Genius, and other essays/Mr. Bryant's Homer

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



IN completion of his Homeric labors, Mr. Bryant now gives us the translation of a work which, although composed in the very diction of the Iliad, varies widely from that poem in feeling, material, and theme. The two epics do not differ as "Paradise Regained," for instance, differs from "Paradise Lost." The Odyssey is correlative to the Iliad, and, in its own way, not inferior. The latter is all fire and action, portraying superbly barbaric manners and glorying in the right of might alone: a succession of lyrical passages, thrown together much at random, which rehearse the councils and warfare of men and gods, and are strong with passion and the noble imagery of an heroic age. The Odyssey has that unity which the Iliad lacks. Its structural purpose, to recount the wanderings of Ulysses, is evenly carried through to the appointed end. Manifestly a somewhat later work, it hints at the repose of civilization, and is almost idyllic in tone. After rising to epic fury, as in the slaying of the suitors, it hastens, regardless of anti-climax, to the scenes and dialogue of pastoral life. In it we see less of "Olympus' hierarchy" than in the Iliad, and more of the nymphs and demigods who dwell on earth and haunt the ways of men. Otherwise considered, the Odyssey is Eastern, almost arabesque; a piece of wonder-lore; a tale of enchantments; a magical journey, involving the real and ideal geography of the ancient world. It moves from island to island, and from town to town, never straying far from the ocean; delighting to visit many peoples and to cleave the hoary brine.

It would seem natural for the poet of our own forests and waters to find himself more in sympathy with the spirit of the Odyssey; yet, in his translation of the Iliad, Mr. Bryant entered, as if endowed with new and dramatic inspiration, upon the fervid action of the martial song. He now tells us that, executing his present task, he has "certainly missed in the Odyssey the fire and vehemence of which" he "was so often sensible in the Iliad, and the effect of which was to kindle the mind of the translator." We will look for compensation to those exquisite descriptive passages, which, scattered through the Odyssey, stimulate the copyist to put forth all his powers. As Mr. Bryant's version of the Iliad was greatest where most strength and passion were required, so we observe that in the selectest portions of the Odyssey he warms up to his work, and is never finer than at a critical moment. The reader of these volumes will be charmed with the perfect grace and beauty of many scenic descriptions, where the translator's command of language seems most enlarged, and the measure flows with the rhythmic perfection of his original poems. Take, for illustration, an extract from the passage in the Fifth Book, familiar through the verse of many English minstrels, who have not essayed a complete reproduction of the Homeric songs:—

But when he reached that island far away,
Forth from the dark-blue ocean-swell he stepped
Upon the sea-beach, walking till he came
To the vast cave in which the bright-haired nymph
Made her abode. He found the nymph within;
A fire blazed brightly on the hearth, and far
Was wafted o'er the isle the fragrant smoke
Of cloven cedar, burning in the flame,
And cypresswood. Meanwhile, in her recess,
She sweetly sang, as busily she threw
The golden shuttle through the web she wove.
And all about the grotto alders grew,
And poplars, and sweet-smelling cypresses.
In a green forest, high among whose boughs
Birds of broad wing, wood-owls, and falcons built
Their nests, and crows, with voices sounding far,
All haunting for their food the ocean-side,
A vine, with downy leaves and clustering grapes,
Crept over all the cavern rock. Four springs
Poured forth their glittering waters in a row,
And here and there went wandering side by side.
Around were meadows of soft green, o'ergrown
With violets and parsley. 'Twas a spot
Where even an immortal might awhile
Linger, and gaze with wonder and delight.

This is far more literal than the favorite translation by Leigh Hunt, and excels all others in ease and choice of language. The following extract will show how effectively Mr. Bryant substitutes, for the Greek color and swelling harmony, the gloom and vigor of our Saxon tongue:—

The steady wind
Swelled out the canvas in the midst; the ship
Moved on, the dark sea roaring round her keel,
As swiftly through the waves she cleft her way.
And when the rigging of that swift black ship
Was firmly in its place, they filled their cups
With wine, and to the ever-living gods
Poured out libations, most of all to one,
Jove's blue-eyed daughter. Thus through all that night
And all the ensuing morn they held their way.

