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Translation As Commentary? The Case of Ben Jonson’s Ars Poetica

Victoria Moul
p. 59-77


La traduction de Ben Jonson de l’Ars Poetica d’Horace, traduction remise sur le métier pendant de nombreuses années, n’a pas reçu l’attention qu’elle mérite. Cette brève étude s’attache donc à montrer en quoi la traduction de Jonson est digne de figurer parmi les traductions majeures ; de plus, dans ses écarts et zones de conflit avec le texte latin, elle apparaît comme une sorte de commentaire. L’interprétation qui surgit, pour ainsi dire, d’une lecture entre les lignes du texte d’Horace lui-même, réfléchit des préoccupations jonsoniennes essentielles, à savoir le pouvoir du poète et la pérennité du langage poétique. Lisant de très près Jonson lisant Horace, nous comprenons mieux à la fois l’« Horatianisme » de Jonson et l’importance de la traduction des classiques dans l’héritage de la conception jonsonienne du rôle du poète.

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1Richard Stoneman describes the Elizabethan period as “perhaps the greatest age of translation in our history” (Stoneman, 1982: 5), and G. A. E. Parfitt remarks of Jonson himself that “such formal translations as [he] produced represent only one extreme of a habit of mind which, for good or ill, is constantly at work in his poetry” (Parfitt, 1973: 344). Translation and extended imitation of classical literature is found throughout his work, in poetry, prose and drama alike. But Jonson’s close translations (as opposed to his imitative practice more generally) have not been the subject of much serious study, and are often dismissed as examples of “literal” or “word by word” translation of the most stultifying kind.

2Jonson’s engagement with the works of Horace is perhaps the most prominent, as well as long-standing, of his creative interactions with classical literature. His exploration ranges from generic imitation of a general kind, often marked out by the choice of titles for his works (including odes, epodes, epistles and satires), through many passages of extended imitation of Horace, to close translation. Of the close translations, several are incorporated into larger works (as in Poetaster), while others remain free-standing (as the translations of Epodes 2 and Odes III. 9 and IV. 1).

3But by far the most significant such project is Jonson’s translation of the whole of Horace’s Ars Poetica, a verse treatise on poetic technique and the role of the poet in the state, in the form of a lengthy epistle addressed to the Piso brothers. Jonson’s engagement with this, Horace’s last epistle, was of long-standing. Although both versions of his translation were finally published in 1640 (one in the duodecimo edition of the Poems, the other in the folio), the former of these dates from 1604, while the latter certainly post-dates Daniel Heinsius’ critical reorganisation of the text, published in 1610.1 There is in addition evidence of a “preface” to the work, apparently read to Drummond in 1619, but lost in the fire of 1623.2 Jonson’s edition of Horace included the Ars Poetica, and he also owned a separate edition of the Ars Poetica with a commentary by Aldus Manutius the younger (Manutius [ed.], 1576). In the edition of Horace owned by Jonson and now in the Cambridge University Library, the Ars Poetica is heavily underlined (Parthenius [ed.], 1584).3

4An interest in the Ars Poetica accords with Jonson’s taste for Horace’s literary-critical hexameter verse (Satires I. 4 and II. 1; Epistles I. 18, II. 1 and II. 2 all feature repeatedly in his work), but the translation itself has proved problematic and critically unpopular. Herford and Simpson condemn it as “wooden” (Herford and Simpson, 1925-1952: XI, 110) and Charles Martindale, in his defence of that which, borrowing from Dryden, he terms “metaphrase” remarks that this particular work “it may be conceded, is rather dogged” (Martindale, 1984: 54).4

5Certainly, the style of Jonson’s translation is very far from the scope or fluidity of Dryden’s Aeneid, although Jonson’s work was undoubtedly important to Dryden. As an English poem, read without reference to the Latin, it is sometimes hard to follow, but at its best Jonson’s “metaphrase” of Horace’s Latin produces a texture, poised between the two languages, of strength and interest.5 This article is a very brief attempt to consider some of the ways in which this closest of translation styles can nevertheless include interpretation and even contention: a kind of implicit commentary which holds in balance both Latin and English, as well as the cultural and temporal space which at once divides and unites them.

6The reading of the poem has been complicated by the reception-history of the Latin text itself. Heinsius’ attempt to reorder the thought of the poem, although now universally considered misguided, reflects the difficulty presented by the Latin: the Ars Poetica is itself notoriously obscure in its intention and design, and has attracted relatively little critical attention compared to the rest of Horace’s work. The “didactic” content is real (although, like other elements of Horace’s use of philosophy, neither original nor especially consistent), but the poem is framed as an epistle. Ellen Oliensis describes the tone of the work as follows:

What Horace teaches the Piso brothers is finally not what to do or not to do but what he can do and they cannot. Horace’s disquisition on the art which is the source of his authority (social and poetic) is addressed to an audience that boasts conventional social advantages Horace cannot claim, and this conjunction of subject matter and audience produces an extremely volatile blend of authority and deference: a ‘masterwork’ which is also a study in self-defacement, an educational essay which is also an exercise in antididaxis. (Oliensis, 1998: 198-199)

7The “blend of authority and deference” which Oliensis reads in the original Latin poem is reflected and refracted by Jonson’s project of translation, at once minutely close to the Latin, and contentiously different. Horace’s mixture of “authority and deference” towards the Piso brothers (and to his powerful addressees more generally) is mirrored in Jonson’s combined subordination to, and appropriation of, Horace’s poetic manifesto.6 Jonson’s translation focuses upon, and opens up, not only his lifelong engagement with Horace, and the creative pressure exerted by Latin upon English, but also the challenge of maintaining freedom within patronage (or imitation), and the location of that linguistic “grace” (variously recognition, payment and a kind of divine sanction) which the poet seeks.

