Sunday, December 08, 2013

`Like Dr. Johnson Himself'

One of my favorite anthologies, a book I pull out when I’m between other books, or when I seek the solace of familiarity, is Horace in English, a Penguin paperback edited by the late D.S. Carne-Ross and Kenneth Haynes, and published in 1996. In his fifty-eight-page introduction, Carne-Ross, by outlining the history of Horace translations in English, is at the same time reviewing much of the history of poetry in English, from Jonson, Herrick and Milton through Kipling, Ferry and Hecht. It’s a two-for-the-price-of-one anthology and the introduction is as good an essay as I know on any theme spanning half a millennium of literary history. No stick-in-the-mud pedant, Carne-Ross writes: 

“Those accustomed to the modern versions that professors call faithful (the translator can read Latin but cannot write English) may be startled by the liberties permitted and almost expected in the great ages of classical translation from the second half of the seventeenth century through the first half of the eighteenth.”

To suggest the grandeur of Horace in English, Carne-Ross is inspired to give us the Ars Poetica (Epistle II.3) as a sort of quilt stitched together sequentially, in chronological order, by ten poets – Jonson, the Earl of Roscommon, John Oldham, Thomas Creech, Philip Francis, Francis Howes, Lord Byron (in Hints from Horace), John Conington, Roy Campbell and C.H. Sisson. Sisson’s, published in 1975, is “free” by almost any standard and wonderfully readable. Here’s a sample: 

“The man who can actually tell when a verse is lifeless
Will know when it doesn’t sound right; he will point to stragglers,
And equally put his pen through elaboration;
He will even force you to give up your favourite obscurities,
Tell you what isn’t clear and what has got to be changed,
Like Dr. Johnson himself. There will be no nonsense
About it not being worth causing trouble for trifles.
Trifles like that amount in the end to disaster,
Derisory writing and meaning misunderstood.”

Quintus Horatius Flaccus was born on this date Dec. 8, in 65 B.C., and died on Nov. 27, 8 B.C.

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