The Faults of Pope’s Homer and Vergil’s Aeneid

“Before I left Kingston school I was well acquainted with Pope’s Homer and the Arabian Nights Entertainments, two books which will always please by the moving picture of human manners and specious miracles: nor was I then capable of discerning that Pope’s translation is a portrait endowed with every merit, excepting that of likeness to the original. The verses of Pope accustomed my ear to the sound of poetic harmony: in the death of Hector, and the shipwreck of Ulysses, I tasted the new emotions of terror and pity; and seriously disputed with my aunt on the vices and virtues of the heroes of the Trojan war. From Pope’s Homer to Dryden’s Virgil was an easy transition; but I know not how, from some fault in the author, the translator, or the reader, the pious Aeneas did not so forcibly seize on my imagination; and I derived more pleasure from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, especially in the fall of Phaeton, and the speeches of Ajax and Ulysses.”

-Edward Gibbon, Memoirs of My Life

5 thoughts on “The Faults of Pope’s Homer and Vergil’s Aeneid

  1. Greetings Fellow Classicists,

    Got any comments on The Argonautica? At Hour 25 several of us formed a book to read Book Three. I just finished the first reading (in English) and wasnt too impressed. I hope a different translation will change my mind.

    1. I wish I could tell you something to change your mind. I find the poem tortured and painful to read. In classes I describe it as “B-Movie Homer” with delusions of grandeur.

      I think that the style is so iconoclastic and the poetics so different from Homer, that no translation would really change your response.

      But, Palaiophron might have a different take, he’s more tolerant of Hellenistic aesthetics than I!

    2. I am more tolerant of PROPER Hellenistic aesthetics (though I know that this is a loaded judgment, and will rankle some chains); consequently, I am inclined to side with the Callimachean judgment about a big book being a big evil, but only to a point: I do not think that ALL post-Homeric epics were worthless, and actually believe that Quintus Smyrnaeus is quite good; Apollonius was a learned man, but the poem lacks narrative interest and imaginative spark. The best parallel to the Argonautica is, in my opinion, Statius’ Thebaid, for this reason: both poems start with a story which could have formed the basis for an excellent epyllion, and develop far beyond the natural point at which narrative interest could be derived.

      Some might counter that, in the Iliad, the actual timeframe of the narrative is far shorter than in either the Thebaid or the Argonautica. This is true, but Aristotle’s judgment on the Iliad rings true to me: its excellence stems from its focus on the particulars of human experience which represent universal themes. The Odyssey is overall less concerned with this sort of thing, but the narrative richness of incident and event in the Odyssey compensates for this.

      I will not, however, dismiss the Argonautica out of hand entirely. One can at least READ Apollonius, but his contemporary Lycophron represents the utter degradation of art when hijacked by unfeeling pedants who are puffed up on their own erudite bibliomania.

    3. I will also add that Pope’s translation of the Iliad (famously dismissed by Bentley as being ‘a pretty poem, but you must not call it Homer’, a sentiment with which Gibbon seems to concur) is the finest translation of Homer available in English.

      1. Pala,

        Wow! You wrote “Lycophron represents the utter degradation of art when hijacked by unfeeling pedants who are puffed up on their own erudite bibliomania.” One does not hear phrases like that often!i will have to keep it handy.

        As to translations of Homer; after quizzing one anither in my Homeric Vocabulary Class, we translate the Iliad for 30 minutes or so. I have always heard that it is so much better in the origional Greek and we are delighted to find that true. The Odyssey on the other hand does not seem to improve with translation.


Leave a Reply