The Iliad of Homer (Cowper)/Preface for a Second Edition


Soon after my publication of this work, I began to prepare it for a second edition, by an accurate revisal of the first. It seemed to me, that here and there, perhaps a slight alteration might satisfy the demands of some, whom I was desirous to please; and I comforted myself with the reflection, that if I still failed to conciliate all, I should yet have no cause to account myself in a singular degree unfortunate. To please an unqualified judge, an author must sacrifice too much; and the attempt to please an uncandid one were altogether hopeless. In one or other of these classes may be ranged all such objectors, as would deprive blank verse of one of its principal advantages, the variety of its pauses; together with all such as deny the good effect, on the whole, of a line, now and then, less harmonious than its fellows.

With respect to the pauses, it has been affirmed with an unaccountable rashness, that Homer himself has given me an example of verse without them. Had this been true, it would by no means have concluded against the use of them in an English version of Homer; because, in one language, and in one species of metre, that may be musical, which in another would be found disgusting. But the assertion is totally unfounded. The pauses in Homer's verse are so frequent and various, that to name another poet, if pauses are a fault, more faulty than he, were, perhaps, impossible. It may even be questioned, if a single passage of ten lines flowing with uninterrupted smoothness could be singled out from all the thousands that he has left us. He frequently pauses at the first word of the line, when it consists of three or more syllables; not seldom when of two; and sometimes even when of one only. In this practice he was followed, as was observed in my Preface to the first edition, by the Author of the Paradise Lost. An example inimitable indeed, but which no writer of English heroic verse without rhyme can neglect with impunity.

Similar to this is the objection which proscribes absolutely the occasional use of a line irregularly constructed. When Horace censured Lucilius for his lines incomposite pede currentes, he did not mean to say, that he was xiv chargeable with such in some instances, or even in many, for then the censure would have been equally applicable to himself; but he designed by that expression to characterize all his writings. The censure therefore was just; Lucilius wrote at a time when the Roman verse had not yet received its polish, and instead of introducing artfully his rugged lines, and to serve a particular purpose, had probably seldom, and never but by accident, composed a smooth one. Such has been the versification of the earliest poets in every country. Children lisp, at first, and stammer; but, in time, their speech becomes fluent, and, if they are well taught, harmonious.

Homer himself is not invariably regular in the construction of his verse. Had he been so, Eustathius, an excellent critic and warm admirer of Homer, had never affirmed, that some of his lines want a head, some a tail, and others a middle. Some begin with a word that is neither dactyl nor spondee, some conclude with a dactyl, and in the intermediate part he sometimes deviates equally from the established custom. I confess that instances of this sort are rare; but they are surely, though few, sufficient to warrant a sparing use of similar license in the present day.

Unwilling, however, to seem obstinate in both these particulars, I conformed myself in some measure to these objections, though unconvinced myself of their propriety. Several of the rudest and most unshapely lines I composed anew; and several of the pauses least in use I displaced for the sake of an easier enunciation.—And this was the state of the work after the revisal given it about seven years since.

Between that revisal and the present a considerable time intervened, and the effect of long discontinuance was, that I became more dissatisfied with it myself, than the most difficult to be pleased of all my judges. Not for the sake of a few uneven lines or unwonted pauses, but for reasons far more substantial. The diction seemed to me in many passages either not sufficiently elevated, or deficient in the grace of ease, and in others I found the sense of the original either not adequately expressed or misapprehended. Many elisions still remained unsoftened; the compound epithets I found not always happily combined, and the same sometimes too frequently repeated.

There is no end of passages in Homer, which must creep unless they are lifted; yet in such, all embellishment is out of the question. The hero puts on his clothes, or refreshes himself with food and wine, or he yokes his steed, takes a journey, and in the evening preparation is made for his repose. To give relief to subjects prosaic as these without seeming unreasonably tumid is extremely difficult. Mr. Pope much abridges some of them, and others he omits; but neither of these liberties was compatible with the nature of my undertaking. These, therefore, and many similar to these, have been new-modeled; somewhat to their advantage I hope, but not even now entirely to my satisfaction. The lines have a more natural movement, the pauses are fewer and less stately, the expression as easy as I could make it without meanness, and these were all the improvements that I could give them.

The elisions, I believe, are all cured, with only one exception. An alternative proposes itself to a modern versifier, from which there is no escape, xv which occurs perpetually, and which, choose as he may, presents him always with an evil. I mean in the instance of the particle (the). When this particle precedes a vowel, shall he melt it into the substantive, or leave the hiatus open? Both practices are offensive to a delicate ear. The particle absorbed occasions harshness, and the open vowel a vacuity equally inconvenient. Sometimes, therefore, to leave it open, and sometimes to ingraft it into its adjunct seems most advisable; this course Mr. Pope has taken, whose authority recommended it to me; though of the two evils I have most frequently chosen the elision as the least.

Compound epithets have obtained so long in the poetical language of our country, that I employed them without fear or scruple. To have abstained from them in a blank verse translation of Homer, who abounds with them, and from whom our poets probably first adopted them, would have been strange indeed. But though the genius of our language favors the formation of such words almost as much as that of the Greek, it happens sometimes, that a Grecian compound either cannot be rendered in English at all, or, at best, but awkwardly. For this reason, and because I found that some readers much disliked them, I have expunged many; retaining, according to my best judgment, the most eligible only, and making less frequent the repetitions even of these.

I know not that I can add any thing material on the subject of this last revisal, unless it be proper to give the reason why the Iliad, though greatly altered, has undergone much fewer alterations than the Odyssey. The true reason I believe is this. The Iliad demanded my utmost possible exertions; it seemed to meet me like an ascent almost perpendicular, which could not be surmounted at less cost than of all the labor that I could bestow on it. The Odyssey on the contrary seemed to resemble an open and level country, through which I might travel at my ease. The latter, therefore, betrayed me into some negligence, which, though little conscious of it at the time, on an accurate search, I found had left many disagreeable effects behind it.

I now leave the work to its fate. Another may labor hereafter in an attempt of the same kind with more success; but more industriously, I believe, none ever will.