The Iliad of Homer (Cowper)/Preface



June 4, 1791.


Whether a translation of Homer may be best executed in blank verse or in rhyme, is a question in the decision of which no man can find difficulty, who has ever duly considered what translation ought to be, or who is in any degree practically acquainted with those very different kinds of versification. I will venture to assert that a just translation of any ancient poet in rhyme, is impossible. No human ingenuity can be equal to the task of closing every couplet with sounds homotonous, expressing at the same time the full sense, and only the full sense of his original. The translator's ingenuity, indeed, in this case becomes itself a snare, and the readier he is at invention and expedient, the more likely he is to be betrayed into the widest departures from the guide whom he professes to follow. Hence it has happened, that although the public have long been in possession of an English Homer by a poet whose writings have done immortal honor to his country, the demand of a new one, and especially in blank verse, has been repeatedly and loudly made by some of the best judges and ablest writers of the present day.

I have no contest with my predecessor. None is supposable between performers on different instruments. Mr. Pope has surmounted all difficulties in his version of Homer that it was possible to surmount in rhyme. But he was fettered, and his fetters were his choice. Accustomed always to rhyme, he had formed to himself an ear which probably could not be much gratified by verse that wanted it, and determined to encounter even impossibilities, rather than abandon a mode of writing in which he had excelled every body, for the sake of another to which, unexercised in it as he was, he must have felt strong objections.

I number myself among the warmest admirers of Mr. Pope as an original writer, and I allow him all the merit he can justly claim as the translator of this chief of poets. He has given us the Tale of Troy divine in smooth verse, generally in correct and elegant language, and in diction often highly poetical. But his deviations are so many, occasioned chiefly by the cause already mentioned, that, much as he has done, and valuable as his work is on some accounts, it was yet in the humble province of a translator that I thought it possible even for me to fellow him with some advantage.

That he has sometimes altogether suppressed the sense of his author, and has not seldom intermingled his own ideas with it, is a remark which, on viii this occasion, nothing but necessity should have extorted from me. But we differ sometimes so widely in our matter, that unless this remark, invidious as it seems, be premised, I know not how to obviate a suspicion, on the one hand, of careless oversight, or of factitious embellishment on the other. On this head, therefore, the English reader is to be admonished, that the matter found in me, whether he like it or not, is found also in Homer, and that the matter not found in me, how much soever he may admire it, is found only in Mr. Pope. I have omitted nothing; I have invented nothing.

There is indisputably a wide difference between the case of an original writer in rhyme and a translator. In an original work the author is free; if the rhyme be of difficult attainment, and he cannot find it in one direction, he is at liberty to seek it in another; the matter that will not accommodate itself to his occasions he may discard, adopting such as will. But in a translation no such option is allowable; the sense of the author is required, and we do not surrender it willingly even to the plea of necessity. Fidelity is indeed of the very essence of translation, and the term itself implies it. For which reason, if we suppress the sense of our original, and force into its place our own, we may call our work an imitation, if we please, or perhaps a paraphrase, but it is no longer the same author only in a different dress, and therefore it is not translation. Should a painter, professing to draw the likeness of a beautiful woman, give her more or fewer features than belong to her, and a general cast of countenance of his own invention, he might be said to have produced a jeu d'esprit, a curiosity perhaps in its way, but by no means the lady in question.

It will however be necessary to speak a little more largely to this subject, on which discordant opinions prevail even among good judges.

The free and the close translation have, each, their advocates. But inconveniences belong to both. The former can hardly be true to the original author's style and manner, and the latter is apt to be servile. The one loses his peculiarities, and the other his spirit. Were it possible, therefore, to find an exact medium, a manner so close that it should let slip nothing of the text, nor mingle any thing extraneous with it, and at the same time so free as to have an air of originality, this seems precisely the mode in which an author might be best rendered. I can assure my readers from my own experience, that to discover this very delicate line is difficult, and to proceed by it when found, through the whole length of a poet voluminous as Homer, nearly impossible. I can only pretend to have endeavored it.

It is an opinion commonly received, but, like many others, indebted for its prevalence to mere want of examination, that a translator should imagine to himself the style which his author would probably have used, had the language into which he is rendered been his own. A direction which wants nothing but practicability to recommend it. For suppose six persons, equally qualified for the task, employed to translate the same Ancient into their own language, with this rule to guide them. In the event it would be found, that each had fallen on a manner different from that of all the rest, and by probable inference it would follow that none had fallen on the right. On the whole, therefore, as has been said, the translation which partakes equally of fidelity and liberality, that is close, but not so close as to ix be servile, free, but not so free as to be licentious, promises fairest; and my ambition will be sufficiently gratified, if such of my readers as are able, and will take the pains to compare me in this respect with Homer, shall judge that I have in any measure attained a point so difficult.

