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Countess Spencer, whom, in one of his letters he thus describes :—" We had a visit on Monday from one of the first women in the world; I mean, in point of character and accomplishments,—the Dowager Lady Spencer! I may receive, perhaps, some honours hereafter, should my translation speed according to my wishes, and the pains I have taken with it; but shall never receive any that I esteem so highly; she is indeed, worthy, to whom I should dedicate, and may but my Odyssey prove as worthy of her, I shall have nothing to fear from the critics."
Whether it arose from the unreasonable expectations of the public, or from the utter impossibility of conveying all the graces and the beauties of these unrivalled poems, in a translation, it is certain that the volumes, when they appeared, did not give that satisfaction, either to the author, or to his readers, which had been anticipated. It would, perhaps, be difficult, if not impossible, to assign a better reason, for the imperfection of Cowper's translation, if imperfection it deserves to be called, than that mentioned by his justly admired biographer, Mr. Hayley.—"Homer is so exquisitely beautiful in his own language, and he has been so long an idol in every literary mind, that any copy of him, which the best of modern poets can execute, must probably resemble in its effect, the portrait of a graceful woman, painted by an excellent artist for her lover ; the lover, indeed, will acknowledge great merit in the work, and think himself much indebted to the skill of such an artist, but he will never acknowledge, as in truth he never can feel, that the best of resemblances exhibits all the graces that he discerns in, the beloved original. So fares it with the admirers of Homer; his very translators themselves, feel so perfectly the power of this predominant affection, that they gradually grow discontented with their own labour, however approved in the moment of its supposed completion. This was so remarkably the case with Cowper, that in process of time we shall see him employed upon what may almost be called his second translation, so great were the alterations he made in a deliberate revisal of the work, for a second edition. And in the preface to that edition, he has spoken of his own labour with the most frank and ingenuous veracity. Yet of the first edition it may, I think, be fairly said, that it accomplished more than any of his poetical predecessors had achieved before him. It m4de the nearest approach to that sweet majestic simplicity which forms one of the most attractive features in the great prince and father of poets."
If Cowper had derived no other benefit from his translation, than that of constant employment, for so long a time, when he stood so much in need of it, it would have been to him invaluable, as the best and most effectual remedy for that inordinate sensibility to which he was subject. Besides this, however, it procured him other advantages of paramount importance; it improved the general state of his health; it introduced him to a circle of literary friends, whom he would otherwise never have known, and wbo, when they once knew him, could not fail to feel affectionately interested in his welfare; it brought him into closer contact with those with whom he had previously been acquainted, by inducing him to avail himself of their kind offers and assistance in the transcribing way,* which to a mind like his could not fail to become a source,of almost uninterrupted enjoyment; it established his reputation as a most accomplished scholar, and unquestionably ranked him among the highest class of poets.
A living writer has well remarked, that "to Cowper's translation of Homer, we are beholden, not only for the pleasure which a perusal will be sure to afford to reasonable and patient readers, but we may attribute to its happy possession of his mind all the beautiful and inimitable letters which appear in his correspondence, during the progress of that work. The toil of daily turning over the thoughts of the greatest of poets, in every form of English that his ingenuity could devise, occupied, for many years, that very portion of his time which, with a person of no profession, and having no stated duties to perform, lies heaviest upon the spirit. The salutary exercise of his morning studies made him relish with keener zest, the relaxation of his social hours, or those welcome opportunities of epistolary converse with the absent, in which it is evident that much of the little happiness allowed to him lay; he is never more at home, consequently never more amiable, sprightly, and entertaining, and even poetical, than in his correspondence, when he pours out all the treasures of his mind and the affections of his heart, upon the paper which is to be the speaking representative of himself to tbf.se he loves. It has often been regretted that instead of this labour in vain, as the translation of Homer has sometimes seemed to many, he had not spent an equal portion of time and talent
* It is said that Broome assisted Pope very largely in his translation of Homer; but Cowper had no assistant in that way. All the Throckmorton family, Lady Hesketb, Mrs. Johnson, and many others, helped him as transcribers, and only as such.
on original composition. The regret is at least as much bestowed in vain, as was that labour, for there is no well-founded reason to suppose, from the momentary jeopardy in which he lived, of being plunged into sudden, irretrievable despondence, that if he had been otherwise employed, he could have maintained even that small share of health and cheerfulness which he enjoyed.
