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60 TOPE. [CHAP. n.

And here, before passing to the work which afforded
the main pretext of the quarrel, it may be well to quote
once more the celebrated sTitire. It may be remarked
that its excellence is due in part to the fact that, for once,
Pope does not lose his temper. His attack is qualified
and really sharpened by an admission of Addison's excel-
lence. It is, therefore, a real masterpiece of satire, not a
simple lampoon. That it is an exaggeration is undenia-
ble, and yet its very keenness gives a presumption that it
is not altogether without foundation.

" Peace to all such ! but were there one whose fires
True genius kindles and fair fame inspires ;
Blest with each talent and each art to please,
And born to write, converse, and live with ease ;
Should such a man, too fond to rule alone,
Bear, like the Turk, no brother near the throne:
View him with scornful, yet with jealous eyes,
And hate for arts that caused himself to rise ;
Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer,
And, without sneering, teach the rest to sneer;
Willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike ;
Just hint a fault and hesitate dislike ;
Alike reserved to praise or to commend,
A timorous foe and a suspicious friend ;
Dreading ev'n fools, by flatterers besieged,
And so obliging that he ne'er obliged ;
Like Cato, give his little senate laws,
And sit attentive to his own applause ;
While wits and templars every sentence raise,
And wonder with a foolish face of praise ;
",Vho would not laugh if such a man there bo ?
would not weep, if Atticus were he ?"



CHAPTER III.

POPE'S HOMER.

POPE'S uneasy relations with the wits at Button's were
no obstacle to his success elsewhere. Swift, now at the
height of his power, was pleased by his Windsor Forest,
recommended it to Stella, and soon made the author's ac-
quaintance. The first letter in their long correspondence
is a laboured but fairly successful piece of pleasantry from
Pope, upon Swift's having offered twenty guineas to the
young Papist to change his religion. It is dated Decem-
ber 8, 1713. In the preceding month Bishop Kennet saw
Swift in all his glory, and wrote an often quoted descrip-
tion of the scene. Swift was bustling about m the royal
antechamber, swelling with conscious importance, distrib-
uting advice, promising patronage, whispering to ministers,
and filling the whole room with his presence. He finally
" instructed a young nobleman that the best poet in Eng-
land was Mr. Pope, a Papist, who had begun a translation
of Homer into English verse, for which he must have them
all subscribe : ' for,' says he, ' the author shall not beoin

/ o

to print till I have a thousand guineas for him !' ' Swift
introduced Pope to some of the leaders of the ministry,
and he was soon acquainted with Oxford, Bolingbroke,
Atterbury, and many other men of high position. Pope
was not disinclined to pride himself upon his familiarity



62 POPE. [CHAP.

with the great, though boasting at the same time of his
independence. In truth, the morbid vanity which was his
cardinal weakness seems to have partaken sufficiently of
the nature of genuine self-respect to preserve him from
any unworthy concessions. If he flattered, it was as one
who expected to be repaid in kind ; and though his posi-
tion was calculated to turn the head of a youth of five-and-

V

twentv, he took his place as a right without humiliating;

/ ' i TJ o

his own dignity. Whether from principle or prudence, he
judiciously kept himself free from identification with either
party, and both sides took a pride in supporting the great
literary undertaking which he had now announced.

When Pope first circulated his proposals for translating
Homer, Oxford and Bolingbroke were fellow-ministers, and
Swift was their most effective organ in the press. At the
time at which his first volume appeared, Bolingbroke was
in exile, Oxford under impeachment, and Swift had retired,
savagely and sullenly, to his deanery. Yet, through all the
intervening political tempest, the subscription list grew and
flourished. The pecuniary result was splendid. No author
had ever made anything approaching the sum which Pope
received, and very few authors, even in the present age of
gold, would despise such payment. The details of the
magnificent bargain have been handed down, and give the
pecuniary measure of Pope's reputation.