As to energy and harmony, two grand requisites in a translation of this most energetic and most harmonious of all poets, it is neither my purpose nor my wish, should I be found deficient in either, or in both, to shelter myself under an unfilial imputation of blame to my mother-tongue. Our language is indeed less musical than the Greek, and there is no language with which I am at all acquainted that is not. But it is musical enough for the purposes of melodious verse, and if it seem to fail, on whatsoever occasion, in energy, the blame is due, not to itself, but to the unskilful manager of it. For so long as Milton's works, whether his prose or his verse, shall exist, so long there will be abundant proof that no subject, however important, however sublime, can demand greater force of expression than is within the compass of the English language.

I have no fear of judges familiar with original Homer. They need not be told that a translation of him is an arduous enterprise, and as such, entitled to some favor. From these, therefore, I shall expect, and shall not be disappointed, considerable candor and allowance. Especially they will be candid, and I believe that there are many such, who have occasionally tried their own strength in this bow of Ulysses. They have not found it supple and pliable, and with me are perhaps ready to acknowledge that they could not always even approach with it the mark of their ambition. But I would willingly, were it possible, obviate uncandid criticism, because to answer it is lost labor, and to receive it in silence has the appearance of stately reserve, and self-importance.

To those, therefore, who shall be inclined to tell me hereafter that my diction is often plain and unelevated, I reply beforehand that I know it,—that it would be absurd were it otherwise, and that Homer himself stands in the same predicament. In fact, it is one of his numberless excellences, and a point in which his judgment never fails him, that he is grand and lofty always in the right place, and knows infallibly how to rise and fall with his subject. Big words on small matters may serve as a pretty exact definition of the burlesque; an instance of which they will find in the Battle of the Frogs and Mice, but none in the Iliad.

By others I expect to be told that my numbers, though here and there tolerably smooth, are not always such, but have, now and then, an ugly hitch in their gait, ungraceful in itself, and inconvenient to the reader. To this charge also I plead guilty, but beg leave in alleviation of judgment to add, that my limping lines are not numerous, compared with those that limp not. The truth is, that not one of them all escaped me, but, such as they are, they were all made such with a wilful intention. In poems of great length there is no blemish more to be feared than sameness of numbers, and every art is useful by which it may be avoided. A line, rough in itself, has yet its recommendations; it saves the ear the pain of an irksome monotony, and seems even to add greater smoothness to others. Milton, whose ear and taste were exquisite, has exemplified in his Paradise Lost the effect of this practice frequently.

x Having mentioned Milton, I cannot but add an observation on the similitude of his manner to that of Homer. It is such, that no person familiar with both, can read either without being reminded of the other; and it is in those breaks and pauses, to which the numbers of the English poet are so much indebted both for their dignity and variety, that he chiefly copies the Grecian. But these are graces to which rhyme is not competent; so broken, it loses all its music; of which any person may convince himself by reading a page only of any of our poets anterior to Denham, Waller, and Dryden. A translator of Homer, therefore, seems directed by Homer himself to the use of blank verse, as to that alone in which he can be rendered with any tolerable representation of his manner in this particular. A remark which I am naturally led to make by a desire to conciliate, if possible, some, who, rather unreasonably partial to rhyme, demand it on all occasions, and seem persuaded that poetry in our language is a vain attempt without it. Verse, that claims to be verse in right of its metre only, they judge to be such rather by courtesy than by kind, on an apprehension that it costs the writer little trouble, that he has only to give his lines their prescribed number of syllables, and so far as the mechanical part is concerned, all is well. Were this true, they would have reason on their side; for the author is certainly best entitled to applause who succeeds against the greatest difficulty, and in verse that calls for the most artificial management in its construction. But the case is not as they suppose. To rhyme, in our language, demands no great exertion of ingenuity, but is always easy to a person exercised in the practice. Witness the multitudes who rhyme, but have no other poetical pretensions. Let it be considered too, how merciful we are apt to be to unclassical and indifferent language for the sake of rhyme, and we shall soon see that the labor lies principally on the other side. Many ornaments of no easy purchase are required to atone for the absence of this single recommendation. It is not sufficient that the lines of blank verse be smooth in themselves, they must also be harmonious in the combination. Whereas the chief concern of the rhymist is to beware that his couplets and his sense be commensurate, lest the regularity of his numbers should be (too frequently at least) interrupted. A trivial difficulty this, compared with those which attend the poet unaccompanied by his bells. He, in order that he may be musical, must exhibit all the variations, as he proceeds, of which ten syllables are susceptible; between the first syllable and the last there is no place at which he must not occasionally pause, and the place of the pause must be perpetually shifted. To effect this variety, his attention must be given, at one and the same time, to the pauses he has already made in the period before him, as well as to that which he is about to make, and to those which shall succeed it. On no lighter terms than these is it possible that blank verse can be written which will not, in the course of a long work, fatigue the ear past all endurance. If it be easier, therefore, to throw five balls into the air and to catch them in succession, than to sport in that manner with one only, then may blank verse be more easily fabricated than rhyme. And if to these labors we add others equally requisite, a style in general more elaborate than rhyme requires, farther removed from the vernacular idiom both in the language xi itself and in the arrangement of it, we shall not long doubt which of these two very different species of verse threatens the composer with most expense of study and contrivance. I feel it unpleasant to appeal to my own experience, but, having no other voucher at hand, am constrained to it. As I affirm, so I have found. I have dealt pretty largely in both kinds, and have frequently written more verses in a day, with tags, than I could ever write without them. To what has been here said (which whether it have been said by others or not, I cannot tell, having never read any modern book on the subject) I shall only add, that to be poetical without rhyme, is an argument of a sound and classical constitution in any language.

