BMCR 2006.10.18

The Augustan Art of Poetry: Augustan Translation of the Classics

, The Augustan art of poetry : Augustan translation of the classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 1 online resource (viii, 368 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 9780191515958. $90.00.

Table of Contents

Classics is, of necessity and crucially, involved with issues of translation, and classicists ought to devote more attention than they have done to thinking about the processes involved and to making a distinctive contribution to the ever-growing field of translation studies. In an epilogue to this interesting book, which I shall be arguing ought to be of interest to classicists as well as to students of English literature, Robin Sowerby compares modern versions of passages from classical poetry with versions by the English Augustan poets he so favours. In every case he argues, and in my judgement demonstrates convincingly, that the modern version is, in important respects, unsatisfactory. And we are not talking here of classical scholars pretending to write poetry but of some admired names among 20th-century poets: Robert Lowell (awkward and with numerous infelicities in comparison with Pope in rendering Achilles’ speech to Lycaon), C. Day Lewis (uncertain in tone and rhythm in his Virgil), Ted Hughes (to whom S is perhaps a little less than fair, but whose energetic but undisciplined free verse misses Ovid’s sophisticated polish), David Ferry. In S’s words: ‘Dryden and Pope deploy the mature Augustan couplet with a consistent rhythmic certainty, an easy decorum of style and content, and a clarity of emphasis in rhetorical arrangement… In these respects, their translations have not been bettered in later times’ (344). This conclusion, if accepted, ought to have consequences for the choice of versions we recommend to our students, given that increasingly classical poetry is now taught, wholly or in large part, through translation. Classicists generally prefer to prescribe modern translations, partly because they are supposedly closer to the original (though a version of the Iliad like Lattimore’s which gives little sense that it is a great poem can hardly be called ‘faithful’ in any very profound sense), partly because they are felt to be more ‘accessible’ to our students. Too often the issue of literary quality is not competently addressed, something which reflects the widespread neglect of the aesthetic within the discipline and indeed throughout the humanities. I would argue that the pedagogic value of the close study of, say, Pope’s Iliad, justly described by Dr Johnson as ‘a poetical wonder’, is very considerable, precisely because it is a work of high literary merit in itself — and demanding in the way that most great literature is demanding — while also conveying, or constructing, important aspects of the original that you will find nowhere else. H. A. Mason argued long ago that reading Homer through Pope is the best way of discovering how far the Iliad can be said to be alive in our culture.1 Similarly when I am teaching Ovid’s Metamorphoses in English, Dryden’s incomplete version is the only one that enables me to bring out many of the points I most want to make (particularly about the relationship between form and content), and to communicate the particular quality of pleasure I experience. This is not, or not only, because Dryden’s reception of Ovid has influenced my own, nor is it simply because Dryden (as interpreted by me) has, as we say, Ovid ‘right’ (although this may be how I may experience the matter). Rather there are innumerable factors in the reception, not all of which can be brought to consciousness, which help me to find the Ovid-in-Dryden (and Dryden-in-Ovid) that I do. In this association neither Ovid nor Dryden is simply inert, or already fully known; rather the relationship is reciprocal, as each helps to disclose the other. For this reason too the classic translations, not least those discussed in this book, demand our full attention.

In 1690 Francis Atterbury wrote of the poet Waller, credited at the time with a key role in bringing a new refinement to English poetry: ‘He undoubtedly stands first in the list of refiners…for I question whether in Charles II’s reign English did not come to its full perfection; and whether it has not had its Augustan age as well as the Latin’ (quoted 85). The thesis of this book is easily stated, and it is one that might be described as radically conservative or conservatively radical. In a sense it is a call for a return to ‘classicism’. Many scholars of the period (including David Hopkins, one of the editors of the great, now completed Longman Dryden) have expressed strong reservations about using the label ‘Augustan’ for writers from Dryden to Dr Johnson. Too often, they would argue, the term is used to construct a misleading and stereotyped account of the period, generally in opposition to a more virtuous ‘Romanticism’, one that makes it difficult to see and describe the distinctive ‘virtue’, to use Walter Pater’s term, the aesthetic quiddity, of the various artworks involved (as when Matthew Arnold terms Dryden and Pope ‘classics of our prose’, or T. S. Eliot attributes to them ‘the poetry of statement’). S by contrast has no such qualms. He embraces the word ‘Augustan’ with enthusiasm to describe what he sees as the artistic qualities of Virgil, and what he regards as their successful replication in the poetry of Dryden and Pope and their contemporaries. In his words: ‘This book explores the translation of the Roman Augustan aesthetic into a vernacular equivalent in the English poetry of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries …. It is an assumption …that the term is still useful in drawing attention to a dominant set of aesthetic values shared by the main poets of the time and underlying their achievement’ (1). Shared too, one might add, by S himself. Where S does agree with ‘revisionist’ scholars like Hopkins is in finding the best of Dryden, not in such satires as Absalom and Achitophel, but in the translations, not least the late translations, the complete Virgil and the Fables. S’s approach has considerable merit, but it also has a significant downside. Much of the best recent criticism of the literature of this period is strongly contextual in character; in particular it focuses on politics. It is thus refreshing to see attention shifted to the aesthetic.2 But unfortunately the version of aesthetics that S espouses is resolutely a strongly classicizing, normative one. The great philosopher of the aesthetic, Immanuel Kant, showed in his Third Critique precisely why there can be no rules for beauty. Aesthetic judgement is necessarily singular (‘ this poem is beautiful’). There is no reason why one beautiful object should share qualities with another beautiful object. Indeed beauty is not ‘in’ the object at all; rather the Kantian judgement of taste describes a fruitful free-play of mind in the subject in her experience of the object.3