The Iliad was to be published in six volumes. For each
volume Lintot was to pay 200/. ; and, besides this, he was
to supply Pope gratuitously with the copies for his sub-
scribers. The subscribers paid a guinea a volume, and, as
575 subscribers took 654 copies, Pope received altogether
5320/. 45. at the regular price, whilst some royal and dis-
tinguished subscribers paid larger sums. By the publica-
tion of the Odyssey Pope seems to have made about 3500/.



in.] POPE'S HOMER. 63

more, 1 after paying his assistants. The result was, there-
fore, a total profit at least approaching 9000/. The last
volume of the Odyssey did not appear till 1726, and the
payments were thus spread over eleven years. Tope, how-
ever, saved enough to be more than comfortable. In the
South Sea excitement he ventured to speculate; but though
for a time lie fancied himself to have made a large sum, he

o '

seems to have retired rather a loser than a gainer. But
he could say with perfect truth that, "thanks to Homer,"
he " could live and thrive, indebted to no prince or peer
alive." The money success is, however, of less interest to
us than the literary. Pope put his best work into the
translation of the Iliad. His responsibility, he said, weighed
upon him terribly on starting. He used to dream of being
on a long journey, uncertain which way to go, and doubt-
ing whether he would ever get to the end. Gradually he
fell into the habit of translating thirty or forty verses be-
fore getting up, and then " piddling with it " for the rest
of the morning; and the regular performance of his task
made it tolerable. He used, he said at another time, to
take advantage of the " first heat," then correct by the

o /

original and other translations; and finally to "give it a
reading for the versification only." The statement must
be partly modified by the suggestion that the translations
were probably consulted before the original. Pope's igno-
rance of Greek an awkward qualification for a translator
of Homer is undeniable. Gilbert Wakefield, who was, I
believe, a fair scholar, and certainly a great admirer of
Pope, declares his conviction to be, after a more careful
examination of the Homer than any one is now likely to
give, that Pope " collected the general purport of every

1 See El'.vln's Pope, Correspondence, vol. iii. p. 129.
4 18



r,4 POPE. [CHAP.

passage from some of his predecessors Dryden" (who
only translated the first Iliad), " Dacier, Chapman, or Ogil-
bv.' 1 He thinks that Pope would have been puzzled to
catch at once the meaning even of the Latin translation,
and points out proofs of his ignorance of both languages,
and of " ignominious and puerile mistakes."

It is hard to understand at the present day the audacity
which could lead a man so ill qualified in point of classical
acquirements to undertake such a task. And yet Pope un-
doubtedly achieved, in some true sense, an astonishing suc-
cess. He succeeded commercially ; for Lintot, after sup-
plying the subscription copies gratuitously, and so losing
the cream of the probable purchasers, made a fortune by
the remaining sale. He succeeded in the judgment both
of the critics and of the public of the next generation.
Johnson calls the Homer " the noblest version of poetry
the world has ever seen." Gray declared that no other
translation would ever equal it, and Gibbon that it had
every merit except that of faithfulness to the original.
This merit of fidelity, indeed, was scarcely claimed by any
one. Bentley's phrase " a pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but
you must not call it Homer" expresses the uniform view
taken from the first by all who could read both. Its
fame, however, survived into the present century. Byron
speaks and speaks, I think, with genuine feeling of
the rapture with which he first read Pope as a boy, and
says that no one will ever lay him down except for the
original. Indeed, the testimonies of opponents are as sig-
nificant as those of admirers. Johnson remarks that the
Homer "may be said to have tuned the English tongue,"
and that no writer since its appearance has wanted mel-
odv. Coleridge virtually admits the fact, though draw-

* / iT?

ing a different conclusion, when he says that the trans-



HI.] TOPE'S HOMER. 65

lation of Homer has been one of the main sources of that
"pseudo-poetic diction' which lie and Wordsworth were
struggling to put out of credit. Cowpcr, the earliest rep-
resentative of the same movement, tried to supplant Pope's
Homer by his own, and his attempt proved at least the
position held in general .estimation by his rival. If, in
fact, Pope's Homer was a recognized model for near a
century, we may dislike the style, but we must admit the
power implied in a performance which thus became the
accepted standard of style for the best part of a century.
How, then, should we estimate the merits of this remark-
able work? I give my own opinion upon the subject
with diffidence, for it has been discussed bv eminently

** /

qualified critics. The conditions of a satisfactory transla-
tion of Homer have been amply canvassed, and many ex-
periments have been made by accomplished poets who
have what Pope certainly had not a close acquaintance
with the original, and a fine appreciation of its superlative-
beauties. From the point of view now generally adopted,
the task even of criticism requires this double qualifica-
tion. Not only can no man translate Homer, but no man
can even criticise a translation of Homer, without being at
once a poet and a fine classical scholar. So far as this is
true, I can only apologize for speaking at all, and should
be content to refer my readers to such able guides as Mr.
Matthew Arnold and the late Professor Conington. And
yet I think that something remains to be said which
has a bearing upon Pope, however little it may concern
Homer.

