Iambic Prose and Cons

— Mr. Palmer’s version from the Odyssey, in the October Atlantic, recalls vividly his oral translations in Sever Hall some years ago. To me, as to many of his hearers, these readings were a fresh revelation. We had never before realized that Homer is still alive. One curious testimony to the force and genuine simplicity of Mr. Palmer’s renderings was this : we nearly all went away astonished that Homer was so absurdly easy, and sure that, with a little practice, we could do nearly or quite as well ourselves ! This impression of unlabored simplicity Mr. Palmer has himself somewhat cruelly effaced by compelling us to listen, as we read, for his iambic rhythms. One reader, at least, is sure that his own loss is herein greater than his gain. All good prose is rhythmic, though not with the regular cadences of verse. Iambics especially are so natural, as Mr. Palmer says, in our speech that they can be used with great freedom, especially in the more impressive passages, without exciting remark. Few readers, for instance, until they are told, see how largely the story of little Nell’s death has been thrown into undivided pentameter verses. We should have felt the rhythm more truly if we had not been reminded of it.

The professor’s own — presumably unrhythmic — prose is so persuasive and easy-gliding that one glaring bit of sophistry is in danger of passing unnoticed. A satisfactory English version in hexameters is, as we also believe, impossible. But any such undertaking is of course a metrical experiment, an attempt to keep faithfully the form of the original. It is precisely because this form is so remote from the average prose sentence of our speech that all prolonged experiments in it break down. A prose version is not, therefore, a second step in that direction, but a mighty leap the other way.

By the way, we do not quite agree that the accenting of each third instead of each second syllable is the rock of shipwreck for English hexameters. Young Lochinvar and Ghent to Aix are no dainty tours de force. There is true lifeblood in their gallop. The great burden of an hexameter is rather at the beginning, since our sentences usually open with an article, a preposition, or some word which refuses to bear the weight of an accent. Hence such trochaics as

For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.”

It may be noted that even the Greeks had to abandon dactyls for iambics, when their article came into its full rights and prepositions had become obedient to their name. Indeed, Aristotle remarks that the iambic verse of the drama is the nearest approach to the movement of ordinary speech.

The form, therefore, which Mr. Palmer should have discussed, just before he crossed the borderland, is our “ blank verse.” Indeed, we are half disposed to believe that versification like Bryant’s, joined with riper scholarship, might yet produce in this metre the best English Odyssey attainable. The free use of “ run-on ” lines permitted with us makes this movement almost as varied and as unforced as prose. The great loss in such a version will probably always be the sacrifice of the unit of measure. The Homeric poets shaped, or found ready to hand, a metrical unit just about long enough for a normal sentence. Every student of the Greek learns to expect the sense to end with the line. But not even a Dante could compress an average Homeric verse into ten syllables of English.

But enough, and more, of the very kind of discussion we deprecate from our friend the translator. Let us join in beseeching Mr. Palmer, when he publishes his book, to omit every allusion to rhythm from his title-page and his preface ; we shall be glad to forget all theories of metre while surrendering ourselves to the simple pathos of the best of all the old stories, simply, directly, and forcefully retold.