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Alexander Pope (1688–1744). Complete Poetical Works. 1903.

Translations from Homer

The Odyssey (partial). Postscript by Pope

I CANNOT dismiss this work without a few observations on the true character and style of it. Whoever reads the Odyssey with an eye to the Iliad, expecting to find it of the same character, or of the same sort of spirit, will be grievously deceived, and err against the first principle of criticism, which is to consider the nature of the piece, and the intent of its author. The Odyssey is a moral and political work, instructive to all degrees of men and filled with images, examples, and precepts, of civil and domestic life. Homer is here a person

  • Qui didicit, patriæ quid debeat, et quid amicis,
  • Quo sit amore parens, quo frater amandus, et hospes:
  • Qui quid sit pulchrum, quid turpe, quid utile, quid non,
  • Plenius et melius Chrysippo et Crantore dicit.

  • The Odyssey is the reverse of the Iliad, in moral, subject, manner, and style; to which it has no sort of relation, but as the story happens to follow in order of time, and as some of the same persons are actors in it. Yet from this incidental connexion many have been misled to regard it as a continuation or second part, and thence to expect a parity of character inconsistent with its nature.

    It is no wonder that the common reader should fall into this mistake, when so great a critic as Longinus seems not wholly free from it; although what he has said has been generally understood to import a severer censure of the Odyssey than it really does, if we consider the occasion on which it is introduced, and the circumstances to which it is confined.

    ‘The Odyssey,’ says he, ‘is an instance, how natural it is to a great genius, when it begins to grow old and decline, to delight itself in Narrations and Fables. For, that Homer composed the Odyssey after the Iliad, many proofs may be given, etc. From hence in my judgment it proceeds, that as the Iliad was written while his spirit was in its greatest vigour, the whole structure of that work is dramatic and full of action; whereas the greater part of the Odyssey is employed in narration, which is the taste of old age: so that in this latter piece we may compare him to the setting sun, which has still the same greatness, but not the same ardour or force. He speaks not in the same strain: we see no more that Sublime of the Iliad which marches on with a constant pace, without ever being stopped, or retarded: there appears no more that hurry and that strong tide of motions and passions, pouring one after another: there is no more the same fury, or the same volubility of diction, so suitable to action, and all along drawing in such innumerable images of Nature. But Homer, like the ocean, is always great, even when he ebbs and retires; even when he is lowest, and loses himself most in narrations and incredible fictions: as instances of this, we cannot forget the descriptions of tempests, the adventures of Ulysses with the Cyclops, and many others. But though all this be age, it is the age of Homer.—And it may be said for the credit of these fictions that they are beautiful dreams, or, if you will, the dreams of Jupiter himself. I spoke of the Odyssey only to show, that the greatest poets, when their genius wants strength and warmth for the pathetic, for the most part employ themselves in painting the manners. This Homer has done, in characterizing the suitors, and describing their way of life; which is properly a branch of comedy, whose peculiar business it is to represent the manners of men.’

    We must first observe, it is the Sublime of which Longinus is writing: that, and not the nature of Homer’s poem, is his subject. After having highly extolled the sublimity and fire of the Iliad, he justly observes the Odyssey to have less of those qualities, and to turn more on the side of moral, and reflections on human life. Nor is it his business here to determine, whether the elevated spirit of the one, or the just moral of the other, be the greater excellence in itself.

    Secondly, that fire and fury of which he is speaking, cannot well be meant of the general spirit and inspiration which is to run through a whole epic poem, but of that particular warmth and impetuosity necessary in some parts, to image or represent actions or passions, of haste, tumult, and violence. It is on occasion of citing some such particular passages in Homer, that Longinus breaks into this reflection; which seems to determine his meaning chiefly to that sense.

    Upon the whole, he affirms the Odyssey to have less sublimity and fire than the Iliad, but he does not say it wants the Sublime or wants fire. He affirms it to be narrative, but not that the narration is defective. He affirms it to abound in fictions, not that those fictions are ill invented, or ill executed. He affirms it to be nice and particular in painting the manners, but not that those manners are ill painted. If Homer has fully in these points accomplished his own design, and done all that the nature of his poem demanded or allowed, it still remains perfect in its kind, and as much a master-piece as the Iliad.

    The amount of the passage is this; that in his own particular taste, and with respect to the Sublime, Longinus preferred the Iliad: and because the Odyssey was less active and lofty, he judged it the work of the old age of Homer.

    If this opinion be true, it will only prove, that Homer’s age might determine him in the choice of his subject, not that it affected him in the execution of it: and that which would be a very wrong instance to prove the decay of his imagination, is a very good one to evince the strength of his judgment. For had he, as Madam Dacier observes, composed the Odyssey in his youth, and the Iliad in his age, both must in reason have been exactly the same as they now stand. To blame Homer for his choice of such a subject, as did not admit the same incidents and the same pomp of style as his former, is to take offence at too much variety, and to imagine, that when a man has written one good thing, he must ever after only copy himself.

