Homer's Battle of the Frogs and Mice/Preface

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Fleuron from 'Homer's Battle of the Frogs and Mice' by Thomas Parnell published in 1717
Fleuron from 'Homer's Battle of the Frogs and Mice' by Thomas Parnell published in 1717


Having some Time ago heard, that the Translation of Homer's Iliad wou'd be attempted, I resolv'd to confer with the Gentleman who undertook it. I found him of a tall Presence, and thoughtful Countenance, with his Hands folded, his Eyes fix'd, and his Beard untrimm'd. This I took to be a good Omen, because he thus resembled the Constantinopolitan Statue of Homer which Cedrenus describes, and surely nothing cou'd have been liker, had he but arriv'd at the Character of Age and Blindness. As my Business was to be my Introduction, I told him how much I was acquainted with the secret History of Homer; that no one better knows his own Horse, than I do the Camel of Bactria, in which his Soul resided at the Time of the Trojan Wars; that my Acquaintance continued with him, as he appear'd in the Person of the Grecian Poet; that I knew him in his next Transmigration into a Peacock; was pleas'd with his Return to Manhood, under the Name of Ennius at Rome; and more pleas'd to hear he wou'd soon revive under another Name, with all his full Lustre, in England. This particular Knowledge, added I, which sprung from the Love I bear him, has made me fond of a Conversation with you, in Order to the Success of your Translation.

The civil Manner in which he receiv'd my Proposal encouraging me to proceed, I told him, there were Arts of Success, as well as Merits to obtain it; and that he, who now dealt in Greek, should not only satisfy himself with being a good Grecian, but also contrive to hasten into the Repute of it. He might therefore write in the Title-Page, Translated from the Original Greek, and select a Motto for his Purpose out of the same Language. He might obtain a Copy of Verses written in it to prefix to the Work; and not call the Titles of each Book, The First, and Second, but Iliad Alpha, and Beta. He might retain some Names which the World is least acquainted with, as his old Translator Chapman uses Ephaistus instead of Vulcan, Baratrum for Hell; and if the Notes were fill'd with Greek Verses, it wou'd more increase the Wonder of many Readers. Thus I went on; when he told me, smiling, I had shewn him indeed a Set of Arts very different from Merit, for which Reason, he thought, he ought not to depend upon them. A Success, says he, founded on the Ignorance of others, may bring a temporary Advantage, but neither a conscious Satisfaction, nor future Fame to the Author. Men of Sense despise the Affectation which they easily see through, and even they who were dazzled with it at first, are no sooner inform'd of its being an Affectation, but they imagine it also a Veil to cover Imperfection.

The next Point I ventur'd to speak on, was the Sort of Poetry he intended to use; how some may fancy, a Poet of the greatest Fire wou'd be imitated better in the Freedom of Blank Verse, and the Description of War sounds more pompous out of Rhime. But, will the Translation, said he, be thus remov'd enough from Prose, without greater Inconveniences? What Transpositions is Milton forc'd to, as an Equivalent for Want of Rhime, in the Poetry of a Language which depends upon a natural Order of Words? And even this wou'd not have done his Business, had he not given the fullest Scope to his Genius, by choosing a Subject upon which there could be no Hyperboles. We see (however he be deservedly successful) that the Ridicule of his Manner succeeds better than the Imitation of it; because Transpositions, which are unnatural to a Language, are to be fairly derided, if they ruin it by being frequently introduced; and because Hyperboles, which outrage every lesser Subject where they are seriously us'd, are often beautiful in Ridicule. Let the French, whose Language is not copious, translate in Prose; but ours, which exceeds it in Copiousness of Words, may have a more frequent Likeness of Sounds, to make the Unison or Rhime easier; a Grace of Musick, that attones for the Harshness our Consonants and Monysyllables occasion.

After this, I demanded what Air he would appear with? whether antiquated, like Chapman's Version, or modern, like La Motte's Contraction. To which he answer'd, by desiring me to observe what a Painter does who would always have his Pieces in Fashion. He neither chooses to draw a Beauty in a Ruff, or a French-Head; but with its Neck uncover'd, and in its natural Ornament of Hair curl'd up, or spread becomingly: So may a Writer choose a natural Manner of expressing himself which will always be in Fashion, without affecting to borrow an odd Solemnity and unintelligible Pomp from the past Times, or humouring the present by falling into its Affectations, and those Phrases which are born to die with it.

I ask'd him, lastly, whether he would be strictly litteral, or expatiate with further Licenses? I wou'd not be litteral, replies he, or ty'd up to Line for Line in such a Manner, wherein it is impossible to express in one Language what has been deliver'd in another. Neither wou'd I so expatiate, as to alter my Author's Sentiments, or add others of my own. These Errors are to be avoided on either Hand, by adhering not only to the Word, but the Spirit and Genius of an Author; by considering what he means, with what beautiful Manner he has express'd his Meaning in his own Tongue, and how he would have express'd himself, had it been in ours. Thus we ought to seek for Homer in a Version of Homer: Other Attempts are but Transformations of him; such as Ovid tells us, where the Name is retain'd, and the Thing alter'd: This will be really what you mention'd in the Compliment you began with, a Transmigration of the Poet from one Country into another.

Here ended the serious Part of our Conference. All I remember further was, that having ask'd him, what he design'd with all those Editions and Comments I observ'd in his Room? he made Answer, That if any one, who had a Mind to find Fault with his Performance, wou'd but stay 'till it was entirely finish'd, he shou'd have a very cheap Bargain of them.

