Article 9

ART. IX. The Satires of Aldus Persius Flaccus, translated into English Verse, with the Latin Text, and Notes. 8vo. pp. 280. London, Johnson.

[pp. 355-362] [original article in PDF format]

  1. FROM the numerous versions of the Satiric Poets which have lately made their appearance, a reader, unacquainted with the originals, must naturally conclude that the task of rendering them into English presents but few difficulties, and demands but few talents that are not possessed by the generality of writers. In many cases, a similar persuasion seems to prevail among the translators themselves: and, indeed, if the Original be merely used as a text book, and without any reference to its distinguishing characteristics, the labour of giving a desultory version of it [355] may be surmounted by persons of no very extraordinary attainments.

  2. The process of translation, at present, appears to be nearly this. An imperfect rhime, a feeble couplet, or an inaccurate expression is detected in a preceding work:- forthwith the fortunate discoverer applies himself to remedy the defect. Flattered and deceived by the ease with which a business of so little 'pith and moment' is effected, he proceeds from page to page, without once stopping to inquire whether his talents be congenial to those of his author, or adapted by nature to a just comprehension and a nice display of his sentiments as well at language. Thus he completes his undertaking, exclaims, with Justinian, , and increases the bulk, without adding to the value, of the numerous copies of the ancient masters already before the public.

  3. We could have wished that these remarks had been somewhat less applicable to the present translator than, we fear, they will hereafter be found:- On a very careful examination of his performance, we confess ourselves utterly at a loss to discover on what specific quality, or endowment of mind, he relied for the superior performance of a task which had already engaged the attention of so many able writers; for Persius has not been altogether unfortunate in his translators. The perspicuity of Holyday, the melody and vigour of Dryden, the sprightliness and accuracy of Brewster, and the elegance and feeling of Drummond, have, surely, sufficient in them to humble the wise and intimidate the bold: at all events, they might infuse a reasonable suspicion into some minds, that where such men had failed, uncommon powers were required to succeed. Nothing of this, however, appears to have occurred to the present translator—but he shall speak for himself.

    'Upon an attentive reading of Persius, about three years ago, and an extensive reference to his translators and editors, I was forcibly struck with their numerous deficiencies, and I became firmly persuaded that with care and assiduity in the developement of his ideas, and a softening of his harsh and offensive colouring, a more faithful and attractive portrait of him might be produced than has hitherto appeared. This belief led to a trial; and from that trial, undertaken in the first instance for amusement, this work has arisen.' p. vi.

  4. 'It has,' continues he, 'been customary with every new candidate to appreciate the merits and defects of his predecessors; I shall, however, decline entering upon so disagreeable a discussion.' After the sweeping condemnation which we have just witnessed, the author cannot lay claim to much credit for his forbearance. [356] Indeed, we incline to think that a judicious and impartial statement of those merits and defects would be 'neither disagreeable nor unprofitable:' it might, besides, not unaptly lead to a discussion of the precise mode in which he purposed to supply the crying deficiencies of his predecessors. As far as we can collect (and there is not much to guide us), the grand succedaneum is a notification of the speakers in the different dialogues. But the plan is yet incomplete; for, to obviate the abruptness with which they break upon us, the author should have prefaced each of the Satires with a list of the dramatis personae. After all, his idea is not novel, for others had previously fallen upon it; it is not important, for we seldom find ourselves much embarrassed by its omission; and it is not consistent, for he frequently violates or neglects his own regulations.

  5. The translation is prefaced by a dissertation of considerable length on the literary pretensions of Persius. It cannot be said that the writer is too partial to his author, for he enumerates his defects with a minuteness which savours somewhat of harshness and severity. He is still more unfriendly to Juvenal:- but, upon the whole, there is spirit, and vigour, and discrimination in many of his observations; and if he had entered more fully into the ethics of the original, and not lost sight of the Stoic in the poet, we should have freely recommended much of his preliminary discourse to the reader's approbation. In the Life of Persius, which immediately follows, there is nothing interesting. It is, in truth, a jejune performance, and might be composed 'in an after-dinner's sleep' by any one who remembered Bayle. New facts are not expected; but novelty in presenting what is already known has its value; and this we have surely a right to expect from him who wittingly adventures on a beaten subject.

