The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

IV. William Cowper

§ 7. Translations

Cowper was not content to write short poems. In order to stave off its besetting depression, his mind needed regular occupation; and, in 1785, soon after he had finished correcting the proofs of The Task, he began, “merely to divert attention,” turning Homer’s Iliad into blank verse. The diversion grew into a plan to translate the whole of Homer and publish the work by subscription. Cowper came to his task well equipped. He had known his Homer from boyhood; and how well he knew and appreciated him may be learned from two letters to Lady Hesketh, written in December, 1785, and January, 1786, which are worth quoting as examples of judicious and penetrating criticism.

  • Except the Bible, there never was in the world a book so remarkable for that species of the sublime that owes its very existence to simplicity, as the works of Homer. He is always nervous, plain, natural … Homer is, on occasions that call for such a style, the easiest and most familiar of all writers … Homer’s accuracy of description, and his exquisite judgement never, never failed him. He never, I believe, in a single instance sacrificed beauty to embellishment. He does not deal in hyperbole … accordingly, when he describes nature, whether in man or in animal, or whether nature inanimate, you may always trust him for the most consummate fidelity. It is his great glory that he omits no striking part of his subject, and that he never inserts a title that does not belong to it. Oh! how unlike some describers that I have met with, of modern days, who smother you with words, words, words, and then think that they have copied nature; when all the while nature was an object either not looked at, or not sufficiently.
  • Much of this is applicable to Cowper himself; and the writer of the passage might be held to have been peculiarly well fitted to translate Homer. Moreover, Cowper not only knew and loved Homer (though, indeed, he regretted that this “most blameless writer” was “not an enlightened man”), but he knew Pope’s translation, which he had compared word for word with the original. To him, Pope’s “faults and failings” were “like so many buoys upon a dangerous coast”; and, side by side with his appreciation of Homer, there runs, in these letters to Lady Hesketh, some very penetrating examination of the difference between Homer and the “two pretty poems under Homer’s titles” written by Pope. So far as criticism goes, therefore, Cowper promised well as a translator of Homer. He knew what to aim at, and what to avoid. The work was finished, well subscribed and published in 1791; and, to-day, no one need read it except those who have to write about it.

    The reasons of Cowper’s failure are two. In the first place though precision and truth of detail are characteristics of both poets, Cowper’s tender, shrinking mind was separated by centuries and leagues from Homer’s. It was not his to understand the joy of battle, the fascination of wounds, the fierce, raw passions, still largely animal, of primitive heroes and heroines, nor to surrender his convictions to the turbulent folk whom Homer regarded as gods and goddesses. In the second place, it is one thing to realise that Homer is “nervous, plain, natural,” and another to achieve those qualities, in learned and sonorous blank verse. Cowper’s Miltonic measures are hardly less unlike Homer than is Pope’s riming jingle. The movement is completely altered. It is ample and stately; it has all the nobility which was one of the qualities demanded by Matthew Arnold in his lectures On Translating Homer. It is, also, faithful. Pope had perverted his original in order to find occasion for the brilliant effects of antithesis and epigram in which he excelled. Chapman, an Elizabethan brimful of ideas and curiosity and a spirit of literary adventure, had perverted his original through ebullience of sentiment and fancy. Cowper, priding himself on adhering closely to his original, adhered only in part. He knew exactly what Homer meant to say; he appreciated, in a great measure, Homer’s manner of saying it; but his head was full of Milton. He believed Milton’s style to resemble Homer’s; and, by modelling his blank verse on Milton’s, he achieves inversions, pauses and pomposities which are wholly unlike the smooth and simple rapidity of Homer. This is not to say that there are not excellent passages in Cowper’s Homer, nor that the whole work is not a lofty achievement in scholarship and poetry. But, in avoiding the cleverness of Pope, Cowper fell into the opposite extreme. Homer is grand and lively, Cowper’s Homer is grand and dull. As translator of the hymns of Mme. Guyon, of certain odes and satires of Horace, of Greek songs and the Latin poems of his admired Milton, Cowper was more successful, especially in the case of Horace, with whom, despite the difference between a genial pagan and an evangelical Christian he had much in common. Perhaps the least disputable title to remembrance which Cowper’s Homer possesses is that it kept the poet busy and happy, staving off, for a while, his persistent foe, despair.

    Despair was to have him in the end. Mrs. Unwin sickened and died. The strain of attendance upon her proved too much for Cowper’s mental and physical strength; and one of the saddest stories in the world is that of Cowper at and after the death of his heroic friend. Popularity, success, affection, royal favour (in the form of a pension acquired for him partly by the eager, blundering pertinacity of his friend, Hayley)—nothing could relieve him. His last original work was a powerful but ghastly poem called The Castaway. He died on 25 April, 1800.