Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.04.14

Adrian Poole and Jeremy Maule (edd.), The Oxford Book of Classical Verse in Translation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Pp. 606. $29.95. ISBN 0-19-2144209-7.

Reviewed by David R. Slavitt, Princeton University.

First of all, a disclaimer. When I volunteered to do this review, I had no idea I was in the book, because, usually, my publishers let me know when someone has asked about anthology rights to one of my pieces. Indeed, the omission by Poole and Maule of my work was one of the reasons I thought it might be entertaining to write the review. But there I am, in three places -- which doesn't disqualify me, however, from offering an appraisal of the aims and accomplishments of the editors.

It is not quite what the title would lead a reader to expect but, is in some ways even more interesting for that. A better name for The Oxford Book of Classical Verse in Translation might have been The Oxford Book of Translations -- of Classical Verse. The classical verse is there, but our attention is drawn at least as much to the ways in which poets and scholars have been bringing the Latin and Greek into our language over the past four centuries or so.

It is not excessively cynical of me, I hope, to suppose that this volume is also intended as the competition for Bernard Knox's The Norton Book of Classical Literature, which appeared in 1993. Professor Knox took the usual view of translation and translators, which is to say, more or less as necessary nuisances. There is not, in the Norton anthology, even a list of the translators, nor is there any range over time. Knox simply took the best he could find, or, when looking proved to be tedious, sat down, took up his pen, and did the translating himself. In some ways, this is a quite reasonable approach. I mean, if you want to read Dryden or Pope, you know where to look. This is Ovid, or Homer, to whom we're supposed to be paying attention, after all.

Either by conviction or simply because it was the alternative Knox had left to them, Poole and Maule take the other view. In any event, what they have produced is fascinating, because Pope's Homer and Dryden's Vergil and Ovid are an invaluable part of our heritage and readers ought to have available to them at least a little of Arthur Golding and George Sandys -- for the flavor, if nothing else. I also believe that our vision of the Greek and Roman poets is enriched by some familiarity with the ways in which how other ages read them and what they saw in them. One gets some sense of the tradition of classicism in English, which is important in and of itself.

Knox's Homer is perfectly reasonable, given his assumptions. A little Lattimore, a little Fitzgerald, and some Robert Fagles, for the Iliad. The Odyssey is Lattimore and Fitzgerald, in roughly equal proportions (Fagles is still working on his version). But in the Oxford book, we have Chapman, Dryden, Pope, Cowper, John Ogilby, Alfred Tennyson, the Earl of Derby, Sir John Denham, George Meredith, Thomas Yalden, Ezra Pound, Robert Lowell, and Christopher Logue, as well as Fitzgerald and Fagles (but, oddly, no Lattimore at all). More to the point, the Oxford book give us, often, two or more versions of the same passage so that we can either compare them if we like, or else try to work out some parallax view by which we can get to what Stanley Burnshaw called "the poem itself."

Neither book is perfect of course -- perfection being the vision each reader has about what he or she would have done as editor. But I find myself approving of the Oxford collection even when I'm not entirely clear what they're up to. There are four pieces by Douglas Young, translations from the Latin into the Scots dialect, which is at the very least quirky, as in this piece of Catullus:

Catullus man, ye maunna gang sae gyte.
Scryve 't doun for tint, nou that ye see it's fled ye.
Umquhile the sun shone on ye, braw and whyte,
ye aye gaed eftir whaur the lassie led ye,--
The general sense is clear enough, and there are versions of the same poem by Thomas Campion and Louis and Celia Zukofsky, but if we have to be told that gyte is mad, scryve is write, and tint is lost (with umquhile and braw, we are on our own), we could, with rather less fuss, be reading the Latin. Or is there a joke here that I'm not getting, some British notion that a kilt is just a plaid toga? Perhaps the editors were simply taken, as I am, too, I confess, with "Catullus man" that has a heartiness no other version quite manages to convey.

I am also pleased by some of the famous bad translations, which are wonderful in their way and good to have in easy reach. The first line of William Cory's version of Callimachus's poem is unforgettable -- "They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead." But who can recite the rest, which is almost as much fun? ("They brought me bitter news to hear, and bitter tears to shed. / I wept, as I remembered, how often you and I / Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky." And so on for another batty quatrain.)

The other main difference between the two books is that Knox's 850-page volume takes us up to Juvenal, gives us a little Marcus Aurelius and a little Augustine, and then stops. Poole and Maule, in their 604 pages, are more generous, covering the same ground Knox does but also giving us a florilegium of the later empire -- Nemesianus, Servasius, Claudian, Avianus, Prudentius, Ausonius, Namatianus, Boethius, and others. One can niggle about their choices -- I'd have liked to see at least a morsel of Ausonius's Recollections of the Professors of Bordeaux -- but I'm delighted to see one of my Avianus fables in the book and probably shouldn't make excessive complaint.

For administrative convenience, American colleges and universities departmentalize -- and compartmentalize -- the world of the arts and sciences. This means that teachers of classics look at the original texts while teachers English literature mostly confine themselves to the "original" work of the writers in the canon. Translation tends to fall between two stools, or chairs, even though one can learn as much or more about a poet's practice by looking at one of his renditions where one can see what material he started with and consider how he dealt with it and what choices he made to arrive at the finished piece. A book like this is an extremely useful way at least to begin such an exploration, if anyone were enterprising enough to want to try it.

But it is for ordinary readers, whoever they are, that I take this compilation to be primarily intended, and for them the Oxford book is more inviting, I think, than the Norton. There is an easy suggestion of the accessibility of the Greeks and the Romans and a demonstration of the ways in which they have continued to speak in a variety of accents and dictions to men and women over the recent centuries. To get some glimpse of the usefulness, relevance, and consolation of the classics is to have arrived in some measure at the wisdom that is the purpose of most of our scholarly and artistic enterprise.