Shitting on Pope’s Homer

Adam Gopnik writes in a recent New Yorker piece, “Pope’s Homer read like Homer when it was published…” Pope’s Homer was undoubtedly a commercial success, but certainly it failed to impress those who were qualified to judge its merits relative to the Greek original. Pope’s translation is a testament to his thorough saturation in the spirit of the English Augustan spirit, but revealed to his contemporaries a failure to steep himself in the classical springs.

Edward Gibbon, Memoirs of My Life:

“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.”

Matthew Arnold, On Translating Homer:

“Yet it is strictly true that, for want of duly penetrating themselves with the first named quality of Homer, his rapidity, Cowper and Mr. Wright have failed in rendering him; that, for want of duly appreciating the second named quality, his plainness and directness of style and diction, Pope and Mr. Sotheby have failed in rendering him

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson:

“I remember also distinctly, (though I have not for this the authority of my journal,) that the conversation going on concerning Mr. Pope, I took notice of a report which had been sometimes propagated that he did not understand Greek. Lord Bathurst said to me, that he knew that to be false; for that part of the Iliad was translated by Mr. Pope in his house in the country; and that in the mornings when they assembled at breakfast, Mr. Pope used frequently to repeat, with great rapture, the Greek lines which he had been translating, and then to give them his version of them, and to compare them together.”

Sir Leslie Stephen, Alexander Pope:

“It is needless to say that he never became a scholar in the strict sense of the term. Voltaire declared that he could hardly read or speak a word of French; and his knowledge of Greek would have satisfied Bentley as little as his French satisfied Voltaire.”

[…]

“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.’”

Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Priestley, January 27th 1800:

“To read the Latin and Greek authors in their original, is a sublime luxury; and I deem luxury in science to be at least as justifiable as in architecture, painting, gardening, or the other arts. I enjoy Homer in his own language infinitely beyond Pope’s translation of him, and both beyond the dull narrative of the same events by Dares Phrygius; and it is an innocent enjoyment. I thank on my knees, him who directed my early education, for having put into my possession this rich source of delight; and I would not exchange it for anything which I could then have acquired, and have not since acquired.”

Finally, a note on Pope’s theology:

Sir Leslie Stephen, Alexander Pope:

“The old gods, then, were made into stiff mechanical figures, as dreary as Justice with her scales, or Fame blowing a trumpet on a monument. They belonged to that family of dismal personifications which it was customary to mark with the help of capital letters. Certainly they are a dismal and frigid set of beings, though they still lead a shivering existence on the tops of public monuments, and hold an occasional wreath over the head of a British grenadier. To identify the Homeric gods with these wearisome constructions was to have a more serious disqualification for fully entering into Homer’s spirit than even an imperfect acquaintance with Greek, and Pope is greatly exercised in his mind by their eating and drinking and fighting, and uncompromising anthropomorphism. He apologizes for his author, and tries to excuse him for unwilling compliance with popular prejudices. The Homeric theology he urges was still substantially sound, and Homer had always a distinct moral and political purpose. The Iliad, for example, was meant to show the wickedness of quarrelling, and the evil results of an insatiable thirst for glory, though shallow persons have thought that Homer only thought to please.”

Image result for homer
“What sort of speech has fled from the bulwark of your teeth!?”

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