    The Battle of Constantine, and the School of Athens, are both pieces of Raphael: shall we censure the School of Athens as faulty, because it has not the fury and fire of the other? or shall we say, that Raphael was grown grave and old, because he chose to represent the manners of old men and philosophers? There is all the silence, tranquillity, and composure in the one, and all the warmth, hurry, and tumult in the other, which the subject of either required: both of them had been imperfect, if they had not been as they are. And let the painter or poet be young or old, who designs and performs in this manner, it proves him to have made the piece at a time of life when he was master not only of his art, but of his discretion.

    Aristotle makes no such distinction between the two poems: he constantly cites them with equal praise, and draws the rules and examples of epic writing equally from both. But it is rather to the Odyssey that Horace gives the preference, in the Epistle to Lollius, and in the Art of Poetry. It is remarkable how opposite his opinion is to that of Longinus; and that the particulars he chooses to extol, are those very fictions and pictures of the manners, which the other seems least to approve. Those fables and manners are of the very essence of the work: but even without that regard, the fables themselves have both more invention and more instruction, and the manners more moral and example, than those of the Iliad.

    In some points (and those the most essential to the epic poem) the Odyssey is confessed to excel the Iliad; and principally in the great end of it, the Moral. The conduct, turn, and disposition of the Fable is also what the critics allow to be the better model for epic writers to follow: accordingly we find much more of the cast of this poem than of the other in the Æneid, and (what next to that is perhaps the greatest example) in the Telemachus. In the Manners, it is no way inferior: Longinus is so far from finding any defect in these, that he rather taxes Homer with painting them too minutely. As to the Narrations, although they are more numerous as the occasions are more frequent, yet they carry no more the marks of old age, and are neither more prolix nor more circumstantial, than the conversations and dialogues of the Iliad. Not to mention the length of those of Phœnix in the ninth book, and of Nestor in the eleventh (which may be thought in compliance to their characters), those of Glaucus in the sixth, of Æneas in the twentieth, and some others, must be allowed to exceed any in the whole Odyssey. And that the propriety of style, and the numbers, in the narrations of each are equal, will appear to any who compare them.

    To form a right judgment, whether the genius of Homer had suffered any decay, we must consider, in both his poems, such parts as are of a similar nature, and will bear comparison. And it is certain we shall find in each the same vivacity and fecundity of invention, the same life and strength of imaging and colouring, the particular descriptions as highly painted, the figures as bold, the metaphors as animated, and the numbers as harmonious and as various.

    The Odyssey is a perpetual source of poetry: the stream is not the less full for being gentle; though it is true (when we speak only with regard to the Sublime) that a river, foaming and thundering in cataracts from rocks and precipices, is what more strikes, amazes, and fills the mind, than the same body of water, flowing afterwards through peaceful vales and agreeable scenes of pasturage.

    The Odyssey (as I have before said) ought to be considered according to its own nature and design, not with an eye to the Iliad. To censure Homer because it is unlike what it was never meant to resemble, is, as if a gardener who had purposely cultivated two beautiful trees of contrary natures, as a specimen of his skill in the several kinds, should be blamed for not bringing them into pairs; when in root, stem, leaf, and flower, each was so entirely different, that one must have been spoiled in the endeavour to match the other.

    Longinus, who saw this poem was “partly of the nature of comedy,” ought not, for that very reason, to have considered it with a view to the Iliad. How little any such resemblance was the intention of Homer, may appear from hence, that although the character of Ulysses there was already drawn, yet here he purposely turns to another side of it, and shows him not in that full light of glory, but in the shade of common life, with a mixture of such qualities as are requisite to all the lowest accidents of it, struggling with misfortunes, and on a level with the meanest of mankind. As for the other persons, none of them are above what we call the higher comedy: Calypso, though a Goddess, is a character of intrigue; the suitors yet more approaching to it; the Phæacians are of the same cast; the Cyclops, Melanthius, and Irus, descend even to droll characters; and the scenes that appear throughout, are generally of the comic kind; banquets, revels, sports, loves, and the pursuit of a woman.

    From the nature of the poem, we shall form an idea of the Style. The diction is to follow the images, and to take its colour from the complexion of the thoughts. Accordingly the Odyssey is not always clothed in the majesty of verse proper to tragedy, but sometimes descends into the plainer narrative, and sometimes even to that familiar dialogue essential to comedy. However, where it cannot support a sublimity, it always preserves a dignity, or at least a propriety. There is a real beauty in an easy, pure, perspicuous description even of a low action. There are numerous instances of this both in Homer and Virgil; and perhaps those natural passages are not the least pleasing of their works. It is often the same in history, where the representations of common, or even domestic things, in clear, plain, and natural words, are frequently found to make the liveliest impression on the reader.

