Home  »  Volume VI: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part Two  »  § 6. Chapman’s Homer

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VI. The Drama to 1642, Part Two.

II. Chapman, Marston, Dekker

§ 6. Chapman’s Homer

Chapman’s immense pretensions and determination to storm Parnassus hardly win our allegiance. Nor need we pay homage to his scholarship, though reputed as vast. He was overburdened not so much by the weight of his learning as by a mistaken sense of its importance and authority. Approach him first by way of his original poems and dramas, and it will not easily prove practicable to find the measure of the man. Like Milton writing in prose, he is using, as it were, his left hand. But approach him first under the spell of Homer, who was “angel to him, star and fate,” when both genius and character are sublimated, and he will be known for what he is. In Chapman’s view, Homer was not only emperor among the poets, he was the greatest of men and philosophers. “Of all books extant in all kinds, Homer is the first and best … out of him, according to our most grave and judicial Plutarch, are all Arts deduced, confirmed, or illustrated.” At this shrine, he burns continual incense, and he would seem to have conceived himself as directly inspired by the spirit of his great original. It was impossible, indeed, that, out of the Elizabethan age, should issue a version of Homer marked by the Homeric qualities of simplicity and directness, nor does Chapman so much translate Homer as reproduce his narrative with a certain divine ardour. He describes it as “an absurd affectation in the interpretation of any author to turn him word for word,” and disclaimed in his own case any such intention. In Chapman, the bright equable stream, that reflected sun and stars and open heaven, dashes through the chasms and ravines of a mountain country. The stately breadth and sweeping curve and quiet eddy are lost, but speed and volume and majesty remain. The famous version deserves its fame.

“Our Homer-Lucan,” as Daniel styled him, did not appear as a translator till he was nearly forty years old. The first instalment of his labours, Seaven Bookes of the Iliades of Homere (I and II and VII to XI), was published in 1598, and dedicated to the earl of Essex. In 1609 were published the first twelve books, dedicated to prince Henry, and the completed Iliad, without date (books I and II having been rewritten) about 1611. It appears from his own statement that he wrote the last twelve books in fifteen weeks. The metre, a fourteen-syllabled riming couplet, one of the oldest English measures, was a sixteenth century favourite, and had been employed in a translation of ten books of Homer, from a French version, in 1581, by Arthur Hall. Chapman’s Achilles Shield, “translated out of”the eighteenth book, in the heroic couplet, and prefaced by an epistle attacking Scaliger, was also published in 1598. The first twelve within another year. The Works and Days of Hesiod was next undertaken and completed in 1618. In 1616, both the Iliad and the Odyssey were issued in a folio entitled The Whole Workes of Homer, Prince of Poets, and, with Batrachmyomachia, the Hymns and the Epigrams in 1624, the first complete translation of Homer into English was made, and the author could say, “The work that I was born to do is done.”

Like the pyramid of Caius Cestius, it was planned as “a refuge for his memory”; to Homer’s keeping Chapman committed his name and fame. And to Homer he owes his reputation, as to his long companionship with Homer he owed his chief happiness in life. In the presence of that mighty shade, he forgot his quarrel with the world, the cloud of anger that sat upon his brow dispersed and his soul had peace.