Jonsonian metaphrase

8Even a cursory reading of Jonson’s Ars Poetica reveals the care that has been taken to preserve the details of Latin word order, sometimes to the extent of obscuring the meaning or movement of the English line. Jonson avoids, however, very literal translations of terms specific to Roman society, usually appending our to the gloss he provides: centuriae seniorum (358 of Latin, OCT 341) becomes our grave men (511).7 The pronoun at once bridges, and draws attention to, the historical distance between the Latin and English texts.

9Several passages of the Ars are marked by an extended kind of understated, but significant, expansion and alteration. Such passages often reflect Jonsonian preoccupations evident elsewhere in his work. The idea of a morally corrective literature which succeeds in combining “profit” with “pleasure” appears several times in Jonson; in the prologue to Every Man Out of His Humour, Asper’s harsh Juvenalian satire is modulated by Cordatus and Mitis’ promotion of this explicitly Horatian mixture, a more (satirically) effective weapon than invective. A close reading of Jonson’s translation of the Horatian lines in question reveals the breadth of association gathered around these terms:

Ficta, voluptatis causa, sint proxima veris.
Nec quodcumque volet, poscat sibi fabula credi :
Neu pransae Lamiae vivum puerum extrahat alvo.
Centuriae seniorum agitant expertia frugis :
Celsi praetereunt austera poemata Rhamnes.
Omne tulit punctum, qui miscuit utile dulci,
Lectorem delectando, pariterque monendo.
Hic meret aera liber Sosiis : hic & mare transit,
Et longum noto scriptori prorogat aeuum.
(355-363; OCT 338-346)8

Let what thou fain’st for pleasures sake, be neere
The truth; nor let thy Fable thinke, what e’re
It would, must be: lest it alive would draw
The Child, when Lamia’has din’d, out of her maw.
The Poems void of profit, our grave men
Cast out by voyces; want they pleasure, then
Our Gallants give them none, but passe them by:
But he hath every suffrage, can apply
Sweet mix’d with sowre, to his Reader, so
As doctrine and delight together go.
This booke will get the Sosii money; This
Will passe the Seas, and long as nature is,
With honour make the farre-knowne Author live.

10The successive transferral of grammatical subject from the work of art itself (Fable, 508), to the possible readers (our grave men, 511; our Gallants, 513), to the poet (But he, 514) and back to the book (This booke, 517) captures the lively movement of the Latin; and the playful suggestion of the artwork’s own personification, established with nec […] poscat sibi fabula credi (356; OCT 339) is well sustained, and even enhanced: the position of the adjective alive in line 509 suggests, at least temporarily, that what lives is not the child who had earlier been consumed, but the Fable itself, with its own voluptuous appetite. As English verse, however, these lines are difficult; the referents of the pronouns in the opening lines—especially they and them in 512-513—are only clear on comparison with the Latin text.

11Moreover, despite the preserved personification, the overall tone of this verse paragraph departs significantly from the diction and texture of the Latin: Jonson’s choice of more abstract terms increases the resonance of the central dichotomies (between youth and age, pleasure and instruction), and places a firmer insistence upon the artistic power of their successful resolution. Compare for instance the worldy-wise tone of Rudd’s translation of lines 355-361 (OCT 338-344):

Make sure that fictions designed to amuse are close to reality.A play should not expect us to take whatever it offers—
like ‘child devoured by ogress is brought alive from her belly’.
The senior bloc chases plays which haven’t a message;
the haughty young bloods curl their nostrils at anything dry;
everyone votes for the man who mixes wholesome and sweet,
giving his reader an equal blend of help and delight.
(Rudd, 1973 : 199)

12Horace employs a varied cluster of words and phrases, associated in context by the parallel thoughts, but rhetorically distinct: voluptatis, proxima veris, expertia frugis, austera, utile and dulci, delectando and monendo (meaning something like pleasure, near to the truth, devoid of fruit[fullness], harsh, useful, sweet, by pleasing/giving enjoyment and by warning). The variety of register and grammatical structure gives the lines a conversational movement. In Jonson’s text these terms become: for pleasures sake, neere / The truth, void of profit, want they pleasure, sweet mix’d with sowre applied to the reader so / As doctrine, and delight together go. The collection of abstract nouns is starker and more uniform than the Latin modulation between nouns, adjectives and gerunds (the adjectives sweet and sowre in line 515 are likewise acting as, or very close, to nouns), and this uniformity in parts of speech helps to connect the series of contrasts as parallel to one another. Jonson’s repeated term pleasure (tacitly implied a third time by the phrase our Gallants give them none, 513) adds to this effect.

