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- The Satires, Epistles, and Art of Poetry - 1/33 -






In venturing to follow up my translation of the Odes of Horace by a version of the Satires and Epistles, I feel that I am in no way entitled to refer to the former as a justification of my boldness in undertaking the latter. Both classes of works are doubtless explicable as products of the same original genius: but they differ so widely in many of their characteristics, that success in rendering the one, though greater than any which I can hope to have attained, would afford no presumption that the translator would be found to have the least aptitude for the other. As a matter of fact, while the Odes still continue to invite translation after translation, the Satires and Epistles, popular as they were among translators and imitators a hundred years ago, have scarcely been attempted at all since that great revolution in literary taste which was effected during the last ten years of the last century and the first ten years of the present. Byron's Hints from Horace, Mr. Howes' forgotten but highly meritorious version of the Satires and Epistles, to which I hope to return before long, and a few experiments by Mr. Theodore Martin, published in the notes to his translation of the Odes and elsewhere, constitute perhaps the whole recent stock of which a new translator may be expected to take account. In one sense this is encouraging: in another dispiriting. The field is not pre-occupied: but the reason is, that general opinion has pronounced its cultivation unprofitable and hopeless.

No doubt, apart from fluctuations in the taste of the reading public, there are special reasons why a version of this portion of Horace's works should be a difficult, perhaps an impracticable undertaking. It would not be easy to maintain that a Roman satirist was incapable of adequate representation in English in the face of such an instance to the contrary as Gifford's Juvenal, probably, take it all in all, the very best version of a classic in the language. But though Juvenal has many passages which sufficiently remind us of Horace, some of them light and playful, others level and almost flat, these do not form the staple of his Satires: there are passages of dignified declamation and passionate invective which suffer less in translation, and which may be so rendered as to leave a lasting impression of pleasure upon the mind of the reader. Like Horace, he has an abundance of local and temporary allusions, in dealing with which the most successful translator is the one who fails least: unlike Horace, when he quits the local and the temporary, he generally quits also the language of persiflage, and abandons himself unrestrainedly to feeling. Persiflage, I suppose, even in ordinary life, is much less easy to practise with perfect success than a graver and less artificial mode of speaking, though, perhaps for that very reason, it is apt to be more sought after: the persiflage of a writer of another nation and of a past age is of necessity peculiarly difficult to realize and reproduce. Nothing is so variable as the standard of taste in a matter like this: even on the minor question, what expressions may and what may not be tolerated in good society, probably no two persons think exactly alike: and when we come to inquire not simply what is admissible but what is excellent, and still more, what is characteristic of a particular type of mind, we must expect to meet with still less unanimity of judgment. The wits of the Restoration answered the question very differently from the way in which it would be answered now; even Pope and his contemporaries would not be accepted as quite infallible arbiters of social and colloquial refinement in an age like the present. Whether Horace is grave or gay in his familiar writings, his charm depends almost wholly on his manner: a modern who attempts to reproduce him runs an imminent risk first of losing all charm whatever, secondly of missing completely that individuality of attractiveness which makes the charm of Horace unlike the charm of any one else.