It is not to be expected that a mind like Cowper's could remain for any lengthened period unemployed. Accustomed as he had long been to intense application, when he had completed his great work, he immediately felt the want of some other engagement. To a mind less active than his, replying to his correspondents, which had now become most extensive, would have been employment amply sufficient—especially as he was considerably in arrears with them, owing to his previous labours. This, however, was not enough for Cowper. He wanted something more worthy of his powers; something that required more vigour of thought, and demanded more severe application. Several of his friends again urged him for original composition, and in all probability they would have been successful, had he not, about this time, received a letter from his publisher, of whose judgment and integrity he had always entertained a high opinion, recommending him to prepare materials for a splendid edition of Milton. To this proposal Cowper immediately assented. He had always expressed himself delighted with Milton's poetry, and on one occasion, in a letter to his friend Mr. Unwin, had thus ventured to defend his character from the severe censures cast upon him by Johnson, in his "Lives of the Poets:"— "I have been well entertained with Johnson's biography, for which I thank you; with one exception, and that a swinging one, I think he has acquitted himself with his usual good sense and sufficiency. His treatment of Milton is unmerciful to the last degree. He has belaboured that great poet's character with the most industrious cruelty. As a man, he has hardly left him the shadow of one good quality. Churlishness in his private life, and a rancorous hatred of everything royal in his public, are the two colours with which he has smeared all the canvas. If he had any virtues, they are not to be found in the Doctor's picture of him, and it is well for Milton, that some sourness in his temper is the only vice, with which his memory has been charged; it is evident enough, that if his biographer could have discovered more, he would not have spared him. As a poet he has treated him with severity enough, and has plucked one or two of the most beautiful feathers out of his muse's wing, and trampled them under his great foot. He has passed sentence of condemnation upon Lycidas, and has taken occasion from that charming poem, to expose to ridicule (what is indeed ridiculous enough) the childish prattlings of pastoral compositions, as if Lycidas was the prototype and pattern of them all. The liveliness of the description, the sweetness of the numbers, the classical spirit of antiquity that prevails in it, go for nothing. I am convinced by the way, that he has no ear for poetical numbers, or that it was stopped by prejudice against the harmony of Milton's. Was there ever any thing so delightful as the music of the Paradise lost'! It is like that of a fine organ; has the fullest and the deepest tones of majesty, with all the softness and elegance of the Dorian flute. Variety without end, and never equalled, unless perhaps by Virgil. Yet the Doctor has little or nothing to say upon this copious theme, but talks something about the unfitness of the English language for blank-verse, and how apt it is, in the mouth of some readers, to degenerate into declamation."
Cowper had no sooner made up his mind on the subject of his new engagement, than he communicated it to his correspondents. To one he writes, "I am deep in a new literary engagement, being retained by my bookseller as editor of an intended most magnificent edition of Milton's Poetical Works. This will occupy me as much as Homer did, for a year or two to come; and when I have finished it, I shall have run through all the degrees of my profession, as author, translator, and editor. I know not that a fourth could be found; but if a fourth can be found, I dare say I shall find it. I am now translating Milton's Latin poems. I give them, as opportunity offers, all the variety of measures that I can. Some I render in heroic rhymes, some in stanzas, some in seven, some in eight syllable measure, and some in blank verse. They will altogether, I hope, make an agreeable miscellany for the English reader. They are certainly good in themselves, and cannot fail to please, but by the fault of their translator."
One of his most esteemed correspondents, the Rev. Walter Bagot, attempted to dissuade him from entering upon his new engagement, and urged him to publish in a third volume, what original pieces he had already composed, added to a translation of Milton's Latin and Italian poems. Had this plan been suggested to him earlier, he would, in all probability, have pursued it, as he thus writes to his friend on the subject. "As to Milton, the die is cast. I am engaged, have bargained with Johnson, and cannot recede. I should otherwise have been glad to do as you advise, to make the translation of his Latin and Italian poems, part of another volume, for with such an addition, I have nearly as much verse in my budget, as would be required for the purpose."
From some expressions in a letter to Rev. Mr. Hurdis, the author of The Village Curate, with whom Cowper had entered into a correspondence, a few months previous to this, and to whom he had written several most interesting letters; it would appear as if he entered upon his new engagement, rather precipitately, and without due consideration. "I am much obliged to you for wishing that 1 were employed in some original work, rather than in translation. To tell the truth, I am of your mind; and unless I could find another Homer, I shall promise (I believe) and vow, when I have done with Milton, never to translate again. But my veneration for our great countryman is equal to what I feel for the Grecian; and consequently I am happy, and feel myself honourably employed, whatever I do for Milton. I am now translating his Epitaphium Damonis; a pastoral, in my judgment, equal to any of Virgil's Bucolics, but of which Dr. Johnson (so it pleased him) -speaks, as I remember, contemptuously. But he who never saw any beauty in a rural scene, was not likely to have much taste for a pastoral. In pace quiescat.'"
Among other consequences resulting from his new undertaking, one of the most gratifying to himself was, its becoming the means of introducing him to an acquaintance with his esteemed friend, and future biographer, Mr. Hayley. This important event in Cowper's life,—so it afterwards proved,—is related with so much beauty and simplicity by Mr. Hayley, in his life of Cowper, and reflects a lustre so bright on both the biographer and the poet, that we cannot do better that give it in his own words. Mr. Hayley thus relates the circumstance. "As it is to Milton that I am in a great measure indebted for what I must ever regard as a signal blessing, the friendship of Cowper, the reader will pardon me for dwelling a little on the circumstances that produced it: circumstances which often lead me to repeat those sweet verses of my friend, on the casual origin of our valuable attachments."
"Mysterious are His ways whose power