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Review of  Thus Burst Hippocrene: Studies in the Olympian Imagination

Reviewer: Geoffrey Sampson
Book Title: Thus Burst Hippocrene: Studies in the Olympian Imagination
Book Author: Laurence K. P. Wong
Publisher: Cambridge Scholars Publishing
Linguistic Field(s): Ling & Literature
Issue Number: 30.4350

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Laurence Wong uses the term “Olympian” to refer to the writers he regards as the ‘ne plus ultra’ of world literature, whom he identifies as Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, the authors of the Bible collectively, Li Bo (sometimes spelled Li Bai), and Du Fu. In nine chapters (four of which were previously published separately) Wong looks at various properties of the Olympians’ writing, often comparing one writer with another across widely-different cultures and languages. Specifically (identifying the chapters by number, though they are not numbered in the book):

Chapter 1 asks which is the grisliest of the Olympians, awarding first prize to Homer for the description of the blinding of Polyphemus in Book 9 of the Odyssey.

Chapter 2 disagrees with Pope’s verdict that in Homer and only in Homer “poetic fire” burns everywhere clearly and irresistibly: Wong argues that the fight between Achilles and Hector in the Iliad is a regrettable anticlimax.

Chapter 3 discusses the use of “epic similes”, that is, similes which extend over a substantial portion of a work, temporarily eclipsing the main narrative. If an epic simile is a digression from that narrative, one might suppose that epic similes would be found chiefly in passages where action is largely in abeyance, so that a literary device is helpful in maintaining the reader’s interest. Surprisingly, it seems that in Homer at least just the opposite is true. Wong quotes Norman Austin (2006): “where the drama is most intense the digressions are the longest and the details the fullest. … The more urgent the situation, the more expansive the speech … The effect of this style is to put time into slow motion and to create a ritual out of the moment.” Wong is particularly concerned in this chapter to argue that Dante’s epic similes in the Divine Comedy attain a higher literary plane than those of Homer, Virgil, or Milton.

Chapter 4 looks at the problem created for writers in the Christian tradition by the doctrine that God is indescribable and infinitely mysterious; Wong contrasts the different approaches taken by Dante and by Milton towards describing the indescribable in words.

Chapter 5 is about the convention of dramatic unities deriving from Aristotle: a play must relate to a single action and take place in one location over a single day. It examines the pros and cons of conforming to the unities, by comparing Sophocles’s Oedipus, which does conform, to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which ignores the unities.

Chapter 6 discusses the fact that figurative language has played strikingly little part in the Chinese poetic tradition. It is not that figurative language is unknown in Chinese poetry: similes do occur, but quite infrequently, whereas those brought up in the Western tradition are inclined to think of simile and metaphor as the lifeblood of poetry.

Chapter 7 compares the poetic technique of Li Bo and Du Fu, two of the most famous Chinese poets, who were contemporaries and indeed friends, living in the middle of the eighth century A.D. Some Chinese critics have seen one of the two as a far superior poet to the other, though disagreeing about which they prefer; others have held that they cannot be ranked. Wong argues that the issue can be settled relatively objectively, awarding the palm to Du Fu.

Chapter 8 discusses a feature of Biblical, particularly Old Testament, prose, namely the exhaustive enumeration of possibilities, which Wong relates to characteristics of Jewish activity in areas other than literature, including intellectual endeavours and warfare.

Finally Chapter 9 notes that Pope’s translation of Homer’s Iliad has been highly praised by some and heavily criticized by others; Wong argues that the eighteenth-century convention of “poetic diction” created constraints which were particularly adverse to faithful rendering of Homer, forcing Pope to “channel the Amazon into a canal”.

Many of these topics are very interesting ones; however it is fair to say that they overlap only to a limited extent with the usual concerns of the discipline of linguistics. After reading the book, I felt a little surprised that the Linguist List had offered it for review. In view of the forum in which I am writing, I shall try to focus the Evaluation section of this review particularly on those areas of the book which can be brought into a relationship with linguistics (which were not necessarily the most important aspects for the author of the book).

Readers may be puzzled by Wong’s title. In a footnote to his Preface, he explains that Hippocrene (“spring of the horse”) was a spring on Mount Helicon, sacred to the Muses and consequently poetic shorthand for literary inspiration, which according to Greek myth was brought into being by a stroke of the hoof of Pegasus, the winged horse which was the Muses’ favourite steed.


From the linguist’s point of view, a key point in Wong’s book occurs in his last chapter, on Pope’s translation of the Iliad. Let me first explain that Wong thinks it clear that Pope’s translation is a poor one, and that this was unavoidable given the genre of English that Pope chose to use. This genre included both a convention of “poetic diction”, and the use of rhyming couplets. Wong remarks that it is uncontroversial to say that “eighteenth-century writers [in English] believed that poetry had to be written in a special poetic diction; adhering to this belief, writers, even when engaged in original writing, invariably ‘translated’ their perceptions, feelings, and thoughts into a language a degree or two removed from what is most natural, most precise for the occasion.” An example would be a quatrain by William Shenstone:

Romantic scenes of pendent hills
And verdant vales, and falling rills,
And mossy banks, the fields adorn
Where Damon, simple swain, was born

in connexion with which Wong quotes Thomas Quale (1924) as saying that poets of this period “either could not, or would not, try to convey their impressions in language of their very own, but were content in large measure to draw upon a common stock of dead and colourless epithets”. Wong applies this to Pope’s Iliad via far more and longer quotations than I have room for, but consider a few lines near the opening of the Iliad, where Apollo is moved by the prayer of Chryses to intervene against the Greeks. In E.V. Rieu’s 1950 prose translation, the lines run:

Phoebus Apollo heard his prayer and came down in fury from the heights of Olympus with his bow and covered quiver on his back. As he set out, the arrows clanged on the shoulder of the angry god; and his descent was like nightfall.