    The question is, how far a poet, in pursuing the description or image of an action, can attach himself to little circumstances, without vulgarity or trifling? what particulars are proper, and enliven the image; or what are impertinent, and clog it? In this matter painting is to be consulted, and the whole regard had to those circumstances which contribute to form a full, and yet not a confused, idea of a thing. Epithets are of vast service to this effect, and the right use of these is often the only expedient to render the narration poetical. The great point of judgment is to distinguish when to speak simply, and when figuratively: but whenever the poet is obliged by the nature of his subject to descend to the lower manner of writing, an elevated style would be affected, and therefore ridiculous; and the more he was forced upon figures and metaphors to avoid that lowness, the more the image would be broken, and consequently obscure. One may add, that the use of the grand style on little subjects, is not only ludicrous, but a sort of transgression against the rules of proportion and mechanics: it is using a vast force to lift a feather.

    I believe, now I am upon this head, it will be found a just observation, that the low actions of life cannot be put into a figurative style without being ridiculous, but things natural can. Metaphors raise the latter into dignity, as we see in the Georgics; but throw the former into ridicule, as in the Lutrin. I think this may very well be accounted for: laughter implies censure; inanimate and irrational beings are not objects of censure: therefore these may be elevated as much as you please, and no ridicule follows: but when rational beings are represented above their real character, it becomes ridiculous in art, because it is vicious in morality. The bees in Virgil, were they rational beings, would be ridiculous by having their actions and manners represented on a level with creatures so superior as men; since it would imply folly or pride, which are the proper objects of ridicule.

    The use of pompous expression for low actions or thoughts is the true Sublime of Don Quixote. How far unfit it is for epic poetry, appears in its being the perfection of the mock epic. It is so far from being the sublime of tragedy, that it is the cause of all bombast; when poets, instead of being, as they imagine, constantly lofty, only preserve throughout a painful equality of fustian; that continued swell of language, which runs indiscriminately even through their lowest characters, and rattles like some mightiness of meaning in the most indifferent subjects, is of a piece with that perpetual elevation of tone which the players have learned from it; and which is not speaking, but vociferating.

    There is still more reason for a variation of Style in epic poetry than in tragic, to distinguish between that language of the Gods proper to the Muse who sings, and is inspired; and that of men who are introduced speaking only according to nature. Farther, there ought to be a difference of style observed in the speeches of human persons, and those of deities; and again, in those which may be called set harangues, or orations, and those which are only conversation or dialogue. Homer has more of the latter than any other poet: what Virgil does by two or three words of narration, Homer still performs by speeches: not only replies, but even rejoinders are frequent in him, a practice almost unknown to Virgil. This renders his poems more animated, but less grave and majestic; and consequently necessitates the frequent use of a lower style. The writers of tragedy lie under the same necessity, if they would copy nature: whereas that painted and poetical diction which they perpetually use, would be improper even in orations designed to move with all the arts of rhetoric; this is plain from the practice of Demosthenes and Cicero; and Virgil in those of Drances and Turnus gives an eminent example, how far removed the style of them ought to be from such an excess of figures and ornaments: which indeed fits only that language of the Gods we have been speaking of, or that of a muse under inspiration.

    To read through a whole work in this strain, is like travelling all along on the ridge of a hill; which is not half so agreeable as sometimes gradually to rise, and sometimes gently to descend, as the way leads, and as the end of the journey directs. Indeed the true reason that so few poets have imitated Homer in these lower parts, has been the extreme difficulty of preserving that mixture of ease and dignity essential to them. For it is as hard for an epic poem to stoop to the narrative with success, as for a Prince to descend to be familiar, without diminution to his greatness.

    The sublime style is more easily counterfeited than the natural; something that passes for it, or sounds like it, is common to all false writers: but nature, purity, perspicuity, and simplicity, never walk in the clouds; they are obvious to all capacities; and where they are not evident, they do not exist. The most plain narration not only admits of these, and of harmony (which are all the qualities of style) but it requires every one of them to render it pleasing. On the contrary, whatever pretends to a share of the sublime, may pass, notwithstanding any defects in the rest; nay sometimes without any of them, and gain the admiration of all ordinary readers.