Since this Discourse, I have often resolv'd to try what it was to translate in the Spirit of a Writer, and at last, chose the Battle of the Frogs and Mice, which is ascrib'd to Homer; and bears a nearer Resemblance to his Iliad, than the Culex does to the Æneid of Virgil. Statius and others think it a Work of Youth, written as a Prelude to his greater Poems. Chapman thinks it the Work of his Age, after he found Men ungrateful; to shew he cou'd give Strength, Lineage and Fame as he pleas'd, and praise a Mouse as well as a Man. Thus, says he, the Poet professedly flung up the World, and apply'd himself at last to Hymns. Now, tho' this Reason of his may be nothing more than a Scheme form'd out of the Order in which Homer's Works are printed, yet does the Conjecture that this Poem was written after the Iliad, appear probable, because of its frequent Allusions to that Poem, and particularly that there is not a Frog or a Mouse kill'd, which has not its parallel Instance there, in the Death of some Warrior or other.

The Poem itself is of the Epick Kind; the Time of its Action the Duration of two Days; the Subject (however in its Nature frivolous, or ridiculous) rais'd, by having the most shining Words and Deeds of Gods and Heroes accommodated to it: And while other Poems often compare the illustrious Exploits of great Men to those of Brutes, this always heightens the Subject by Comparisons drawn from Things above it. We have a great Character given it with Respect to the Fable in Gaddius de Script. non Eccles. It appears, says he, nearer Perfection than the Iliad, or Odysses, and excels both in Judgment, Wit, and exquisite Texture, since it is a Poem perfect in its own Kind. Nor does Crusius speak less to its Honour, with Respect to the Moral, when he cries out in an Apostrophe to the Reader; "Whoever you are, mind not the Names of these little Animals, but look into the Things they mean; call them Men, call them Kings, or Counsellors, or humane Polity itself, you have here Doctrines of every Sort." And indeed, when I hear the Frog talk concerning the Mouse's Family, I learn, Equality shou'd be observ'd in making Friendships; when I hear the Mouse answer the Frog, I remember, that a Similitude of Manners shou'd be regarded in them; when I see their Councils assembling, I think of the Bustles of humane Prudence; and when I see the Battle grow warm and glorious, our Struggles for Honour and Empire appear before me.

This Piece had many Imitations of it in Antiquity, as the Fight of the Cats, the Cranes, the Starlings, the Spiders, &c. That of the Cats is in the Bodleian Library, but I was not so lucky as to find it. I have taken the Liberty to divide my Translation into Books (tho' it be otherwise in the Original) according as the Fable allow'd proper Resting-Places, by varying its Scene, or Nature of Action: This I did, after the Example of Aristarchus and Zenodotus in the Iliad. I then thought of carrying the Grammarians Example further, and placing Arguments at the Head of each, which I fram'd as follows, in Imitation of the short Ancient Greek Inscriptions to the Iliad.

In Alpha, the Ground
Of the Quarrel is found.

In Beta, we
The Council see.

Dire Gamma relates
The Work of the Fates.

But as I am averse from all Information which lessens our Surprize, I only mention these for a Handle to quarrel with the Custom of long Arguments before a Poem. It may be necessary in Books of Controversy or abstruse Learning, to write an Epitome before each Part; but it is not kind to forestal us in a Work of Fancy, and make our Attention remiss by a previous Account of the End of it.

The next Thing which employ'd my Thoughts was the Heroes Names. It might perhaps take off somewhat from the Majesty of the Poem, had I cast away such noble Sounds as, Physignathus, Lycopinax, and Crambophagus, to substitute Bluff-cheek, Lickdish, and Cabbage-Eater, in their Places. It is for this Reason I have retain'd them untranslated: However, I place them in English before the Poem, and sometimes give a short Character extracted out of their Names; as in Polyphonus, Pternophagus, &c. that the Reader may not want some Light of their Humour in the Original.

But what gave me a greater Difficulty was, to know how I shou'd follow the Poet, when he inserted Pieces of Lines from his Iliad, and struck out a Sprightliness by their new Application. To supply this in my Translation, I have added one or two of Homer's Particularities; and us'd two or three Allusions to some of our English Poets who most resemble him, to keep up some Image of this Spirit of the Original with an equivalent Beauty. To use more might make my Performance seem a Cento rather than a Translation, to those who know not the Necessity I lay under.

I am not ignorant, after all my Care, how the World receives the best Compositions of this Nature. A Man need only go to a Painter's, and apply what he hears said of a Picture to a Translation, to find how he shall be us'd upon his own, or his Author's Account. There one Spectator tells you, a Piece is extreamly fine, but he sets no Value on what is not like the Face it was drawn for, while a second informs you, such another is extreamly like, but he cares not for a Piece of Deformity, tho' its Likeness be never so exact.

Yet notwithstanding all which happens to the best, when I translate, I have a Desire to be reckon'd amongst them; and I shall obtain this, if the World will be so good-natur'd as to believe Writers that give their own Characters: Upon which Presumption, I answer to all Objections beforehand, as follows:

When I am litteral, I regard my Author's Words; when I am not, I translate in his Spirit. If I am low, I choose the narrative Style; if high, the Subject requir'd it. When I am enervate, I give an Instance of ancient Simplicity; when affected, I show a Point of modern Delicacy. As for Beauties, there never can be one found in me which was not really intended; and for any Faults, they proceeded from too unbounded Fancy, or too nice Judgment, but by no means from any Defect in either of those Faculties.

End block from 'Homer's Battle of the Frogs and Mice' by Thomas Parnell published in 1717
End block from 'Homer's Battle of the Frogs and Mice' by Thomas Parnell published in 1717