Classical Literature in Translation

I START from a patent fact,—the widespread ignorance of classical literature on the part of persons who have received a classical education. It is not the scholarship of scholars that is here impugned ; though even among scholars ten men are to be found whose studies have been mainly philological for one who gives prominence to the spirit of the literatures he professes. But in the world of education the expert counts for little in comparison with the average man; and the great mass of ordinary students leave school or college with slight interest in the ancient authors they have been studying, or wish to go on reading for themselves. This evil carries in its train an evil which is even worse, — that our liberal education gives no literary training at all, since it is to classics that educational tradition has trusted for instruction in literature. The great universities of England do not even profess to teach English; and a Cambridge man, if he has nothing but his university to look to, is in danger of regarding the whole of his national literature as represented by Paley’s Evidences of Christianity. American and Scotch universities are not open to this reproach ; but if quantitative analysis be applied to the curricula of these institutions, it will appear that the attention of the ordinary student has been directed to pure literature only just enough to suggest to him that there is such a thing, and that it is comparatively unimportant. In fact, the study called “ classics ” appears at the present moment to be the greatest of all the obstacles in the way of any real study of the ancient classics.

As a matter of history, it is not difficult to see how this perversion of a great study has arisen. It was at the Renaissance that classics became the staple of liberal education. The study was worthy of its position; mental discipline was furnished by the difficulties of dead languages, while for the varied powers that go to make up the literary sense — that which has come to be called “ culture ” — there could be no fitter instrument of training than the literatures of Greece and Rome. But in process of time subjects like mathematics or science forced their way into the educational programme, diminishing the time that could be devoted to classics. Now this diminution must be taken wholly from the culture side of classical study, since this cannot commence until the student is at home in the languages. Accordingly, while education as a whole has been advancing, the literary training to be derived from classics has been proportionately diminishing ; until, in the present crowded condition of our educational time-tables, it is hardly claimed that classics is more than a mental discipline.

Side by side with this failure to reach literary training amongst students of classics is to be placed a failure of a different kind outside their ranks. A large area of liberal education is occupied with systems, by no means low in their aims and standards, which boldly exclude classics altogether. Sometimes this exclusion is in favor of more modern and practical studies, such as physical science. I believe supporters of this view are often misjudged as undervaluing culture ; whereas the real alternative with them is, not between literature and science, but between success in learning science and failure in studying literature. Another class of educators would substitute modern languages for Latin and Greek ; but since, with a view to being worthy of their rivals, they multiply these languages, once more linguistic details come to crowd out literary training. A more specious position is occupied by those who take their stand upon English. Let us, they say, be taught our own literature. But, in the first place, such systems usually lay great stress upon Early and Middle English ; and thus, by a sort of fatality, the philological veil is interposed again between the simple student and the attractions of literature. Even apart from this the plea is based upon a false analogy. In the history of language, it is true that there is no break between the earliest English and our own modern speech; there is no phenomenon corresponding to this in the history of literature. On the contrary, the classical writers of Greece and Rome are the most important of our literary ancestors; it is these who, for the most part, have formed the minds that have formed ours. The great masters of English literature, whom we all wish to study, may have dipped into our early writers, but they are most of them saturated with the literatures of Greece and Rome. The ancient classics are the quarry out of which Milton and Spenser have dug the materials with which they build. Ancient thinking is assumed in every literary discussion ; ancient imagination underlies the allusions, images, ornamentation, of the most modern poets. Even in the case of Shakespeare, no clear analysis can be made of his intricate plots by one unfamiliar with the simpler treatment of antiquity. A student may have worked faithfully through all the publications of the Early English Text Society, and yet may be absolutely cut off from the literary succession of writers whose thoughts have made the thinking of the world.

For both these failures — the failure through classical studies to reach classical literature, and the failure to find any sufficient substitute for these classical studies — there is only one remedy : the ancient classics must be studied in the vernacular. The time has come for recognizing the lesson of experience : that so long as language and literature are studied together the letter will kill the spirit, and the linguistic difficulties which lie on the surface, and lend themselves readily to mechanical teaching, will distract from the beauties of literature that lie beneath, and task our whole powers to grasp. I am not in any way attacking the study of Latin and Greek, on which I set high value. But I would impose on every person charged with the construction of an educational timetable the duty of treating Latin and Greek as purely linguistic and disciplinary studies, and giving them just so much prominence as in that category they deserve ; while for literary culture he must, except in the case of very advanced scholarship, look entirely to other sources,—to modern literature if he pleases, but in any case to English versions of the two literatures which are to us the most important of all.