The general characteristics of Mr. Bryant's Odyssey are those which have rendered eminent his translation of the Iliad,—fidelity to the text; genuine simplicity of thought and style; successful transfusion of the heroic spirit; above all, a purity of language which is, from first to last, a continual refreshment to the healthy-minded reader. The diction is not copious, neither—in a modern sense—was that of Homer; and there is no lack of minstrels, nowadays, who ransack their vocabularies to fill with "words, words," our jaded ears. As a presentment of English undefiled, the value of this translation is beyond cavil. Indeed, a main distinction of its author is that he belongs to the natural, abiding school. He does not consider too curiously, nor mistake suggestion for imagination; and his style is of that quality which, as vogue after vogue has its day, and the world cries out for a new departure, may often serve as a standard by which to gauge the integrity of our poetic art.

The simplicity of his manner is unaffected. It is simplicité, not simplesse,—the distinction between which has been illustrated by Professor Arnold in a comparison of Wordsworth and Tennyson. There is, it seems to us, much that is common to the genius of the Homeric poems and that of their present translator,—a broad and general way of regarding man and nature, a largeness of utterance, and an imagination always luminous and sufficient to the theme.

The office of a translator is now well understood. It is, to reproduce literally the matter of his author, and to convey the manner and movement to the utmost extent permitted by the limitations of his own tongue. Until the latter has been accomplished, there is always room and a welcome for new effort. Respecting Mr. Bryant's Odyssey we can affirm that he has gone beyond his predecessors. He has equalled, and generally excelled, the literalness of Cowper, and, so far as manner is concerned, has achieved a better general effect than Chapman, Pope, or Worsley. Yet Worsley's Spenserian version has many delightful features. In view of the romantic nature of the Odyssey, it was a happy thought to render it into the graceful mediæval stanza: a verse redolent with the sensuous enchantment of a period when half the world was yet unknown, when personal adventure and travel were the desire of youth and age, and the chosen measure of Spenser was the medium of their poetic narration. It is slow to pall upon the senses, and Worsley has handled it deliciously. But in his Odyssey the matter is constantly sacrificed to the translator's art, and the whole effect is Elizabethan rather than Homeric.

Nothing can be more clear and fascinating than Mr. Bryant's narrative, conveyed in the true epic manner with regard to directness and nobility of style. In striking passages, whose original beauty is high-sounding and polysyllabic, he most frequently obtains a corresponding English effect by reliance upon the strength of monosyllabic words:—

For his is the black doom of death, ordained
By the great gods.
Hear me yet more:
When she shall smite thee with her wand, draw forth
Thy good sword from thy thigh and rush at her
As if to take her life, and she will crouch
In fear.
I hate
To tell again a tale once fully told.

But occasionally he uses to advantage the Latinism peculiar to his reflective poems. Such lines as Shakespeare's,

The multitudinous seas incarnadine,

show by what process the twin forces of our English tongue are fully brought in play. Verses of this sort, formed by the juxtaposition of the numerous Greek particles with ringing derivative and compound words, make up the body of the Homeric song. Mr. Bryant accordingly varies his translation with lines which remind us of "Thanatopsis" or "A Forest Hymn":—

The innumerable nations of the dead.
That strength and these unconquerable hands.
And downward plunged the unmanageable rock.