13Similarly, the terms truth and doctrine are much closer in tone than the Latin proxima veris and monendo, and the convergence heightens the solemnity of both. The general raising of the tone shifts, too, the implication even of the closest translations: whereas Horace’s phrase proximaveris suggests, sensibly but slightly prosaically, that the reader’s credulity shouldn’t be stretched too far, Jonson’s truth, in the context of doctrine, command and precepts (lines 503-504) becomes a more seriously ethical injunction.

14The folio edition of Jonson’s translation, on which this article is based, follows Heinsius (1610) in the reordering of the Latin text; as a result this section is displaced from its position in the Oxford Classical Text edition (Wickham, 1901). In the OCT, as indeed in Jonson’s own edition of Parthenius, 1584, and in his earlier version of the translation these lines closely follow the passage that introduces the utiledulci theme (lines 330-334 in both the OCT and the reordered text, following Heinsius, given in the folio).9

15A close examination of Jonson’s translation of this earlier passage, the initial treatment of this central stylistic and ethical pair of terms, adds to, and reinforces the conclusions noted above. At this point in the AP, Horace has been celebrating the Greeks for their love of praise alone (rather than gain), in comparison to the Roman youth, who are swift and glib mental mathematicians, interested only in profit. Jonson’s version continues:

O, when once the canker’d rust,
And care of getting, thus, our minds hath stain’d,
Thinke wee, or hope, there can be Verses fain’d
In juyce of Cedar worthy to be steep’d,
And in smooth Cypresse boxes to be keep’d?
Poets would either profit, or delight,
Or mixing sweet, and fit, teach life the right.

Ad haec animos aerugo, et cura peculi,
Cum semel imbuerit, speramus carmina fingi
Posse linenda cedro, & levi servanda cupresso ?

Aut prodesse volunt, aut delectare Poetae,
Aut simul & iucunda, & idonea dicere vitae.
(330-334 in both Latin texts)11

16According to the terms of these lines, minds (animos, 330) and poems (carmina, 331), can be subject to spoiling by rust or preservation by oil, in common with the metal (of money) and wood (of an expensive document-case) with which they are here associated. It is not the coins themselves that suffer verdigris (aerugo, 330; Jonson’s the canker’d rust, 472), but the Romans’ hearts and minds, when preoccupied by financial gain; and the phrase linenda cedro (332), meaning fit to be smeared with cedar-oil (i.e. as a preservative) is transferred from the box to the poems themselves. Jonson’s choice of the similar verbs stain’d (for the minds, 473) and steep’d (for linenda) emphasises the connection, and with it the logic of the image: the rusted, and thus decaying mind is opposed to the preserved—and so lasting—possible product of that mind, poetry.

17Jonson’s text, unlike many modern translations, has no paragraph break at this point. The aphoristic, and well-known lines, 333-334, are thereby presented not as a new thought, but rather as the conclusion of the lines already discussed, and Jonson’s translation likewise works to form an association between them. But this couplet accomplishes an important and interesting transition, typical of the side-stepping, conversational progression of Horatian argument. The first pair of oppositions attributed to poets, prodesse and delectare (333), seem in Jonson’s version to map neatly upon the terms of the preceding lines: poets must choose between the desire to profit (477), a translation of prodesse that reminds us of the money-grubbing (and therefore unlasting) Roman youths, and to delight.12

18Then, however, we discover that this apparent opposition can be reconciled and combined—aut simul & iucunda, & idonea dicere vitae (334). Jonson’s translation at this point is also worthy of comment. Most translations read the two objects of dicere as iucunda and idonea vitae: something along the lines of pleasant and useful for life; Jonson’s sweet and fit (which echoes, and reinterprets, the profit of the previous line) are clearly meant to translate these two Latin phrases, but his line reads vitae as a dative after dicere, and includes an additional term: teach (for the weaker dicere, say) life the right. The final impression is much stronger than the Latin line: Jonson’s translation suggests not only that the excellent poet combines elements of moral advice (with a lingering hint of financial advantage from profit) with aesthetic pleasure, but that this combination as it appears in art is itself instructive, shows life itself how to take shape for the best. This web of association prepares us for the surprising juxtaposition of the closing couplet of the verse paragraph, in which the triumphant Roman poet’s blend of delectando and monendo leads to a second productive combination—not, in fact, ethical value and aesthetic pleasure, but rather financial gain and immortal glory:

Hic meret aera liber Sosiis: hic & mare transit,
Et longum noto scriptori prorogat aevum.
(362-363; OCT 345-346)

This booke will get the Sosii money; This
Will passe the Seas, and long as nature is,
With honour make the farre-knowne Author live.

