Eighteenth Century English Poetry and the Classics An Overview

Educated eighteenth-century English culture was permeated at every level by the art, history, mythology, philosophy, and literature of ancient Greece and Rome. School and university curricula were dominated by the study of classical (and particularly Latin) texts, in ways that had changed little since the Renaissance. Schoolboys and undergraduates were drilled not only in classical poetry, philosophy, and oratory, but also in the historical, geographical, medical, mathematical, and legal lore of the ancient world. Figures from republican Rome attained the status of cult heroes among the English ruling classes. Eminent politicians and landowning grandees had themselves sculpted in the manner and garb of virtuous Romans. Young aristocrats and gentlemen on the Grand Tour visited the monuments of Rome and Pompeii and brought back with them physical relics of the classical past. (Travel to Greece became more common as the century progressed.) Parliamentary speakers modeled their orations on those of Cicero and Demosthenes. The country's great landscape gardens were adorned with Greco-Roman temples, their grottoes sporting statues of classical river and sea deities. Portrait painters depicted their female subjects in the guise of classical goddesses and the Muses. The architecture of country houses imitated Vitruvian practice and design. Operatic plots regularly drew on ancient myth. Periodical essays were prefaced by quotations from the Roman poets. And a burgeoning print culture was making available the majority of ancient literature in translation for those whose Latin and Greek were rusty, or who had been denied by social status or gender the classical education enjoyed by the largely moneyed, largely male elite.

Eighteenth-century poetry affords abundant evidence of the larger culture's saturation in the classics. Some of the period's major poets devoted their best energies to the translation and imitation of classical verse. Many of the century's major poetic genres (pastoral, georgic, satire, ode, verse epistle), and its poetry of scientific specu lation and rural retirement had their direct roots in classical practice. Others (burlesque, mock-heroic, the country-house poem) depended more obliquely yet no less certainly on classical precedent. Eighteenth-century literary criticism drew constant comparisons and connections between classical and English verse, sometimes — as in the period's numerous poems on the "art of poetry" — imitating the form and manner, as well as echoing the concerns, of the Greek and Roman critics. Popular poetic and dramatic works such as Joseph Addison's verse drama Cato (1713) took their subject matter from classical history and myth. And, as a glance at the notes in any scholarly edition will confirm, the presence of Greek and Roman history, legend, and literature is everywhere visible in eighteenth-century poetry in the form of allusion, echo, and passing reference. When providing examples for imitation by trainee poets, the poetical commonplace books of the period presented an indiscriminate juxtaposition of classical and English examples.

Pre-eminent among the direct translations from classical poetry in the period were Alexander Pope's versions of Homer's Iliad(1715—20) and Odyssey (with collaborators, 1725—6). Both went through numerous editions before the end of the century and won admirers in all sectors of the literate population. In his Iliad Pope was thought to have effected a major literary miracle: a living re-creation, in an entirely "natural" and plausible-sounding English heroic idiom, of the greatest poem in the world. He had, many of his contemporaries believed, made the Iliad and Odyssey integral parts of English literature, thus performing the same service for Homer that Dryden had for Virgil in his rendering of 1697. Later in the century, when blank verse was increasingly preferred to the heroic couplet, Homer was retranslated in that medium by William Cowper (1791). Virgil continued to be read in Dryden's version, but was also translated (into blank verse) by Joseph Trapp (1718—20) and (into couplets) by Christopher Pitt (1740). Lucan found a worthy translator in Nicholas Rowe, whose Pharsalia (1718) was described by Samuel Johnson as "one of the greatest productions of English poetry," successfully capturing Lucan's "philosophical dignity" and emphatic moral assertiveness "comprised in vigorous and animated lines" (Johnson 1905: vol. 2, 77). During the first half of the century, Horace was available in a composite version by poets of Dryden's school (1715, expanded 1721), and in reprints of Thomas Creech's serviceable Restoration rendering (1684). This was replaced as the standard English Horace in midcentury by that of Philip Francis (1742—3). Later versions of Horace included that of Christopher Smart (1767). Juvenal continued to be read in the version by Dryden and others (1692, dated 1693), a version which had no serious eighteenth-century rivals. The rendering of Lucretius by Thomas Creech (1682) was reissued, elaborately annotated, in 1714. Sir Samuel Garth's composite version of Ovid's Metamorphoses, combining Dryden's translations with renderings by poets of the younger generation (including Addison, Gay, and Pope) appeared in 1717 and went through many editions. There were also numerous reprints of the composite versions of Ovid's Epistles (1680) and Ovid's Art of Love (1709). Other versions of classical poetry included renderings of Anacreon and Sappho by John Addison (1735) and Francis Fawkes (1760), of Catullus by John Nott (1795), of Claudian's Rape of

Proserpine by Jabez Hughes (1714), of Martial's Epigrams by James Elphinston (1782), of Phaedrus' Fables by Smart (1765), of Pindar's Odes by Gilbert West (1749; enlarged 1753), of Propertius' Elegies by Nott (1782), of Tibullus' Elegies by James Grainger (1759), and of Statius' Thebaid by William Lillington Lewis (1767).

Direct translations were complemented by "imitations" of classical verse, in which the situations and personages of the original were replaced by analogs from the modern world. Such versions sometimes followed the structure and logic of their originals closely, merely using contemporary examples to convey the meaning and relevance of the ancient text to modern readers with greater clarity and directness. Others redirected the original in ways that reflected their authors' own interests and preoccupations. Samuel Johnson's London (1738), for example, transformed Juvenal's Third Satire into a moving portrayal of the plight of the impoverished writer in eighteenth-century London, incorporating barbed commentary on the corruption of the Walpole government. The same writer's The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749) metamorphosed the opportunistic scorn of Juvenal's Tenth Satire into a stately and sober Christian meditation on human ambition and delusion. [See ch. 18, "Samuel Johnson, London and The Vanity of Human Wishes."] Other imitations stood in a yet more subtle relation to their originals, entering into a complex dialog with the classical text — of which independent knowledge was assumed, and which was often printed, or cued by line-references at the foot of the English version — in which meaning was generated from a dynamic exchange between the English poem and its "source." Such a technique reaches its apogee in Pope's Imitations of Horace (1733—8), in which various of the Roman author's satires, epistles, and odes are deployed by Pope in a complex and ever-changing process of self-discovery, self-fashioning, and self-vindication (see Stack 1985).

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