Saturday, May 3, 2008

Some Thoughts on Cowper's Homer

Cowper's translation of the Iliad is certainly poetic. But it's not Homer. He attempts to render Homer's dactylic hexameters in Miltonian blank verse, which, I think, is a verse form completely unsuited to Homer. Above all, Homer is direct and simple in his diction; he straightforwardly flows from one idea to the next. Milton's verse is exactly the opposite. Let's take the opening lines of the Iliad and the opening lines of Paradise Lost as a comparison:

"Sing, goddess of the ruinous wrath of Achilles"
This is the first line of the Iliad. Already we know what the poem, generally, is going to be about. In Greek it is even more direct; the first words are "menin aieda, thea" which literally is "of wrath sing, goddess". Thus the first three words actually introduce the subject of the Iliad. This is what I mean when I talk about Homer's directness and simplicity in diction.

"Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
Sing heavenly muse"
Compared to Homer, Milton is rather wordy; he tries to cram as much as he can into a line and, consequently, his verse moves rather slowly. Miltonian blank verse doesn't have the quickness or the directness of Homer's original Greek and thus fails to capture an essential element of Homer's poems. Cowper, in attempting to render the Iliad in Milton's blank verse, falls into this problem; it seems sluggish at times and, while it is very poetic, doesn't capture the spirit of the original. Take, for example, these lines where the horse of Achilles answers his reproaches for leaving Patroclus in battle. Cowper translates them thus:

"For not through sloth or tardiness on us
Aught chargeable, have Ilium's sons thine arms
Stript from Patroclus' shoulders; but a God
Matchless in battle, offspring of bright-haired
Latona, him contending in the van
Slew, for the glory of the chief of Troy"

The movement of the verse is entirely un-Homeric; it is too finely wrought and detailed to be Homer. The task of the translator, I believe, is to capture the spirit of the original: in this case, simplicity and directness. Cowper fails at this and, while it is a good translation, is not a great one.

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