer and they are both of them natural, and therefore touching and stirring: but the grand style, which is Homer’s, is something more than touching and stirring: it can form the character, it is edifying. The ole English balladist may stir Sir Philip Sidney’s heart like a trumpet, and this is much: but Homer, but the few artists in the grand style, can do more; they can refine the raw natural man, they can transmute him. So it is not without cause that I say, and say again, to the translator of Homer: “never for a moment suffer yourself to forget our fourth fundamental proposition, Homer is noble“ For it is seen how large a share this nobleness has in producing that general effect of his, which it is the main business of a translator to re produce.


*  By permission of Mrs. Matthew Arnold and the Publishers, Smith, Elder & Co. Price 2s. 6d.


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