Pope renders the lines as:

Thus Chryses pray’d: the fav’ring Pow’r attends,
And from Olympus’ lofty tops descends.
Bent was his bow, the Grecian hearts to wound;
Fierce as he mov’d, his silver shafts resound.
Breathing revenge, a sudden night he spread, …

One problem, as Wong sees it, is that (by comparison with many other languages) English is rhyme-poor, so that the need to find rhymes imposes a severe constraint on Pope’s attempt to match the literary effect of Homer’s Greek, even accepting eye-rhymes like wound/resound. But also (Wong says in connexion with another example, however the point is almost as relevant to this example) Pope’s poetic diction (“lofty tops”, for instance) and rhyming couplets result “in the loss of the action’s speed and ferocity and, consequently, of the gripping drama of the entire passage.”

One might object that it is odd to find poetic diction unsuitable because of its use of stock “dead epithets”, considering what heavy use Homer makes of standard epithets, such as those commonly translated into English as “wine-dark (sea)” or “rosy-fingered (dawn)”. Nevertheless, I personally entirely agree with Wong in finding Pope’s version of Homer mimsy and lifeless, relative to the original; experts on Ancient Greek agree in seeing Homer’s style as notably vivid and colloquial, and my very limited knowledge of that language suggests that this is right. However, both Wong and I are products of the twentieth century rather than the eighteenth. As Wong quotes Douglas Knight (1951) saying in defence of Pope: “As a translator, Pope cannot deny his own time and his own language”.

As linguists we take for granted that each language or language-variety has its own rules of grammar, which a translation into that language must obey. A poetic translation into English in which plural subjects were followed by third-person singular verbs, say, would just be an unacceptable translation, and the fact that agreement failure allowed the English wording to fit the metre would be no excuse. But how far does this kind of constraint extend from syntax narrowly understood into other aspects of language, such as those covered by the term “poetic diction”? (Why should it be restricted to syntax alone?) If we moderns find Pope’s Iliad poor stuff, does that mean only that it is a poor translation for us, or that it is poor in some more absolute sense? And if the latter, can it make sense to say that for some audiences a good translation of a given work is unachievable, because their linguistic expectations are incompatible with the nature of the language to be translated? For an eighteenth-century readership, I could imagine that a Homer translation which avoided poetic diction might jar just as much as one which violated verb agreement: would it follow that Homeric Greek and eighteenth-century English is a “less translatable” language-pair than the former and 21st-century English? Or alternatively, is this concept of more and less translatable language-pairs spurious, and could we say that Pope’s Homer was as vivid for his eighteenth-century readership, relative to their linguistic expectations, as Rieu’s is for us? This seems to be a real alternative, though (since we cannot inhabit the mind of an eighteenth-century English-speaker) I am not sure how it could be resolved.

What to me seems clear is that such a question can only be addressed in terms of subjective considerations, not as an empirical scientific issue. “Jarring”, in the sense used in the previous paragraph, is a subjective phenomenon, whether the thing that jars is syntax or poetic diction. I have argued (in my 2017 book ‘The Linguistics Delusion’) that the discipline of linguistics is mistaken to call itself “the scientific study of language”, because most aspects of language discussed by linguists are by nature not open to investigation by the scientific method. If that is true for syntax, the main focus of that book, it is surely more clearly true for literary style. The issue running through Wong’s book on which I most differ from him is Wong’s belief that the literary issues he discusses can and should be resolved by objective, scientific tests.

Again and again in this book, Wong treats literary discussion as something like a sports competition in which the aim is to identify who wins first prize. In a footnote to Chapter 2, for instance, he writes “With respect to structure and aesthetics, while one must admit that the ‘Iliad’, ‘War and Peace’, and ‘The Lord of the Rings’ are all great works of art/literature … they are inferior to the ‘Symphony No. 5’, ‘The Divine Comedy’, and ‘Terminator II’, even though ‘Terminator II’ is by no means comparable to the ‘Iliad’ and ‘War and Peace’ in literary merit.” Unlike other “Olympians” who wrote on similar topics, Dante in the Divine Comedy “reaches the highest point which the human intellect is capable of reaching” (Chapter 4). Many other passages throughout the book are in a comparable vein. And Wong argues that these prizes are to be allocated objectively. In Chapter 7, for instance, comparing Li Bo and Du Fu as poets, he objects that “traditional Chinese literary criticism” has compared them in merely “impressionistic” terms, whereas his comparison is based on “evidence that can be verified”. In his anxiety to demonstrate objectivity, Wong sometimes appeals to factors whose relevance is questionable; for instance, although ultimately he judges Du Fu to be the better poet, as counter-evidence he points out that while both poets wrote about mountain scenery, Du Fu as a physically weaker man never climbed mountains as high as some of those which Li Bo scaled successfully.