19The bluntness of get the Sosii money is an accurate rendition of the Latin’s humourous matter-of-fact transition. But the translation of the second part of the sentence is rather different. Jonson has added the detail honour, of which there is no mention in the Latin: Horace’s wry portrait of an author might equally be infamous. But most striking are the two expansions of nature and live.13 The Latin has nothing corresponding to the forceful live at the end of the sentence, and the meaning of the lines is distinct. Horace’s text claims that the book itself will grant the well-known author a long life, or an old age. The phrase long as nature is, ambiguously adverbial (with make) or adjectival (significantly, with either the book or the Author), is a substantial expansion of longum […] aevum. Jonson’s addition of nature extends the comparison of the author’s immortality not to the empire (the terms of the extent of Ovid’s fame at Metamorphoses, XV. 871-879), or even to Roman culture (cf. Horace Odes III. 30)—both of which will finally fade and which, for Jonson himself, have already done so—but rather to nature itself.

20The very terms utile (360; OCT 343) or idonea (334 in both) have, in this translation, come to carry the weight of a resolved opposition, bearing the force of both profitable (in financial terms) and doctrinal (not only morally but almost religiously): the combination guarantees not only material success but also an artistic immortality that reaches out from Horace’s Latin into Jonson’s English. The translation constitutes a particular reading of the Latin lines, one alive to the combination of glory and worldly success; but that reading is also especially conscious of the act of translation—at once testimony to, and an instantiation of, the still “living” significance of Horace’s own work.

Virtue and grace: translation and divine inspiration

21At several points, then, Jonson’s translation of Horace’s Latin incorporates a raising of tone, a reading of the Latin verse which emphasises and expands the scope of the poet’s power and significance. This distinctive tonal heightening can be traced in the incorporation in this translation of the loaded term grace, one of Jonson’s favourite words; resonant of inspiration as well as thanks (or even payment) it is repeatedly a key term at the conjunction of panegyric and literary criticism in his work. The intrusion of this word in his translation of a poem on literary style and technique is therefore of particular interest.

22Consider for instance the passage from lines 53-64:

Take, therefore, you that write, still, matter fit
Unto your strength, and long examine it,
Upon your shoulders. Prove what they will beare,
And what they will not. Him, whose choice doth reare
His matter to his power, in all he makes,
Nor language, nor cleere order ere forsakes.
The vertue of which order, and true grace,
Or I am much deceiv’d, shall be to place
Invention. Now, to speake; and then differ
Much, that mought now be spoke: omitted here
Till fitter season. Now, to like of this,
Lay that aside, the Epicks office is.

Sumite materiam vestris, qui scribitis, aequam
Viribus, & versate diu, quid ferre recusent,
Quid valeant humeri. Cui lecta potenter erit res
Nec facundia deserit hunc, nec lucidus ordo.
Ordinis haec virtus erit, & venus, aut ego fallor,
Ut iam nunc dicat, iam nunc debentia dici,
Pleraque differat, & praesens in tempus omittat.
Hoc amet, hoc spernat promissi carminis autor.14
(38-45 in both Latin texts).

23Lines 56-58 render the Latin: cui lecta potenter erit res, / nec facundia deserit hunc, nec lucidus ordo (40-41). A literal translation might be: as for him, whose subject-matter is suitably chosen—neither eloquence nor clear structure shall desert him. The translation of potenter presents problems: Rudd suggests within his capabilities, but admits that this meaning has no exact parallel in Thesaurus Linguae Latinae; he offers effectively as a more defendable, if less satisfactory option (Rudd, 1989: 155).

24Either way, Jonson’s translation is a substantial expansion: the conversion of the adverb (potenter) to an abstract noun (his power) to balance the res is much more forceful than the Latin phrase. The past participle lecta has also become an abstract noun, his choice, and combined with the addition of the verb reare (which has no analogue in the Latin) creates a quite different connotation. Lecta (picked out, chosen) anticipates the judiciousness with which the fine poet of the following lines will choose his words and topics (43-44 of the Latin). Jonson’s sentence suggests less a humble limiting of scope to that of which he is capable (albeit a trope which is always a double-edged suggestion in Horace, that lover of recusatio), but rather a raising of subject-matter—almost an education or inculcation of it—in view of the poet’s potential.15

25This intensification of the sense of the Latin continues. The translation of facundia (ease of speech or eloquence) as language adds to the generalising and aggrandising progression. Language is a much stronger and more widely-applicable term than facundia, and once again broadens the application of the line from a straightforward matter of stylistics (this is how to write smoothly and clearly) to something closer to: this is how to write at all; how to command language itself (remember that insistent power).

26Horace continues his description of the lucidus ordo: ordinis haec virtus erit, et venus, aut ego fallor, / ut iam nunc dicat, iam nunc debentia dici, / pleraque differat, et praesens in tempus omittat (42-44). The balance of the male quality (virtus) against the female (venus) is, as Rudd points out, almost untranslatable (Rudd, 1989: 156); but an attempt at such a translation might opt for something along the lines of strength and charm.16 Jonson’s translation has: The virtue of which order, and true grace (59)—a line which fails fully to capture the delicate and almost gendered balance of the Latin abstractions, but imports a rather different element. Retaining virtue for virtus, and combining it with the weighted phrase true grace (the adjective without analogue in the Latin) adds a distinctly theological overtone. A passage which in Horace describes the importance of the careful and elegant, but ultimately solely aesthetic, positioning of individual words for maximum effect, is elevated by Jonson’s diction into a mastery of language and form which hints at divine inspiration, and also at divine commendation of the poet’s own moral excellence.17