I know well the objections which will be flung at such a proposal. By many men of scholarly attainments it will be scouted as a descent in the intellectual scale, a cheapening of liberal education ; to read a Greek author in translation is, they will insist, to lose all that is worth having. I strengthen myself against such objectors by remembering how all that is now urged against the study of the classics in English was, a few generations ago, urged with more force against the translation of the Bible. Yet three centuries have used an English Bible, and, while religion in this period has been purified and elevated, the effect of the translated literature has been to mould our whole speech and thought. I do not wish to confuse the secular and sacred, but, making proper allowance for this difference, I believe we may look, when Greek and Latin literatures have been made accessible to the masses, for an intellectual awakening not unworthy of comparison with the spiritual awakening brought about by the opening to the vernacular of our other great literary ancestor, the sacred Scriptures of the Hebrews. The scholar’s objection to translations is founded upon a fallacy. It is true that to appreciate an author in the original tongue means more than to appreciate him in translation. But my whole contention is that the great mass of ordinary students never do and never can appreciate literature which they read in a language bristling to them with difficulties. The objection is itself an argument on my side. If a scholar tells me that by reading an ancient author in English I have lost all that is worth having, I simply conclude that he himself has learnt to value nothing except language ; that his scholarship has taught him to appreciate Greek, but not to appreciate Æschylus. The deep or bright thoughts of a great master, his conception of a situation or character, the light he casts on our common human nature, his deft handling of plot or artistic moulding of story, his portrayal of the passions and contrivance of their conflicts, his mythological suggestiveness, his relation to history and literary development, — these forms of literary interest, all of them independent of language, go for nothing with such a learned objector, in comparison with the play of idiom, the charm of linguistic nicety and word æsthetics ; to say nothing of the fact that a considerable proportion of even these latter beauties is open to the reader of translations, and a proportion that will steadily increase as the art of translating rises in educational importance. There are, no doubt, authors whose main force lies in language, and these will be inaccessible except in the original tongue. But the world’s great classics make a deep sea of literary power, undisturbed by superficial waves of linguistic, differences.

I believe that the reverse of the objection is the truth, and that there can be no thorough study of literature without a free use of translations. One of the gravest charges against the existing study of classics is its looseness and want of thoroughness. It is worse than inaccurate; it corrupts the sense of accuracy by violating the proportions of things and requiring exactness in details, while it leaves vague and flimsy ideas, or a total absence of ideas, about things that are great. To expect a youth to know the principal parts of verbs without mistake, and to study nicety in the rendering of idioms, while he is never tested as to his knowledge of the author’s thoughts or his grasp of literary ideals, is a regimen coming perilously near the social training that expects faultlessness in boots and necktie, while morals are left to take care of themselves. The use of translated classics becomes essential because quantity plays so important a part in a study in which the unit is a complete book. To grasp only a single work involves many readings, including readings that are made rapid with a view of catching the connection of parts, as well as the slower reading that masters particular passages ; and the readings can be more easily multiplied if they are in the vernacular. Again, the single book will hardly be understood apart from other works of the same author, and for such additional works English versions are still more desirable. But this is not all. Literary study must, like all others, be comparative in its method. No one imagines he can study American history by reading the annals of that country apart from the history of the rest of the world. It is equally essential to compare the literature of one country with the literatures of other nations, and this becomes a practical impossibility without the aid of translations. Such use of adapted matter has its analogies in all other pursuits. I suppose there are few professed theologians who do not in a considerable part of their work use the English Bible. A student of painting or sculpture will not confine himself to the comparatively few originals which he can see, but will make free use of copies and casts, which, with all their intrinsic inferiority, will nevertheless enlarge his knowledge of styles and schools. A musician may learn much from piano transcriptions, although a symphony stripped of its orchestration loses far more than a poem translated into another language. Every branch of education must somewhere or other use borrowed matter, or else lose its catholicity ; and, like the rest, classics, if it rejects the aid of translations, will remain a provincial study.

