Essay on Poetic Theory

Preface to The Iliad of Homer (1715)

by Alexander Pope
This pure and noble simplicity is nowhere in such perfection as in the Scripture and our author. One may affirm, with all respect to the inspired writings, that the Divine Spirit made use of no other words but what were intelligible and common to men at that time, and in that part of the world; and, as Homer is the author nearest to those, his style must of course bear a greater resemblance to the sacred books than that of any other writer. This consideration (together with what has been observed of the parity of some of his thoughts) may, methinks, induce a translator, on the one hand, to give in to several of those general phrases and manners of expression, which have attained a veneration even in our language from being used in the Old Testament; as, on the other, to avoid those which have been appropriated to the Divinity, and in a manner consigned to mystery and religion.

For a further preservation of this air of simplicity, a particular care should be taken to express with all plainness those moral sentences and proverbial speeches which are so numerous in this poet. They have something venerable, and as I may say, oracular, in that unadorned gravity and shortness with which they are delivered: a grace which would be utterly lost by endeavouring to give them what we call a more ingenious (that is, a more modern) turn in the paraphrase.

Perhaps the mixture of some Graecisms and old words after the manner of Milton, if done without too much affectation, might not have an ill effect in a version of this particular work, which most of any other seems to require a venerable, antique cast. But certainly the use of modern terms of war and government, such as “platoon, campaign, junto,” or the like, (into which some of his translators have fallen) cannot be allowable; those only excepted without which it is impossible to treat the subjects in any living language.

There are two peculiarities in Homer’s diction, which are a sort of marks or moles by which every common eye distinguishes him at first sight; those who are not his greatest admirers look upon them as defects, and those who are, seemed pleased with them as beauties. I speak of his compound epithets, and of his repetitions. Many of the former cannot be done literally into English without destroying the purity of our language. I believe such should be retained as slide easily of themselves into an English compound, without violence to the ear or to the received rules of composition, as well as those which have received a sanction from the authority of our best poets, and are become familiar through their use of them; such as “the cloud- compelling Jove,” &c. As for the rest, whenever any can be as fully and significantly expressed in a single word as in a compounded one, the course to be taken is obvious.

Some that cannot be so turned, as to preserve their full image by one or two words, may have justice done them by circumlocution; as the epithet einosiphyllos to a mountain, would appear little or ridiculous translated literally “leaf-shaking,” but affords a majestic idea in the periphrasis: “the lofty mountain shakes his waving woods.” Others that admit of different significations, may receive an advantage from a judicious variation, according to the occasions on which they are introduced. For example, the epithet of Apollo, hekaebolos or “far- shooting,” is capable of two explications; one literal, in respect of the darts and bow, the ensigns of that god; the other allegorical, with regard to the rays of the sun; therefore, in such places where Apollo is represented as a god in person, I would use the former interpretation; and where the effects of the sun are described, I would make choice of the latter. Upon the whole, it will be necessary to avoid that perpetual repetition of the same epithets which we find in Homer, and which, though it might be accommodated (as has been already shown) to the ear of those times, is by no means so to ours: but one may wait for opportunities of placing them, where they derive an additional beauty from the occasions on which they are employed; and in doing this properly, a translator may at once show his fancy and his judgment.

As for Homer’s repetitions, we may divide them into three sorts: of whole narrations and speeches, of single sentences, and of one verse or hemistitch. I hope it is not impossible to have such a regard to these, as neither to lose so known a mark of the author on the one hand, nor to offend the reader too much on the other. The repetition is not ungraceful in those speeches, where the dignity of the speaker renders it a sort of insolence to alter his words; as in the messages from gods to men, or from higher powers to inferiors in concerns of state, or where the ceremonial of religion seems to require it, in the solemn forms of prayers, oaths, or the like. In other cases, I believe the best rule is, to be guided by the nearness, or distance, at which the repetitions are placed in the original: when they follow too close, one may vary the expression; but it is a question, whether a professed translator be authorized to omit any: if they be tedious, the author is to answer for it.

It only remains to speak of the versification. Homer (as has been said) is perpetually applying the sound to the sense, and varying it on every new subject. This is indeed one of the most exquisite beauties of poetry, and attainable by very few: I only know of Homer eminent for it in the Greek, and Virgil in the Latin. I am sensible it is what may sometimes happen by chance, when a writer is warm, and fully possessed of his image: however, it may reasonably be believed they designed this, in whose verse it so manifestly appears in a superior degree to all others. Few readers have the ear to be judges of it: but those who have, will see I have endeavoured at this beauty.

Originally Published: October 13, 2009
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 Alexander  Pope

Biography

Alexander Pope was born in London to a Roman Catholic family. A childhood sickness left him with stunted height, a curved spine, and ill health for the rest of his life. Pope earned fame and great financial success as a poet, satirist, and translator. He is perhaps best remembered for his mastery of the heroic couplet, as in An Essay on Man and “The Rape of the Lock.”

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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