The two greatest epic poets of antiquity, Homer and Virgil, have always attracted crowds of translators, and many unexpected famous names pop up among them.
Of course there’s George Chapman. His translation of Homer provoked Keats to write one of the most famous English sonnets, a poem that every schoolchild was forced to read at some point, and one that deserves to be read by more than yawning schoolchildren. Yet, famous as Keats’ poem is, not one reader of it in a hundred has even glanced at Chapman’s Homer. The world seems to have forgotten Chapman’s Homer exactly in proportion as it remembers Keats’ poem about Chapman’s Homer. It is as if the world had decided to give up summer days, because we have read Shakespeare’s sonnet about them, and what do we need now with the filthy experience? Sometimes, after all, too hot the eye of heaven shines, and really it’s just better to stay inside.
Chapman and Hobbes are far from the only famous translators of Homer. You know that Alexander Pope translated him, of course: Pope is ubiquitous and inevitable. But did you know that William Cowper made a blank-verse translation of both the Iliad and the Odyssey? America’s own William Cullen Bryant also tried his hand at a blank-verse translation late in his life, with some success.
Perhaps the most unexpected name on the list is William Morris, who is probably known to most of the Americans who know him at all as the wallpaper guy. He translated the Odyssey in rhymed and heavily alliterative hexameter.
Virgil also has his share of celebrity translators. In fact the history of printing in English could be traced in the history of printing Virgil in English. One of the first books ever printed in English was Caxton’s Eneydos, which he translated from the French; and although he describes it as “made in latyn by that noble poet & great clerke vyrgyle,” it is a very free adaptation. It is the sort of thing a Hollywood producer might do to the Aeneid if he got his hands on the film rights. The first real translation of Virgil in an Anglic language was by Bishop Douglas into Scots, and he is not sparing in his opinion of the book from Caxton, who
In pross hes prent ane buik of Inglis gros,
Clepand it Virgill in Eneados,
Quhilk that he sais of Frensch he did translait,
It hes na thing ado therwith, God wait,
Nor na mair like than the devill and Sanct Austyne;
Haue he na thank therfor, bot lost his pyne,
So schamfully that storye did pervert;
I red his werk with harmes at my hert,
That sic ane buik, but sentence or engyne,
Suld be intitillit efter the poet divyne;
His ornait goldin versis mair than gilt,
I spittit for despyt to see sua spilt
With sic a wycht, quhilk treulie be myne entent,
Knew neuer thre wowrdis of all that Virgill ment.
John Dryden is to Virgil what Alexander Pope is to Homer. But the list of Virgil’s translators is long and varied. William Morris shows up here, too; he translated the Aeneid into fourteeners like Chapman’s Iliads, but with much more alliteration.
Comparing these translations is revealing. All the Homers are certainly Homer, and all the Virgils (with the arguable exception of Caxton’s) are Virgil. But both ancient poets are magic mirrors in which the translators see everything they think is good in poetry. For William Morris, Virgil and Homer are perfect medieval bards, and he translates them in alliterative verse that would have appealed to William Langland. Alexander Pope’s Homer is a refined gentleman, for all his ancient ways. Chapman’s Homer is an expert at playing to the pit and delivering the applause-inspiring line that makes the patrons think they are getting their halfpenny’s worth. Bryant’s Homer is the kind of deeply thoughtful soul who might write a poem called “Thanatopsis.”
Experienced readers have already guessed that a long literary article like this means that there is a new page in the Eclectic Library. On this occasion there are two new pages: one for Homer and one for Virgil.