I am in a position to speak on this matter in the light of experience. The University Extension Movement in England, with which I have been connected, has for more than ten years been offering courses of instruction in the ancient literatures, chiefly the ancient classical drama, to classes in which not one person in ten would know a word of Greek or Latin. The results have been very interesting. So far as concerns attractiveness, with the exception of Shakespeare I have found no subject so popular as the ancient drama, unless it be Faust and Dante, which are themselves examples of classics studied in translation. The popularity of which I speak has not been confined to the more cultured classes. I recollect being obliged, against my judgment, to yield to the urgency of a class of workingmen, and take with them a course of reading in Greek comedy, during which I had the curious experience of having to explain The Clouds to students who had never heard of Socrates. In the examination of students at the conclusion of these courses there has never, so far as I am aware, been an unfavorable report; while more than once examiners have gone out of their way to express surprise at the results attained. I should myself attach more importance to the exercises done throughout the term by students ; and in these I often have been astonished, not at the keenness of interest displayed, which I should expect, but at the width of reading, which, in the case of the best students, has covered all the tragedies of the three dramatists, and the grasp of technicalities, sometimes amounting to high scholarship. It is worth noting that amongst the attendants at such courses were some persons who had studied classics at school, and occasionally high university graduates. From the latter came more than once the acknowledgment, which entirely agrees with my own personal experience as a graduate in classics, that they had never appreciated the literary side of the drama until they thus studied it in the vernacular; while from those whose classical studies had been of a humbler order was continually heard the exclamation, " Oh, if we had only had our attention drawn to these things in that dreary school work! ” The results that have thus been attained in the case of the ancient classical drama are equally to be reached in connection with Homer and Plato, Tacitus and Horace.

The next great chapter of educational reform must be the restoration of the ancient Greek and Latin literatures to their proper place in all the education that claims to be liberal, — a place which originally was theirs by universal consent, and from which they have lapsed by the slow and unperceived changes of time, while the lapse has been concealed under the confusion between language and literature that lurks in the term “ classics.” The change required is no sweeping revolution : a readjustment of balance in our time-tables and an increase in the apparatus of translation are all that is necessary. The reform may be differently stated as regards the classes that do and do not study Latin and Greek.

For the education that is distinctively English, and applies to the masses of people who will never learn the ancient tongues, the desideratum is that the chief classical masters shall be introduced as constituting the most important chapter in the history of English literature. Homer, the dramatists, and Plato, they must be taught, are just as much a part of our literature as Shakespeare, Milton, Bacon. The earlier masters are, perhaps, the more important, just because they are the earlier, and thus stand to the others in the relation of the basis to the superstructure. It is one of the safest principles of education that the student period of life may be considered a sort of embryonic stage, in which the individual goes rapidly through the several phases of development traversed at length by society at large. Thus to approach English literature through that which has inspired it, and which is reflected in all its details, will give a solidarity to literary culture, however limited it may be in amount. What is more important still is, that so connected a view of literature has the better chance of sowing the interest that will last beyond the period of pupilage, and turn the whole life into a literary education.

Where the ancient languages are already in vogue, I would suggest, as a practical reform, that no work should ever be set for study in the original Greek or Latin without its having attached to it a prescribed course of reading in English. This reading might be in other works of the same author or of allied authors, or in great works of kindred interest drawn from English or other literatures. To illustrate : where, at present, it is usual to set four or five Greek plays, I would set only one for study in Greek, say the Alcestis of Euripides ; and with this I would combine Browning’s Balaustion, the Love of Alcestis by William Morris, and Longfellow’s Golden Legend, which transfers a similar situation to Christian surroundings. The student would, I suppose, by this change, suffer a little in his knowledge of Greek; not much, I venture to say, for language differs from literature in the fact that a limited quantity of it, if thoroughly studied, yields a great deal of training. But, as compensation, he would gain not only literary interest, but an insight into comparative literature, which, when once awakened, becomes one of the most powerful forces for literary training. Similarly, where an elementary class at present is able to cover a book or two of Homer, I would set, as an exercise in Greek, only a limited number of lines, and with this I would combine, for study in English, the whole Iliad of Chapman and the Odyssey of William Morris.1 The class might know less Greek, but they would know Homer, and never lose their love for him. It would be easy to multiply illustrations. Where the Agamemnon is studied in the original, the two Iphigenias of Euripides might be read in English; and the link of Iphigenia might further draw in the play of Goethe and the music of Gluck. With the Prometheus Bound would go, besides Mrs. Browning’s English version, the Prometheus Unbound of Shelley ; with a dialogue of Plato in Greek the whole personality of Socrates studied in English versions, together with dialogues of Landor to illustrate a parallel English form. My meaning is, not that these works should merely be mentioned to the student for reference, but that means should be taken to make the study of the English works just as methodical as the study of the Greek. I would make this linking together of classics in the original tongues with classics in vernacular a rule without an exception. Nothing less rigorous than this is sufficient to counteract the fatal tendency in all ordinary minds for difficulties of a dead language to swamp and obscure the literary beauties concealed in it.

