Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Who Is Pressing You Now?: A Reconsideration of Milton's "Pyrrha Ode"

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Who Is Pressing You Now?: A Reconsideration of Milton's "Pyrrha Ode"

Article excerpt

Milton's translation of Horace's Odes 1.5, the so-called "Pyrrha Ode" or ode "Ad Pyrrham," continues to inspire strong reactions: on the one hand, held up as an example of precisely how not to translate a poem; on the other, regarded as an incontestable masterpiece, with D. S. Carne-Ross deeming it the only successful literal translation in the whole of the English tradition. Less enamored with Milton's effort, Ronald Storrs, who had collected several hundred verse translations of the ode to Pyrrha, remarked that "were it not by ... a certain John Milton, most readers would find [his translation] as difficult to praise as to pronounce." (1) Even the poem's admirers have at times couched their praise in terms of failure, with descriptions of Milton overmastering English or stretching it to destruction. Viewed within the context of literary translation, Milton's rendering stands apart in being very exact--metaphrastic, to use John Dryden's term--in its mirroring of Latin diction and syntax.

As Archie Burnett wrote in his survey of earlier criticism, "Widely-differing judgments have been passed on nearly every aspect of Milton's translation of Horace." (2) The critical debate, however, has focused on three issues: the translation's date of composition, its relation to Milton's stylistic development, and its poetic merits. The first two concerns are often connected: Is the poem an early, schoolboy effort (the majority view) and thus part of Milton's training regimen in only a general way, or a later experiment that prepared and refined his mature, grand style? This essay engages with all three issues--particularly the translation's date of composition, for which I present new evidence--but with a different focus. A reconsideration of Milton's translation is warranted in order to give due attention to other concerns, namely the translation's print history, paratext, and the purpose of literal translation (also called "verbal" or "grammatical" translation) in early modern England. This essay frames its analysis of Milton's translation within these contexts.

I argue that, rather than offering his translation as a substitute for Horace's original, Milton presents it as a parallel text. This highly literal translation demands through its method and its paratext that readers approach it comparatively--that they use, that is, the facing Latin--for three reasons: to appreciate Milton's experiment, to excuse his peculiarities of phrasing, and, strangest of all, to understand the translation itself. For at the moment that Milton translates two lines truly word for word, his translation becomes thoroughly ambiguous; ironically, the English reader must use the Latin original to comprehend the translation. Whereas other literal translations encouraged comparative reading to further learning, Milton demands a comparative reading of his translation to define the nature of his audacious feat and the degree of his success. His literal translation is experimental rather than pedagogical.

A close comparison of Milton's translation with the facing Latin shows his version's ingenuity and its shortcomings. I argue that several of Milton's key word choices, often censured, are both more successful and consistent with his translation method than has been recognized. But I also draw attention to less-noted elements within the text that deviate from Milton's stated translation method, moments where he fails to follow through on his extraordinary promise.

At least six single-authored translations of Horace's Odes were published in England in the seventeenth century before Milton's version of the "Pyrrha Ode" appeared in print: John Ashmore (1621), Thomas Hawkins (1625), and Sir Richard Fanshawe (1652) translated selections; Henry Rider (1638), John Smith (1649), and an anonymous author (1653) translated the complete Odes. (3) All of these authors, save for Hawkins, included a rendering of the popular "Pyrrha Ode." The poem appealed to an early modern audience, Joshua Scodel argues, because of "its artful but 'moral' evocation of beauty's dangerous seductiveness. …

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