Dictes-moy ou, n’en
Est Flora, la belle Romaine?
Archipiade, ne Thais,
Qui fut sa cousine germaine?
And here is Rossetti’s jaunty English:—
Tell me now in what hidden
Lady Flora, the lovely Roman?
Where’s Hipparchia, and where is Thais,
Neither of them the fairer woman?
One sees how Rossetti is inclined to romanticize that which is already romantic beyond one’s dreams in its naked and golden simplicity. I would not quarrel with Rossetti’s version, however, if it had not been often put forward as an example of a translation which was equal to the original. It is certainly a wonderful version if we compare it with most of those that have been made from Villon. Mr. Stacpoole’s, I fear, have no rivulets of music running through them to make up for their want of prose exactitude. Admittedly, however, translation of Villon is difficult. Some of his most beautiful poems are simple as catalogues of names, and the secret of their beauty is a secret elusive as a fragrance borne on the wind. Mr. Stacpoole may be congratulated on his courage in undertaking an impossible task—a task, moreover, in which he challenges comparison with Rossetti, Swinburne, and Andrew Lang. His book, however, is meant for the general public rather than for poets and scholars—at least, for that intelligent portion of the general public which is interested in literature without being over-critical. For its purpose it may be recommended as an interesting, picturesque, and judicious book. The Villon of Stevenson is little better than a criminal monkey of genius. The Villon of Mr. Stacpoole is at least the makings of a man.
Pope is a poet whose very admirers belittle him. Mr. Saintsbury, for instance, even in the moment of inciting us to read him, observes that “it would be scarcely rash to say that there is not an original thought, sentiment, image, or example of any of the other categories of poetic substance to be found in the half a hundred thousand verses of Pope.” And he has still less to say in favour of Pope as a man. He denounces him for “rascality” and goes on with characteristic irresponsibility to suggest that “perhaps ... there is a natural connection between the two kinds of this dexterity of fingering—that of the artist in words, and that of the pickpocket or the forger.” If Pope had been a contemporary, Mr. Saintsbury, I imagine, would have stunned him with a huge mattock of adjectives. As it is, he seems to be in two minds whether to bury or to praise him. Luckily, he has tempered his moral sense with his sense of humour, and so comes to the happy conclusion that as a matter of fact, when we read or read about Pope, “some of the proofs which are most damning morally, positively increase one’s aesthetic delight.”