Translation and Nature Helen of Troy in Popes Iliad

The standard criticism of Pope's Iliad has been that, rather than faithfully rendering the Greek, Pope merely assimilates Homer to the "polite" social and religious norms of eighteenth-century England and to latinate ideals of epic decorum. Such criticisms are often illustrated by a handful of famous instances: the "elevation" of the fly to which Menalaus is compared into a hornet (xvii. 642-5); the "dignifying" of the ass to which Ajax is likened (xi. 682-9); the assimilation of Homer's Zeus (i. 726-35) to Milton's God. But such examples give a very misleading impression of Pope's translation as a whole. For while Pope sometimes modifies Homer's earthy realism and verbal directness to make the Greek poet more amenable to stylistic expectations derived from Virgil and Milton, he also leaves intact the greater part of Homer's narrative, much of which, we may remind ourselves, deals with remorselessly brutal slaughter on a distant, heroic battlefield, a scenario as remote as is conceivable from any eighteenth-century drawing room, ballroom, or library. And if Homer's Zeus is sometimes momentarily aligned with Pope's own God, there are many parts of the poem where his activities, and those of the other Olympians, are very far removed from anything conceivable within the Christian dispensation. Throughout his translation, Pope responds vividly to the "animated Nature" of Homer's epic narrative, summoning up a constant stream of English eloquence to match the "sublime" "fire" with which the Greek poet has rendered his incidents and characters.

In the act of translating Homer, Pope mobilizes and expresses a far wider range of religious, ethical, and psychological sympathies than were available to him from within his own culture. He offers, for example, a remarkably uncensorious presentation of Homer's proud and irascible hero, Achilles, marking him out, surprisingly, for special admiration for the "Air of Greatness" he displays just before one of his most appallingly brutal acts: the slaughter of the trembling suppliant Lycaon (xxi. 84n.; see further Clarke 1981: 136-40; Rosslyn 1980; Shankman 1983: 3-51). Rendering Homer was, for Pope, both an exercise in scholarly exploration of an alien culture and an encounter with "Nature": the great unseen reality in which all human beings participate, but which is normally hidden from their view, unless revealed by great art. The full glory and horror of the human condition, Pope was convinced, had been revealed more completely and variously in the Homeric epics than in any other single literary source. That fact, rather than these works' antiquity or fame, constituted their permanent claim on human attention. As with Virgil before him, when Pope read the Iliad, "Nature and Homer were, he found, the same" (An Essay on Criticism, l. 135).

Pope's conviction of the depth and range of Homer's revelation of the human condition is nowhere more apparent than in his rendering of the passages in Book III of the Iliad depicting the plight of Helen, the Spartan queen whose abduction to Troy by Paris had been the cause of the Trojan War. Near the beginning of Book III, Helen is summoned by Iris to witness the single combat between her husband Menelaus and Paris. She is discovered at her loom: "The golden Web her own sad Story crown'd, / The Trojan Wars she weav'd (herself the Prize) / And the dire Triumphs of her fatal Eyes" (ll. 170—2). Pope's "fatal" (l. 172) has multiple resonance: Helen's beauty is fated by the gods (she was given to Paris as his reward for judging Aphrodite the fairest of goddesses); it has caused many deaths on the battlefields of Troy; and it exerts a goddess-like spell over all that see her.

Iris' summons awakes Helen's "former Fires" (l. 184), which encompass more than merely her passion for Menelaus: "Her Country, Parents, all that once were dear, / Rush to her Thought, and force a tender Tear" (ll. 185—6). Pope's note on the passage conveys his sense of the compassionate understanding of Homer's depiction:

The Reader has naturally an Aversion to this pernicious Beauty, and is apt enough to wonder at the Greeks for endeavouring to recover her at such an Expence. But her amiable Behaviour here, the secret Wishes that rise in favour of her rightful Lord, her Tenderness for her Parents and Relations, the Relentings of her Soul for the Mischiefs her Beauty had been the Cause of, the Confusion she appears in, the veiling her Face and dropping a Tear, are Particulars so beautifully natural, as to make every Reader no less than Menelaus himself, inclin'd to forgive her at least, if not to love her. (l. 165n.)

"There is scarce a word" spoken by Helen, Pope affirms, "that is not big with Repentance and Good-nature."

The reader's feelings for Helen are confirmed by the reaction of the elders of Troy,

Chiefs, who no more in bloody Fights engage, But Wise thro' Time, and Narrative with Age, In Summer-Days like Grasshoppers rejoice, A bloodless Race, that send a feeble Voice.

These old men, who have every reason to curse Helen, find themselves marveling at her spellbinding beauty:

They cry'd, No wonder such Celestial Charms

For nine long Years have set the World in Arms;

What winning Graces! what majestick Mien!

She moves a Goddess, and she looks a Queen!

When Helen encounters Priam on the battlements, he generously absolves her of blame for their plight:

No Crime of thine our present Suff'rings draws, Not Thou, but Heav'ns disposing Will, the Cause; The Gods these Armies and this Force employ, The hostile Gods conspire the Fate of Troy.

But Helen cannot accept Priam's exonerating words. Her sense of guilt and shame at her betrayal of her country and "Nuptial Bed" (l. 230) is so intense that she will, she says, mourn, 'till Grief or dire Disease Shall waste the Form whose Crime it was to please!

In Priam's words and Helen's reply, Pope is responding eloquently to the "double motivation" which, as modern scholarship has revealed, is so essential to Homer's presentation of the human lot (see Lesky 1999). Helen's position is, from one point of view, indeed "fated": she had been, from the moment of Paris' arrival in Sparta, a plaything of the gods. But this does not, in her own eyes or in the reader's, exempt her from a profound sense of personal guilt. Her plight is that of the archetypal tragic protagonist, "both an agent and one acted upon," simultaneously "guilty and innocent" (Vernant and Vidal-Naquet 1988: 32).