  6. We find some difficulty in characterising the poetry of the translation. The author, though evidently a veteran in the field of literature, and sufficiently confident of his experience, seems a tyro in this pleasing art. He writes from labour, not inspiration, and cannot even be said to have his lucky minutes. He is almost always faithful, but his fidelity is harsh and unlovely; it is the trama figurae of his original; and it demands a more than ordinary acquaintance with the poet, to recognize him at all times under his awkward and ill-contrived drapery.

  7. From that unhesitating confidence in his own powers which we mentioned above, it has undoubtedly happened that the author [357] slights or overlooks those formidable impediments in the way of translating satire, which others, less bold, appear to have contemplated with some degree of terror. 'I am no convert,' he says, 'to the common opinion of the super-eminent difficulties to be encountered in translating satire.' p. xxix. His arguments, indeed, unluckily make against his cause; but he nevertheless concludes with stoutly maintaining his position:- 'and therefore it is,' continues he, 'that Pope has been more successful in his imitations of Horace than in his translations of Homer!'.

  8. It is the peculiar boast of this writer that he has rendered Persius more intelligible to the unlearned than he was before. If it be really so, (and we shall not now dispute it,) we cannot avoid subjoining, that much yet remains to do, before he will be thoroughly understood by them. What, for instance, will they make of this line?

    'No pecking stork by mobile hands exprest.'-----p. 34.

    The scholar, indeed, with the original at his elbow, may form a probable guess at its meaning; but the English reader, who turns to his Johnson, and finds no sense of mobile, but 'the rout, the mob,' will be sorely puzzled.

    'The crapule thus of yesterday digest'-----p. 116

    Is equally safe from the learned and the unlearned: it is, in fact, no language. Just below, we have 'sick fauces:' this is about as good a translation of ægris faucibus, as 'cock-tailed mice' is of coctilibus muris; except, indeed, that it is not altogether so intelligible. But these miserable and mistaken attempts at fidelity occur in almost every page,—thus we have 'heavy belchings' for gravis halitus; 'foot's extremes' (toes, we presume) for summos pedes; 'pale stomach' for ventre albo; 'and clammy lungs' for—we know not what. Even when the author ventures to desert his original, he is not always clear; he talks of 'ill-baked metal,' of the 'tread of a footstep,' and, what is still more extraordinary, of 'the gaping of an eye.'—p. 120. It is difficult to conjecture by what process of reasoning he persuaded himself, while employed on these revolting absurdities, that he was giving 'a more attractive portrait of Persius than had hitherto appeared.'

  9. From a writer so tremblingly alive to the defects of others, and who undertakes to accompany the attractions which we have just witnessed, with a degree of 'fidelity yet unattained,' [358] just views of his author's meaning might, at least, be expected. For these, however, we frequently look in vain; and this, too, in passages where the accuracy of former translations has taken away all apology for misconception. The beautiful lines—

    'Tecum etenim longos memini consumere soles,
    Et tecum primus epulis decerpere noctes;
    Unum opus,'&c.

    are thus rendered:—

    'Remembrance tells what happy days we knew,
    the feast enjoyed at placid evening's dew;
    Of rest and study we alike partake,
    With modest meals a relaxation make.'

    Here the whole drift of the original is perverted. The English reader can possibly form no other idea of the passage, than that the jolly pupil is recalling to his preceptor's mind how frequently they had revelled together! We do not pretend to know the precise point of time denoted by 'placid evening's dew;' be it when it may, however, the youthful Stoic was so far from feasting at it, that he expressly declares he deserted the table at night-fall, for the sake of listening to his beloved master. He was, as Drummond charmingly expresses it—

    'Well pleased from feasts the twilight hours to steal,
    And share with him the philosophic meal.'

    The translator's rhymes are scarcely more correct than his sense. Serves and preserves, resist and persist, back and back, he will probably attempt to justify by the example of the French and Italians, but we know not where he will find authorities for such untuneable chimes as tongue and one, Greek and treat, big and rib, &c.

  10. Nor are his perceptions of metre more perfect, in any respect, than of sounds: e.g.

    'Nor soil the sanctuary with a dirty deed.' p. 54.

    'The smouldering oak, yourself and family survive.' p. 78

    'Here draw your income, hence expend.' p. 226.

