The Iliad of Homer Translated into English Blank Verse by William Cowper online

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[Illustration, depicting Zeus (Jupiter) seated upon an eagle.]



D. APPLETON & CO., 346 & 348 BROADWAY.

Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1849,
in the Clerk's Office of the District Court for the
Southern District of New York.





_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 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 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

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.

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 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

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, 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

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.


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

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