A word or two on the subject of the following translation, and I have done.

My chief boast is that I have adhered closely to my original, convinced that every departure from him would be punished with the forfeiture of some grace or beauty for which I could substitute no equivalent. The epithets that would consent to an English form I have preserved as epithets; others that would not, I have melted into the context. There are none, I believe, which I have not translated in one way or other, though the reader will not find them repeated so often as most of them are in Homer, for a reason that need not be mentioned.

Few persons of any consideration are introduced either in the Iliad or Odyssey by their own name only, but their patronymic is given also. To this ceremonial I have generally attended, because it is a circumstance of my author's manner.

Homer never allots less than a whole line to the introduction of a speaker. No, not even when the speech itself is no longer than the line that leads it. A practice to which, since he never departs from it, he must have been determined by some cogent reason. He probably deemed it a formality necessary to the majesty of his narration. In this article, therefore, I have scrupulously adhered to my pattern, considering these introductory lines as heralds in a procession; important persons, because employed to usher in persons more important than themselves.

It has been my point every where to be as little verbose as possible, though; at the same time, my constant determination not to sacrifice my author's full meaning to an affected brevity.

In the affair of style, I have endeavored neither to creep nor to bluster, for no author is so likely to betray his translator into both these faults, as Homer, though himself never guilty of either. I have cautiously avoided all terms of new invention, with an abundance of which, persons of more ingenuity than judgment have not enriched our language, but incumbered it. I have also every where used an unabbreviated fullness of phrase as most suited to the nature of the work, and, above all, have studied perspicuity, not only because verse is good for little that wants it, but because Homer is the most perspicuous of all poets.

In all difficult places I have consulted the best commentators, and where they have differed, or have given, as is often the case, a variety of solutions, I have ever exercised my best judgment, and selected that which appears, at least to myself, the most probable interpretation. On this ground, xii and on account of the fidelity which I have already boasted, I may venture, I believe, to recommend my work as promising some usefulness to young students of the original.

The passages which will be least noticed, and possibly not at all, except by those who shall wish to find me at a fault, are those which have cost me abundantly the most labor. It is difficult to kill a sheep with dignity in a modern language, to flay and to prepare it for the table, detailing every circumstance of the process. Difficult also, without sinking below the level of poetry, to harness mules to a wagon, particularizing every article of their furniture, straps, rings, staples, and even the tying of the knots that kept all together. Homer, who writes always to the eye, with all his sublimity and grandeur, has the minuteness of a Flemish painter.

But in what degree I have succeeded in my version either of these passages, and such as these, or of others more buoyant and above-ground, and especially of the most sublime, is now submitted to the decision of the reader, to whom I am ready enough to confess that I have not at all consulted their approbation, who account nothing grand that is not turgid, or elegant that is not bedizened with metaphor.

I purposely decline all declamation on the merits of Homer, because a translator's praises of his author are liable to a suspicion of dotage, and because it were impossible to improve on those which this author has received already. He has been the wonder of all countries that his works have ever reached, even deified by the greatest names of antiquity, and in some places actually worshipped. And to say truth, were it possible that mere man could entitle himself by pre-eminence of any kind to divine honors, Homer's astonishing powers seem to have given him the best pretensions.

I cannot conclude without due acknowledgments to the best critic in Homer I have ever met with, the learned and ingenious Mr. Fuseli. Unknown as he was to me when I entered on this arduous undertaking (indeed to this moment I have never seen him) he yet voluntarily and generously offered himself as my revisor. To his classical taste and just discernment I have been indebted for the discovery of many blemishes in my own work, and of beauties, which would otherwise have escaped me, in the original. But his necessary avocations would not suffer him to accompany me farther than to the latter books of the Iliad, a circumstance which I fear my readers, as well as myself, will regret with too much reason.1

I have obligations likewise to many friends, whose names, were it proper to mention them here, would do me great honor. They have encouraged me by their approbation, have assisted me with valuable books, and have eased me of almost the whole labor of transcribing.

And now I have only to regret that my pleasant work is ended. To the illustrious Greek I owe the smooth and easy flight of many thousand hours. He has been my companion at home and abroad, in the study, in the garden, and in the field; and no measure of success, let my labors succeed as they may, will ever compensate to me the loss of the innocent luxury that I have enjoyed, as a translator of Homer.

  1. ^  Some of the few notes subjoined to my translation of the Odyssey are by Mr. Fuseli, who had a short opportunity to peruse the MSS. while the Iliad was printing. They are marked with his initial.