We Pinned Our Hopes on Pindar

Samuel Johnson, Life of Cowley:

The Pindarique odes are now to be considered; a species of composition, which Cowley thinks Pancirolus might have counted in “his list of the lost inventions of antiquity,” and which he has made a bold and vigorous attempt to recover.

The purpose with which he has paraphrased an Olympick and Nemaean ode, is, by himself, sufficiently explained. His endeavour was, not to show “precisely what Pindar spoke, but his manner of speaking.” He was, therefore, not at all restrained to his expressions, nor much to his sentiments; nothing was required of him, but not to write as Pindar would not have written.

Of the Olympick ode, the beginning is, I think, above the original in elegance, and the conclusion below it in strength. The connexion is supplied with great perspicuity; and the thoughts, which, to a reader of less skill, seem thrown together by chance, are concatenated without any abruption. Though the English ode cannot be called a translation, it may be very properly consulted as a commentary.

The spirit of Pindar is, indeed, not every where equally preserved. The following pretty lines are not such as his deep mouth was used to pour:

Great Rhea’s son,
If in Olympus’ top, where thou
Sitt’st to behold thy sacred show,
If in Alpheus’ silver flight,
If in my verse thou take delight,
My verse, great Rhea’s son, which is
Lofty as that, and smooth as this.

In the Nemaean ode the reader must, in mere justice to Pindar, observe, that whatever is said of “the original new moon, her tender forehead, and her horns,” is super-added by his paraphrast, who has many other plays of words and fancy unsuitable to the original, as

The table, free for ev’ry guest,
No doubt will thee admit,
And feast more upon thee, than thou on it.

He sometimes extends his author’s thoughts without improving them. In the Olympionick an oath is mentioned in a single word, and Cowley spends three lines in swearing by the Castalian stream. We are told of Theron’s bounty, with a hint that he had enemies, which Cowley thus enlarges in rhyming prose:

But in this thankless world the giver
Is envied even by the receiver;
‘Tis now the cheap and frugal fashion
Rather to hide than own the obligation:
Nay, ’tis much worse than so;
It now an artifice does grow
Wrongs and injuries to do,
Lest men should think we owe.

It is hard to conceive that a man of the first rank in learning and wit, when he was dealing out such minute morality in such feeble diction, could imagine, either waking or dreaming, that he imitated Pindar.

Leave a Reply