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That learned and powerful critic, in speaking of Cowper's Homer, happened to declare himself not satisfied with his version of Hector's admirable prayer in caressing his child. We both ventured on new translations of the prayer, which I immediately sent to Cowper, and the following Letters will prove with what just and manly freedom of spirit he was at this, time able to criticize the composition of his friends, and his own.
To WILLIAM HAYLEY, Esqr
Weston, Dec. 17, 1793.
Oh Jove! and all ye Gods! grant this my son
I rose this morning, at six o'clock, on purpose to translate this prayer again,
and to write to my dear Brother. Here you have it, such as it is, not perfectly according to my own liking, but as well as I could make it, and I think better than either your's, or Lord Thurlow's. You with your six lines have made yourself stiff and ungraceful, and he with his seven has produced as good prose as heart can wish, but no poetry at all. A scrupulous attention to the letter has spoiled you both, you have neither the spirit nor the manner of Homer. A portion of both may be found, I believe, in my version, but not so much as I could wish—it is better however than the printed one. His Lordship’s two first lines I cannot very well understand; he seems to me to give a sense to the original that does not belong to it. Hector, I apprehend, does not say, “Grant " that he may prove himself my son, and be emi“ nent, &c.--but grant that this my son may prove “ eminent"--which is a material difference. In the latter sense I find the simplicity of an antient; in the former, that is to say, in the notion of a man proving himself his father's son by similar merit, the finesse and dexterity of a modern. His Lordship too makes the man, who gives the young hero his commendation, the person, who returns from battle, whereas Homer makes the young hero himself that person, at least if Clarke is a just interpreter, which · I suppose is hardly to be disputed.
If my old friend would look into my Preface, he would find a principle laid down there, which perhaps it would not be easy to invalidate, and which properly attended to would equally secure a translation from stiffness, and from wildness. The principle I mean is this--- Close, but not so close as to be servile ! free, but not so free as to be licentious !" A superstitious fidelity loses the spirit, and a loose deviation the sense of the translated author-- happy moderation in either case is the only possible way of preserving both.
Thus have I disciplined you both, and now, if you please, you may both discipline me. I shall not enter my version in my book till it has undergone your strictures at least, and should you write to the noble critic again, you are welcome to submit it to his. We are three awkward fellows indeed, if we cannot amongst us make a tolerable good translation of six lines of Homer.
To WILLIAM HAYLEY, Esqr.
Weston, Jan. 5, 1794.
MY DEAR HAYLEY,
I have waited, but waited in vain, for a propitious moment when I might give my old friend's objections the consideration they de, serve; I shall at last be forced to send a vague answer, unworthy to be sent to a person accustomed, like him, to close reasoning, and abstruse discussion, for I rise after ill rest, and with a frame of mind perfectly unsuited to the occasion. I sit too at the window for light's sake, where I am so cold that my pen slips out of my fingers. First, I will give you a translation de novo, of this untranslatable prayer. It is shaped as nearly as I could contrive to his Lordship’s ideas, but I have little hope that it will satisfy him.
Grant Jove, and all ye Gods, that this my son,
May all who witness his return from fight
Imlac in Rasselas says—I forget to whom, “You have convinced me that it is impossible to be a poet." In like manner I might say to his Lordship, you have convinced me that it is impossible to be a translator; to be a translator, on his terms at least, is I am sure impossible. On his terms I would defy Homer himself, were he alive, to translate the Paradise Lost into Greek. Yet Milton had Homer much in his eye when he composed that poem. Whereas Homer never thought of me or my translation. There are minutiæ in every language, which transfused into another will spoil the version. Such extreme fidelity is in fact unfaithful. Such close resemblance takes away all likeness. The original is elegant, easy, natural ; the copy is clumsy, constrained, unnatural: To what is this owing? To the adoption of terms not congenial to your purpose, and of a context, such as no man writing an original work would make use of. Homer is every thing that a poet should be. A translation of Homer so made, will be every thing a translation of