An Indulgent Smile for Those Scallywags

Cyril Connolly, Illusions of Likeness:

“Such value is found in the translations of Milton, Dryden, Pope, Cowper, and Tennyson, in Byron when he takes the trouble, in Eliot when he recasts Dante or Laforgue into lines of The Waste Land and Prufrock. Yet poets can indulge in huge fallacies, like the fatal idea which deceived Lang and Butcher, and to a less extent Hallam Tennyson, and then Lang again, and Leaf and Myers — the idea that the language in which Homer could be made real to us was the archaic prose of the Bible, of Malory’s Morte de Arthur and the Scandinavian sagas. The result was that generations of schoolboys grew up to whom the racy Mediterranean world of Homer was visible only through a Pre-Raphaelite fog in which with archaic unreality moved the Wagnerian shapes of Nordic gods and goddesses. Helen’s beauty was easily confused with the Holy Grail; Penelope was a kind of sacred cow and Odysseus a very Christian gentleman. There was an indulgent smile for those scallywags, Samuel Butler and Lawrence of Arabia. Yet, as Higham reminds us, translators whose names are familiar beyond the scholastic world — Walter Pater, Samuel Butler, T. E. Lawrence — are all modernizers, and careful to regard the genius of the language into which they translate. One may group them roughly under the title of ‘men of letters’ as opposed to ‘ scholastics.’”

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