On Translating Homer/Homeric Translation in Theory and Practice

1. Three Lectures given at Oxford by MATTHEW ARNOLD, M. A., Professor of Poetry in the University of Oxford, and formerly Fellow of Oriel College. London: Longmans. 1861. pp. 104.
2. A Reply to Matthew Arnold, Esq., Professor of Poetry at Oxford. By FRANCIS W. NEWMAN, a Translator of the Iliad. London: Williams & Norgate. 1861. pp. 104.
MR. F. W. NEWMAN, Professor of Latin in the University of London, probably without much hope of satisfying himself, and certain to dissatisfy every one who could read, or pretend to read, the original, did nevertheless complete and publish a translation of the “ Iliad.” And now, unmindful of Bentley’s dictum, that no man was ever written down but by himself, he has published an answer to Mr. Arnold’s criticism of his work. Thackeray has said that it is of no use pretending not to care if your book is cut up by the “ Times ” ; and it is not surprising that Mr, Newman should be uneasy at being first held up as an awful example to the youth of Oxford in academical lectures, and then to the public of England in a printed monograph, by a man of so much reputation for scholarship and taste as the present incumbent of Thomas Warton’s chair.
Mr. Arnold’s little book is, we need scarcely say, full of delicate criticism and suggestion. He treats his subject with great cleverness, and on many points carries the reader along with him. Especially good is all that he says about the “ grand style,” so far as his general propositions are concerned. But when he comes to apply his criticisms, he instinctively feels the want of an absolute standard of judgment in æsthetic matters, and accordingly appeals to the verdict of “scholars,"—a somewhat vague term, to be sure, but by which he evidently understands men not merely of learning, but of taste. Of course, his reasoning is all a posteriori, and from the narrowest premises, — namely, from an unpleasant effect on his own nerves, to an efficient cause in the badness of Mr, Newman’s translation.
No quarrels, perhaps, are so bitter as those about matters of taste : hardly even is the odium theoloyicum so profound as the odium astheticum. A man, perhaps, will more easily forgive another for disbelieving his own total depravity than for believing that Guido is a great painter or Tupper an inspiring poet. The present dispute, therefore, tenderly personal as it is on the part of one of the pleaders, is especially interesting as showing a very decided and gratifying advance in the civilization of literary men to-day as compared with that of a century or indeed half a century ago. If we go back still farther, matters were still worse, and we find Luther and even Milton raking the kennel for dirt dirty enough to fling at an antagonist. But even within the memory of man, the style of the “ Dunciad ” was hardly obsolete in “Blackwood” and the “Quarterly.” It is very pleasant, in the present case, to see both attack and defence conducted with so gentlemanlike a reserve, — and the latter, which is even more surprising, with an approach to amenity.
In Mr. Newman the Professor of Poetry finds an able and wary antagonist, and one who, in point of learning, carries heavier metal than himself. The dispute turns partly on the character of Homer’s poetry, partly on the true method of translation, (especially Homeric translation,) and partly on the particular merits of Mr. Newman’s attempt as compared with those of others. Of course, many side-topics are incidentally touched upon, among others, the English hexameter, Mr. Newman’s objections to which are particularly worthy of attention.
Mr. Newman instantly sees and strikes at the weak point of his adversary’s argument. “ You appeal to scholars,” he says in substance; “you admit that I am one; now you don’t like my choice of words or metre; I do; who, then, shall decide ? Why, the public, of course, which is the court of last appeal in such cases.” It appears to us, that, on most of the points at issue, the truth lies somewhere between the two disputants. We do not think that Mr. Newman has made out his case that Homer was antiquated, quaint, and even grotesque to the Greeks themselves because his cast of thought and his language were archaic, or strange to them because he wrote in a dialect almost as different from Attic as Scotch from English. The Bible is as far from us in language and in the Orientalism of its thought and expression as Homer was from them; yet we are so familiar with it that it produces on us no impression of being antiquated or quaint, seldom of being grotesque, and what is still more to the purpose, produces that impression as little on illiterate persons to whom many of the words are incomprehensible. So, too, it seems to us, no part of Burns is alien to a man whose mother-tongue is English, in the same sense that some parts of Béranger are; because Burns, though a North Briton, was still a Briton, as Homer, though an Ionian, was still a Greek. We think he does prove that neither Mr. Arnold nor any other scholar can form any adequate conception of the impression which the poems of Homer produced either on the ear or the mind of a Greek; but in doing this he proves too much for his own case, where it turns upon the class of words proper to be used in translating him, Mr. Newman says he sometimes used low words; and since his theory of the duty of a translator is, that he should reproduce the moral effect of his author, — be noble where he is noble, barbarous, if he be barbarous, and quaint, if quaint, — so he should render low words by words as low. But here his own dilemma meets him : how does he know that Homer’s words did seem low to a Greek ? We agree with him in refusing to be conventional; so would Mr. Arnold ; only one would call conventional what the other would call elegant, the question again resolving itself into one of personal taste. We agree with him also in his preference for words that have a certain strangeness and antique dignity about them, but think he should stop short of anything that needs a glossary. He might learn from Chapman’s version, however, that it is not the widest choice of archaic words, but intensity of conception and phrase, that gives a poem life, and keeps it living, in spite of grave defects. Where Chapman, in a famous passage, (“ Odyssey,” v. 612,) tells us, that, when Ulysses crawled ashore after his shipwreck, “the sea had soaked his heart through,” it is not the mere simplicity of the language, but the vivid conception which went before and compelled the simplicity, that is impressive. We believe Mr. Newman is right in refusing to sacrifice a good word because it may be pronounced mean by individual caprice, wrong in attempting the fatal impossibility of rescuing a word which to all minds alike conveys a low or ludicrous meaning, as, for example, pate and dapper, for which he does battle doughtily. Mr. Newman is guilty of a fallacy when he brings up brick, sell, and cut as instances in support of his position, for in these cases Mr. Arnold would only object to his use of them in their slang sense. He himself would hardly venture to say that Hector was a brick, that Achilles cut Agamemnon, or that Ulysses sold Polyphemus. It is precisely because Hobbes used language in this way that his translation of Homer is so ludicrous. Wordsworth broke down in his theory, that the language of poetry should be the every-day speech of men and women, though he nearly succeeded in finally extirpating “poetic diction.” We think the proper antithesis is not between prosaic and poetic words, nor between the speech of actual life and a conventionalized diction, but between the language of real life (which is something different from the actual, or matter-of-fact) and that of artificial life, or society,— that is, between phrases fit to express the highest passion, feeling, aspiration, and those adapted to tlm intercourse of polite life, whence all violent emotion, or, at least, the expression of it, is excluded. This latter highly artificial and polished dialect is accordingly as suitable to the Mock-Heroic (like “ The Rape of the Lock”) as it is inefficient and even distasteful when employed for the higher and more serious purposes of poetry. It was most fortunate for English poetry that our translation of the Bible and Shakspeare arrested our language, and, as it were, crystallized it, precisely at its freshest and most vigorous period, giving us an inexhaustible mine of words familiar to the heart and mind, yet unvulgarized to the ear by trivial associations.
The whole question of Homeric translation in its entire range, between Chapman on the one hand and Pope and Cowper on the other, is opened afresh by this controversy, The difficulty of the undertaking, and still more of dogmatizing on the proper mode of executing it, is manifest from the fact that Mr. Newman is quite as successful in turning some specimens of Mr. Arnold’s into ridicule as the latter had been with his. Meanwhile we commend the two little books to our readers as containing an able and entertaining discussion on a question of general and permanent interest, and as showing that the “ Quarrels of Authors ” may be conducted in a dignified and scholarly way.