27In line with this persistent intensification, the verse paragraph concludes with one of the most explicit alterations. The phrase promissi carminis autor (45 of the Latin, Horace means the author of a commissioned work) is translated with the striking phrase: the Epicks office (64). Once again, Jonson has added to the material he translates: there is no term for office (cf. Latin officium, duty) in the Latin verse; an explicit articulation of duty and obligation is an expansion of the implication of the subjunctive verbs in the Latin text (amet […] spernat), which bear the sense of should. But the key term is that Epick: used only here, the noun means epic poet but conflates, in yet another aggrandising move, the great poet with his greatest poem.18

28These lines noticeably jettison the subtext of that Latin promissi carminis, namely, that the poet composes to order, and in exchange for payment. Although elsewhere Jonson is fascinated by the financial realities of patronage, the translation of this passage carefully suppresses the day-to-day demands of composition, and with it the realities of payment, and replaces them with diction redolent of the vatic poet. The Epick [poet] of these lines owes a sacred duty to the state—perhaps even to humanity, or art, in general—rather than any one patron, however noble.

On language: constancy, change and redemption

29Moreover, the subtle but sustained pattern of alterations in this passage is an introduction to the important lines (65-104; Latin 46-72) in which Horace discusses the poet’s right to verbal innovation—and in particular, the poetic prerogative to restore lost words to the language and to introduce new ones.

Licuit, semperque licebit,Signatum praesente nota producere nomen.
  Ut silvae foliis pronos mutantur in annos,
Prima cadunt ; ita verborum vetus interit aetas,
Et juvenum ritu florent modo nata, vigentque.
Debemur morti nos, nostraque : […](58-63 in both Latin texts)

It hath beene ever free,
And ever will, to utter termes that bee
Stamp’d to their time. As woods whose change appears
Still in their leaves, througout the sliding yeares,
The first-borne dying; so the aged state
Of words decay, and phrases borne but late
Like tender buds shoot up, and freshly grow.
Our selves, and all that’s ours, to death we owe.

30These lines are the site of some substantial expansion and interpretation in Jonson’s translation. The emphasis upon “freedom” (an important word for Jonson, and one frequently associated with artistic autonomy as well as freedom of speech), is a comprehensible, but not especially obvious, rendering of licuit and licebit.20 The complex association of language, men and leafing or flowering trees is expanded in Jonson’s lines. But of most interest is the extent to which, in this description of linguistic (and natural) change and decay, words for unchanging stability are oddly intrusive; even the metre of the line slows upon them. In Jonson’s lines the woods do not change their leaves (mutantur foliis, 60); rather their change appears—appears, but then strangely remains: Still in their leaves, throughout the sliding yeares (86). Still, a word which recurs very frequently in Jonson, can mean at this period both always and unmoving. Clearly, the former meaning represents, as it were, the “translation” here; but we hear too the suggestion that somehow this distinctive change in fact does not move, throughout the years that precisely do (the sliding yeares). A similar, but smaller-scale effect is clustered around the resonant word state, rendering aetas (perhaps generation): state at this period means grandeur as well as condition—but a condition which is specifically a lasting (static) one. The logical truth of the epigrammatic final line of this extract, well translated here—Ourselves, and all that’s ours, to death we owe—is in a kind of competition with a latent desire in Jonson’s version to refuse to acknowledge this, at least in respect of (the poet’s) language. Indeed, the act of translation itself, combined with the long literary pedigree of this comparison (with its roots in Iliad VI, 146-149), serve to reinforce both aspects of the point: language does indeed change without ceasing—from Homer’s Greek, to Horace’s Latin, to Jonson’s English—but the image, its resonance and truth, remains in some sense “the same.”

31Thomas Greene’s influential discussion of modes of imitation in Renaissance literature takes as one of its exemplars this passage of the Ars Poetica (AP 60-72). He suggests that Renaissance imitation is marked by the search for what he calls “fixed linguistic ground” (Greene, 1982: 6) in the midst of the tendency of language to change and decay. He illustrates this awareness of linguistic mutability with Adam’s comparison of human usage to leaves on a tree in Dante and its model in this passage of Horace (AP 60-72). Moreover, in his perceptive discussion of Jonson’s own style of allusion and imitation, Greene uses the language of “redemption” to describe this search for stability: “The artistic problem in most of Jonson’s ethical poems, which is to say the central, major poems in the canon, might be described as the problem of redeeming the necessary dynamism of existence” (Greene, 1982: 277).21 Greene does not expand on the implications of his choice of word; nor does he discuss Jonson’s translation of this passage of Horace in particular. But the tension described above between the continuous change (linguistically as well as temporally) evoked by Horace’s lines, and the oddly resistant terminology of “stability” in Jonson’s translation, is a telling demonstration of his point.