"We if "we" means modern writers of some classical
culture can claim to appreciate Homer far better than
the contemporaries of Pope. But our appreciation in.
volves a clear recognition of the vast difference between



,;,; TOPE. [CHAP.

oiir-el\, > and the ancient Greeks. We see the Homeric
{...cm- in their true perspective through the dim vista of
shadowy c.-nturies. \Ve regard them as the growth of a
h-n-r p ;l >t >tagc in the hi>torical evolution; implying a
(litTnvnt social order a different ideal of life an archaic
conception of the world and its. forces, only to be recon-
>tructed for the imagination by help of long training and
-erious studv. The multiplicity of the laws imposed upon
the translator is the consequence of tins perception. They
amount to saying that a man must manage to project
himself into a distant period, and saturate his mind with
the corresponding modes of life. If the feat is possible
at all, it requires a great and conscious effort, and the at-
tainment of a state of mind which can only be preserved
by constant attention. The translator has to wear a
mask which is always in danger of being rudely shattered.
Such an intellectual feat is likely to produce what, in the
mst obvious sense, one would call highly artificial work.
.Modern classicism must be fine-spun, and smell rather of
the hot-house than the open air. Undoubtedly some ex-
(jiii>ite literary achievements have been accomplished in
thi- spirit; but they are, after all, calculated for the small
circle of cultivated minds, and many of their merits can
l-e appreciated only by professors qualified by special
training. Most frequently we can hope for pretty play-
things, or, at best, for skilful restorations which show
I'-arning and taste far more distinctly than a glowing im-
agination. But even if an original poet can breathe some
>pirit into da. i.-al poems, the poor translator, with the
dp-ad of philologists and antiquarians in the background,
:'< Heivd that free movement becomes almost impos-
N" >ne, I should venture to prophesy, will really
succeed in such work unless he frankly accepts the im-



in.] POPE'S IIO.MKR. 67

possibility of reproducing the original, and aims only at
an equivalent for some of its aspects. The perception of
this change will enable us to realize Pope's mode of ap-
proaching the problem. The condemnatory epithet most
frequently applied to him is " artificial ;" and yet, as I
have just said, a modern translator is surely more artifi-
cial, so far as he is attempting a more radical transforma-
tion of his own thoughts into the forms of a past epoch.
But we can easily see in what sense Pope's work fairly
deserves the name. The poets of an older period frank-
ly adopted the classical mythology without any apparent
sense of incongruity. They mix heathen deities with
Christian saints, and the ancient heroes adopt the man-
ners of chivalrous romance without the slightest difficulty.
The freedom was still granted to the writers of the renais-
sance. Milton makes Phoebus and St. Peter discourse in
successive stanzas, as if they belonged to the same pan-
theon. For poetical purposes the old gods are simply
canonized as Christian saints, as in a more theological
frame of mind they are regarded as devils. In the reign
of common sense this was no longer possible. The incon-
gruity w r as recognized and condemned. The gods were
vanishing under the clearer light, as modern thought be-
gan more consciously to assert its independence. Yet the
unreality of the old mythology is not felt to be any ob-
jection to their use as conventional symbols. Homer's
gods, says Pope in his preface, are still the gods of poetry.
Their vitality was nearly extinct, but they were regarded
as convenient personifications of abstract qualities, ma-
chines for epic poetry, or figures to be used in allegory.
In the absence of a true historical perception, the same
view was attributed to Homer. Homer, as Pope admits,
did not invent the gods, but he was the " first who



POPE. [CHAP.

brought tin in into a system of machinery for poetry,"
and sh'\\ed his fertile imagination by clothing the prop-
rrtir- i.f the elements, and the virtues and vices in forms
and persons. And thus Pope does not feel that he is
ing from the spirit of the old mythology when he
the gods, not as the spontaneous growth of the
primitive imagination, but as deliberate contrivances in-
tended to convey moral truth in allegorical fables, and
probably devised by sages for the good of the vulgar.

