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  • “To Admire and Do Otherwise”: Hopkins’s Modified Translations of Shakespeare’s Casket Song
  • Elizabeth Howard (bio)

Classical studies formed the core of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s curriculum at Oxford, and Hopkins and his peers spent a considerable amount of time translating from and composing in Greek and Latin. To demonstrate a command of verse for the Moderations examination in literae humaniores, for example, students translated English verse into Latin hexameters, elegiacs, and lyrics and into “Greek iambics, hexameters, comic verse, and anapests” (Ox. Ess., p. 76). Several graduates then went on to publish translations of Virgil or Livy, while those with particular skill navigating the classical languages displayed their knowledge by publishing English lyrics translated into Greek and Latin. The best of these also attempted to do so with Shakespearian verse.1 Hopkins himself was asked to translate “Sonnet 32” into Latin elegiacs for his Moderations examinations during the Michaelmas term of 1864 (PW, p. 467).

Nevertheless, when Hopkins composed a string of translations of Shakespeare’s songs, including Greek and Latin variations of Portia’s “casket song” (“Tell me where is Fancy bred”) from The Merchant of Venice (3.2.63–72) two decades later in 1886, he was hardly completing an exam exercise. Although he was certainly grading plenty of classics exams at the time for the Royal University of Ireland, his own compositions display a facility with classical verse forms exceeding that of the pedagogical exercise.2 Not only did Hopkins use obscure and even inventive Latin and Attic forms, but he also significantly altered the forms of Shakespeare’s songs in more than one instance as he set them in the classical languages. Hopkins’s version of “Tell me where is Fancy bred” is a text in translation alive to the possibilities within Shakespearian verse for poetic play. Hopkins’s translations from English into Greek and Latin, therefore, serve as a sketch pad for some of his experiments in poetic form outside the confines of English prosody. Examining Hopkins’s adaptive translations as more than merely studies in metrics, this essay considers how Hopkins’s additional lines in his Latin verse underscore the ironic tragedy of love’s death [End Page 181] and how his Greek variant clarifies Shakespeare’s ambiguous voices in the song from The Merchant of Venice. In light of Annmarie Drury’s recent work on the relationship between Victorian poetic translation and experimentation, Hopkins’s texts prove an important case study. Rather than transferring an artistic artifact out of its native language and into English, Hopkins furthers the afterlife of Shakespearian songs by antiquating them.3 In so doing he gives attention to the intricacies of the narrative ambiguities within the songs themselves while bending English verse to classical forms.4

Hopkins’s Work in the Classics

Even as an undergraduate, Hopkins showed more than an average proficiency in the classical languages. While at Balliol, he described to his mother his studies under many acclaimed classicists of the day. For example, in a letter dated April 1867, Hopkins complained about the two days of practice exams, set by his tutor Benjamin Jowett, that he found “most trying” (Corres., 1: 143).5 His efforts, at least for Jowett, were noticed; Hopkins’s first biographer, Gerald Lahey, S.J., describes Jowett’s referring to Hopkins as “the star of Balliol.”6 By the time he completed his degree in June 1867, Hopkins had achieved a “first” in Moderations and a “first” in literae humaniores in Greats.

Hopkins’s knowledge of Greek and Latin made teaching an excellent possible career path. Despite his acute disappointment and exasperation with teaching students of various ages at the Oratory School in Birmingham, then in Roehampton and Stonyhurst, his name did come up for a double appointment in Dublin: as a classics professor at University College Dublin and a fellow of the Royal University of Ireland (RUI). While noting his “eccentricity,” both the English assistant to the Jesuits’ superior general and the English provincial of the Society of the Jesuits praised his “cleverness” and “training” in classics (DN, p. 233). Hopkins moved to Dublin in February 1884; he began examining for the RUI almost immediately, and he began...


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