George Chapman

Andrew Laing, in The English Poets: Selections with Critical Introductions, ed. Thomas Humphry Ward (1880) 1:510-15.

In spite of the force and originality of English dramatic poetry in the age of Shakespeare, the poetical character of the time had much in common with the Alexandrian epoch in Greek literary history. At Alexandria, when the creative genius of Greece was almost spent, literature became pedantic and obscure. Poets desired to show their learning, their knowledge of the details of mythology, their acquaintance with the more fantastic theories of contemporary science. The same faults mark the poetry of the Elizabethan age, and few writers were more culpably Alexandrian than George Chapman. The spirit of Callimachus or of Lycophron seems at times to have come upon him, at the "lutin" was supposed to whisper ideas extraordinarily good or evil, to Corneille. When under the influence of this possession, Chapman displayed the very qualities and unconsciously translated the language of Callimachus. He vowed that he detested popularity, and all that can please "the commune reader." He inveighed against the "invidious detractor" who became a spectre that dogged him in every enterprise. He hid his meaning in a mist of verbiage, within a labyrinth of conceits, and himself said, only too truly, about the "sweet Leander" of Marlowe,

I in floods of ink
Must drown thy graces.

It is scarcely necessary to justify these remarks by illustrations from Chapman's works. Every reader of the poems and the prefaces finds barbarism, churlish temper, and pedantry in profusion. In spite of unpopularity, Chapman "rested as resolute as Seneca, satisfying himself if but a few, if one, or if none like" his verses.

Why then is Chapman, as it were in his own despite, a poet still worthy of the regard of lovers of poetry? The answer is partly to be found in his courageous and ardent spirit, a spirit bitterly at odds with life, but still true to it, own nobility, still capable, in happier moments, of divining life's real significance, and of asserting lofty truths in pregnant words. In has poems we find him moving from an exaggerated pessimism, a pessimism worthy of a Romanticist of 1830, to more dignified acquiescence in human destiny. The Shadow of Night, his earliest work, expresses, not without affectation and exaggeration, his blackest mood. Chaos seems better to him than creation, the undivided rest of the void is a happier thing than the crowded distractions of life. Night, which confuses all in shadow and rest, is his Goddess,

That eagle-like doth with her starry wings,
Beat in the fowls and beasts to Somnus' lodgings,
And haughty Day to the infernal deep,
Proclaiming silence, study, ease, and sleep.

As for day,

In hell thus let her sit, and never rise,
Till morns leave blushing at her cruelties.

In a work published almost immediately after The Shadow of Night, in Ovid's Banquet of Sense, Chapman "consecrates his strange poems to those searching spirits whom learning hath made noble." Nothing can well be more pedantic than the conception of the Banquet of Sense. Ovid watches Julia at her bath, and his gratification is described in a singular combination of poetical and psychological conceits. Yet in this poem, the redeeming qualities of Chapman and the soothing influence of that anodyne which most availed him in his contest with life, are already evident. Learning is already beginning to soothe his spirit with its spell. To Learning, as we shall see, he ascribed all the excellences which a modern critic assigns to culture. Learning, in a wide and nonnatural sense, is his stay, support, and comfort. In the Banquet of Sense, too, he shows that patriotic pride in England, that enjoyment of her beauty, which dignify the Carmen Epicum, de Guiana, and appear strangely enough in the sequel of Hero and Leander. There are exquisite lines in the Banquet of Sense, like these, for example, which suggest one of Giorgione's glowing figures:—

She lay at length like an immortal soul,
At endless rest in blest Elysium.

But Chapman's interest in natural science breaks in unseasonably—

Betwixt mine eye and object, certain lines
Move in the figure of a pyramis,
Whose chapter in mine eyes gray apple shines,
The base within my sacred object is;

—singular reflections of a lover by his lady's bower!

Chapman could not well have done a rasher thing than "suppose himself executor to the unhappily deceased author of" Hero and Leander. A poet naturally didactic, Chapman dwelt on the impropriety of Leander's conduct, and confronted him with the indignant goddess of Ceremony. In a passage which ought to interest modern investigators of Ceremonial Government, the poet makes "all the hearts of deities" hurry to Ceremony's feet:—

She led Religion, all her body was
Clear and transparent as the purest glass;
Devotion, Order, State, and Reverence,
Her shadows were; Society, Memory;
All which her sight made live, her absence die.

The allegory is philosophical enough, but strangely out of place. The poem contains at least one image worthy of Marlowe—

His most kind sister all his secrets knew,
'And to her, singing like a shower, he flew.'

This too, of Hero, might have been written by the master of verse:—

Her fresh heat blood cast figures in her eyes,
And she supposed she saw in Neptue's skies
How her star wander'd, washed in smarting brine,
For her love's sake, that with immortal wine
Should be embathed, and swim in more heart's ease,
Than there was water in the Sestian seas.

