Story type: Essay
SPECIMEN TRANSLATION FROM VOSS IN HEXAMETERS, WITH LETTER TO PROFESSOR W. (‘CHRISTOPHER NORTH’).
Doctor, I say, for I hear that the six Universities of England and Scotland have sent you a doctor’s degree, or, if they have not, all the world knows they ought to have done; and the more shame for them if they keep no ‘Remembrancer’ to put them in mind of what they must allow to be amongst their most sacred duties. But that’s all one. I once read in my childhood a pretty book, called ‘Wilson’s Account of the Pelew Islands,’ at which islands, you know, H.M.S. Antelope was wrecked–just about the time, I fancy, when you, Doctor, and myself were in long petticoats and making some noise in the world; the book was not written by Captain Wilson, but by Keates, the sentimentalist. At the very end, however, is an epitaph, and that was written by the captain and ship’s company:
‘Stop, reader, stop, let nature claim a tear;
A prince of mine, Lee Boo, lies buried here.’
This epitaph used often to make me cry, and in commemoration of that effect, which (like that of all cathartics that I know of, no matter how drastic at first) has long been growing weaker and weaker, I propose (upon your allowing me an opportunity) to superscribe you in any churchyard you will appoint:
‘Stop, reader, stop, let genius claim a tear;
A doct’r of mine, Lee Kit, lies buried here.’
‘Doct’r of‘ you are to read into a dissyllable, and pretty much like Boney’s old friend on the road from Moscow, General Doct’roff, who ‘doctor’d them off,’ as the Laureate observes, and prescribed for the whole French army gratis. But now to business.
For your information, Doctor, it cannot be necessary, but on account of very many readers it will be so, to say that Voss’s ‘Luise’ has long taken its place in the literature of Germany as a classical work–in fact, as a gem or cabinet chef d’oeuvre; nay, almost as their unique specimen in any national sense of the lighter and less pretending muse; less pretending, I mean, as to the pomp or gravity of the subject, but on that very account more pretending as respects the minuter graces of its execution. In the comparative estimate of Germans, the ‘Luise’ holds a station corresponding to that of our ‘Rape of the Lock,’ or of Gresset’s ‘Vert-vert’–corresponding, that is, in its degree of relative value. As to its kind of value, some notion may be formed of it even in that respect also from the ‘Rape of the Lock,’ but with this difference, that the scenes and situations and descriptions are there derived from the daily life and habits of a fashionable belle and the fine gentlemen who surround her, whereas in the ‘Luise’ they are derived exclusively from the homelier and more patriarchal economy of a rural clergyman’s household; and in this respect the ‘Luise’ comes nearest by much, in comparison of any other work that I know of, to our own ‘Vicar of Wakefield.’ Like that delightful portrait of rural life in a particular aspect, or idyll as it might be called, the ‘Luise’ aims at throwing open for our amusement the interior of a village parsonage (Scotice, ‘manse’); like that in its earlier half (for the latter half of the ‘Vicar’ is a sad collapse from the truth and nature of the original conception into the marvellous of a commonplace novel), the ‘Luise’ exhibits the several members of a rustic clergyman’s family according to their differences of sex, age, and standing, in their natural, undisguised features, all unconsciously marked by characteristic foibles, all engaged in the exercise of their daily habits, neither finer nor coarser than circumstances naturally allow, and all indulging in such natural hopes or fictions of romance as grow out of their situation in life. The ‘Luise,’ in short, and the ‘Vicar of Wakefield’ are both alike a succession of circumstantial delineations selected from mere rustic life, but rustic life in its most pure and intellectual form; for as to the noble countess in the ‘Luise,’ or the squire and his uncle, Sir William, in the ‘Vicar of Wakefield,’ they do not interfere sufficiently to disturb the essential level of the movement as regards the incidents, or to colour the manners and the scenery. Agreeing, however, in this general purpose, the two works differ in two considerable features; one, that the ‘Vicar of Wakefield’ describes the rural clergyman of England, ‘Luise’ the rural clergyman of North Germany; the other, that the English idyll is written in prose, the German in verse–both of which differences, and the separate peculiarities growing out of them, will, it may perhaps be thought, require a few words of critical discussion.