The book has four chapters. The first comprises a careful and very sympathetic account of Marcus Hieronymus Vida’s De Arte Poetica of 1527, which set out a classicizing aesthetic for heroic poetry based on Virgil, concerned with what Dryden repeatedly termed ‘a propriety of thoughts and words’; S goes so far as to call it ‘an inspirational work’ (61). It is good to see Vida being taken seriously as a critic; he was a dominant influence on poetics from the Renaissance to the 18th century, today often dismissed carelessly as a mindless and unoriginal proponent of neoclassical rules. The second chapter explores the emergence of the Augustan ideal in the writings of Waller and Denham, whose competing virtues, memorably characterised by Pope in a famous couplet (‘praise the easy vigour of a line/ Where Denham’s strength and Waller’s sweetness join’), Dryden brought to perfection :

Waller was smooth, but Dryden taught to join
The varying verse, the full resounding line,
The long majestic march and energy divine.

(Pope, Essay on Criticism, 267-9)

As Johnson later put it: ‘What was said of Rome adorned by Augustus may be applied by easy metaphor to English poetry embellished by Dryden … he found it brick and left it marble’. Certainly after Dryden you would be less likely to find such a glaring failure of decorum as John Vicars’ 1632 version of lines from Aeneid 4: ‘But woeful Dido’s heart no nap could take,/ Not all the night one nod or wink could make’ (quoted 88-9). The excellences of Dryden’s Aeneid are undoubted, but doubts might still be expressed about how ‘Virgilian’ it really is (4.211, ‘The merry madness of the sacred show’ is a fine line, but can it be called, on any reading, a Virgilian line?). Arguably Dryden is more attuned to the stylistic particularities of other authors: Lucretius, Ovid, Juvenal among them. The third chapter, on Augustan translations of ‘Silver Latin’ poetry, which includes a good discussion of Rowe’s Lucan (still the only really readable complete translation into English of the Pharsalia as a whole), shows the principal weakness in both Dryden’s and S’s espousal of Augustanism, and I shall return to it shortly. The fourth gives a full account of Pope’s Homer. I found the discussion of the Odyssey particularly interesting; here, influenced in part by Longinus, Pope attempts to devise a plainer style than that of his Iliad, ‘easy and natural’, with less ‘pomp of verse’, suited to a work centred on ‘civil and domestic life’ (322). The frequent charge that Pope wholly ignores Homeric ‘simplicity’ (in Arnold’s sense) will not withstand careful scrutiny.

The method in all four chapters is the same: to put passages side by side for close analysis and comparison. It is a method that has the obvious virtue of paying attention to particulars and encouraging close reading, but the dangers were well diagnosed by Pope in the Preface to his Iliad : ‘Nothing is more absurd or endless than the common method of comparing eminent writers by an opposition of particular passages in them, and forming a judgement from thence of their merit upon the whole. We ought to have a certain knowledge of the principal character and distinguishing excellence of each: it is in that we are to consider him, and in proportion to his degree in that we are to admire him’. It is too easy to put a short passage by Virgil alongside one from Lucretius (as S does on pp. 277-9), to show the superiority (in terms of Augustan polished artistry) of the former. However, the distinctive virtues of Lucretius may better emerge over larger spans, where the sustained argumentative drive (which is at the heart of the poem) is more fully on display, and where Virgilian elegances may not be quite the point.4 The full extent of S’s Augustanism becomes clear when he starts to express doubts about the bold linguistic experimentation of Milton. He criticizes Paradise Lost 8. 240-4, a passage inspired by Aeneid 6. 552-8,

Fast we found, fast shut
The dismal gates and barricadoed strong;
But long ere our approaching heard within
Noise, other than the sound of dance or song,
Torment, and loud lament, and furious rage …

for being less ‘in accord with the natural rhythms of English’ than Dryden’s couplet version of the Virgilian passage and for ‘forcing the language against its natural grain’: ‘Milton’s syntax is perplexed and makes for difficult reading’ (142). This may not be Milton at his best (the moment lacks the full power of its Virgilian inspiration), but the Latinate syntax and enjambments enable the emphases to fall precisely where they are most effective (‘fast’, ‘fast shut’, ‘barricadoed strong’, ‘noise’, ‘torment’).