It is in The Tears of Peace (1609), an allegory addressed to Chapman's patron, the short-lived Henry, Prince of Wales, that the poet does his best to set forth his theory of life and morality. He "sat to it," he says, to his "criticism of life," and he a was guided in his thoughts by his good genius, Homer. Inspired by Homer, he rises above himself, his peevishness, his controversies, his angry contempt of popular opinion, and he beholds the beauty of renunciation, and acquiesces in a lofty stoicism:—

Free suffering for the truth makes sorrow sing,
And mourning far more sweet than banquetting.

He comforts himself with the belief that Learning, rightly understood, is the remedy against discontent and restlessness: — "For Learning's truth makes all life's vain war cease." It is Learning that "Turns blood to soul, and makes both one calm man." By Learning man reaches a deep knowledge of himsself, and of his relations to the world, and "Learning the art is of good life":—

Let all men judge, who is it can deny
That the rich crown of old Humanity
Is still your birthright? and was ne'er let down
From heaven for rule of beasts' lives, but your own?

These noble words still answer the feverish debates of the day, for, whatever our descent, "Still, at she worst, we are the sons of men!" In this persuasion, Chapman can consecrate his life to his work, can cast behind him fear and doubt,

This glass of air, broken with less than breath,

This slave bound face to face to death till death.

His work was that which the spirit of Homer put upon him, in the green fields of Hitchin.

There did shine,
A beam of Homer's freer soul in mine,

he says, and by virtue of that beam, and of his devotion to Homer, George Chapman still lives. When he had completed his translations he could say, "The work that I was born to do, is done." Learning and work had been his staff through life, and had won him immortality. But for his Homer, Chapman would only be remembered by professional students. His occasional inspired lines would not win for him many readers. But his translations of the Iliad and Odyssey are masterpieces, and cannot die.

Chapman's theory of translation allowed him great latitude. He conceived is to be "a pedantical and absurd affectation to turn his author word for word," and maintained that a translator, allowing for the different genius of the Greek and English tongues, "must adorn" his original "with words, and such a style and form of oration, as are moat apt for the language into which they are converted." This is an unlucky theory, for Chapman's idea of "the style and form of oration most apt for" English poetry was remote indeed from the simplicity of Homer. The more he admired Homer, the more Chapman felt bound so dress him up in the height of rhetorical conceit. He excused himself by the argument, that we have not the epics as Homer imagined them, that "the books were not set together by Homer." He probably imagined that, if Homer had had his own way with his own works, he would have produced something much more in the Chapman manner, and he kindly added, ever and anon, a turn which he fancied Homer would approve. The English reader must be on his guard against this custom of Chapman's, and most remember, too, that the translator's erudition was exceedingly fantastic. Thus Chapman derives the difficult word [Greek characters] from the letter [Greek characters], the first in the Greek alphabet, and decides that the men whom Homer calls [Greek characters], are what modern slang calls "A 1 men." Again, he names the Phoenician who seduced the nurse of Eumaeus, "a great-wench-net-layer," a word derived by him from [Greek characters], thus, [Greek characters], in [Greek characters]. He is full of these strange philological theories, and he boldly lets them loose in his translations. Chapman has another great fault, allied indeed to a great excellence. In his speed, in the rapidity of the movement of his lines, he is Homeric. The last twelve books of the Iliad were struck out at a white heat, in fifteen weeks. Chapman was carried away by the current of the Homeric verse, and this is his great saving merit. Homer inspires him, however uncouth his utterance, as Apollo inspired the Pythoness. He "speaks out loud and bold," but not clear. In the heat of his hurry, Chapman flies at any rhyme to end his line, and then his rhyme has to be tagged on by the introduction of some utterly un-Homeric mode of expression. Thus, in Chapman, the majestic purity of Homer is tormented, the bright and equable speed of the river of verse leaps brawling over rocks and down narrow ravines. What can be more like Chapman, and less like Homer, than these urea in the description of the storm,

How all the tops he bottoms with the deeps,
And in the bottoms all the tops he steeps?

Here the Greek only says "Zeus hath troubled the deep." It is thus that Chapman "adorns his original." Faults of this kind are perhaps more frequent in the Iliad than in the Odyssey. Coleridge's taste was in harmony with general opinion when he preferred the latter version, with its manageable metre, to the ruder strain of the of which the verse is capable of degenerating into an amble, or dropping into a trot. The crudities, the inappropriate quaintnesses of Chapman's Homer are visible enough, when we read only a page or two, here and there, in the work. Neither Homer, nor any version of Homer, should be studied piece-meal. "He must not be read," as Chapman truly says, "for a few lines with leaves turned over capriciously in dismembered fractions, but throughout the whole drift, weight, and height of his works set before the apprehensive eyes of his judge." Thus read, the blots on Chapman's Homer almost disappear. and you see "the massive and majestic memorial, where for all the flaws and roughnesses of the weather-beaten work the great workmen of days unborn would gather to give honour to his name."