32Even more revealing, then, that just a few lines later at the close of this verse paragraph a very similar cluster of adaptations reiterates these terms state and still, and adds the important theological term grace:

                     […] Mortalia facta peribunt:
Nedum sermonum stet honos, & gratia vivax.
Multa renascentur, quae iam cecidere, cadentque
Quae nunc sunt in honore, vocabula, si volet usus ;
Quem penes arbitrium est, & vis, & norma loquendi.22(68-72 in both Latin texts)

All mortall deeds
Shall perish: so farre of it is, the state,
Or grace of speech, should hope a lasting date.
Much phrase that now is dead, shall be reviv’d;
And much shall dye, that now is nobly liv’d,
If Custome please; at whose disposing will
The power and rule of speaking resteth still.

33Horace is here defining language and its reference in terms of use, and the flow of the argument is clear: everything that is of man is eminently mortal; and what is more of man than speech itself? Although language will continue, individual words will always fall in and out of use. The sense of the Latin of 68-69 is something like: Mortal things are made and will crumble; / so how can the glory and charm of speech remain alive? But Jonson’s translation, while faithful to the individual words, creates a rather different impression: All mortall deeds / Shall perish: so farre off it is, the state, / Or grace of speech, should hope a lasting date (98-100).

34That state is a particularly clear example of Jonson’s interest in stability. In its sense of stateliness it is a possible, if oblique, translation of honos, but Jonson has chosen the word to catch at stet too. The state is standing for stethonos (and in itself collapsing a verb and noun phrase into a single noun: a kind of miniature demonstration of his point).23 Jonson then translates gratia—here something like charm—as grace. Again, the Latin could be rendered by gracefulness but grace in early modern English has a much wider range of meaning, among which the theological sense is prominent.24

35Above all, the phraseology of these lines points us away from the literal meaning of the Latin. There is not one explicitly negative word in the English to correspond to the Latin nedum, and the logical connection (everything mortal perishes; so too therefore must speech itself) is obscured. On the contrary, the state and grace of speech seems almost to be held up in contrast to the perishing of all that is mortal—something which is undoubtedly remote (so farre off […]) but nevertheless in existence (so farre off it is). The final half of that line is not very clear. The final clause must mean something like: so unlikely is it that speech’s state or grace should hope for a lasting date. But in the English the logical connection is elided almost beyond perception. In the Latin text, language will and must change and fade along with all that is mortal; in English, we glimpse the possibility of its redemption from that relentless mutation.

36There is a similar tension in the translation of the final lines of this section:

If Custom please; at whose disposing will

The power, and rule of speaking resteth still.

(103-104; Latin 71-72)

37Once more, the syntax is characteristically opaque. Without close reference to the Latin, the link between custom and whose is not immediately obvious. Jonson’s translation of quem penes arbitrium est et vis et norma loquendi as at whose disposing will / The power and rule of speaking captures well the striking personification of usus as law-giver. Nevertheless the cluster of words disposing will, power and rule adds a theological tenor to this language of kingship. Moreover, the arrangement of the end of Jonson’s line, like those examined above, works against its own ostensible meaning: resteth still is an interpolation to the Latin, and within the parameters of the Latin context can be read as resides with now and always. But the combination of two so deeply Jonsonian words suggests exactly the opposite: that the rule of speaking is in some—possibly religious or divine—sense in fact profoundly stable.

38In his version of this passage, Jonson’s Horace holds out a vision of the possible constancy of language, and the potential for poetic power that this entails. He is doing so between the lines, as it were, of Horace’s declaration of the opposite; and he signposts this departure with a theological term, grace. But this constancy at once arrests, and draws its living energy from, continuous mutation. Moreover, the very act of translation—and particularly translating an already allusive passage—highlights this contradiction: despite the shift from one language to another, these lines have in some sense survived.

39The Ars Poetica is itself a complex poem of subtlety and interest, both in style and content. It is also evidently of central importance to Jonson both as translator and, more generally, as a poet: his prose notes on moral and artistic matters, Discoveries, is indebted to it at many points. Nor is it the only substantial piece of classical, or even Horatian, translation undertaken by Jonson that survives and deserves greater attention. But in this short overview of his close engagement with Horace’s text, I hope to have shown some of the ways in which translation even of this most precise and careful kind offered Jonson space, between the lines of the Latin, for creative interpretation. More than that, this “space” that opens between Jonson’s English and his Latin text is repeatedly one concerned with, and occupied by, the stabilising, even immortalising, potential of translation itself. I have not in this essay been much concerned with the political force of this gesture, the consciousness of poetic power that lies behind it (as Oliensis might say: what Jonson can do and the king cannot), but I would like to end with a final extract which, in Jonson’s translation, insists once again upon reading poetry at the centre of power; at the still point of lasting reward:

Dictae per carmina sortes,
Et vitae monstrata via est, & gratia regum
Pieriis tentata modis, ludusque repertus,
Et longorum operum finis […]
(347-350; OCT 403-406)

The Oracles, too, were given out in Verse;
All way of life was shewen; the grace of Kings
Attempted by the Muses tunes, and strings;
Playes were found out; and rest, the end, and crowne
Of their long labours, was in Verse set downe.


