The Iliad of Homer (Cowper)/Preface by J. Johnson

Footnotes present in the original.



I have no other pretensions to the honorable name of Editor on this occasion, than as a faithful transcriber of the Manuscript, and a diligent corrector of the Press, which are, doubtless, two of the very humblest employments in that most extensive province. I have wanted the ability to attempt any thing higher; and, fortunately for the reader, I have also wanted the presumption. What, however, I can do, I will. Instead of critical remark, I will furnish him with anecdote. He shall trace from beginning to end the progress of the following work; and in proportion as I have the happiness to engage his attention, I shall merit the name of a fortunate editor.

It was in the darkest season of a most calamitous depression of his spirits, that I was summoned to the house of my inestimable friend the Translator, in the month of January, 1794. He had happily completed a revisal of his Homer, and was thinking of the preface to his new edition, when all his satisfaction in the one, and whatever he had projected for the other, in a moment vanished from his mind. He had fallen into a deplorable illness; and though the foremost wish of my heart was to lessen the intenseness of his misery, I was utterly unable to afford him any aid.

I had, however, a pleasing though a melancholy opportunity of tracing his recent footsteps in the Field of Troy, and in the Palace of Ithaca. He had materially altered both the Iliad and Odyssey; and, so far as my ability allowed me to judge, they were each of them greatly improved. He had also, at the request of his bookseller, interspersed the two poems with copious notes; for the most part translations of the ancient Scholia, and gleaned, at the cost of many valuable hours, from the pages of Barnes, Clarke, and Villoisson. It has been a constant subject of regret to the admirers of "The Task," that the exercise of such marvelous original powers, should have been so long suspended by the drudgery of translation; and in this view, their quarrel with the illustrious Greek will be, doubtless, extended to his commentators.[1]

During two long years from this most anxious period, the translation continued as it was; and though, in the hope of its being able to divert his melancholy, I had attempted more than once to introduce it to its Author, I was every time painfully obliged to desist. But in the summer of ninety-six, when he had resided with me in Norfolk twelve miserable months, the introduction long wished for took place. To my inexpressible astonishment and joy, I surprised him, one morning, with the Iliad in his hand; and with an excess of delight, which I am still more unable to describe, I the next day discovered that he had been writing.—Were I to mention one of the happiest moments of my life, it might be that which introduced me to the following lines:—

Mistaken meanings corrected,
admonente G. Wakefield.

L. 429.

that the nave

Of thy neat wheel seem e'en to grind upon it.
L. 865. As when (the north wind freshening) near the bank
Up springs a fish in air, then falls again
And disappears beneath the sable flood,
So at the stroke, he bounded.
L. 1018. Thenceforth Tydides o'er his ample shield
Aim'd and still aim'd to pierce him in the neck.

Or better thus—

Tydides, in return, with spear high-poised
O'er the broad shield, aim'd ever at his neck,

Or best of all—

Then Tydeus' son, with spear high-poised above
The ample shield, stood aiming at his neck.

He had written these lines with a pencil, on a leaf at the end of his Iliad; and when I reflected on the cause which had given them birth, I could not but admire its disproportion to the effect. What the voice of persuasion had failed in for a year, accident had silently accomplished in a single day. The circumstance I allude to was this: I received a copy of the Iliad and Odyssey of Pope, then recently published by the Editor above mentioned, with illustrative and critical notes of his own. As it commended Mr. Cowper's Translation in the Preface, and occasionally pointed out its merits in the Notes, I was careful to place it in his way; though it was more from a habit of experiment which I had contracted, than from well-grounded hopes of success. But what a fortunate circumstance was the arrival of this Work! and by what name worthy of its influence shall I call it? In the mouth of xix an indifferent person it might be Chance; but in mine; whom it rendered so peculiarly happy, common gratitude requires that it should be Providence.

