Tuesday 21 June 2011

Periphrasis and Paraphrase

Samuel Johnson's great poem The Vanity of Human Wishes, which is a sort of reworking of Juvenal's 10th Satire, opens with the lines:

Let Observation with extensive view
Survey mankind from China to Peru...

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (rather unkindly) rewrote this as:

Let Observation with extensive observation
Observe mankind extensively.

But just before doing so, Coleridge made some interesting points about poetry. Here's the context:

As we walked up Mr. Cambridge's meadows towards Twickenham, he [Coleridge] criticized Johnson and Gray as poets, and did not seem to allow them high merit. [That's Gray who wrote Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard] The excellence of verse, he said, was to be untranslatable into any other words without detriment to the beauty of the passage; — the position of a single word could not be altered in Milton without injury. Gray's personifications, he said, were mere printer's devils' personifications — persons with a capital letter, abstract qualities with a small one. He thought Collins had more genius than Gray, who was a singular instance of a man of taste, poetic feeling, and fancy, without imagination. He contrasted Dryden's opening of the 10th satire of Juvenal with Johnson's: -

"'Let observation, with extensive view,
Survey mankind from Ganges to Peru.'

which was as much as to say, -

"'Let observation with extensive observation observe mankind.'

"After dinner he told us a humorous story of his enthusiastic fondness for
Quakerism, when he was at Cambridge, and his attending one of their
meetings, which had entirely cured him. "

And in case you were wondering how Dryden did it, he managed the same couplet in five words:

Look round the habitable world, how few
Know their own good; or knowing it, pursue.
How void of reason are our hopes and fears!
What in the conduct of our life appears
So well design'd, so luckily begun,
But, when we have our wish, we wish undone?

But I prefer Johnson's.

Observation, you have your task.


  1. But you have highlighted China, and the Ganges is in India!

  2. Oh dear... I clearly need to read much more carefully next time. Ha ha.

  3. Summarizer "knows" how to transfer words into concepts and determine relations between them without breaking the main idea of the whole text. See more paraphrase site