His paraphrases of the Greek idioms are noticeable for English idiomatic purity, so much so that the idea of a translation frequently absents itself from the reader's mind. While in one respect this is the perfection of such work, in another it is the loss of that indefinable charm pertaining to the sense of all rare things which are foreign to our own mode and period. His self-restraint, also, is carried to the verge of sterility by the repetition of certain adjectives as the equivalents of Greek words varying among themselves. The words "glorious" and "sagacious," for example, not uncommon in this translation, do not always represent the same, or even synonymous expressions in the original text. But most of Mr. Bryant's epithets and renderings—such as "the large-souled Ulysses," "the unfruitful sea," "passed into the Underworld," and his retention of Cowper's noble paraphrase of γέρων ἅλιος, "the Ancient of the Deep"—give an elevated and highly poetical tone to the whole work. The modern translator of Homer possesses a great advantage in the establishment of the text and the concordance of scholars upon the interpretation of obscure passages; but we find evidence that Mr. Bryant often has looked to the primitive meaning of a word, the result being some original and felicitous rendering.

The exquisitely written Preface to this volume contains a forcible argument in defence of the author's retention of those Roman names by which the deities of Grecian mythology have been popularly known. Mr. Bryant's decision is in keeping with the habit of his mind, and highly authoritative, yet we trust that our regret that it should have been thus given does not savor of pedantry. We suspect that book-lovers, of the rising generation, are more familiar than he conceives them to be with the Hellenic proper names. They could not well be otherwise, reading Grote, Tennyson, and the Brownings, not to include Swinburne and the younger host of poets at home and abroad. And if Lord Derby in England, and Mr. Bryant in America, had adopted that nomenclature which, after all, is the only truthful one, the transition would have been complete, and the existing confusion brought to a conclusive end.

We have paid homage to the excellence of this translation, and briefly endeavored to show in what its power and beauty consist. It seems eminently proper that its author should have adopted blank-verse as the measure for his use. The English reader is wonted to this verse as the metre for a sustained epic poem. Probably in no other, at this stage of our poetic art, can the text of Homer be so faithfully rendered and his manner so nearly reached. It is the one, above all others, in which Mr. Bryant, its born master, was sure to achieve success. Finally, no blank-verse translation, at all commensurate with the limits of this stately measure, has hitherto been given us. There was a void which needed filling, but it exists no longer. Had Mr. Tennyson undertaken the full translation of Homer, after the manner indicated by that magnificent early production, the "Morte d'Arthur," we are sure that something very fine would have been the result. Bryant's verse is noticeably different from that of Tennyson. Only in an occasional passage, like the following, the one reminds us of the other:—

The formidable baldric, on whose band
Of gold were sculptured marvels,—forms of bears,
Wild boars, grim lions, battles, skirmishings,
And death by wounds, and slaughter.

But Mr. Tennyson himself would be the first now to recognize the fact that a great blank-verse translation has been written, and that for another there can be no well-founded demand.

A point still remains unsettled, even by the work under review. Are we prepared to assert that all has been done which can be done to represent Homer to the English ear? The question which Mr. Bryant put to himself was, not whether the Greek epics could be adequately translated, for that can never be, but whether the resources of the language afford any better medium for their translation than that of heroic blank-verse. This he has decided in the negative, giving his reasons therefor; and the argument on that side is further extended by Mr. Lewis in a brilliant review of Bryant's Iliad and the nature of the Homeric poems.

Many, with even a superficial knowledge of the Greek text, will confess that, while delighted with the unequalled merits of this translation, they still are conscious of something yet to be achieved. What is the one thing wanting? We have intimated that its absence is least felt in those elevated passages, the fiery glow of which for a time lifts us above contemplation of the translator's art. But in the more mechanical portions blank-verse cannot of itself, by the music and flexibility of its structure, have the converse effect of holding us above the level of the theme. Here the deficiency is felt. And for this reason, amongst others, that in Greek the names of the most common objects are imposing and melodious. Hence those lines whose poverty of thought is greatest, upborne by the long roll of the hexameter, have a quality as aristocratic as the grace and dignity of a Spanish beggar. Undoubtedly Mr. Bryant has perceived the weakness of blank-verse in those intercalary lines, which are such a feature in Homer, and constitute a kind of refrain, affording rest at intervals along the torrent of the song. In the best lyric and epic poetry of all nations a disdain of minor changes is observable; but Mr. Bryant, seeing that blank-verse does little honor to a purely mechanical office, often has varied his translations of such lines, instead of following the Homeric method of recurrence to one chosen form. The very directness of his syntax, leading to the rejection, even, of such inversions as Tennyson's,

