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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 6 - 17th & 18th Century Works 


Alexander Pope:
Translation and the Heroic Ideal in the Augustan Age

Alexander Pope (1688-1744), the preeminent poet of the British Augustan Age, emulated Horace and Virgil, the preeminent poets of the first Augustan Age of imperial Rome discussed in Chapter 3, Roman Classicism. Pope differed from them, however, and from other earlier poets throughout the world by his ability to support himself through selling his poetry. Until Pope, poets had independent wealth, wrote poetry on the side while working at other occupations, or -- like the Augustans -- depended upon the uncertain favors of wealthy patrons. Ironically, the venture that earned Pope the financial independence to break with the classical model of patronage was his translation into English of the greatest classical poems of all, Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Sold by subscription to readers willing to make early payment in order to reserve their copies, and published in a series of four volumes appearing between 1715 and 1720, Pope's Iliad brought him a profit, calculated in today's terms, of approximately $150,000.

Pope's first attempt at translating Homer gained attention in an anthology published in 1709 when Pope was not yet 21 years old. At a time when most educated readers knew enough Greek and Latin to attempt their own amateur translations from the classics, a wide audience immediately recognized the excellence of Pope's youthful efforts. In an era that prized the classical virtues, a wider audience applauded the elevated subject matter he had chosen, "The Episode of Sarpedon, Translated from the Twelfth and Sixteenth Books of Homer's Iliad," an analysis of the roots of heroism. The circumstances in which Sarpedon, a son of Zeus, articulates to his companion, Glaucus, his understanding of how heroes gain honor, are outlined in Chapter 1, Oral Narrartive Verse, along with a modern translation by Richmond Lattimore.

As twentieth-century Americans have different views of social organization and military valor than did eighteenth-century Britons (or Homeric Greeks, for that matter), Lattimore's and Pope's versions of the same lines reinterpret Homer's original in subtly different ways. Comparing the two illustrates both the translator's control over the reader's experience of a text and his culture's control over the translator's perception of that text.

Excerpt From "The Episode Of Sarpedon"
     Why boast we, Glaucus, our extended Reign,
Where Xanthus' Streams enrich the Lycian Plain?
Our num'rous Herds that range each fruitful Field,
And Hills where Vines their Purple Harvest yield?
Our foaming Bowls with gen'rous Nectar crown'd,
Our Feasts enhanc'd with Musick's sprightly Sound?
Why on those Shores are we with Joy survey'd,
Admir'd as Heroes, and as Gods obey'd?
Unless great Acts superior Merit prove,
And Vindicate the bounteous Pow'rs above:
'Tis ours, the Dignity They give, to grace;
The first in Valour, as the first in Place:
That while with wondring Eyes our Martial Bands
Behold our Deeds transcending our Commands,
Such, they may cry, deserve the Sov'reign State,
Whom those that Envy dare not Imitate!
Cou'd all our Care elude the greedy Grave,
Which claims no less the Fearful than the Brave,
For Lust of Fame I shou'd not vainly dare
In fighting Fields, nor urge thy soul to War.
But since, alas, ignoble Age must come,
Disease, and Death's inexorable Doom;
The Life which others pay, let Us bestow,
And give to Fame what we to Nature owe;
Brave, tho' we fall; and honour'd, if we live;
Or let us Glory gain, or Glory give!

Questions for Discussion

  1. Pope requires 26 lines to translate the same verses rendered by Lattimore in 19. Studying the expressive devices that account for this extra length illuminates the conventions of eighteenth-century society and literature. Notice, for example, Pope's use of the word "Sov'reign" in l. 15; compare his choice of adjectives throughout with Lattimore's. How do the two poets differ in their conceptions of the function of description? What other major differences can you see?
  2. Why is it important to Pope but not to Lattimore to arrange his translation in rhymed couplets?
  3. What social classes would be most likely to admire the sentiments expressed here? Can you see any connection between those groups and Pope's financial success?


Neoclassicism in the Arts
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Alexander Pope: Social Comment and the Mock-Heroic Spirit

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