There has always existed a question as to the true principles of translation when applied, not to the mere literature of knowledge (because there it is impossible that two opinions can arise, by how much closer the version by so much the better), but to the literature of power, and to such works–above all, to poems–as might fairly be considered works of art in the highest sense. To what extent the principle of compensation might reasonably be carried, the license, that is, of departing from the strict literal forms of the original writer, whether as to expressions, images, or even as to the secondary thoughts, for the sake of reproducing them in some shape less repellent to a modern ear, and therefore virtually sustaining the harmony of the composition by preventing the attention from settling in a disproportionate degree upon what might have a startling effect to a taste trained under modern discipline–this question has always been pending as a question open to revision before the modern courts of criticism; as surely to you, Dr. North, one of the chief ‘swells’ on that bench, I need not say. But, for the sake of accurate thinking, it is worth while observing that formerly this question was moved almost exclusively with a view to the Latin and Greek classics; and that circumstance gave a great and a very just bias to the whole dispute. For the difference with regard to any capital author of ancient days, as compared with modern authors, is this, that here we have a twofold interest–an interest with work, and a separate interest in the writer. Take the ‘Prometheus Desmotes’ of AEschylus, and suppose that a translator should offer us an English ‘Prometheus,’ which he acknowledged to be very free, but at the same time contended that his variations from the Greek were so many downright improvements, so that, if he had not given us the genuine ‘Prometheus,’ he had given us something better. In such a case we should all reply, but we do not want something better. Our object is not the best possible drama that could be produced on the fable of ‘Prometheus’; what we want is the very ‘Prometheus’ that was written by AEschylus, the very drama that was represented at Athens. The Athenian audience itself, and what pleased its taste, is already one subject of interest. AEschylus on his own account is another. These are collateral and alien subjects of interest quite independent of our interest in the drama, and for the sake of these we wish to see the real original ‘Prometheus’–not according to any man’s notion of improvement, but such as came from a sublime Grecian poet, such as satisfied a Grecian audience, more than two thousand years ago. We wish, in fact, for the real AEschylus, ‘unhousel’d, unaneal’d,’ with all his imperfections on his head.
Such was the way, and the just way, of arguing the point when the application was limited to a great authentic classic of the Antique; nor was the case at all different where Ariosto or any other illustrious Italian classic was concerned. But a new sort of casuistry in this question has arisen in our own times, and by accident chiefly in connection with German literature; but it may well be, Dr. North, that you will be more diverted by a careful scrutiny of my metres after Voss in illustration, than by any further dissertation on my part on a subject that you know so well.
Always yours admiringly,
X. Y. Z.
The Parson’s Dinner.
In the month of leafy June, beneath celestial azure
Of skies all cloudless, sate the aged Rector of Esthwaite
Dining amidst his household; but not the meridian ardour
Of sunbeams fierce he felt; him the shady veranda
With vine-clad trellis defends: beyond a pendulous awning
Of boughs self-wreath’d from limes (whose mighty limbs overarching
Spanned the low roof of the house) spreads far effectual umbrage
For young and old alike; noontide awfully breathless
Settled in deepest silence on the woods and valley of Esthwaite.
Yet not the less there would rise, after stillest interval often,
Low whispering gales that stole, like sobbing murmur of infant
Dreaming in arms maternal, into the heart o’ the youngest:
Gales that at most could raise a single ringlet of auburn
As it pencill’d the noble brow of the youthful Anna Louisa–
Sole child that survived to thee, oh, aged pastor of Esthwaite.
Clad in his morning gown, the reverend priest at a table
Of sculptur’d stone was seated; and his seat was a massy but easy
Settle of oak, which in youth his ancient servitor, Isaac,
Footman, sexton, and steward, butler and gardener also,
Carved by the winter fire in nights of gloomy November,
And through many a long, long night of many a dark December.
The good man’s heart was glad, and his eyes were suffus’d with a rapture
Of perfect love as they settled on her–that pulse of his heart’s blood,
The one sole prop of his house, the beautiful Anna Louisa.
By the side of himself sate his wife, that ancient tamer of housemaids,
Yet kind of heart as a dove, and with matron graces adorning
Her place as she sate dispensing hospitality boundless
To the strangers within her gates; for, lo! two strangers on one side
Sate of the long stone table; yet strangers by manner or action
One would not suppose them; nor were they, but guests ever honour’d,
And dear to each heart in the house of th’ ancient Rector of Esthwaite.
The elder of them was called Augustus Harry Delancey,
And he rode as a cornet of horse in the mighty imperial army.
Him had the parents approved (and those were melodious accents,
The sweetest he ever had heard) as suitor of Anna Louisa.
But from lips more ruby far–far more melodious accents
Had reach’d his ears since then; for she, the daughter, her own self,
Had condescended at last to utter sweet ratification
Of all his hopes; low whisp’ring the ‘yes’–celestial answer
That raised him to paradise gates on pinion of expectation.
Over against his beloved he sate–the suitor enamour’d:
And God He knows that indeed should it prove an idolatrous error
To look in the eyes of a lady till you feel a dreamy devotion,
I fear for the health of your soul that day, oh, Harry Delancey!