To whom replied King Arthur, much in wrath,

has made it almost prosaic in this respect. Such lines as

Telemachus, the prudent, thus rejoined
And then discreet Telemachus replied
Ulysses, the sagacious, answered her

are tame substitutes for the courtly and sonorous interludes,

Τήν δ᾽αὗ Τηλέμαχος πεπνυμένος ἀντίον ηὔδᾶ
Τήν δ᾽ἀπαμειβόμενος προσέφη πολύμητις ᾽Οδυσσέυς

and lower the poetical tone of the general translation. We feel still more the indefinite shortcomings of blank-verse in the paraphrases of those resonant dactylic lines, which make up so large a portion of the Iliad and Odyssey, and give splendor to the movement of whole cantos. We might cite innumerable examples, like the following:—

Ἦμος δ᾽ἠριγένεια φάνε ῥοδοδάκτυλος Ἠώς.

But when the Morn,
The rosy-fingered child of Dawn, looked forth.

Μήνιος ἐξ ὀλοῆς Γλαυκώπιδος ὀβριμοπάτρης,
Ἦτ᾽ ἔριν Ἀτρείδῃςι μετ᾽ἀμφοτέροισιν ἔθηκε

The fatal wrath of her,
The blue-eyed maid, who claims her birth from Jove.
'Twas she who kindled strife between the sons
Of Atreus.

Aὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ ποταμοῖο λίπεν ῥόον Ωκεανοῖο
Νηῦς, ἀπὸ δ᾽ἵκετο κῦμα ταλάσσῃς εὐρυπόροιο.

Now when our bark had left Oceanus
And entered the great deep.

All this points to the one deficiency in a blank-verse translation, and this, unquestionably, relates to the movement. Can a version in our slow and stately iambics, which are perfectly adequate to represent the dialogue of the Greek dramas, approximate to the rhythmic effect of a measure which originally was chanted or intoned? The rush of epic song has been partially caught by Chapman, Pope, and others, at the expense of both matter and style; and it may be owing to the pleasure afforded by this quality, that Pope's translation has held so long the regard of English readers. But only in one instance, that we now recall, has modern blank-verse attained to anything like the Homeric swiftness. A study of the tournament-scene, which closes the Fifth Book of "The Princess," will show to what we refer; yet even the splendid movement of this passage is unrestful, and like the fierce spurt of a racer that can win by a dash, but has not the bottom needed for a three-mile heat.

There are two forms of English verse in which, we think, the Homeric rhythmus may be more nearly approached. A good objection has been made to our rhymed heroic measure, as used by Pope (and by Dryden in his Virgil), that it disturbs the force of the original by connecting thoughts not meant to be connected; that it causes a "balancing of expression in the two lines of which it consists, which is wholly foreign to the Homeric style." Professor Hadley has suggested that this may be obviated by a return to the measure as written by Chaucer, not pausing too often at the rhymes, but frequently running the sentences over, with the cæsura varied as in blank-verse. This usage, in fact, was revived by Keats and Leigh Hunt, and is notable, of late, in William Morris's flowing poetry, to which Mr. Hadley refers for illustration. Chapman translated the Odyssey upon this plan, but in a slovenly fashion, not to be compared with his other Homeric work. There is room, perhaps, for a new translation of Homer into the rhymed Chaucerian verse.

