Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.02.08

Stuart Gillespie, English Translation and Classical Reception: Towards a New Literary History. Classical receptions.   Chichester; Malden, MA:  Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.  Pp. ix, 208.  ISBN 9781405199018.  $109.95.  

Reviewed by Stephen Harrison, Corpus Christi College, Oxford (

Stuart Gillespie is the leading UK figure in the study of English literary translations of Latin and Greek texts, from his anthology The Poets on the Classics (1988) to his current series co-editorship of the Oxford History of Literary Translation in English (four volumes since 2005, one to come) and his editorship of the journal Translation and Literature. This rewarding volume links together a series of studies of poetic translations of classical texts from Chaucer to Ted Hughes, arguing the unassailable proposition that the significance of these texts has been underrated if not ignored in modern versions of English literary history.

The opening chapter, ‘Making the Classics Belong’, sets out a rapid sketch of the history of classical translation in Britain; it got off to a slower start than in France or Italy, and sometimes indeed translated French versions of Latin texts (one might add here that the text often seen as the earliest English translation of Vergil, Caxton’s 1490 Eneydos, is of course a version of the French Roman d’Énéas). Eighteenth-century classics such as Pope’s Homer and Dryden’s Virgil achieved a long life, one reason why the nineteenth century was relatively poor in translations; another issue for the Victorians was archaism (here the much–used Homeric prose versions of Lang, Leaf and Myers (Iliad, 1882) and Butcher and Lang (Odyssey, 1879), cast in a language close to that of the 1611 King James Bible, might be worth mention). The impact of Ezra Pound’s very individual approach is rightly emphasised, as is the modern explosion of literary versions (partly due to shrinking Latin and Greek).

The second chapter looks at creative translation, considering the liberated Modernist enterprises of the Zukofskys’ famous Catullus, H.D.’s Greek versions and Pound’s Propertius and the ways in which translation contributes to fashion in English literature. Strong new versions such as Creech’s 1683 Lucretius and Pope’s Homer stimulated other, lesser-known translations, while the experimental aspect of translation could lead to historic innovations (the revolutionary blank verse of Surrey’s Virgilian translations is rightly cited). The influence of classical translation on English literary history as well as vice versa is clearly established.

The third chapter considers Renaissance poets and the sixteenth-century beginnings of classical translation. Here the complaints of early translators that the resources of English were insufficient for the task (rightly noted) might be allusive as well as practical, echoing the similar complaints of Roman poets attempting to make versions of Greek material (above all Lucretius – cf. De rerum natura1.139, 1.832, 3.260). There is excellent discussion here of the poetry of retirement (following Horace Epode 2) and of Renaissance English Ovidianism, though the claim that Ovid is the only classical author named by Shakespeare (p.37) is interestingly inaccurate (Plautus and Seneca, two equally important models for the dramatist, are also named by Polonius in Hamlet Act 2 Scene 2). There is important stress on the permeability in Renaissance versions of the boundaries between original verse and translation and on the combination of different classical authors in literary versions: again these are both features which would have been recognisable to Roman poets in their reworking of Greek texts, and were thus classically licensed.

The fourth chapter looks at Shakespeare and Plutarch, arguing attractively that Shakespeare shows an intuitive understanding of Plutarch’s depiction of character and biographical plot, and can sometimes interpret him better than his learned translators (Amyot and North). Good use is made here of the recent boom in Plutarch studies in classics, especially of the work of Chris Pelling; the connection now often traced by classicists between Plutarch and Greek tragedy is mentioned late in the chapter, and might have come earlier since it clearly constitutes a major explanation of Plutarch’s suitability for Shakespearean drama.

The fifth chapter offers an extended analysis of one lengthy poetic version, Dryden’s 1685 version of Horace Odes 3.29, nicely showing how it incorporates Dryden’s own appreciation of the poet’s ‘briskness … Jollity, and … Good Humour’, and how it glosses and teases out key features of the original. Here it is rightly argued that a version like that of Dryden ‘can change our sense of the Latin work’ (60); when the claim is made that it is ‘hard for a Latin professor to believe that a seventeenth-century poet could possibly show him anything about a Latin poem’ (72), the reviewer is at least one of the species who finds it very easy : all translation is interpretation as well as reception, all translations have some critical value and the interpretation of one great poet by another is especially interesting.

The sixth chapter looks at Statius in the 17th/18th century, showing that his popularity then in translation interestingly matches his rehabilitation in scholarship now, and making an important point that fashions are significant in classical reception. Statius was ‘an honorary Augustan poet’ (76), criticised by Dryden but translated by Pope (Book 1 of the Thebaid, 1712), attracted by his congenial fluent style of composition. Here it may be that translation influences scholarship as in the case of Munro’s Lucretius (see below); it is perhaps not coincidental that the greatest work of historic British Statian scholarship, the edition of the Silvae by Jeremiah Markland (1728), also belongs to this period.