    When Brindley, the celebrated canal-engineer, was asked by a Committee of the Lords, for what purpose he supposed Nature intended rivers: he answered, without hesitation, 'for that of feeding navigable canals!' Now Brindley was abnormis sapiens, [359] and made his surprising discovery by the aid of mother-wit alone. It seems, therefore, altogether extraordinary that so many great clerks should spring up, grow to maturity, and die, without once suspecting that Nature, in giving mankind ten fingers, meant to furnish them with an unerring rule for measuring heroick verse.

  11. The parodies of Persius (for we cannot believe that he really found the verses which he ridicules, in the writings of his contemporaries) have occasioned no small degree of trouble: few of the translators have been fortunate in anglicizing them, and none less so than the present. 'With Attys Berecynthian tags a verse' is a miserable copy of the original, and almost convinces us that the object of it was not understood:

    '------Their crooked horns the Bacchae blew,
    And round them buzzes Mimallonean strew.'

    Is scarcely more happy. In a word, we are not without fear that the English reader, on encountering such passages as these, instead of discovering that the Roman poet was absurd, will suspect that his translator is foolish.

  12. Before we conclude, justice requires that we should lay before the reader a few specimens melioris notæ. The translation of Magne pater divûm, &c. though not strictly just, has yet merit.

    'Almighty Father, bid thy lightnings sleep,
    Nor from the world its cruel tyrants sweep;
    But let the monsters, when their passions urge,
    And lusts envenom'd prove a direful scourge,
    This vengeance feel; place Virtue in their view,
    Contrast her blessings with the crimes they do:
    In anguish let them, by repentance crost,
    Pine at the sight, regret those blessings lost.' p. 108.

    The remainder is not equally happy.

  13. The absurd flattery of the poor dependant, in the first satire, is tolerably expressed.

    'What says the town? The town! What can it say,
    But that to you all other bards give way?
    We find at length in your consummate verse
    Melodious numbers, and the joinings terse.
    The piece is so well finished, so correct,
    No searching nail a blemish can detect;
    The artist works as true to his design,
    As though one eye directed every line.' p. 36. [360]

    The plea of the miser for living within his income (a beautiful passage, which Dryden, with manifest injustice, attributes to the pen of Lucan) is well given; and we quote it with the more pleasure, as it is almost the only part of the work which advances any claim to poetic feeling. It wants compression, as will easily be believed, when we observe that little more than four lines of the original are here wire-drawn into fourteen.

    'Ast vocat officium; trabe rupta, Bruttia saxa
    Prendit amicus inops,' &c. Sat. vi.—v. 27.

    'But duty's call forbids me to expend,
    A part is wanted for my shipwreck'd friend.
    Conflicting winds his sea-tost vessel urge,
    A plank is started by the stormy surge.
    Emerging see! he climbs the Bruttian steep,
    And clings for safety 'gainst the whelming deep.
    His all is buried in th' Ionian wave,
    His vows, unheeded, not one relick save.
    At length, exhausted, on the shore he lies,
    No fostering band the needful help supplies:
    And near him roll, on drifting billows born,
    The guardian image from the vessel torn,
    Which now, dissever'd by the beating tide,
    To sea-fowl heaves the fragments of her side.' p. 218.
  14. The notes, which are sufficiently copious, consist for the most part of parallel passages, not always pure, from the Greek and Roman classicks. They shew extensive reading; but, not being translated, convey no information to the unlearned, and do not greatly delight the scholar. There is little critical disquisition, and of that little the success is not always apparent. Many difficult passages are left untouched, and many allusions to curious and contemporary facts passed in mortifying silence. Upon the whole, the future translators of Persius (if such there should be) will not, we apprehend, find themselves under any extraordinary obligation to the volume before us.

  15. We have dwelt somewhat too long, perhaps, on this article; but we were desirous of discountenancing, by one forcible example, the unbecoming promptitude with which works of this nature are now so generally undertaken. The discovery of a few 'deficiencies,' though very flattering to the critic's discernment, and still more so, perhaps, to his vanity, is yet insufficient to authorize his burthening the public with new versions of the whole of the poems in which they occur. To point them out is undoubtedly [361] proper; to correct them is highly laudable: but all this may be done with little stir, and certainly without making a book for which the writer has no talents, and the world no occasion.