Pope’s Ignorance of Greek

Sir Leslie Stephen, Alexander Pope:

“The Iliad was to be published in six volumes. For each volume Lintot was to pay 200l.; and, besides this, he was to supply Pope gratuitously with the copies for his subscribers. The subscribers paid a guinea a volume, and as 575 subscribers took 654 copies, Pope received altogether 5320l. 4s. at the regular price, whilst some royal and distinguished subscribers paid larger sums. By the publication of the Odyssey Pope seems to have [Pg 63]made about 3500l. more,[6] after paying his assistants. The result was, therefore, a total profit at least approaching 9000l. The last volume of the Odyssey did not appear till 1726, and the payments were thus spread over eleven years. Pope, however, saved enough to be more than comfortable. In the South Sea excitement he ventured to speculate, but though for a time he fancied himself to have made a large sum, he seems to have retired rather a loser than a gainer. But he could say with perfect truth that, ‘thanks to Homer,’ he ‘could live and thrive, indebted to no prince or peer alive.’ The money success is, however, of less interest to us than the literary. Pope put his best work into the translation of the Iliad. His responsibility, he said, weighed upon him terribly on starting. He used to dream of being on a long journey, uncertain which way to go, and doubting whether he would ever get to the end. Gradually he fell into the habit of translating thirty or forty verses before getting up, and then “piddling with it” for the rest of the morning; and the regular performance of his task made it tolerable. He used, he said at another time, to take advantage of the “first heat,” then correct by the original and other translations; and finally to “give it a reading for the versification only.” The statement must be partly modified by the suggestion that the translations were probably consulted before the original. Pope’s ignorance of Greek—an awkward qualification for a translator of Homer—is undeniable. Gilbert Wakefield, who was, I believe, a fair scholar and certainly a great admirer of Pope, declares his conviction to be, after a more careful examination of the Homer than any one is now likely to give, that Pope ‘collected the general purport of every passage from some of his predecessors—Dryden’ (who only translated the first Iliad), ‘Dacier, Chapman, or Ogilby.’ He thinks that Pope would have been puzzled to catch at once the meaning even of the Latin translation, and points out proofs of his ignorance of both languages and of ‘ignominious and puerile mistakes.'”

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