The seventh chapter rightly stresses that classical translations played a larger role in the formation of the English literary canon at the end of the early modern period than has been previously acknowledged: Johnson’s Lives of the Poets (1779-81) and the various collected editions of English poets of the period allow a high profile to translation work. Here (the chapter convincingly argues) the towering figure of Dryden is crucial (as elsewhere in this volume: Pope, though less of a scholar, might get a little more acknowledgement here).

The eighth chapter looks at (then) unpublished works of the long eighteenth century and their interesting relationships to published translations: Creech’s 1683 Lucretius can be shown to use the manuscript versions of both John Evelyn and Lucy Hutchinson, extra handwritten lines by Dryden himself rendering the obscene description of Messalina’s sex-contest in Juvenal’s sixth satire are to be found added to a printed edition of his translation, and successful printed translations often stimulate unpublished emulations of some interest, e.g. William Popple’s 1750s versions of Horace and Juvenal which are in the same league as their models Dryden and Pope. This is fascinating and well-researched material.

The ninth chapter examines the early (1795-7) version of Juvenal’s eighth satire co-authored by Wordsworth with Francis Wrangham, not fully published until 1997, and makes the important point that the traditional pre- conceptions of the Romantic poet as solitary self-inspired genius has led to the downplaying of Wordsworth’s classical versions, for example his incomplete translation of the Aeneid of which only a section was published in his lifetime; one might add Byron’s version of the Nisus and Euryalus story from the Aeneid and Shelley’s version of Euripides’ Cyclops. In the case of Wordsworth, there is clearly some image management by the poet himself here, not least because these suppressed versions are highly influenced by Dryden, Pope and Johnson and do not automatically fit the style-reforming co-author of Lyrical Ballads. Here we find some scepticism expressed on historicism, especially New Historicism; the reviewer can only go some of the way here. Though one can agree that attempts to view Wordsworth’s poetry as the output of a secret government spy might be excessive, one could counter that a 1790s version of Juvenal 8, the ancient world’s most famous satire on ineffectual aristocracy, is hard to disconnect from Wordsworth’s early liberal views on the French Revolution, and form the fact that it was in 1795 that he first met Coleridge whose communistic Pantisocracy scheme had not long collapsed.

The tenth chapter looks at the persistence of strong translations in later English literature, an important argument, using the example of Lucretius in the nineteenth century (here the useful chapter on the author in Norman Vance’s The Victorians and Ancient Rome (1997) might have been cited). Dryden’s versions of famous sections of Lucretius are persuasively shown to domesticate this author for English literature and to influence Wordsworth, Arnold and (fascinatingly) the commentary on Lucretius of the scholar H. A. J.Munro. This crossover between literary versions of classical authors and contemporary classical scholarship is a valuable nexus of reception studies which needs further investigation.

The eleventh chapter considers the Homeric version of Ted Hughes (Odyssey 5 .382-493), written for radio in 1960 but not fully published until his posthumous collected poems (2002). Hughes (like Pope) had no real Greek, and it would have been interesting to have some more discussion of the increasingly familiar modern situation where the poet works from existing translations or with the advice of a classical scholar. Perhaps predictably, Hughes’ account of Homer’s storm (well analysed here) centres on struggle and violence, characteristic Hughes themes; as ever, English poets mould classical versions to fit their own concerns, or, as the author well puts it, ‘successful translations have the character of a meeting or dialogue between writers’ (176).

The brief afterword sums up the book’s purpose – to foreground and rehabilitate the undoubtedly important role played by classical versions in the history of English literature, and to argue that this changes its landscape: ‘how does English literature look after classical translation is accorded its due in the record?’ (182). Classics (it is argued) also needs more nudging to consider the importance of creative translations; this is happening now in the sphere of reception studies, and this classicist is more than happy to echo the idea that ‘The disciplines of Classics and English can come together in translation because it presents us with a transformative moment involving more than one culture’ (181). There is a clear parallel here with the work of leading theorists of classical reception such as Lorna Hardwick.

Overall, this volume will be a key resource for the study of creative translation of classical texts in English, and thoroughly succeeds in emphasising its importance in the history of English literature. Its author’s unmatched grasp of the range of the source material is a great benefit: minor and unpublished texts are one of the highlights here, as well as the giant figures of Dryden and Pope. Its focus on verse rather than prose and Latin rather than Greek (apart from Hughes and a little of Pope’s Homer) is understandable, and indeed makes room for a parallel volume on the Greek material. It clearly and laudably believes that translation is a significant form of literary reception and criticism, although it does not engage as much as it might with recent theoretical discussions of either translation or reception; its scepticism about historicism might strike some as overstated, especially for more modern versions (for example, it would be hard to disassociate the classical work of Seamus Heaney from its historical context in the history of Ireland). But the author of this fine study deserves the rich thanks of all those who study and teach the literary translation and reception of classical texts in English.

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