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CRITICAL AND IMAGINATIVE.
HOMER AND HIS TRANSLATORS.1
PATRIOTS as we are, as well as Cosmopolites, how relieving, how refreshing, how invigorating, and how elevating to our senses and our souls, to fly from politics to poetry—from the Honourable House to the Immortal Homer-from the vapid feuds of placemen and reformers, to the deadly wrath of nature's heroic sons--from the helpless limp of any middle-aged Smith, to the elastic lameness of old Vulcan-from O'Connell and Hunt, with their matchless blacking, to
66 Atrides, king of men, and Thetis' godlike son!"
We are no great Greek scholars; but we can force our way, vi et armis, through the Iliad. What we do not clearly, we dimly, understand, and are happy in the glorious glimpses; in the full unbroken light, we bask like an eagle in the sunshine that emblazons his eyrie; in the gloom that sometimes falls suddenly down on his inspired rhapsodies, as if from a tower of clouds, we are for a time eyeless as "blind Mæonides," while with him we enjoy "the darkness that may be felt; as the lightnings of his genius flash, lo! before our wide imagination ascends "stately-structured Troy," expand
1 The Iliad of Homer. Translated by WILLIAM SOTHEBY. 1831. VOL. VIII.
tented shore and masted sea; and in that thunder we dream of the nod that shuddered Olympus.
Some people believe in twenty Homers-we in one. Nature is not so prodigal of her great poets. Heaven only knows the number of her own stars-no astronomer may ever count them -but the soul-stars of earth are but few; and with this Perryan pen could we name them all. Who ever heard of two Miltons-of two Shakespeares? That there should even have been one of each, is a mystery, when we look at what are called men. Who, then, after considering that argument, will believe that Greece of old was glorified by a numerous brotherhood of coeval genii of mortal birth, all "building up the lofty rhyme," till beneath their harmonious hands, arose, in its perfect proportions, immortal in its beauty and magnificence, "The Tale of Troy Divine ?"
Was Homer savage or civilised? Both. So was Achilles. Conceived by a goddess, and begotten by a hero, that halfcelestial child sat at the knees of a formidable Gamaliel— Chiron the Centaur. Grown up to perfect stature, his was the Beauty of the Passions-Apollo's self, in his loveliness, not a more majestic minister of death. Paint him in two words-STORMY SUNSHINE.
Was the breath of life ever in that shining savage- -or was he but a lustrous shadow in blind Homer's imagination ? What matters it? All is that we think; no other existence; Homer thought Achilles; clouds are transient, but Troy's towers are eternal. Oh! call not Greek a dead language, if you have a soul to be saved! The bard who created, and the heroes who fought in the Iliad, are therein not entombed, but enshrined; and their spirits will continue to breathe and burn there, till the stars are cast from the firmament, and there is an end to what we here call Life.
Homer, you know, wrote in Greek, and in many dialects. He has been translated into English, which, in heroic measures, you know, admits but of one. All translation of the highest poetry, we hold, must be, such is the mysterious incarnation of thought and feeling in language, at best but a majestic mockery -something ghostlike; when supposed most substantial, suddenly seeming most a shadow-or change that image, why, then, like a broken rainbow, or say, rather, like a rainbow refracted, as well as reflected, from the sky-gazing sea. Glorious pieces of colour are lying here and there, reminding
us of what, a moment before, we beheld in a perfect arch on heaven.
But while the nations of the earth all speak in different tongues-they all feel with one heart, and they all think with one brain. Therefore, he who hath the gift of tongues, may, from an alien language, transfuse much of the meaning that inspirits it into his own; although still we must always be inclined to say, listening to the "repeated strain,"
"Alike, but oh! how different."
All truly great or good poets desire that all mankind should, as far as it is possible, enjoy all that in the human is most divine; and therefore while each has,
"Like Prometheus, stolen the fire from heaven,"
they have all exultingly availed themselves of the common privilege of stealing-whenever inspired so to do and plagiarism is thus often the sign of a noble idolatry—of stealing from one another, that after hoarding them up in the sunny and windy air-lofts of their own imaginations, they may in times of dearth-or to make plenty more plenteous-diffuse and scatter those life-ennobling thefts-in furtherance of the desires of the dead
"O'er lands and seas, Whatever clime the sun's bright circle warms!"
And thus, too, have the truly great and good poets sometimes -often felt that it was dignified to become translators. What else—ay, ay, much else—was the divine Virgil? Fools disparage him, for that he translated-stole from Homer. As well despise Shakespeare because he stole, not only from unwritten nature and her oral traditions, but from all the old Homeric war-chronicles people had got printed, that he could lay hands on;
"For the thief of all thieves was the Warwickshire thief!"
Indeed, Shakespeare, who had "little Latin, and no Greek,” contrived heaven only knows how to translate into English thousands of fine things from those languages. Marlow was an avowed and regular translator-so was Ben Jonsonand many others of that wonder-working age. But come down, without fear of breaking your neck by the fall-to Dryden and Pope at once;-and then, sliding along a gentle
level, to Cowper—and, last of all, to Sotheby-all translators -and who is good, who better, and who best, you sure will find it hard to say-of the "myriad-minded" Homer.
Let it at once suffice for Mr Sotheby's satisfaction, that we say he is entitled-and we do not know another person of whom we could safely say as much to deal with that wellbooted Grecian, even at this time of day, after all that has been done to, in, with, and by "Him of the Iliad and the Odyssey," by not a few of our prevailing poets.
Let us draw the best of them up in rank and file, and as they march before us, try their height by a mental military standard, declaring who are fit for admission into the grenadiers, who into the light company, and who must go into the battalion.
We shall confine ourselves to the First Book-itself a poem-and let us try the volunteers by the test of the Opening thereof—almost all educated persons being familiar with that glorious Announcement in the original Greek.
"Achilles' baneful wrath resound, O Goddess, that imposed
"The wrath of Peleus' son, O muse, resound,
"Achilles' fatal wrath, whence discord rose,
That brought the sons of Greece unnumber'd woes,
So did the sire of gods and men fulfil
"Achilles' wrath, to Greece the direful spring
Of woes unnumber'd, heavenly goddess! sing,
Such was the sovereign doom, and such the will of Jove."
"Sing, Muse, the deadly wrath of Peleus' son,
To the Achaian host, which num'rous souls
Of heroes sent to Ades premature,
And left their bodies to devouring dogs
And birds of heaven (so Jove his will perform'd),
Sing, Muse, Pelides' wrath, whence woes on woes
Her chiefs' brave souls untimely hurl'd from day,
What are the qualities that characterise the original? Simplicity and stateliness. Each word in the first line is great.
ΜΗΝΙΝ ἄειδε, Θεὰ, Πηληϊάδεω 'Αχιλῆος.
Now, not one of all the translations makes an approach to the grandeur of that magnificent line. It is then, we may conclude, unapproachable in the English-and consequently in any other language. Dryden and Cowper, we think (please always, if you have time and opportunity, to verify or falsify our criticisms by reference to translation and original), succeed best; Pope and Sotheby are about on an equality, though Pope is the most musical; and Tickel is poor, though Johnson,