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XIV.-BARRETT'S OVID'S EPISTLES.
[From the Critical Review, 1759. “ Ovid's Epistles translated
into English Verse ; with Critical Essays and Notes. Being part of a Poetical and Oratorial Lecture, read in the GrammarSchool of Ashford, in Kent; and calculated to initiate Youth in the first rudiments of Taste. By Stephen Barrett, Master of the said School." 8vo.]
The praise which is every day lavished upon Virgil, Horace, or Ovid, is often no more than an indirect method the critic takes to compliment his own discernment. Their works have long been considered as models of beauty ; to praise them now is only to shew the conformity of our taste to theirs : it tends not to advance their reputation, but to promote our own. Let us then dismiss, for the present, the pedantry of panegyric; Ovid needs it not, and we are not disposed to turn encomiasts on ourselves.
It will be sufficient to observe, that the multitude of translators which have attempted this poet, serves to evince the number of his admirers; and their indifferent success, the difficulty of equalling his elegance or his ease.
Dryden, ever poor, and ever willing to be obliged, solicited the assistance of his friends for a translation of these epistles. It was not the first time his miseries obliged him to call in happier bards to his aid; and to permit such to quarter their fleeting performances on the lasting merit of his name.
This eleemosynary translation, as might well be expected, was extremely unequal, frequently unjust to the poet's meaning, almost always so to his fame. It was published without notes; for it was not at that time customary to swell every performance of this nature with comment and scholia. The reader did not then choose to have the current
of his passions interrupted, his attention every moment called off from pleasure only, to be informed why he was so pleased. It was not then thought necessary to lessen surprise by anticipation, and, like some spectators we have met at the play-house, to take off our attention from the performance, by telling, in our ear, what will follow next.
Since this united effort, Ovid, as if born to misfortune, has undergone successive metamorphoses, being sometimes transposed by schoolmasters unacquainted with English, and sometimes transversed by ladies who knew no Latin : thus he has alternately worn the dress of a pedant or a rake; either crawling in humble prose, or having his hints explained into unbashful meaning Schoolmasters, who knew all that was in him, except his graces, give the names of places and towns at full length, and he moves along stiffly in their literal versions, as the man who, as we are told in the Philosophical Transactions, was afflicted with an universal anchylosis. His female imitators, on the other hand, regard the dear creature only as a lover; express the delicacy of his passion by the ardour of their own; and if now and then he is found to grow a little too warm, and perhaps to express himself a little indelicately, it must be imputed to the more poignant sensations of his fair admirers. In a word, we have seen him stripped of all his beauties in the versions of Stirling and Clark, and talk like a debauchee in that of Mrs. ; (1) but the sex should ever be sacred from criticism ; perhaps the ladies have a right to describe raptures, which none but themselves can bestow.
A poet, like Ovid, whose great beauty lies rather in expression than sentiment, must be necessarily difficult to translate. A fine sentiment may be conveyed several different ways, without impairing its vigour; but a sentence
(1) [Mrs. Elizabeth Keene ; who had recently published a translation of Dido's Epistle to Æneas.]
delicately expressed, will scarcely admit the least variation without losing beauty. The performance before us will serve to convince the public, that Ovid is more easily admired than imitated. The translator, in his notes, shews an ardent zeal for the reputation of his poet. It is possible, too, he may have felt his beauties; however, he does not seem possessed of the happy art of giving his feelings expression. If a kindred spirit, as we have often been told, must animate the translator, we fear the claims of Mr. Barrett will never receive a sanction in the heraldry of Parnassus.
His intentions, even envy must own, are laudable ; nothing less than to instruct boys, schoolmasters, grown gentlemen, the public, in the principles of taste (to use his own expression), both by precept and example. His manner it seems is, “ to read a course of poetical lectures to his pupils one night in the week ; which, beginning with this author, running through select pieces of our own, as well as the Latin and Greek writers, and ending with Longinus, contributes no little towards forming their taste.” No little ! reader, observe that, from a person so perfectly master of the force of his own language: what may not be expected from his comments on the beauties of another?
But, in order to shew in what manner he has executed these intentions, it is proper he should first march in review as a poet. We shall select the first epistle that offers, which is that from Penelope to Ulysses, observing beforehand, that the whole translation is a most convincing instance, that English words may be placed in Latin order, without being wholly unintelligible. Such forced transpositions serve at once to give an idea of the translator's learning, and of difficulties surmounted.
This, still your wife, my ling’ring lord ! I send ;
These lines seem happily imitated from Taylor, the waterpoet, who has it thus ;
“ To thee, dear Ursula, these lines I send,
Not with my hand, but with my heart, they're penn'd." But not to make a pause in the reader's pleasure, we proceed.
“ Sunk now is Troy, the curse of Grecian dames !
Th’ adult'rer perish'd in the mad profound !" Here seems some obscurity in the translation : we are at a loss to know what is meant by the mad profound. certainly mean neither Bedlam nor Fleet-ditch; for though the epithet mad might agree with one, or profound with the other, yet when united they seem incompatible with either. The profound has frequently been used to signify bad verses ; and poets are sometimes said to be mad : who knows but Penelope wishes that Paris might have died in the very act of rhyming; and as he was a shepherd, it is not improbable to suppose but that he was a poet also.
“ Cold in a widow'd bed I ne'er had Jay,
Nor chid with weary eyes the ling'ring day." Lay for lain, by the figure ginglimus. Our translator makes frequent use of this figure.
“Nor the protracted nuptials to avoid,
By night unravell’d what the day employ’d.
Pale at the mention of bold Hector's name ! Ovid makes Penelope shudder at the name of Hector. Our translator, with great propriety, transfers the fright from Penelope to Ulysses himself: it is he who grows pale at the name of Hector ; and well indeed he might; for Hector is represented by Ovid, somewhere else, as a terrible fellow, and Ulysses as little better than a poltroon.
“Whose spear when brave Antilochus embrued,
By the dire news awoke, my fear renew'd.
Cold icy horrors my fond bosom chill'd.” Here we may observe how epithets tend to strengthen the force of expression. First, her horrors are cold, and so far Ovid seems to think also; but the translator adds, from himself, the epithet icy, to shew that they are still colder :-a fine climax of frigidity!
“ But Heaven, indulgent to my chaste desire,
Has wrapp'd (my husband safe) proud Troy in fire." The reader may have already observed one or two instances of our translator's skill, in parenthetically clapping one sentence within another. This contributes not a little to obscurity; and obscurity, we all know, is nearly allied to admiration. Thus, when the reader begins a sentence which he finds pregnant with another, which still teems with a third, and so on, he feels the same surprise which a countryman does at Bartholomew-fair. Hocus shews a bag, in appearance empty; slap, and out come a dozen new laid eggs; slap again, and the number is doubled : but what is his amazement, when it swells with the hen that laid them!
“ The Grecian chiefs return, each altar shines,
And wives hang, list’ning, on their husbands' tongues." Critics have expatiated, in raptures, on the delicate use the ancients have made of the verb pendere. Virgil's goats are described as hanging on the mountain side; the eyes of a lady hang on the looks of her lover. Ovid has increased the force of the metaphor, and describes the wife as hanging