The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

III. Pope

§ 12. His Homer

Before the end of the period whose productions are contained in the Works of 1717, he had already published the first instalment of his most laborious enterprise. He once observed that, had he not undertaken his translation of the Iliad, he would certainly have written an epic poem. Towards the close of his life, he formed a plan for one on Brutus of Troy; but Conington has well remarked that Pope’s sympathy with epic grandeur was the sympathy of art, not of kindred inspiration. So far back as 9 April, 1708, we find Trumbull, in a letter to Pope, acknowledging the receipt of the Sarpedon episode in the Iliad, afterwards published in Tonson’s Miscellany, and renewing a request that he would translate “that incomparable poet” and “make him speak good English.” In his preface to the Iliad, while mentioning the encouragement received from Steele, Swift, Garth, Congreve, Rowe and Parnell, Pope states that Addison was the first whose advice determined him to undertake this task.

By his own confession, it was gain as much as glory that “winged his flight.” His father’s fortune was not large. Catholics were double-taxed. His own health required indulgence. In short, without exactly writing for money, he went where money was. The work was to be published by subscription, and the eagerness of his friends secured a long list of names. Yet the difficulties in his path might have appalled a less stout heart. To engage one’s activity for a long way ahead would seem to demand a robuster constitution than he possessed. Further, Pope had no sound knowledge of Greek. But he set resolutely to work. The linguistic difficulties were surmounted by a comparison of previous translators, Latin, English and French. Parnell wrote An Essay on the Life, Writings and Learning of Homer (in vol. 1 of the Miscellany), while, in the compilation of the notes from Eustathius and other sources, help was given by Parnell, Broome and Jortin. The first four volumes appeared in 1715, 1716, 1717, 1718, and the last two, with a dedication to Congreve, in 1720. The harvest-home was sung by Gay in Mr. Pope’s Welcome from Greece. Tickell, a member of Addison’s circle, published a translation of the first Iliad on the same day as Pope’s first volume. It was supposed, in some quarters, that Addison had inspired it as a rival venture and even had a principal hand in the performance. Pope, naturally, was suspicious and the incident was one cause of his estrangement from Addison. As a translation in the narrower sense, his rendering has very obvious shortcomings. Of this, no proof was needed. Wakefield, in his edition (1795), has shown in detail how largely Pope’s inaccuracy was due to his having taken the sense of the text of Homer from Chapman, Hobbes, Ogilby, Dacier and others. Not only did he often miss the meaning of the original; but he followed his predecessors in additions which had no warrant in the Greek. All this, however, in a sense, is beside the mark. Pope, for all his defects in scholarship, approached Homer with reverence and confessed himself incapable of doing justice to him. But he was right when he asserted that it ought to be the endeavour of anyone who translates Homer “above all things to keep alive that spirit and fire which makes his chief character.” Others have produced translations; but Pope’s work is a poem. The style and taste of his time more closely suited the character of Latin poetry. He has artificial turns which are as far removed as can be from the directness of his original; but the reader who cannot, or will not, view these accidents in their true proportion, and who is impervious to the beauty of the work, must, at the same time, be impervious to much in Homer.

It has been said that Pope’s Iliad was the cause of the vicious poetic style prevalent in the latter part of the eighteenth century. A certain periphrastic pomp was found easy of imitation, and became a marked feature in the verse of men who were without a touch of his poetic power. The popularity of his Iliad has lasted for long; but there are signs that the attraction it exercised on several generations is waning. A critic who has shown unsurpassed insight and sympathy in his estimate of Pope wrote, in 1881, “No one will venture to say Pope’s Iliad has gone, or is likely to go, out of fashion.” One would be glad to feel that this judgment and forecast were not unduly optimistic.

Shortly after the long labour of the Iliad was over, Pope was engaged in two fresh enterprises. The translation of the Odyssey was shared with two Cambridge men, Elijah Fenton and William Broome, to whom half the books were allotted, Fenton taking I, IV, XIX and XX, and his colleague II, VI, VIII, XI, XII, XVI, XVIII and XXIII, while Pope translated the rest and assumed, in addition, the office of revision. The first three volumes were published in 1725, and the remaining two in the next year. Pope’s general supervision of the translation, and the skill with which his subordinates assumed his style, prevented any obvious contrast between the parts. The correspondence between Pope, Broome and Fenton throws light on one of the least honourable incidents in Pope’s career. He received by subscription £4500, out of which he allowed Broome £570 and Fenton £200. He was entitled to demand the lion’s share; but, after vainly endeavouring to suppress the details of the collaboration, he induced Broome to allow a statement to appear under his name which led the public to suppose the chief partner to be responsible for all but five books. The weariness that had come over Pope told on his execution, nor was the Odyssey so congenial a subject to him. He had been at his best in the speeches of the Iliad and groaned most heavily over the homely scenes in Ithaca.