Saturday, May 22, 2010


Cowper Nods

William Cowper's translation of Homer, Odyssey 9.436-440 (on the escape of Odysseus and his men from the cave of the Cyclops Polyphemus):
We, thus disposed, waited with many a sigh
The sacred dawn; but when, at length, aris'n,
Aurora, day-spring's daughter rosy-palm'd
Again appear'd, the males of all his flocks
Rush'd forth to pasture, and, meantime, unmilk'd,
The wethers bleated, by the load distress'd
Of udders overcharged.
The Greek:
ὣς τότε μὲν στενάχοντες ἐμείναμεν Ἠῶ δῖαν.
ἦμος δ᾽ ἠριγένεια φάνη ῥοδοδάκτυλος Ἠώς,
καὶ τότ᾽ ἔπειτα νομόνδ᾽ ἐξέσσυτο ἄρσενα μῆλα,
θήλειαι δὲ μέμηκον ἀνήμελκτοι περὶ σηκούς·
οὔθατα γὰρ σφαραγεῦντο.
A wether is a gelded male sheep. Cowper acknowledged his mistake in a letter to Joseph Hill (April 15, 1792):
I have heard about my wether mutton from various quarters. First, from a sensible little man, curate of a neighbouring village; then from Walter Bagot; then from Henry Cowper; and now from you. It was a blunder hardly pardonable in a man who has lived amid fields and meadows, grazed by sheep almost these thirty years. I have accordingly satirized myself in two stanzas which I composed last night, while I lay awake, tormented with pain, and well dosed with laudanum. If you find them not very brilliant, therefore, you will know how to account for it.
Cowper had sinn'd with some excuse,
    If, bound in rhyming tethers,
He had committed this abuse
    Of changing ewes for wethers;

But, male for female is a trope,
    Or rather bold misnomer,
That would have startled even Pope,
    When he translated Homer.
Related post: Elaborate Defence of Howlers.

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