The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

I. Translators

§ 12. Chapman’s Homer

Though Ovid and Vergil were the favourites, the other poets were by no means neglected. Another reign saw the completion of Chapman’s vigorous and faithful Homer, which Pope should never have displaced, but he published a translation of seven books of the Iliad in 1598, and a word must be said here of his splendid achievement. To do full justice to Chapman’s work a continuous reading is necessary. It shines less brightly in isolated passages than in its whole surface, various and burnished, like the shield of Achilles. It is a poet’s echo of a poet—loud and bold. Justly may the same indulgence be granted Chapman which he would claim for Homer: he “must not bee read for a few lynes with leaves turned over caprichiously in dismembred fractions, but throughout, the whole drift, weight, and height of his workes set before the apprensive eyes of his judge.” Then shall we perceive the true merit of Chapman’s masterpiece. From end to end it gives proof of an abounding life, a quenchless energy. There is a grandeur and spirit in Chapman’s rendering, not unworthy the original, “of all bookes extant in all kinds the first and best.” The long, swinging line of fourteen syllables, chosen for the Iliad, is the fairest representative of Homer’s majestic hexameters, and it is matter for regret that Chapman preferred the heroical distich in his rendering of the Odyssey. Moreover, Chapman claimed an advantage over his fellows in that he translated his author without a French or Latin intermediary. His knowledge of Greek was not impeccable. Errors due to ignorance or haste are not infrequent, nor need they cause us surprise, if it be true, as he asserts, that he translated the last twelve books in fifteen weeks. As little need they incur our censure. If Chapman, the scholar, sometimes nodded, Chapman, the poet, was ever awake, and his version of Homer will ever remain one among the masterpieces of his age and country.

In his prefaces, he vindicates both Homer and himself from the detraction of enemies. Admitting proudly that his manner of writing is “farre fecht, and, as it were, beyond sea,” he defends, as well he may, his “varietie of new wordes.” If “my countrey language were an usurer,” says he, “hee would thanke me for enriching him.” Chaucer had more new words than any man since him need devise,

  • and therefore for currant wits to crie from standing braines, like a broode of Frogs from a ditch, to have the ceaseless flowing river of our tongue turnde into their Frogpoole, is a song farre from their arrogation of sweetnes.
  • And, ready as he was, in his “harmlesse and pious studie,” to esteem the policies and wisdoms of his enemies at no more value than a musty nut, he was readier still to champion the fame of Homer, especially against the “soule-blind Scaliger” and his “palsied diminuation.” He did not belittle the beauty of the Aeneid, but, with perfect truth, declared that Homer’s poems were “writ from a free furie,” Vergil’s out of a “courtly, laborious, and altogether imitatorie spirit.” In brief, he was loyal alike in commentary and interpretation, and, as he hailed Homer “the Prince of Poets,” so he himself may justly be styled the prince of poetical translators. But even he had his forerunners. In 1579, Thomas Purfoote gave to English what he calls The Croune of Homer’s Works, or The Battel of the Frogges and Myce, and, in 1581, Author Hall, M.P. for Grantham, translated ten books of the Iliad from the French. Of Horace, Thomas Drant Englished both Satires and Epistles; Marlowe turned a book of Lucan into blank verse; and Timothy Kendall’s Flowres of Epigrammes (1575 and 1577) were gathered out of sundry authors and particularly from Martial. The deficiency in Greek drama, as has been said, was made up for by many versions of Seneca, and there was no reason why an Englishman of the sixteenth century, who had not the ancient tongues, should have been deprived of a fair knowledge of the Greek and Latin poets.