Richard H Armstrong (University of Houston)
While everyone knows Alexander Pope’s translations of Homer were important and influential, this paper explores the material and visual dimensions of his first subscription editions to underscore certain less well-known facts. First, Pope was very much the artist of the deal in his arrangements with his publisher, and because of the unique contract he made for an exclusive subscription edition, he became one of the first translators in Europe to get rich exclusively off the sales of a translation project (McLaverty 1993, Foxon 1991). Second, the editions are remarkable not just for the shrewd contract he negotiated, but for the unique physical features of the volumes that he oversaw himself, from the head and tailpiece illustrations to the layout, typography, and paper quality. Few see this edition, which is locked away in rare books rooms, and most of us have assimilated Pope’s text with other illustrations, like the neoclassical line drawings of John Flaxman, which were often reproduced well into the twentieth century. Not even Pope’s publisher Bernard Lintot was allowed to re-use the illustrations Pope commissioned for the publisher’s trade edition, and they are consequently less commonly seen and associated with Pope’s translation text.
In line with a general trend in translation studies (Littau 2016, Coldiron 2015), I seek to take the materiality and visuality of this edition seriously as a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk. The notion that the specific visual appeal of an edition could make an impression had been brought home to Pope as a boy from the Homer and Virgil editions of John Ogilby, who pioneered the idea of a subscription edition by having the nobility pay for lavish illustrations that would sport their family crests, thus underwriting the project (Ereira 2016, Clapp 1933). That scheme was midway between a traditional form of literary patronage (a system that proved unsatisfactory to many authors, particularly George Chapman) and a new form of cultivating a wider book-buying public among aristocratic and upper middle-class readers (Clapp 1931). Pope’s method promised not to sport the crests of the aristocracy, but rather to bind the subscribers together in support of a unique literary product, of which he was the orchestrator or auteur. His notice in the Evening Post on the imminent publication of his Odyssey’s first volumes make this clear: “No other edition of this work is printed on the same paper, or in the same size, or with the ornaments on copper, which are fifty in number, designed by Mr. Kent. Nor will any ever be exposed to sale, or to be procured by any but the subscribers” (cited in Bassino 2021, 194).
While it is certainly easy to see Pope’s translation as a matter of linguistic transfer into a poetic idiom of his age, we undervalue his overall artistry if we fail to take seriously his shaping of the editions as visually stunning, haptic objects. I will discuss the interplay of illustration, typography, commentary and translation text to reframe our thinking about Pope’s Homer as a full blown media artefact.