As I watched him with an indescribable interest in his progress, I had the satisfaction to find, that, after a few mornings given to promiscuous correction, and to frequent perusal of the above-mentioned Notes, he was evidently settling on the sixteenth Book. This he went regularly through, and the fruits of an application so happily resumed were, one day with another, about sixty new lines. But with the end of the sixteenth Book he had closed the corrections of the year. An excursion to the coast, which immediately followed, though it promised an accession of strength to the body, could not fail to interfere with the pursuits of the mind. It was therefore with much less surprise than regret, that I saw him relinquish the "Tale of Troy Divine."

Such was the prelude to the last revisal, which, in the month of January, ninety-seven, Mr. Cowper was persuaded to undertake; and to a faithful copy, as I trust, of which, I have at this time the honor to conduct the reader. But it may not be amiss to observe, that with regard to the earlier books of the Iliad, it was less a revisal of the altered text, than of the text as it stands in the first edition. For though the interleaved copy was always at hand, and in the multitude of its altered places could hardly fail to offer some things worthy to be preserved, but which the ravages of illness and the lapse of time might have utterly effaced from his mind, I could not often persuade the Translator to consult it. I was therefore induced, in the course of transcribing, to compare the two revisals as I went along, and to plead for the continuance of the first correction, when it forcibly struck me as better than the last. This, however, but seldom occurred; and the practice, at length, was completely left off, by his consenting to receive into the number of the books which were daily laid open before him, the interleaved copy to which I allude.

At the end of the first six books of the Iliad, the arrival of spring brought the usual interruptions of exercise and air, which increased as the summer advanced to a degree so unfavorable to the progress of Homer, that in the requisite attention to their salutary claims, the revisal was, at one time, altogether at a stand. Only four books were added in the course of nine months; but opportunity returning as the winter set in, there were added, in less than seven weeks, four more: and thus ended the year ninety-seven.

As the spring that succeeded was a happier spring, so it led to a happier summer. We had no longer air and exercise alone, but exercise and Homer hand in hand. He even followed us thrice to the sea: and whether our walks were

               "on the margin of the land,

O'er the green summit of the" cliffs, "whose base

Beats back the roaring surge,"

               "or on the shore

Of the untillable and barren deep,"

they were always within hearing of his magic song. About the middle of this busy summer, the revisal of the Iliad was brought to a close; and on the very next day, the 24th of July, the correction of the Odyssey commenced,—a xx morning rendered memorable by a kind and unexpected visit from the patroness of that work, the Dowager Lady Spencer!

It is not my intention to detain the reader with a progressive account of the Odyssey revised, as circumstantial as that of the Iliad, because it went on smoothly from beginning to end, and was finished in less than eight months.

I cannot deliver these volumes to the public without feeling emotions of gratitude toward Heaven, in recollecting how often this corrected Work has appeared to me an instrument of Divine mercy, to mitigate the sufferings of my excellent relation. Its progress in our private hours was singularly medicinal to his mind: may its presentment to the Public prove not less conducive to the honor of the departed Author, who has every claim to my veneration! As a copious life of the Poet is already in the press, from the pen of his intimate friend Mr. Hayley, it is unnecessary for me to enter on such extensive commendation of his character, as my own intimacy with him might suggest; but I hope the reader will kindly allow me the privilege of indulging, in some degree, the feelings of my heart, by applying to him, in the close of this Preface, an expressive verse (borrowed from Homer) which he inscribed himself, with some little variation, on a bust of his Grecian Favorite.

Ως τε πατηρ ω παιδι, και ουποτε λησομαι αυτε.

Loved as his Son, in him I early found

A Father, such as I will ne'er forget.

  1. ^  Very few signatures had at this time been affixed to the notes; but I afterward compared them with the Greek, note by note, and endeavored to supply the defect; more especially in the last three Volumes, where the reader will be pleased to observe that all the notes without signatures are Mr. Cowper's, and that those marked B.C.V. are respectively found in the editions of Homer by Barnes, Clarke, and Villoisson. But the employment was so little to the taste and inclination of the poet, that he never afterward revised them, or added to their number more than these which follow;—In the Odyssey, Vol. I. Book xi., the note 32.—Vol. II. Book xv., the note 13.—The note10 Book xvi., of that volume, and the note 14, Book xix., of the same.