English verse translations of Greek tragedy, 1800-1840
Von Romberg, Margaret Kerr
MetadataShow full item record
Between 1800 and 1840 there developed an unusual interest in Greek tragedy, manifested in numerous articles in the most popular periodicals of the time and many new translations. My purpose is to account for the beginnings of this interest, to trace its development in relation to certain influencing events, to attempt a definition of the theory of translation in the early nineteenth century and finally to examine the translations themselves, both in relation to contemporary theories of translation and on their own merits as English poetry. The educational system of the time, based as it was on Latin and Greek, tended to produce people more or less proficient in the skills of translation, and more or less interested in Greek literature. At this time, too, despite the continuing poverty of university education, Greek scholars were facilitating the study of Greek tragedy by producing better, more readable editions. Among those who had no classical education (working-class men, businessmen and women), only a few ever learned enough Greek to be able to read Greek texts; but because some knowledge of Greek literature was regarded as a desirable accomplishment, many were eager to read translations. At the beginning of the nineteenth century an interest in classical Greece had been fostered by such things as Josiah Wedgwood's imitation-Greek pottery, the publication of Flaxman's illustrations of the works of Homer and Aeschylus and the greater ease of travel to the Eastern Mediterranean. Between 1807 and about 1820 this interest was strongly influenced by the arrival in England of the Elgin Marbles, the temporary residence in Paris of the Greco-Roman statues looted by Napoleon from Italy, and the publication of Schlegel's Lectures on Dramatic Art. Schlegel's frequent repetition of the German theory of the relationship between ancient drama and sculpture was echoed in the popular lectures of Coleridge and Thomas Campbell. After 1820 the Greek War of Indepexidence was associated in many minds with the Persian invasion of classical Greece and thence with Aeschylus. The periodicals responded to their readers' need for more information beginning with a series in Blackwood's Magazine in 1817, many of them published articles on Greek tragedy which usually included passages in translation. In the 1830s Blackwood's and its rival Fraser's Magazine even published several full-length translations at a time when the publication of books containing translations reached a peak, one or two imitations of Greek tragedy were performed before enthusiastic audiences, and the production of original English poetry had, for various reasons, reached its lowest ebb. The theory of translation at this time was in a state of transition. Although the earlier writing of Denham and Dryden still influenced theorists, there was a growing preference for translations which were a true mirror of the thought and style of the originals, rather than a reinterpretation in the form and idiom of contemporary English poetry. This is shown in the translations themselves, which at the beginning of the period imitate eighteenth-century poetry, but which by the 1830s are generally closer to the letter, style and meaning of the original plays. Although some of the translations are bad, both as translations and as poetry, a surprising number of them (particularly those by Robert Morehead, Thomas Dale and Thomas Medwin) have considerable merit.