POETICAL TRANSLATIONS OF FAUST.
The first translation on our list exhibits Goethe in the light of rather an elegant poetaster: the last does not leave him, so to speak, the likeness of a dog. The intermediate metamorphoses which the illustrious German made to undergo, differ considerably in degree: in some of them he approaches nearer, and in others he recedes farther, from the common standard of humanity—but in none of them is he elevated into the rank of a human being, much less into that of a great poet. It is only of those portions of Faust that are executed in rhyme that we are now speaking, or that we intend to speak; for, when the translation employ blank verse, their work is frequently praiseworthy, and that of Dr Anster, in particular, appears deserving of considerable commendation. But the original "Faust" is written in rhyme, and in our opinion, cannot be translated into any other form of language without its true spirit entirely evaporating. In blank verse the difficulties are altogether evaded—the pith and dramatic point both of the dialogues and soliloquies are lost—the clear, hard, and well-defined outlines of the original are thawed down into a comparatively watery dilution, and melt away like icebergs that have drifted into the latitude of summer seas.
We apprise our readers, therefore, that it is our intention to sit in judgment on these translations, only in so far as they are executed in rhyme: and, looking at them in this respect, the contrast between them and the original is very remarkable. In the original "Faust," the first and greatest excellence that strikes us, is the exquisite freedom, elasticity, and finish of the language. Here we find the most complete realization of what our great poetical reformer Wordsworth has been contending for all his life, both by his theory and his practice—an exact transcript in the highest poetry of the language "really used by men." When, on the other hand, we turn to the rhymed translations, that which strikes us most is, we will not say the total absence of every thing like good English, (for that would but feebly express the case,) but the entire abandonment of every thing approaching to human speech. In defence of their barbarous dialect, and strange grammatical contortions, we are aware that these translators will plead the hard necessity of rhyming, and the grievous difficulties it throws in their way, particularly in a dramatic composition. And we at once accept this plea as a very satisfactory explanation of their failures: but it appears to us to afford no sufficient reason why we should not insist upon obtaining, at the hands of every English writer, whether translator or not, whether poet or proseman, a current of real language identical with that actually spoken by his countrymen. We suspect, however, that some of these translators may be inclined to show fight on this point, and to argue that "Faust," being a rhyming play, is already through that circumstance, and in its very conception, so unnatural a species of composition, (inasmuch as actual men never converse in rhyme,) that it can make but little difference in respect to our feelings of the reality of its language, though the
dialogue be still farther removed from the discourse of ordinary life, by having its structure changed and its idiom perverted. It is thus, we imagine, that they justify to themselves the licenses they assume in transposing words, and in disregarding and violating, in every possible manner, the commonest proprieties of English speech. "Here are we, they have no doubt thought, obliged to make our characters converse and soliloquize in rhyme—a most unreal and unnatural practice—do what we will. What can it matter, then, though we go a step further than this; and, for the sake of hitching in a rhyme, place a verb for instance at the end of a line, when in the natural order of oral language it ought to stand at the beginning of it—or before a noun, when in ordinary conversation it would be placed after it? Now we can assure our translators that it matters a very great deal: and if they imagine that because their work is in rhyme, therefore the reader will consent to a still further deviation from common speech than rhyme in itself is; and for the sake of the symphonious endings of their lines, will reconcile himself to an inverted construction of sentences, or the introduction of language not used in actual life between man and man—we conceive they will find themselves mistaken. On the contrary, we think they will find that the very fact of their composition being in rhyme, naturally, and as we shall show quite properly, disposes the reader to make less allowance for grammatical inversions, and other violations of real conversational language, than he might have done had they been writing in prose.
An author composing in prose, or even in blank verse, stands within the pale of customary human speech. He is dealing with language very much as his neighbours deal with it in the ordinary intercourse of life; he is affecting no peculiarities, at least no obtrusive peculiarities of speech,—no phraseology which may not be heard any day falling from the lips of those around him; and therefore he need not be very solicitous to bear testimony to the truth and reality of his language, by adhering to an extreme integrity of idiom, or a scrupulously natural succession of words. If he should occasionally deviate into a contorted period, or other verbal impropriety, the offence is comparatively venial; because we feel that he has no object to gain by this departure from the common forms of oral syntax; that he has not been forced into it by the poverty of his resources; and last and most important of all, that there is no unnatural element in his style requiring to be compensated by a more studied naturalness of composition in other respects. In prose, therefore, we are of opinion that the usual forms of prose may occasionally, and to a certain extent, be departed from, without giving any great offence to the reader.
Not so, however, in rhyming poetry—and, above all, not so in that species of it we are now writing about, the rhymed drama. None of the prose proprieties of language can be dispensed with here. Going a step beyond Mr Wordsworth, who has told us that the language of poetry is or ought to be the same as that of prose, we venture to maintain that in this kind of composition, not only ought there to be no difference between the language of prose and the language of poetry, but that its character is such as to require that it should adopt the order and idiom of prose, even more strictly than prose itself is bound to do; and that it can with much less safety deviate from this standard. We ground our opinion upon the three following reasons:—In the first place, a dramatic writer in rhyme, already and from the very character of his composition, stands in a false and unnatural position. He has to describe the thoughts and passions of real men, and to do this successfully he must employ the language of actual life; but at the same time there is an element in the kind of composition he has chosen, which, in the first instance, necessarily and conspicuously takes his dialect out of the pale of nature, or from under the category of ordinary discourse—we mean the element of rhyme. Here, then, at the very outset, is a bar placed between him and his readers or hearers. which, at first sight, must naturally and powerfully revolt them, inasmuch as it apparently deprives the dialogue of its character of reality and of the colour of living speech. He is therefore called upon, the first thing he does, to exert himself to remove this bar, and to reconcile us to the peculiarity of his style. And how is this to be effected; how
Faust: a Drama, by Goethe, &c.Translated by Lord Francis Leveson Gower. London: 1823.
Faust: a Tragedy, by J. W. Goethe.Translated, &c. by John S. Blackie. Edinburgh: 1834.
Faust: a Tragedy.Translated from the German of Goethe, by David Syme. Edinburgh: 1834.
Faustus: a Tragedy — (Anonymous) — London: 1834.
Faustus: a Dramatic Mystery, &c.Translated by John Anster, LL.D. London: 1835.
The Faust of Goethe.Attempted in English Rhyme by the Honourable Robert Talbot. London: 1835.Second Edition, revised and much corrected. London: 1839.
Faust: a Tragedy by J. Wolfgang Von Goethe.Translated into English Verse, by J. Birch, Esq. London — Leipzig: 1839.