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More Nobly Great Than the Famed Iliads: The Rhetoric of Encomia to Seventeenth-Century English Translators of Horace and Virgil

Kenneth Draper

Indiana University

Among the paratexts that precede seventeenth-century English translations, one finds encomiastic poems dedicated to the translators. Whereas the translators’ own prefaces apologize for their work’s inferiority, these encomia often do the opposite, boldly claiming that the translations equal—or even surpass—their models (Hermans 1985: 106). The translators’ studied diffidence and the encomiasts’ hyperbolic protestations underline—in different ways—two interrelated status anxieties: English had less cultural prestige than Greek and Latin, and translation had less than original composition (Steiner 1975, Davis 2008, Rhodes 2011). In this paper, I consider one strategy employed by the encomiasts of Latin translations to ease these anxieties. They found a model in the Romans’ own reception of Greek literature, an attitude itself marked by a combination of zeal, anxiety, and boastfulness. Specifically, I show that in the front matter of translations of Horace and Virgil, encomiasts allude—sometimes in subtle ways—to ancient passages identifying these Roman poets as cultural intermediaries. Bearers of Greek forms to Rome, Horace and Virgil gave early-modern Englishmen a high-status model of cultural importation that they applied to English translation.

Consider a line from John Chapperline’s poem to the Horatian translator Thomas Hawkins (1625): Romanumque melos Anglica plectra movent (“And English plectra strike up a Roman song”). This line echoes Horace’s request to his lyre at C. 1.32.4-6: dic Latinum, / barbite, carmen, / Lesbio primum modulate civi  (“Sing, lyre, first tuned by a Lesbian citizen, a Latin song”). Horace’s use of a Greek word for the lyre (barbitos) and his reference to Alcaeus sit alongside his identification of his song as Latin. Chapperline likewise distinguishes, mutatis mutandis, between the nationality of the instrument and that of the song. For Horace, writing original compositions in Greek meters, the song is native but the instrument is foreign. For Hawkins, translating Horace into English heroic couplets, the song is foreign but the instrument is native. The allusion nevertheless claims an affinity between Horace’s project and Hawkins’s, indicating the two poets’ similar roles as mediators between different national literary cultures. Another of Hawkins’s encomiasts, Francis Lovel, develops the strategy further, weaving together a series of allusions to Horatian passages on the importation of Greek culture: A.P. 131-35, on proper translation; the famous maxim that Greece, when conquered, conquered Rome (Ep. 2.1.156-57); and Horace’s triumphant boast at C. 3.30.13-14 that he was princeps Aeolium carmen ad Italos / deduxisse modos.

We see a similar strategy in the front matter of Dryden’s 1697 translation of Virgil. James Wright’s encomium alludes to Propertius’ (2.34.65-66) praise of the Aeneid: “His old encomium never did appear / so true as now; Romans and Greeks submit, / Something of late is in our language writ / More nobly great than the famed Iliads were.” Another encomiast, Henry Grahme, compares Dryden to Aeneas: Dryden has re-entered the literary fray, rife with critics, in order to rescue his “father,” Virgil, from perishing. While the primary references in Grahme’s poem are to the Aeneid, a secondary reference to Horace highlights Virgil’s role as a cultural intermediary: in Horace’s propempticon to Virgil (C. 1.3), also ten four-line stanzas, Virgil’s dangerous voyage on the Adriatic tropes his daring new poetic project in terms that bear playful resemblances to the journey of its central hero. Virgil differs from Aeneas, though, in crossing the Adriatic in the opposite direction: he heads to Attic shores (finibus Atticis), a fitting destination for one taking on the Greek classic par excellence. In different ways, Horace and Grahme use a playful parallelism between epic poet and epic character to highlight the poet’s heroism in navigating between literary cultures.

In combatting anxieties about the translation of Latin literature, these writers turn to Latin literature: the affliction contains its own cure. The ancient discourse surrounding Horace’s and Virgil’s adaptation of Greek literature made them models for—and not just objects of—their own reception.

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Use and Power of Rhetoric

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