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The rhymed couplet gives a perpetual reservation within which to approximate, as near as may be, to prose. With Chaucer, Dryden, Pope, Keats, Shelley, and the Victorians before us, what bounds can we set to the aptitude of this metre? The eighteenth century had tied it
up in antithetical, epigrammatic bondage, but a hundred years of reaction have freed it again. So Ovid killed the elegiac couplet in Latin for all purposes but wit; only, in Latin, no poet arose to revive it. Between the dry, tense brilliance of Pope's couplet and the moribund wateriness of William Morris' archaistic rhyming, there is room for ease or elevation, flow or retort, argument and narrative, music and cleverness; the couplet is capable of all the grandeur of blank verse, and yet through all colloquialism of diction or construction the rhyme is present to reassure the ear. Perhaps to confess an ambition is only to offer an estimate of one's own failure; however, I will confess that I have often coveted the joyous brilliancy and unembarrassed current of Rostand's dramatic verse ; and I still believe that, given our five foot couplet for the French Alexandrine, a like success is feasible in English, though sadly far from realised in these pages.
Next, the matter of Choruses. The late Mr. Warr in his companion volume of
Aeschylus adopted the device of “rhythmical prose.” Perhaps it is foolhardy to attempt
But I felt that my rhymed couplets prohibited me from leaving the choruses to prose even "rhythmical ”; and, I confess, was not content with giving the lyrics of Sophocles the air of an irresponsible canticle modelled on some jingle from Hymns Ancient and Modern interpolated in the midst of dramatic action.
Changing passions, and numbers changing with those passions, make the whole secret of Western as well as Eastern poetry,” says Goldsmith's ingenious Chinaman. And if the words were married by the poet to a rhythm dochmiac, logaædic, glyconic, anapæstic, as the case may be, surely (in obedience to the text on my phylactery) the translator's task must be to produce such words as might conveniently be chanted to the poet's music (if by some divine accident the sands of Egypt should ever restore it), or to a modern music which should observe the same rhythm. It would be idle to hope that my choruses will afford the reader a pleasure bearing any tolerable proportion to the extreme labour spent upon them; but I felt myself in honesty bound to
: hazard this system for representing (to such a reader as Browning imagines) what kind of thing a Sophoclean chorus is.
I need not
weary him by explaining the various treatments I have experimented upon in the metrical pauses or rests which make the Greek cadence, especially in the penultimate of the lyric period.
I have sometimes taken the licence to rhyme across from Turn (strophe) to Counter-turn (antistrophe), but after King Edipus this plan has been abandoned.
Lastly, obligations. A naturally thievish memory has forbidden me to look at other verse translations of my author ; but by the high value of his critical contributions to Sophoclean study, I can judge how great is my loss in the case of Mr. Whitelaw's version. I owe it to Sir Richard Jebb that so little commentary is needed to this volume; and what little there is, is in great measure a debt to him also. His great edition is so complete and judicious that for many years to come all Sophoclean criticism must be expressed in terms of differing or agreeing with him. I have only departed from his view in three or four passages; and having his translation
perforce before me, where it offered the one right word to render the Greek or to suit the metre, I have not avoided the sin of plagiarism; but I hope my loans will not be judged excessive in this particular.
But (as in sermons) even “lastly” is not the end: there is one matter more.
Goldsmith's ingenious Chinaman-to quote him once again—is demonstrated by the English writer of Eastern Tales to be no Chinaman at all, and to “have nothing of the true Eastern manner in his delivery." The Orientalist then proceeds to detail the ingredients of the “true manner,” and among them boasts, “I have used thee and thou upon all occasions." So, too, our English classical convention, to the great misappreciation, I believe, of certain Greek authors.
If I am right in my estimate of the pitch of Sophocles' manner, then the indiscriminate use of thee and thou is ruled out by his deliberate approximation to the prose diction of his day; as for the discriminate use, an Age of Progress has unhappily shorn our language of this beautiful resource and given it to the Quakers. There are many verbs quite within the modern poetical range, which become uncouth when they are written in the second person singular, from the general disuse of that inflection. In the lyrics the case stands differently; the I wot and I ween style of English not unfairly renders the strange convention of dialect and diction which governs the Tragic Chorus; and any extravagance is justified
by the original. “ In no other instance does antiquity appear to me to have played the fool so much as in this sort of choruses, in which eloquence was debased by an excessive affectation of novelty, and in aiming at verbal miracles all grasp of reality was lost."
A harsh judgment, and conditioned perhaps by defective texts; yet not the judgment of a flippant schoolboy, but of the great Erasmus.
J. S. P.
GLASGOW, June 1902.