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Primary texts: editions of Horace

Heinsius, Daniel (ed.), 1610, Q. Horatii Flacci Opera Omnia, cum notis D. Heinsii. Accedit Horatii ad Pisones epistola, Aristotelis de poetica libellus, Antwerp, Plantin Press.

Herford, Charles, H. and Simpson, Percy (eds.), 1925-1952, Ben Jonson, Oxford, Clarendon Press.

Manutius, Aldus (ed.), 1576, In Q. Horatii Flacci […] librum de Arte Poetica […] commentarius, Venice, Aldus.

Parthenius, Bernadinus (ed.), 1584, Bernadini Parthenii Spilimbergii in Q. Horatii Flacci Carmina atq. Epodos Commentarii Quibus Poetae artificium, & uia ad imitationem, atq. ad Poetice scribendum aperitur, Venice, Dominic Nicolinus.

Rudd, Niall (ed.), 1989, Horace: Epistles Book II and Epistle to the Pisones (“Ars Poetica”), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

—, (trans.), 1973, Horace: Satires and Epistles. Persius: Satires, Penguin Classics, Penguin.

Wickham, Edward C. (ed.), 1901, Q. Horatii Flacci Opera, Oxford, Clarendon Press.

Secondary works

Brink, Charles O., 1971, Horace on Poetry: The “Ars Poetica,” Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Dryden, John, 1962, Of Dramatic Poetry and other Critical Essays, G. Watson (ed.), London, Dent.

Greene, Thomas M., 1982, The Light in Troy: Imitation and Discovery in Renaissance Poetry, New Haven, Yale University Press.

Hardie, Philip, 1993, “Vt pictura poesis? Horace and the Visual Arts,” in Rudd, Niall (ed.), Horace 2000: A Celebration. Essays for the Bimillennium, London, Duckworth, p. 120-139.

Martindale, Charles, 1984, “Unlocking the word-hoard: in praise of metaphrase,” in Comparative Criticism 6, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, p. 47-72.

Oliensis, Ellen, 1998, Horace and the Rhetoric of Authority, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Parfitt, George A. E., 1973, “The Nature of Translation in Ben Jonson’s Poetry,” in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 13, Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, p. 344-359.

Stoneman, Richard, 1982, Daphne into Laurel: Translations of Classical Poetry from Chaucer to the Present Day, London, Duckworth.

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1 Jonson’s translation is quoted from the folio version, unless noted otherwise. The Latin is quoted from the text printed on the facing page in the 1640 folio (although, since the volume was prepared posthumously, this was not necessarily the edition of the text that Jonson himself was using). Both are given in volume VIII of Herford and Simpson’s edition of Jonson’s poetry (Herford and Simpson, 1925-1952), from which all references are taken (including those to Discoveries, Jonson’s prose work). Where there is a discrepancy between the Latin of the folio text, and the modern standard edition, a second reference is to the relevant line numbers in the Oxford Classical Text of Horace’s works (Wickham, 1901). In quoting Jonson’s text, I have preserved the spelling and italicisation as reproduced in Herford and Simpson, but modernised u/v and expanded some typographical contractions (e.g. for -que) that are now unfamiliar.

2 “[T]o me he read the Preface of his arte of Poesie, upon Horace Arte of poesie” (Conversations with Drummond, 82-83). See also the epistle To the Readers prefaced to Sejanus (1605): “But of this [that a playwright need not adhere to ancient laws of drama] I shall take more seasonable cause to speake; in my Observations upon Horace his Art of Poetry, which (with the Text translated) I intend, shortly to publish” (To the Readers, 15-18).

3 Jonson’s own copy is X. 9. 15 in Cambridge University Library. We cannot of course be certain that any particular underlining is his, although the marked passages very often correspond to the sections of translation of most interest or greatest diversion from the Latin. Where this is the case in a passage under discussion, I have remarked upon it in a footnote.

4 In his Preface to Ovid’s Epistles (1680), Dryden remarks: “All translation may, I suppose, be reduced to these three heads. First, that of metaphrase, or turning an author word by word, and line by line, from one language to another. Thus, or near this manner, was Horace his Art of Poetry translated by Ben Jonson” (Dryden, 1962: I, 268-269). Reading Martindale’s work some years ago was an early spur to my thinking in these matters, and I remain indebted to it.

5 The printed presentation of the text alongside the Latin in the 1640 folio is apparently an invitation to close comparison, although we should remember that this arrangement was made posthumously, and we cannot be certain that it reflects Jonson’s own intention. Personally, I am convinced that Jonson intended and expected his translations to be appreciated by those who were themselves thoroughly familiar with the Latin text.

6 Brink remarks: “If the Epistle to the Pisos is the kind of poem I take it to be, it represents imaginatively, in a way no conceptual prose could, not only views on poetry but the ancient feeling for poetry […] The Ars may well be seen as a poetic restatement of Horace’s in the original own poetry” (Brink, 1971: 521).

7 See also our language (82) for sermonem patrium; our Italie (411) for Latium; Our Roman Youths (464) for Romani pueri. Other glosses include Roman Gentrie (160) for Romani […] equites peditesque (113) and The Roman Gentrie, men of birth, and meane (360) for the phrase quibus est equus, & pater, & res (254).