Helen's vulnerability to Aphrodite's power is underlined later in the book, when the goddess compels Helen to bed with Paris, now rescued from the battlefield and returned to his chamber in Troy. Helen's "secret Soul" is moved with passion for Paris "unawares to herself' (l. 497n.). But once she recognizes the presence and working in her of the divine power, she rejects Paris, delivering a bold protest against the laws by which she must live. Despite her courageous protest, however, she must obey Aphrodite's bidding. For, as the goddess makes clear to her, her survival depends on the preservation of the very beauty that has been her undoing:

Obey the Pow'r from whom thy Glories rise: Should Venus leave thee, ev'ry Charm must fly, Fade from thy Cheek, and languish in thy Eye. Cease to provoke me, lest I make thee more The World's Aversion, than their Love before; Now the bright Prize for which Mankind engage, Then, the sad Victim of the Publick Rage.

Pope responds fully, in both text and notes, to Homer's tragic conception of Helen's plight. Helen, he sees, is constrained by iron laws as binding as those which afflict the male heroes of the Iliad. She is also endowed with a similar self-knowledge and eloquence. In re-imagining and re-presenting Homer's portrayal, Pope is offering his contemporaries an image of womanhood far removed from the trivializing condescension to "the fair sex" to be found, for example, in the pages of The Spectator. By recreating Homer's portrayal in vibrant and moving English verse, he has deepened and extended his contemporaries' sense of both the dignity and vulnerability of human existence. Such an achievement is characteristic of eighteenth-century poets' engagement with the classics at its best.

See also chs. 2, "Poetry, Politics, and Empire"; 11, "Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock and 'Eloisa to Abelard' "; 18, "Samuel Johnson, London and The Vanity of Human Wishes"; 26, "Epic and Mock-Heroic"; 27, "Verse Satire"; 28, "The Ode"; 34, "Augustanism and Pre-Romanticism."

Author's Note

This chapter was written during the tenure of a British Academy Research Readership (2002—4).

References and Further Reading

Abrams, M. H. (1999). A Glossary of Literary Terms, 7th edn. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

Barnard, John, ed. (1973). Pope: The Critical Heritage. London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Brower, Reuben (1959). Alexander Pope: The Poetry of Allusion. Oxford: Clarendon.

Clarke, Howard (1981). Homer's Readers: A Historical Introduction to the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey. " Newark: University of Delaware Press.

Dryden, John (1956-2000). The Works of John Dryden, 20 vols., ed. E. N. Hooker, H. T. Swedenberg, Jr., et al. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Erskine-Hill, Howard (1983). The Augustan Idea in English Literature. London: Edward Arnold.

Johnson, Samuel (1905). Lives of the English Poets, 3 vols., ed. G. Birkbeck Hill. Oxford: Clarendon.

Knight, Douglas (1951). Pope and the Heroic Tradition: A Critical Study of his "Iliad." New Haven: Yale University Press.

Larkin, Philip (2001). Further Requirements: Interviews, Broadcasts, Statements, and Book Reviews, ed. Anthony Thwaite. London: Faber.

Lesky, Albin (1999). "Motivation by Gods and Men," trans. H. M. Harvey. In Irene J. F. de Jong (ed.), Homer: Critical Assessments, 4 vols., vol. 2, 384-403. London and New York: Routledge.

Levine, Joseph M. (1991). The Battle of the Books: History and Literature in the Augustan Age. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Mason, H. A. (1972). To Homer through Pope: An Introduction to Homer's "Iliad" and Pope's Translation. London: Chatto & Windus.

Patey, Douglas Lane (1997). "Ancients and Moderns." In H. B. Nisbet and Claude Rawson (eds.), The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, vol. 4: The Eighteenth Century, 3271. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Pope, Alexander (1939-69). The Twickenham Edition of the Poems of Alexander Pope, 11 vols., gen. ed. John Butt. London: Methuen.

Rosslyn, Felicity (1980). " 'Awed by Reason': Pope on Achilles." Cambridge Quarterly 9: 3, 189-202.

Rosslyn, Felicity (1990). Alexander Pope: A Literary Life. London: Macmillan.

Rosslyn, Felicity (1997). "Heroic Couplet Translation — A Unique Solution?" In Susan Bassnett (ed.), Translating Literature, 41—63. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer.

Rosslyn, Felicity, ed. (2002). Pope's Iliad: A Selection with Commentary, 2nd edn. London: Bristol Classical Press.

Shankman, Steven (1983). Pope's "Iliad": Homer in the Age of Passion. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Stack, Frank (1985). Pope and Horace: Studies in Imitation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Stevenson, Matthew (1680). The Wits Paraphras'd: Or, Paraphrase upon Paraphrase. In a Burlesque of the Several Late Translations of Ovid's Epistles. London: Will[iam] Cademan.

Tomlinson, Charles (2003). Metamorphoses: Poetry and Translation. Manchester: Carcanet.

Venuti, Lawrence (1995). The Translator's Invisibility: A History of Translation. London and New York: Routledge.

Vernant, Jean-Pierre, and Vidal-Naquet, Pierre (1988). Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece, trans. Janet Lloyd. New York: Zone.

Warton, Joseph (1782). An Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope, 4th edn., 2 vols. London: J. Dodsley.

Watt, Ian (1957). The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. London: Chatto & Windus.

Weinbrot, Howard D. (1978) Augustus Caesar in "Augustan" England: The Decline of a Classical Norm. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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