Modern Classicism Must Be Fine-Spun

Sir Leslie Stephen, Alexander Pope:

“We—if ‘we’ means modern writers of some classical culture—can claim to appreciate Homer far better than the contemporaries of Pope. But our appreciation involves a clear recognition of the vast difference between ourselves and the ancient Greeks. We see the Homeric poems in their true perspective through the dim vista of shadowy centuries. We regard them as the growth of a long past stage in the historical evolution; implying a different social order—a different ideal of life—an archaic conception of the world and its forces, only to be reconstructed for the imagination by help of long training and serious study. The multiplicity of the laws imposed upon the translator is the consequence of this perception. They amount to saying that a man must manage to project himself into a distant period, and saturate his mind with the corresponding modes of life. If the feat is possible at all, it requires a great and conscious effort, and the attainment of a state of mind which can only be preserved by constant attention. The translator has to wear a mask which is always in danger of being rudely shattered. Such an intellectual feat is likely to produce what, in the most obvious sense, one would call highly artificial work. Modern classicism must be fine-spun, and smell rather of the hothouse than the open air. Undoubtedly some exquisite literary achievements have been accomplished in this spirit; but they are, after all, calculated for the small circle of cultivated minds, and many of their merits can be appreciated only by professors qualified by special training. Most frequently we can hope for pretty playthings, or, at best, for skilful restorations which show learning and taste far more distinctly than a glowing imagination. But even if an original poet can breathe some spirit into classical poems, the poor translator, with the dread of philologists and antiquarians in the background, is so fettered that free movement becomes almost impossible. No one, I should venture to prophesy, will really succeed in such work unless he frankly accepts the impossibility of reproducing the original, and aims only at an equivalent for some of its aspects. The perception of this change will enable us to realize Pope’s mode of approaching the problem. The condemnatory epithet most frequently applied to him is ‘artificial;’ and yet, as I have just said, a modern translator is surely more artificial, so far as he is attempting a more radical transformation of his own thoughts into the forms of a past epoch. But we can easily see in what sense Pope’s work fairly deserves the name. The poets of an older period frankly adopted the classical mythology without any apparent sense of incongruity. They mix heathen deities with Christian saints, and the ancient heroes adopt the manners of chivalrous romance without the slightest difficulty. The freedom was still granted to the writers of the renaissance. Milton makes Phœbus and St. Peter discourse in successive stanzas, as if they belonged to the same pantheon. For poetical purposes the old gods are simply canonized as Christian saints, as, in a more theological frame of mind, they are regarded as devils. In the reign of common sense this was no longer possible. The incongruity was recognized and condemned. The gods were vanishing under the clearer light, as modern thought began more consciously to assert its independence. Yet the unreality of the old mythology is not felt to be any objection to their use as conventional symbols. Homer’s gods, says Pope in his preface, are still the gods of poetry. Their vitality was nearly extinct; but they were regarded as convenient personifications of abstract qualities, machines for epic poetry, or figures to be used in allegory. In the absence of a true historical perception, the same view was attributed to Homer. Homer, as Pope admits, did not invent the gods; but he was the ‘first who brought them into a system of machinery for poetry,’ and showed his fertile imagination by clothing the properties of the elements, and the virtues and vices in forms and persons. And thus Pope does not feel that he is diverging from the spirit of the old mythology when he regards the gods, not as the spontaneous growth of the primitive imagination, but as deliberate contrivances intended to convey moral truth in allegorical fables, and probably devised by sages for the good of the vulgar.”

2 thoughts on “Modern Classicism Must Be Fine-Spun

  1. I feel pretty bad posting crap about flatulence and masturbation when your posts are so sublime!

    (On a side note, someone referred to this blog as a font of the “absurd and the sublime” last week. Seems about right…)

    • Nay sir, I see that your masturbation post is one of our all-time most popular! And you know that I am no stranger to posting some of the tawdry stuff.

      If our blog mixes the absurd and sublime, I would claim that it is then a faithful reflection of the remnants of antiquity themselves. Athenaeus, Macrobius, and Gellius have no problem placing the most elevated purple passages on the page next to dick jokes and literally incredible stories.

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