8 Lines 360-361 are underlined in Jonson’s copy of Parthenius, 1584. The terms centuriae seniorum and Rhamnes (now generally spelt without the h) refer to different groups of Roman citizens: seniores denotes men over 45, and the Ramnes were young men under 30.

9 Jonson’s own copy of Parthenius, 1584, which is heavily marked, has the same organisation as the OCT, as does the duodecimo edition of Jonson’s translation, in John Benson’s edition of the Poems, but almost certainly an earlier composition. It seems clear that this initial translation was working from Parthenius; and that the revisions of the folio edition of the translation can be traced to his return to the poem under the influence of Heinsius’s suggested reordering.

10 In the duodecimo edition these lines immediately precede 503 of the folio (“Be briefe, in what thou wouldst command […]”).

11 The OCT text reads an for ad at 330. Lines 333-334 are underlined in Jonson’s edition of Parthenius, 1584.

12 Note too the translation of frugis (358, OCT 341) in the passage discussed above, as profit (511). Translations following the paragraph break of the modern text translate prodesse to align it more closely with idonea; Rudd for instance has benefit (Rudd, 1973 : 199).

13 Jonson’s live echoes several other famous Horatian lines. Compare for instance: Epistles I. 18. 107 (ut mihi vivam / quod superest aevi), Satires II. 6. 97 (vive memor, quam sis aevi brevis) and Epistles I. 19. 2 (nulla placere diu nec vivere carmina possunt). The final lines of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, themselves heavily indebted to Horace, also include both aevi and vivam in a similar context.

14 The OCT has auctor for autor here.

15 Rear is moreover a suggestive term in Jonson’s work. At Forest 12, the epistle to Elizabeth, Countess of Rutland, this verb echoes the combination of feriam and sublimi in Horace, Odes I. 1. 35: There like a rich, and golden pyramede, / Borne up by statues, shall I reare your head (Forest 12, 83-84).

16 Maryvonne Boisseau, in correspondence, has helpfully pointed out that part of the difficulty of translation resides in the prosodic elements of the Latin line, including the shift from the consonant -t to -n. Arguably, Jonson catches at something of this modulation in the shift of -r and -t from virtue to true grace. Virtue was certainly a “masculine” word for Jonson, conscious of its vir- element.

17 The association of the “ordering” of language with a kind of “grace,” and that in turn with lasting as opposed to fading meaning, recurs in Discoveries: “For Order helpes much to Perspicuity, as Confusion hurts […] Whatsoever looseth the grace, and cleareness, converts into a Riddle; the obscurity is mark’d, but not the valew. That perisheth, and is past by, like the Pearle in the Fable.” (Discoveries, 1989-1997).

18 This instance is the only reference given by the OED for epic as a noun meaning an epic poet.

19 Of these lines, 57-63 and 68-74 (next passage) are underlined in Jonson’s edition of Parthenius, 1584.

20 A more literal translation might be: It has been, and always shall be permitted.

21 He rephrases this as “the artistic problem of redeeming existential dynamism” on the same page, and refers to “redeeming mobility” on p. 286.

22 I offer a less contentious translation for comparison: Mortal deeds shall perish, / and no more shall the glory and charm of speech remain alive. / Many words which have now fallen away will be reborn, and many / which are now held in high esteem shall fall away, if common usage desires it. / Usage, to whom belongs the judgement, as well as the force and norm of speaking.

23 State at this period can also mean throne. Compare the numinous line of Cynthia, which similarly revolves around the various senses of “state”: Seated, in thy silver chair, / State in wonted manner keepe, Cynthia’s Revels, V. 6. 3-4.

24 In Jonson’s translation of the AP, the word appears on seven occasions, in four of which it is placed prominently at the end of the line. The term translates, in the order in which it appears, venus (59); gratia vivax (100, the vivax suppressed); tantum honoris (353); veneris (456) and finally gratia again (497, although here the Latin term has a sense close to royal favour or gratitude, whereas at line 100 it is closer to [linguistic] charm). At line 72, used as a verb (all men will grace), the word is an expansion of the Latin and does not correspond to any individual Latin term; at line 113 Jonson translates gave grace where the Latin has only the plain verb dedit.

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Victoria Moul, « Translation As Commentary? The Case of Ben Jonson’s Ars Poetica », Palimpsestes, 20 | 2007, 59-77.

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Victoria Moul, « Translation As Commentary? The Case of Ben Jonson’s Ars Poetica », Palimpsestes [En ligne], 20 | 2007, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2009, consulté le 27 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/palimpsestes.93

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Victoria Moul

Victoria Moul est affectée à The Queen’s College, Oxford comme jeune chercheuse post-doctorale. Sa recherche porte sur différents aspects de la réception et de la diffusion de la littérature classique dans l’Angleterre de la Renaissance, notamment la réception d’Horace et Virgile dans les œuvres de Jonson, Donne et Shakespeare. Elle s’intéresse tout particulièrement à la traduction de la poésie et est actuellement engagée dans une recherche sur la circulation de la poésie latine traduite dans des manuscrits de la période élizabéthaine tardive et de la période jacobéenne.

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