    Homer, in his lowest narrations or speeches, is ever easy, flowing, copious, clear, and harmonious. He shows not less Invention, in assembling the humbler, than the greater, thoughts and images; nor less Judgment, in proportioning the style and the versification to these, than to the other. Let it be remembered, that the same genius that soared the highest, and from whom the greatest models of the Sublime are derived, was also he who stooped the lowest, and gave to the simple Narrative its utmost perfection. Which of these was the harder task to Homer himself, I cannot pretend to determine; but to his translator I can affirm (however unequal all his imitations must be) that of the latter has been much more difficult.

    Whoever expects here the same pomp of verse, and the same ornaments of diction, as in the Iliad, he will, and he ought to be, disappointed. Were the original otherwise, it had been an offence against Nature; and were the translation so, it were an offence against Homer, which is the same thing.

    It must be allowed that there is a majesty and harmony in the Greek language which greatly contribute to elevate and support the narration. But I must also observe that this is an advantage grown upon the language since Homer’s time; for things are removed from vulgarity by being out of use: and if the words we could find in any present language were equally sonorous or musical in themselves, they would still appear less poetical and uncommon than those of a dead one, from this only circumstance, of being in every man’s mouth. I may add to this another disadvantage to a translator, from a different cause: Homer seems to have taken upon him the character of an historian, antiquary, divine, and professor of arts and sciences, as well as a poet. In one or other of these characters he descends into many particulars, which as a poet only perhaps he would have avoided. All these ought to be preserved by a faithful translator, who in some measure takes the place of Homer; and all that can be expected from him is to make them as poetical as the subject will bear. Many arts, therefore, are requisite to supply these disadvantages, in order to dignify and solemnize these plainer parts, which hardly admit of any poetical ornaments.

    Some use has been made to this end of the style of Milton. A just and moderate mixture of old words may have an effect like the working old abbey stones into a building, which I have sometimes seen to give a kind of venerable air, and yet not destroy the neatness, elegance, and equality requisite to a new work: I mean without rendering it too unfamiliar, or remote from the present purity of writing, or from that ease and smoothness which ought always to accompany narration or dialogue. In reading a style judiciously antiquated, one finds a pleasure not unlike that of travelling on an old Roman way: but then the road must be as good, as the way is ancient; the style must be such in which we may evenly proceed, without being put to short stops by sudden abruptness, or puzzled by frequent turnings and transpositions. No man delights in furrows and stumbling-blocks: and let our love to antiquity be ever so great, a fine ruin is one thing, and a heap of rubbish another. The imitators of Milton, like most other imitators, are not copies but caricatures of their original; they are a hundred times more obsolete and cramp than he, and equally so in all places: whereas it should have been observed of Milton, that he is not lavish of his exotic words and phrases every where alike, but employs them much more where the subject is marvellous, vast, and strange, as in the scenes of Heaven, Hell, Chaos, &c., than where it is turned to the natural or agreeable, as in the pictures of paradise, the loves of our first parents, the entertainments of angels, and the like. In general, this unusual style better serves to awaken our ideas in the descriptions and in the imaging and picturesque parts, than it agrees with the lower sort of narrations, the character of which is simplicity and purity. Milton has several of the latter, where we find not an antiquated, affected, or uncouth word, for some hundred lines together; as in his fifth book, the latter part of the eighth, the former of the tenth and eleventh books, and in the narration of Michael in the twelfth. I wonder indeed that he, who ventured (contrary to the practice of all other Epic Poets) to imitate Homer’s lownesses in the narrative, should not also have copied his plainness and perspicuity in the dramatic parts: since in his speeches (where clearness above all is necessary) there is frequently such transposition and forced construction, that the very sense is not to be discovered without a second or third reading: and in this certainly he ought to be no example.

    To preserve the true character of Homer’s style in the present translation, great pains have been taken to be easy and natural. The chief merit I can pretend to, is, not to have been carried into a more plausible and figurative manner of writing, which would better have pleased all readers, but the judicious ones. My errors had been fewer, had each of those gentlemen who joined with me shown as much of the severity of a friend to me, as I did to them, in a strict animadversion and correction. What assistance I received from them, was made known in general to the public in the original proposals for this work, and the particulars are specified at the conclusion of it; to which I must add (to be punctually just) some part of the tenth and fifteenth books. The reader will now be too good a judge, how much the greater part of it, and consequently of its faults, is chargeable upon me alone. But this I can with integrity affirm, that I have bestowed as much time and pains upon the whole, as were consistent with the indispensable duties and cares of life, and with that wretched state of health which God has been pleased to make my portion. At the least, it is a pleasure to me to reflect, that I have introduced into our language this other work of the greatest and most ancient of poets, with some dignity; and I hope, with as little disadvantage as the Iliad. And if, after the unmerited success of that translation, any one will wonder why I would enterprise the Odyssey; I think it sufficient to say, that Homer himself did the same, or the world would never have seen it.