The old gods, then, were made into stiff mechanical
figures, as dreary as Justice with her scales, or Fame blow-
ing a trumpet on a monument. They belonged to that
family of dismal personifications which it was customary
to mark with the help of capital letters. Certainly they
are a dismal and frigid set of beings, though they still
lead a shivering existence on the tops of public monu-
ments, and hold an occasional wreath over the head of a
British grenadier. To identify the Homeric gods with
these wearisome constructions was to have a more serious
disqualification for fully entering into Homer's spirit than
even an imperfect acquaintance with Greek, and Pope is
u'reatly exercised in his mind by their eating, and drink-
ing, and fighting, and uncompromising anthropomorphism.
He apologizes for his author, and tries to excuse him
for unwilling compliance with popular prejudices. The
Homeric theology, he urges, was still substantially sound,
ami Homer had always a distinct moral and political pur-
| ">-'. The Iliad, for example, was meant to show the
u iokedness of quarrelling, and the evil results of an insa-
tiable thirst for glory, though shallow persons have thought
that Homer only thought to please.

Tin.- artificial diction about which so much has been
said is the natural vehicle of this treatment. The set of



ui.J I'oI'K'S HOMER. 69

phrases, and the peculiar mould into which his sentences
were cast, was already the accepted type for poetry which
aimed at dignity. He was following Dry den, as his own
performance became the law for the next generation. The
style in which a woman is called a nymph and women
generally are " the fair ?1 -in which shepherds are con-
scious swains, and a poet invokes the muses and strikes
a lyre, and breathes on a reed, and a nightingale singing
becomes Philomel " pouring her throat," represents a
fashion as worn out as hoops and wigs. By the time of
Wordsworth it was a mere survival a dead form remain-
ing after its true function had entirely vanished. The
proposal to return to the language of common life was the
natural revolt of one who desired poetry to be above all
things the genuine expression of real emotion. Yet it is,
I think, impossible to maintain that the diction of poetry
should be simply that of common life.

The true principle would rather seem to be that any
style becomes bad when it dies ; when it is used merely
as a tradition, and not as the best mode of producing the
desired impression ; and when, therefore, it represents a
rule imposed from without, and is not an expression of
the spontaneous working of minds in which the corre-
sponding impulse is thoroughly incarnated. In such a
case, no doubt, the diction becomes a burden, and a man
is apt to fancy himself a poet because he is the slave of
the external form, instead of using it as the most familiar
instrument. By Wordsworth's time the Pope style was
thus effete ; what ought to be the dress of thought had
become the rigid armour into which thought was forcibly
compressed, and a revolt was inevitable. We may agree,
too, that his peculiar style was in a sense artificial, even
in the days of Pope. It had come into existence during



7,. POPE. [CHAR

tin- ivi"-n >f the Restoration wits, under the influence of
foreign models, not as the spontaneous outgrowth of a
gradual development, and had therefore something me-
chanical and conscious, even when it flourished most vig-
orous! v. It came in with the periwigs, to which it is so
often compared, and, like the artificial head-gear, was an
attempt to give a dignified or full-dress appearance to the
average prosaic human being. Having this innate weak-
ness of pomposity and exaggeration, it naturally expired,
and became altogether ridiculous, W 7 ith the generation to
which it belonged. As the wit or man of the world had
at bottom a very inadequate conception of epic poetry, he
became inevitably strained and contorted when he tried to

/

give himself the airs of a poet.

After making all such deductions, it would still seem
that the bare fact that he w r as working in a generally ac-
cepted style gave Pope a very definite advantage. He
spoke more or less in a falsetto, but he could at once strike
a key intelligible to his audience. An earlier poet would
simply annex Homer's gods and fix them with a mediaeval
framework. A more modern poet tries to find some style
which will correspond to the Homeric as closely as possi-
ble, and feels that he is making an experiment beset with
all manner of difficulties. Pope needed no more to both-
er himself about such matters than about grammatical or
philological refinements. He found a ready-made style
which was assumed to be correct; he had to write in regu-
lar rhymed couplets, as neatly rhymed and tersely express-
ed as might be ; and the diction was equally settled. He
was to keep to Homer for the substance, but he could
throw in any little ornaments to suit the taste of his read-
ers; and if they found out a want of scrupulous fidelity,
lie might freely say that he did not aim at such details.



in.] TOPE'S HOMER. 71

"Working, therefore, upon the given data, he could enjoy a
considerable amount of freedom, and throw his whole en-
ergy into the task of forcible expression without feeling
himself trammelled at every step. The result would cer-
tainly not be Homer, but it might be a fine epic poem as
epic poetry was understood in the days of Anne and George
I. a hybrid genus, at the best ; something without enough
constitutional vigour to be valuable when really original,
but not without a merit of its own when modelled upon
the lines laid down in the great archetype.