Next to Delancey there sate his pupil, Magnus Adolphus,
A fair-haired boy of ten, half an orphan, a count of the empire–
Magnus Adolphus of Arnstein, that great Bavarian earldom.
Him had his widowed mother, the noble Countess of Arnstein,
Placed with Delancey betimes, as one in knightly requirements
Skilful and all-accomplished, that he the ‘youthful idea'
Might ‘teach how to shoot’ (with a pistol, videlicet),–horses
To mount and to manage with boldness, hounds to follow in hunting
The fox, the tusky boar, the stag with his beautiful antlers:
Arts, whether graceful or useful, in arms or equestrian usage,
Did Augustus impart to his pupil, the youthful earl of the empire.
To ride with stirrups or none, to mount from the near-side or off-side
(Which still is required in the trooper who rides in the Austrian army),
To ride with bridle or none, on a saddle Turkish or English,
To force your horse to curvet, pirouette, dance on his haunches,
And whilst dancing to lash with his feet, and suggest an effectual hinting
To the enemy’s musqueteers to clear the road for the hinter:
Or again, if you want a guide by night, in a dangerous highway
Beset with the enemies’ marksmen and swarming with murderous ambush,
To train your horse in the art of delicate insinuation,
Gently raising a hoof to tap at the door o’ the woodsman.
But, if he persists in snoring, or pretending to snore, or is angry
At your summons to leave his lair in the arms of his wife or his infants,
To practise your horse in the duty of stormy recalcitration,
Wheeling round to present his heels, and in mid caracoling
To send the emperor’s greeting smack through the panel of oakwood
That makes the poor man so hard of hearing imperial orders.
Arts such as these and others, the use of the sabre on horseback,
All modes of skill gymnastic, modes whether forceful or artful,
Of death-grapple if by chance a cannon-shot should un-horse you,
All modes of using the limbs with address, with speed, or enormous
Effort of brutal strength, all this did Harry Delancey
Teach to his docile pupil: and arts more nobly delightful,
Arts of the head or the heart, arts intellectual; empire
Over dead men’s books, over regions of high meditation,
Comparative tactics, warfare as then conducted in ages
When powder was none, nor cannon, but brute catapultae,
Blind rams, brainless wild asses, the stony slinger of huge stones.
Iron was lord of the world; iron reigned, man was his engine;
But now the rule is reversed, man binds and insults over iron.
Together did they, young tutor, young pupil, Augustus, Adolphus,
Range over history martial, or read strategical authors,
Xenophon, Arrian, old Polybius, old Polyaenus
(Think not these Polys, my boy, were blooming Pollies of our days!),
And above all others, they read the laurel’d hero of heroes,
Thrice kingly Roman Julius, sun-bright leader of armies,
Who planted his god-like foot on the necks of a whole generation.
Such studies, such arts were those by which young Harry Delancey
Sought to discharge the trust which to him the Lady of Arnstein
Confided with hopes maternal; thus trained, he hoped that Adolphus
Would shine in his native land, for high was his place in the empire.
EDITOR’S NOTE.–This was, of course, written for Blackwood’s Magazine; but it never appeared there.
 ‘That tamer of housemaids’: [Greek: Hektoros ippodamoio]–of Hector, the tamer of horses (‘Iliad’).
 ‘On pinion of expectation.’ Here I would request the reader to notice that it would have been easy for me to preserve the regular dactylic close by writing ‘pinion of anticipation;’ as also in the former instance of ‘many a dark December‘ to have written ‘many a rainy December.’ But in both cases I preferred to lock up by the massy spondaic variety; yet never forgetting to premise a dancing dactyle–‘many a’–and ‘pinion of.’ Not merely for variety, but for a separate effect of peculiar majesty.
 Alluding to a ridiculous passage in Thomson’s ‘Seasons’:
‘Delightful task! to teach the young idea how to shoot.’
 All these arts, viz., teaching the horse to fight with his forelegs or lash out with his hind-legs at various angles in a general melee of horse and foot, but especially teaching him the secret of ‘inviting’ an obstinate German boor to come out and take the air strapped in front of a trooper, and do his duty as guide to the imperial cavalry, were imported into the Austrian service by an English riding-master about the year 1775-80. And no doubt it must have been horses trained on this learned system of education from which the Highlanders of Scotland derived their terror of cavalry.
 ‘Blind rams, brainless wild asses,’ etc. The ‘arietes,’ or battering-rams with iron-bound foreheads, the ‘onagri,’ or wild asses, etc., were amongst the poliorcetic engines of the ancients, which do not appear to have received any essential improvement after the time of the brilliant Prince Demetrius, the son of Alexander’s great captain, Antigonus.