Friday, May 26, 2023

'To Choose a Subject for Your Genius Fit'

In 1869, at the age of twenty-six, Henry James first visited Italy, a place he described in a letter to his sister as “warm & living & palpable.” He would collect much of his nonfiction devoted to that country in Italian Hours (1909), but six years after that first visit he reviewed another travel/history book, Days Near Rome, by an Englishman who was born in Rome, Augustus J. C. Hare. I don’t associate James with classical literature. He was not a student of Latin and Greek. Nevertheless, he writes in his review of Hare’s book: “The smallest pretext for quoting from Horace—the most quotable of the ancients—should always be cultivated.” 

I was reading in a favorite anthology, Horace in English (eds. D.S. Carne-Ross and Kenneth Haynes, Penguin, 1996). The editors’ preface begins with a slightly disapproving confirmation of James’ observation: “The favourite poet of those who do not much like poetry but enjoy a well-turned commonplace. That is or was until yesterday one Horace.” For many he was less a poet than a well-worn copy of Bartlett's quotations. Our forebears quoted Horace the way we might quote Dr. Johnson or Mark Twain. The anthology includes translations by dozens of poets from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. It doubles as a history of English verse. Most of the major poets are represented – Jonson, Milton, Marvell, Dryden, Pope, Swift, Johnson, Cowper, Tennyson, Kipling, Housman, Cunningham et al.


When it comes to Horace’s Ars Poetica, the editors were inspired to take a patchwork approach. They translate the entire poem by stitching together versions by ten poets, from Jonson to C.H. Sisson, and include a poet whose work I hardly know, John Oldham (1653-83), probably best remembered because of Dryden’s To the Memory of Mr. Oldham.” Reading Oldham’s “Horace’s Art of Poetry, Imitated in English,” you can take James’ remark seriously, without condescension. Oldham’s poem is readable, conversational and amusing:


“Be sure all you that undertake to write,

To choose a subject for your genius fit;

Try long and often what your talents are;

What is the burthen which your parts will bear,

And where they'll fail; he that discerns with skill

To cull his argument and matter well,

Will never be to seek for eloquence

To dress, or method to dispose his sense.”


And this:


“But he whose words and fortunes do not suit,

By pit and gallery both is hooted out.”


Just for the sheer pleasure of it, here is a freely translated excerpt from C.H. Sisson’s contribution to Horace’s Epistle II.3, “Ars Poetica,” published in 1974:


“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.”


[James’ review of Hare’s volume is collected in Henry James: Literary Criticism (Library of America, 1984).]

[That one-man library Isaac Waisberg has sent me a link to his collection of Horace translations in English.]

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