A more central and more interesting example of Wong’s urge to evaluate literature objectively occurs in the chapter on Pope’s Homer, where Wong discusses the longstanding question whether Pope’s mastery of Greek was adequate to allow him to translate directly rather than depending on prior translations, and argues (giving extensive line-counts) that Pope’s version cannot be seen as “translation in the strict sense” but only as “a piece of rewriting”, because it consistently expands passages of the Iliad into more lines of English poetry than they occupy in Greek.

The implication seems to be that a thoroughly satisfactory translation of poetry in language A into poetry in language B ought to agree with the original in line-count. That seems wrong to me. It happens that I am currently working on a new translation of an anthology of Chinese poems dating from 1000–600 B.C., usually called in English the ‘Book of Odes’. Most of these poems consist of rhyming tetrameters (because almost all Old Chinese words are single syllables, a tetrameter contains four words). An early decision I made was that it would not work to divide the translation into lines corresponding to the Chinese lines, because they are too short. Take the opening quatrain of Ode 1, with the rhyme-scheme A A B A. If I divided my translation to match the Chinese line-division, it would run:

‘Kròn, kròn,’ calls the fish-hawk
on an islet in the river.
A girl who is really gorgeous
is the fit match for a princely man.

(The English lines have more than four words: Old Chinese uses a minimum of “little words” like ‘the’ or ‘is’.) To me this gives a childish, nursery-rhyme effect, which can scarcely have been intended by the Chinese poet; so I group pairs of Chinese lines into single English lines:

‘Kròn, kròn,’ calls the fish-hawk on an islet in the river.
A girl who is really gorgeous is the fit match for a princely man.

My translation is into unrhymed prose, but if I had imitated the rhymes and four-beat metre of the original I believe the nursery-rhyme effect would have been even more pronounced. Someone else might well disagree with my judgement, and prefer English which matches the original line-division. But surely this can be discussed only in subjective terms? The fact that number of lines is an objective fact cannot automatically give it weight as evidence in literary evaluation.

(I would also comment that occasionally Wong states as fact things which are not necessarily so. It has usually been believed that the hundreds of poems in the Book of Odes were composed by different men and women over several centuries, but Wong states in a throwaway footnote to Chapter 6 that they are now known all to have been written by a single author – he quotes research by Li Chendong. I have not read this research, which was published in Taiwan, but I note that Kuang Yu Chen (2005) describes Li’s work as having been “received with little enthusiasm and, sometimes, downright hostility”, and as “still considered to be heretical”. Given the nature of the poems, I certainly find Li’s idea difficult to believe. Wong may be more impressed by it, but he should not quote Li’s theory as an established truth.)

Wong’s book takes up many other fascinating issues. For a Westerner who has lived since birth in a culture soaked in Christianity, whether or not he is a believer himself it must be refreshing to see literary reflections of the religion through the eyes of someone who not only identifies himself as a non-believer but does not hail from a Christian culture. Sometimes this leads to apparent naivety in failing to distinguish clearly between Christianity, and the religion of the Old Testament which formed the culture into which Christ was born. Thus, in Chapter 4 Wong remarks “In the ‘Old Testament’, the Christian God is anthropomorphic from beginning to end” – a Jew might retort that the Old Testament is not about “the Christian God”. However, Wong might well respond to this criticism by arguing that the unclarity lies not with him but with Christianity, because how far its “New Covenant” represents a sharp break from the Old Testament is never precisely specified. Christ said “Do not suppose that I have come to abolish the Law and the prophets” (Matthew 5).

However, to pursue this and many other interesting issues raised by Wong would take us far from the proper concerns of the Linguist List. I shall end my review here.


Austin, Norman (2006). “The functions of digression in the ‘Iliad’ ”. In Harold Bloom, ed., Homer. Chelsea House (Broomall, Pennsylvania).

Knight, Douglas (1951). Pope and the Heroic Tradition. Yale University Press.

Kuang Yu Chen (2005). “ ‘The Book of Odes’: a case study of the Chinese hermeneutic tradition”. In Ching-I Tu, ed., Interpretation and Intellectual Change. Routledge.

Quale, Thomas (1924). Poetic Diction. Methuen.

Rieu, E.V., translator (1950). Homer: the Iliad. Penguin (Harmondsworth, Mddx).

Sampson, Geoffrey (2017). The Linguistics Delusion. Equinox (Sheffield and Connecticut).
Geoffrey Sampson graduated in Chinese Studies from Cambridge University, and his academic career was spent partly in Linguistics and partly in Informatics, with intervals in industrial research. After retiring as professor emeritus from Sussex University in 2009, he spent several years as Research Fellow at the University of South Africa. He has published contributions to most areas of Linguistics, as well as to other subjects. His latest book is ''The Linguistics Delusion'' (2017).

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