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EN357 The Classical Tradition in English Translations: Eighteenth Century to the Present


This module is not currently running.

Convenor: Dr John T. Gilmore

This module is intended to give students a knowledge of a selection of major works in the classical tradition, studied through English translations which are themselves of historical importance and literary significance. This module focuses on translations of classical Latin poetry from the long eighteenth century (that is, starting in the late seventeenth century) to the present; it can be taken independently, or as a follow-up to the module on The Classical Tradition in English Translations: The Renaissance, convened by Dr Paul Botley. We will be looking at works which are adapted from or inspired by classical models, as well as translations in the more restricted sense of the term.

No knowledge of Latin or Greek is required – the focus is on the English translations.

Most of the texts will be available online through the library website, or as handouts.


Assessment methods will depend on whether you take the module as 100% assessed or not, but will be either:

A 100% assessed, 1 x 5,000 word essay

C 50/50, 1 x 3,000 word essay and 1 x 1 hour examination     

Course outline:

(Apart from that on Propertius, all sessions will be taught by John Gilmore)

Week 1. Introduction

Week 2. Dryden’s Virgil.

The translation of the complete works of Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro, 70 BCE – 19 BCE), universally acknowledged as the greatest poet who ever wrote in Latin, by the English poet John Dryden (1631-1700) was first published in 1697, and was an enormous commercial and popular success. Dryden’s translation continued to be reprinted and widely read for some two centuries. This session will look at selections from Dryden’s version of the Aeneid, Virgil’s great poem on the founding of Rome.

Week 3. Pope and Horace.

Second only to Virgil in the opinion of most later readers was his contemporary Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus, 65 BCE – 8 BCE), whose works were so well known to educated readers that Alexander Pope (1688-1744) could expect to have recognised the themes on which he created variations in his Imitations of Horace, published over several years. This session will look at selections from Pope’s work, and discuss how translation, imitation and adapatation differ from one another, and explore how the eighteenth century viewed the idea of imitation in a much more positive light than we usually do today.

Week 4. The heroic epistle in the eighteenth century.

After Virgil and Horace, the third great poet of ancient Rome was Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso, 43 BCE – 17 or 18 CE). Ovid’s collection of Epistulae Heroidum (“Letters of Heroines”, often known as heroic epistles) was popular as a school text for generations, and consisted mainly of poems which imagined famous women of classical mythology writing to the men who had done them wrong. This session will compare two translations of Ovid’s “Sappho to Phaon”, one by Alexander Pope and one by Elijah Fenton (1683-1730), and two works inspired by Ovid, Fenton’s “Phaon to Sappho” and Pope’s “Eloisa to Abelard” (source of the famous line about “Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind”).

Week 5. Martial and Juvenal.

Among the great Roman satirists were Martial (Marcus Valerius Martialis, 40 CE – between 102 and 104 CE) and Juvenal (Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis; dates uncertain, but late 1st to early 2nd century CE). We will look at how eighteenth-century writers enjoyed adapting their work and applying it to more contemporary targets by examining selections from William Hay, Select Epigrams of Martial (1755), and Samuel Johnson’s The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749), perhaps the most famous example of imitation as the term was understood in the period.

Week 6. Reading week. No class.

Week 7. The Georgic in the eighteenth century.

A work which enjoyed enormous popularity was Virgil’s Georgics, which purported to be an instructional handbook on agriculture, but which in fact covered a much wider range of themes, including the relationship of man and the natural world, and the ideal organisation of society. Eighteenth-century writers saw these as themes which could appropriately be discussed in verse, and, taking Virgil as their model, expanded the range to include Britain’s relationship with its contintental neighbours, the expansion of the colonial empire, and the slave trade. We will look at selections from some of the more influential examples of georgic poetry in English, including John Philips’s Cyder (1708), John Dyer’s The Fleece (1757), and James Grainger’s The Sugar-Cane (1764)

Week 8. Pound and Propertius

Classical Latin poets have continued to inspire later writers. In this sesssion, Professor Dan Katz will examine Ezra Pound’s “Homage to Sextus Propertius” (1919).

Week 9. New metamorphoses.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a collection of mythological stories loosely connected by the theme of shape-shifting, has been a model for poets in English over several centuries. We will look at one of the most recent examples, Ted Hughes, Tales from Ovid (1997).

Week 10. Roman erotic poetry from the sixteenth century to the twenty-first.

The extent to which love poetry in Western literature draws heavily on its Roman antecedents will be examined through translations, imitations and adaptations of Catullus (Gaius Valerius Catullus, c. 84 BCE – c. 54 BCE), Tibullus (Albius Tibullus, c. 55 BCE – 19 BCE), and others (selections to be supplied).

Secondary reading

There are numerous relevant works. The following are suggested as starting points:

Paul Davis, Translation and the Poet's Life: The Ethics of Translating in English Culture, 1646-1726 (OUP, 2008)

David Hopkins, Conversing with Antiquity: English Poets and the Classics from Shakespeare to Pope (OUP, 2009)

Oxford History of Literary Translation in English (Vol. 3, ed. Stuart Gillespie and David Hopkins, covers 1660-1790 and was published in 2005; Vol. 4, ed. Peter France and Kenneth Haynes, covers 1790-1900 and was published in 2006).

Robin Sowerby, The Augustan Art of Poetry: Augustan Translation of the Classics (OUP, 2006).