Poetic License: Epics Across Time
My exhibit case for Poetic License: Seven Curators’ Poetry Selections from Distinctive Collections focused on epic poetry from the Western tradition and the poets who played a key part in translating these works. A reader’s encounter with epic poetry is often through a translation, and so the craft of the translator becomes an integral element, acting as a conduit between the original language of the epic and the audiences of the translator.
My selections included four translated works from the library’s Special Collections. This journey naturally begins with The Iliad of Homer, translated by Alexander Pope between 1715-1720. Pope drew wide acclaim at the time of its publication, and the work helped fulfill a longtime fascination he had with Homer. However, Pope may have taken a few liberties in his translation, as the critic Richard Bentley is reported to have said, “It is a pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer.” The edition on display, published in 1853 by Ingram, Cooke, and Co., includes designs and illustrations throughout by John Flaxman.
In addition to translation, Homer’s epics would prove inspirational for original works. The Roman poet Virgil created his own epic with The Aeneid, about the hero Aeneas’ wanderings after the Trojan War, which bear similarity to the wanderings of Homer’s Odysseus. On display is The Aeneid from the Works of Virgil : In Latin and English, translated by Christopher Pitt, who was a contemporary and friend to Alexander Pope. This edition, published in 1778 by J. Dodsley in London, includes the Latin text of the original facing Pitt’s English translation. Though the English text may also require some deciphering to modern audiences, as the printed type used the ‘long S’ throughout.
Our journey continues to northern Europe and the land of the Danes, of the king Hrothgar, the monster Grendel, and a hero named Beowulf. Considered a foundational work in English poetry, Beowulf was introduced to a new generation of readers thanks to the translation of Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who brought a fresh, visceral energy to the text. The limited edition on display includes the opening of the poem in Old English, with text replicated from the only surviving manuscript, facing the English translation. The edition is also autographed by Heaney, who was a frequent visitor to Villanova University thanks to the Center for Irish Studies.
Our journey ends in Ireland itself with The Táin, the Irish Iron Age epic about Queen Medb and King Ailill’s war against Ulster, and the demigod Cuchulainn who stood against them. Irish poet Thomas Kinsella serves as the translator for the edition on display, and while much of the epic is a prose work, the monologues and dialogues are presented in a verse form, connecting it to a poetic tradition. This edition also includes ink drawings by Louis le Brocquy, which bring a brutal, raw, and mysterious atmosphere to the battles that the poem recounts.
Poetic License is currently on display on the first floor of Falvey Library. Join us on Thursday, April 20 from 4-5:30pm to celebrate the exhibit, which will include an open mic event. Attendees are invited to share a favorite poem or piece of creative writing to share with the community during the reception.
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