When we look at Pope's Iliad upon this understanding,
we cannot fail, I think, to admit that it has merits which
make its great success intelligible. If we read it as a
purely English poem, the sustained vivacity and emphasis
of the style give it a decisive superiority over its rivals.
It has become the fashion to quote Chapman since the
noble sonnet in which Keats, in testifying to the power
of the Elizabethan translator, testifies rather to his own
exquisite perception. Chapman was a poet worthy of our
great poetic period, and Pope himself testifies to the " dar-
ing fiery spirit" which animates his translation, and says
that it is not unlike what Homer himself mio-ht have writ-

O

ten in his youth surely not a grudging praise. But
though this is true, I will venture to assert that Chapman
also sins, not merely by his love of quaintness, but by con-
stantlv indulo'ino- in sheer doggerel. If his lines do not

/ O CT'Cr 1

stagnate, they foam and fret like a mountain brook, in-
stead of flowing continuously and majestically like a great
river. He surpasses Pope chiefly, as it seems to me, where
Pope's conventional verbiage smothers and conceals some
vivid image from nature. Pope, of course, was a thorough
man of forms, and when he has to speak of sea, or sky, or
mountain, generally draws upon the current coin of poetic
F 4*



1'oPE. [CHAP.

phraseology, \\hirh has lost all sharpness of impression in
it- l!m- riiviilation. Here, for example, is Pope's version
of a simile in the fourth book:

"As when the winds, ascending by degrees,
First move the whitening surface of the seas,
The billows float in order to the shore,
The waves behind roll on the waves before,
Till with the growing storm the deeps arise,
Foam o'er the rocks, and thunder to the skies."

Each phrase is either wrong or escapes from error by vague-
ness, and one would swear that Pope had never seen the
sea. Chapman says,

" And as when with the west wind flaws, the sea thrusts up her

waves

One after other, thick and high, upon the groaning shores,
First in herself loud, but opposed with banks and rocks she roars,
And all her back in bristles set, spits every way her foam."

This is both clumsy and introduces the quaint and unau-
thorized image of a pig, but it is unmistakably vivid.
Pope is equally troubled when he has to deal with Ho-
mer's downright vernacular. He sometimes ventures apol-
ogetically to give the original word. He allows Achilles to
-peak pretty vigorously to Agamemnon in the first book :

"0 monster! mix'd of insolence and fear,
Thou dog in forehead, but in heart a deer !"

< Ihapman translates the phrase more fully, but adds a char-
acteristic quibble :

" Thou ever steep'd in wine,
Dog's face, with heart but of a hart."

kdl manages the imputation of drink, but has to slur
over tlie iloM- am j the deer:



in.] POPE'S HOMER. 73

" Valiant with wine and furious from the bowl,
Thou fierce-look'd talker, with a coward soul."

Elsewhere Pope hesitates in the use of such plain speak-
ing. He allows Teucer to call Hector a dog, but apologises
in a note. " This is literal from the Greek," he says, " and
I have ventured it ;" though he quotes Milton's " dogs of
hell" to back himself with a precedent. But he cannot
quite stand Homer's downright comparison of Ajax to an
ass, and speaks of him in gingerly fashion as

" The slow beast with heavy strength endued."

Pope himself thinks the passage " inimitably just and
beautiful;" but on the whole, he says, "a translator owes
so much to the taste of the age in which he lives as not to
make too great a compliment to the former [age] ; and
this induced me to omit the mention of the word ass in
the translation." Boileau and Longinus, he tells us, would
approve the omission of mean and vulgar words. " Ass "
i> the vilest word imaginable in English or Latin, but of
dignity enough in Greek and Hebrew to be employed "on
the most mao-nificent occasions."

o

The Homeric phrase is thus often muffled and deadened
by Pope's verbiage. Dignity of a kind is gained at the
cost of energy. If such changes admit of some apology
as an attempt to preserve what is undoubtedly a Homeric



Online LibraryJohn MorleyEnglish men of letters (Volume 3) → online text (page 20 of 44)