Midcentury Translations

Reading and translating classical languages plays a significant role in the midcentury's rehabilitation of enthusiasm for poetry. Poetic enthusiasm is never a fully separable counter-aesthetic to neoclassicism, because the positive valences of divine inspiration often remained more acceptable in ancient than modern garb. In the decades after Pope's death in 1744, Christopher Pitt and James Beattie both defended a properly poetic enthusiasm in their translations of Virgil. Pitt's rendering of the Aeneid (1753) puts Virgil's beauties in the context of Lucretius and Catullus, and remarks of the latter that his portrait of "Atys a priest of Cybele struck with madness by this goddess, abounds with some of the strongest strokes of passion, and true poetic enthusiasm, of any thing the Roman poesy has left us" (ii. 900n.). This alignment of a poetic with a "true" enthusiasm reappears in Beattie's notes to his translation of Virgil's Eclogue 4 (1760), a favorite poem for those seeking evidence of noble heathens, classical writers with proto-Christian attitudes. Whether or not Virgil's boy savior is plausibly anything more than Soloninus, son of Pollio, Virgil's panegyric to him matters most for the "spirit of prophetic enthusiasm that breathes through it" (l. 1n.). Connecting enthusiasm, poetry, and prophecy, Beattie would be seconded by many poets of the later eighteenth century who gradually weaned themselves from Homer and Virgil and foiled Pope's strategy of marrying enthusiasm to the classical canon. Throughout the eighteenth century, a poetic enthusiasm struggled to separate itself from religion and politics in an ongoing battle of men and gods.

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