Lastly, and at the risk of losing the regard of the reader who may have gone with us thus far, we have a word to say in behalf of that much-abused form of verse known as the "English hexameter": a measure far more out of favor with the critics than with the poets or the majority of their readers. Before its name even was known in this country to other than scholars, Mr. Longfellow's "Evangeline" appeared, and found its way to the public heart as no American poem of equal length ever had done before. Our people made no difficulty in reading it, troubling themselves very little with the strictures of classical reviewers, and it has not yet outlived its original welcome.

The fact is that, to properly estimate the so-called English hexameter, one must, to a certain extent, get the Greek and Latin quantities out of his mind. Professor Arnold and Mr. Lewis, among the rest, have contributed to the discussion on this subject, the one for, and the other against, the employment of hexameter in translation. Neither of them, it seems to us, succeeds in looking at the question from an independent point of view. Mr. Arnold would have our hexameter more spondaic and classical. Mr. Lewis sees that it cannot be written classically, but does not abuse it much on that account. He says that "it is peculiar among English metres, because it is so very like prose. It is less metrical than any form of English verse. Blank-verse," he adds, "can stoop to the simplest speech without approaching prose." True, but it does not always do so. Run together the opening lines of Mr. Bryant's Odyssey, which in Greek are made highly poetical by the structure and sound, and see if they have not a somewhat prosaic effect:—

"Tell me, O Muse, of that sagacious man who, having overthrown the sacred town of Ilium, wandered far and visited the capitals of many nations, learned the customs of their dwellers, and endured great suffering on the deep."

Now where, in Mr. Kingsley's "Andromeda,"—a fair specimen of English hexameter, with exquisite cadences throughout,—can five lines be made to read like that? Mr. Bryant has made the most of his material; the barrenness is in the verse.

No master of the natural English hexameter has yet arisen who has brought it to the perfection which charms both scholars and laymen; no translation of Homer has been made which affords any assistance to our side of the argument by surpassing the excellence of Mr. Bryant's work. Asserting, then, that he has achieved a triumph in the only direction open at this period, we nevertheless venture to predict, that a resonant, swift metre will be developed, from elements now felt by our best poets to exist, which will have six accentual divisions, and hence may be called English hexameter verse; that it will partake of the quantitative nature of the intoned classical measures only through those natural dactyls not uncommon in our tongue, and through a resemblance which some of our trochees bear to the Greek spondaic feet; that it will be so much the more flexible, giving the poet liberty to shift his accents and now and then prefix redundant syllables; finally, that it often will have the billowy roll of the classical hexameter (as we moderns read the latter accentually), and by its form will be equal to the reproduction of Homer, line for line. If Mr. Taylor, who, by argument and practice, has proved the value of Form to the translator's work, can reach so near his mark in rendering the hundred metres of "Faust," surely there is encouragement for a future attempt to represent more closely the one defiant measure of heroic song. To the point made that English is too consonantal for such representation, we reply that it is no more consonantal in hexameter than in pentameter verse, and that, of the two kinds, the former is nearer to the verse of Homer. This objection would apply more forcibly to the still harsher German; yet we conceive Voss's Iliad to have given German readers a truer idea of the original than any English translation has yet conveyed to ourselves.

Such a metre, then, will be added to our standard verse-forms. It will be accepted by poets and critics, and the world will read it, arguing no more of dactyls and spondees than it now argues of iambics in blank-verse. Nor will any new English Homer tread upon the renown of Mr. Bryant's crowning work, until the English hexameter—with all its compensating qualities, by which alone we can preserve delicate shades of meaning and the epic movement—has been firmly established among us, and a great poet, imbued with the classical spirit, has become its acknowledged master.

Until then, Mr. Bryant's noble translation has filled the literary void. A host of English readers will long return to it with admiration and delight. Let us revere and cherish the fame of our eldest bard. He still remains among us, unchanged and monumental, surrounded by the unsettled, transitional art of the later generation,—as some Doric temple remains, in a land where grotesque and artificial structures have sprung up for a time,—an emblem of the strength of a more natural period, teaching the beauty of simplicity, and the endurance of that which is harmonious and true.