His Translations Exhaled Pessimism and Despair

Cyril Connolly, Enemies of Promise:

“Homer and Virgil were the pillars of an Eton education; it would be hard to derive more pleasure then or now than we obtained from reading them. But we read them with the help of two official cribs, Butcher and Lang for Homer, Mackail for Virgil. Lang believed that Homer must be translated into the nearest English equivalent which was an Anglo-Saxon prose reminiscent of the Sagas. He tried to manage on a Bronze-Age vocabulary, and the Mediterranean clarity of the Odyssey was blurred by a Wardour Street Nordic fog. Homer, in short, was slightly Wagnerized. Mackail, who had married Burne-Jones’s daughter, gave to his Virgil an eightyish air, the lacrimae rerum spilled over and his Christian attitude to paganism, that it was consciously pathetic and incomplete, like an animal that wishes it could talk, infected everything which he translated with a morbid distress. Dido became a bull-throated Mater Dolorosa by Rossetti. His translations from the Greek Anthology, one of the sacred books of the inner culture, the very soil of the Eton lilies, were even more deleterious. They exhaled pessimism and despair, an overripe perfection in which it was always the late afternoon or the last stormy sunset of the ancient world, in which the authentic gloom of Palladas was outdone by that attributed to Simonides, Callimachus, or Plato.”

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J.W. Mackail

One thought on “His Translations Exhaled Pessimism and Despair

  1. Dear Erik,

    As it happens I’m in the middle of reading “Enemies of Promise”, this morning reached a passage where Connolly talks of the writer and politics and says that the moment they were then living through (the late 1930s) was an morally unmissable opportunity for writers to take a stand against against fascism. We are in something of the same situation today.

    Years ago I read “The Unquiet Grave” and the lines “Then came the days of ferrets with ribs like wish-bones, for whom we bought raw liver from the horse-butcher in the Rue de Seine, while they tunnelled clucking round the octagonal room in the Hotel de la Louisiane…” and was amazed because I had twice stayed in that room where Sartre had also lived and to which he allegedly lured girls up from the street below to sniff his Camembert.

    best, Indra

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