With poets of the stature of Virgil, Lucretius, and Milton, disputing about their relative status might seem a curiously fruitless exercise. The method is anyway circular, like many versions of ‘classicism’. ‘Augustan’ virtues are extrapolated from the writings of Virgil; those writings are then praised for possessing such virtues, other writings excoriated for lacking them. The point is particularly clear in the chapter on Augustan translations of post-Augustan poetry. Classicizing critics often write as though Lucan, or Ovid, would be a better poet if he were more like Virgil. But these poets have different visions to communicate, which a Virgilian style would not serve. Within the aesthetic, form and content have to be judged together. As it happens, Virgil and other Augustan writers have on occasion more in common with their successors than the classicizers recognise. Virgil’s phrase auri aura (of the golden bough) is ‘a Virgilian marvel’ to one modern commentator; in Ovid it would doubtless have been found inappositely playful, in Lucan tasteless and frigid. It is hard to see that Pope, in his translation of the first book of the Thebaid, discussed here in some detail, gives us any sense of what makes Statius distinctive as a writer (but then who has? — Statius is not really a living presence in English). Dryden criticizes the ‘faults’ of Persius (including ‘the hardness of his metaphors and obscurity’), and normalizes his style in his own versions (‘none of his…forced expressions are in my translation’). Unsurprisingly these versions are some of his weakest: what makes Persius distinctive and worth reading, the bold linguistic density relished by Donne, has been removed, and the results are comparatively bland. Elsewhere Dryden recognizes the merits of respecting the individuality of the authors he translates: in the Preface to Sylvae he recommends as a principle of translation ‘the maintaining the character of an author which distinguishes him from all others and makes him appear that individual poet whom you would interpret’. That principle obviously militates against Augustan normativities. The best moments in Dryden’s translations come from respecting it, not from pursuing reified Augustan virtues. For all that, there is something refreshing about the genuineness of S’s taste for the poetry of Virgil and by extension the 17th and 18th poetry that in his view is, at a profound level, inspired by Virgilian example, which leads him to write many pages of continuously felicitous close reading.5


1. H. A. Mason, To Homer Through Pope, London: Chatto and Windus 1972 (reissued Duckworth 2003).

2. Of course aesthetics and politics are often entwined: Vida’s fondness for Roman ( nostri) over Greek poets is doubtless in part patriotic, while Pope writes in his Essay on Criticism (inspired by Vida among others) ‘Learning and Rome alike in empire grew, / And arts still followed where her eagles flew’ (683-4).

3. For a full explication and defence of this view see Charles Martindale, Latin Poetry and the Judgement of Taste: an Essay in Aesthetics, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2005.

4. Similarly to criticize Ennius for metrical weaknesses (267, 274), i.e., for not following the later procedures of Virgil, is to assume that metrics exist outside history. The somewhat galumphing quality (as we now see it) of Ennius’ epic writing is anyway part of its power.

5. I noticed rather more typos and minor errors than you would expect from a book published by a major university press: certisimus, superns) (18); ‘scultpture’ (35); or, for orem (56); ‘Rapidilty’ and ‘John Bernard, for ‘Barnard’ (58); ‘falling melody’, for ‘falling in melody’ in the quotation from Coleridge, thereby obscuring the metrical point (71); ‘1876’, for ‘1976’ (74); ‘Helen Darbyshire’, for ‘Darbishire’ (129, 355); ‘E. J. Kenny’, for ‘Kenney’ (178); ‘Turicknham Edition’ (242); ‘Kinsleys’, for ‘Kinsley’ (341); ‘Samual Garth’ (345); ‘Carne Ross’, for ‘Carne-Ross’ (350); on p. 285 the question mark after elicit makes no sense without the full quotation. There is also the odd mistake in translation: e.g. on 28 ( inventa ex aliis from Vida presumably means ‘learn what others have found out’, not ‘learn invention from others’); 37 ( curam extremam in Vida’s proem to his last book, imitating the first line of Eclogue 10, means ‘my final object of attention’ not ‘extreme care’). I never know why scholars of English literature so seldom bother to check such things with their classical colleagues.