Without however enlarging further on the peculiar difficulty of the task, I will proceed to say a few words on some of the special questions which a translator of the Satires and Epistles has to encounter, and the way in which, as it appears to me, he may best deal with them. These questions, I need hardly say, mainly resolve themselves into the metre and the style. With regard to the metre, I have myself but little doubt that the measure in which Horace may best be represented is the heroic as I suppose we must call it, of ten syllables. The one competing measure of course is the Hudibrastic octosyllabic. This latter metre is not without considerable authority in its favour. Two translators, Smart and Boscawen, have rendered the whole, or nearly the whole of these poems in that and no other way: Francis occasionally adopts it, though he generally uses the longer measure: Swift and Pope, as every one knows, employ it in three or four of their imitations: Cowper, in his original poems perhaps the greatest master we have of the Horatian style, translates the only two satires he has attempted in the shorter form: Mr. Martin uses it as often as he uses the heroic: perhaps Mr. Howes is the only translator since Creech who employs the heroic throughout. Some of my readers may possibly wonder why I in particular, having rendered the AEneid in a measure which, whatever its vivacity, may be thought deficient in dignity, should turn round and repudiate it in a case where vivacity, not dignity, happens to be the point desired. I can only say that it is precisely the colloquial nature of the metre which makes me stand in doubt of it for my present purpose. Using it in the case of Virgil, I was sure to be reminded of the need of guarding against its abuse: using it in the case of Horace, I should be constantly in danger of regarding the abuse as the law of the measure. Horace is scarcely less remarkable for his terseness than for his ease: the tendency of the octosyllabic metre in its colloquial form is to become slipshod, interminable, in a word unclassical. Again, few of those who use it apply it consistently to all Horace's hexameter poems: most make a distinction, applying it to some and not to others. In point of fact, however, it does not seem that any such distinction can be made. Horace's lightest Satires or Epistles have generally something grave about them: his gravest have more than one light passage. To draw a metrical line in the English where none is drawn in the Latin appears to me objectionable ipso facto where it can reasonably be avoided. That it can be avoided in the present case does not really admit of a doubt. The English heroic couplet, managed as Cowper has managed it, is surely quite equal to representing all the various changes of mood and temper which find their embodiment successively in the Horatian hexameter. Cowper's more serious poems contain more of deep and sustained gravity than is to be found in any similar production of Horace: while on the other hand there are few things in Horace so easy and sprightly as the Epistle to Joseph Hill, nothing perhaps so absolutely prosaic as the Colubriad and the verses to Mrs. Newton. There is also an advantage in rendering the Satires of Horace in the metre which may be called the recognized metre of English satire, and as such has always been employed (with one very partial and grotesque exception) by the translators of Juvenal. Lastly, I may be allowed to say that, while very distrustful of my powers of managing the graver heroic, where so many great masters have gone before me, I felt less diffidence in attempting the lower and more colloquial form of the measure, as not requiring the same command of rhythm, and not exposing a writer to the same amount of invidious comparison with his predecessors.

In what I have said I have implied that Cowper is the right model for the English heroic as applied to a translation of Horace: and this on the whole I believe to be the case. Horace's characteristics, as I remarked just now, are ease and terseness, and both these Cowper possesses, ease in metre, and ease and terseness in style. Pope, on the other hand, who in some respects would seem the better representative of Horace, is less easy both in style and metre, while his terseness is what Horace's terseness is not, trimness and antithetical smartness. Still, while making Cowper my pattern as a general rule, I have attempted from time to time to borrow a grace from Pope, even, when the original gave me no warrant for the appropriation. If Cowper's verse could be written by Cowper, it would probably leave nothing to be desired in a translation of this kind: handled by an inferior workman, it is in danger of becoming flat, pointless, and insipid: and Horace has many passages which, if not flat, pointless, or insipid in themselves, are painfully liable to become so in the hands of a translator. I have accordingly on various occasions aimed at epigram and pungency when there was nothing epigrammatic or pungent in the Latin, in full confidence that any trifling additions which may be made in this way to the general sum of liveliness will be far more than compensated by the heavy outgoings which must of necessity be the lot of every translator, and more particularly of myself. [Footnote: Cowper himself has some remarks bearing on this point: "That is epigrammatic and witty in Latin which would be perfectly insipid in English; and a translator of Bourne would frequently find himself obliged to supply what is called the turn, which is in fact the most difficult and the most expensive part of the whole composition, and could not perhaps, in many instances, be done with any tolerable success. If a Latin poem is neat, elegant and musical, it is enough; but English readers are not so easily satisfied. To quote myself, you will find, in comparing the Jackdaw with the original, that I was obliged to sharpen a point which, though smart enough in the Latin, would in English have appeared as plain and as blunt as the tag of a lace." --Letter to Unwin, May 23, 1781 (Southey's Cowper, ed. 1836, vol. iv. p. 97).] All translation, as has been pointed out over and over again, must proceed more or less on the principle of compensation; a translator who is conscious of having lost ground in one place is not to blame if he tries to recover it in another, so that he does not consciously depart from what he believes to be the spirit of the original: the question he has to ask himself is not so much whether he has conformed to the requirements of this or that line, most important as such conformity is where it can be realized without a sacrifice of higher things, as whether he has conformed to the requirements of the whole sentence, or even of the whole paragraph; whether the general effect produced by all the combined elements in the English lines answers in any degree to that produced

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