I believe there is a great opportunity for any university that will lead a new departure in the direction for which I have argued; uniting, in its own studies, pure literature in English with linguistic exercises in Latin and Greek, opening by " extension ” teaching the ancient classics to the plain people, and by way of material for both these purposes encouraging the production of good translations. Ours is an age in which university education has to justify itself to a public opinion which uses other bases of judgment besides tradition, and I cannot think that the common sense of society would have accorded to classical studies the primacy they may have enjoyed in the past if they had been no more than the narrow discipline they have now become. What is the ideal of a classical education ? it may be well to ask ; for though the reality is always different from the ideal, yet, in education as in other things, he who aims at the sky will shoot higher than he that means a tree. I take it that the enthronement of classics in the realm of education rests upon a conception that a classical graduate should have traveled as truly with his mind into the world of Greek and Roman antiquity as if he had in person crossed the Atlantic and visited Europe ; and that he should thus possess, in a degree that no mere bodily journeying could give, that enlargement of mind which the most Philistine critic is ready to recognize in men who have traveled. It is not enough that he should have heard classical names, as if one were to turn over the pages of some ancient Baedeker, but the landmarks of the old world must be to him emphatic spots, like the favorite scenes one has visited. The history and institutions of antiquity he must understand, not of course with the special knowledge of a lawyer, but with the intelligence of a citizen, or at least a visitor ; and he should have dipped into their rationale deeply enough to raise the questions of principle common to ancient and modern society. The forms of Greek art should be familiar to his eye, and their principles he should have absorbed as the basis of the æsthetic sense he will bring to bear upon the art of the modern world. The ways and customs of ancient life should seem as natural to him as if he had been obliged to adapt himself to them for a while, and be concerned with its religious mysteries or athletic gatherings of races, its political factions, social banquets, military expeditions, domestic privacy. The classic literature, such of it as is for all time, should have moved him like his own; he should feel as if he had heard Herodotus recite his history, or Pericles make a funeral oration, or Socrates cross-examine Gorgias, while he may have imbibed party spirit enough to enjoy the fun of seeing Socrates in his turn roughly handled by Aristophanes ; fragments of Homer should come as naturally to his lips as to a modern child quotations from Alice in Wonderland; he may have become deeply enough imbued with ancient spirit to take sides, and feel all a Roman’s doubt whether to prefer Virgil or Lucretius, Tacitus or Livy ; he should, finally, in a degree proportioned to his ability, understand the great speech of the classic peoples, and by this potent though unconscious instrument be made to move along the very lines of their mind-play.

All this, which to one whose associations of classical study are with the slow labor of reading in the original will seem wildly impracticable, I believe to be within the compass of a man of ordinary powers, assisted by an intelligent teacher who can cover the ground with the free movement of a reader in his native tongue. But if I am mistaken, and my scheme includes too much, then the ideal of a classical education involves the duty of wise selection among the topics enumerated, as to which may be best abandoned and which retained. I am doubtful whether, in this case, the first thing to throw overboard should not be the linguistic exercise which at present makes the staple of classics. But of one thing I have no doubt whatever : that the last thing we can consent to give up must be the study of the ancient literatures of Greece and Rome, which have woven themselves into the very framework of human thought, and the omission of which makes a scheme of liberal education an attempt to erect a pyramid otherwise than on its base.

Richard G. Moulton.

  1. I mention these translations because they may be considered as English classics. It might, however, be found better to use versions emanating from the world of scholarship ; such as Morshead’s translation of Æschylns and Sophocles, or the renderings of Homer which have been foreshadowed in the pages of the Atlantic Monthly by Professor Palmer.