The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XIII. Robert Burton, John Barclay and John Owen

§ 10. His Influence

Of the favourable impression which Owen made upon his contemporaries, there can be no doubt. His first volume was reissued within a month, and, during the seventeenth century, his epigrams were frequently reprinted in England, Holland and Germany. Camden, in his Remains, when speaking of the poets of his day couples Owen’s name with those of Sidney, Spenser, Daniel, Holland, Ben Jonson, Campion, Drayton, Chapman, Marston, Shakespeare, “and other most pregnant wits of these our times whom succeeding ages may justly admire.” Five English translations of the whole or part of his epigrams appeared before 1678, the earliest by John Vicars in 1619. The clumsiness of much in these translations makes the merit of the original Latin more evident. The best known of the half-dozen French versions (the latest of which appeared in 1818, that by N. Le Brun (1709), is entirely wanting in point and concentration. Many attempts to interpret him were made in Germany, the most conspicuous of which is by Valentin Löber (1653). He has also been translated into Spanish.

Any effect of Owen on subsequent Latin verse was, naturally, confined to the epigrammatists. Caspar Barth, whose own extemporaneous style was ill-calculated to reproduce Owen’s neatness, frequently addresses him in his work Scioppius excellens, and in his Amphitheatrum Seriorum Jocorum (thirty books of epigrams). Barth, it may be noted, resents Owen’s imputation of drinking habits to the Germans. Bauhusius of Antwerp and Cabillavus, though their style and subject matter are far other than Owen’s, show, in a few epigrams, distinct traces of indebtedness to him. To take another example, Ninian Paterson, a Scotch minister whose Epigrammaton libri octo was published at Edinburgh in 1678, shows, amid much flatness, strong evidence of his study of Owen. But the author whose obligations are most marked is H. Harder, whose epigrams are included in the second volume of Rostgaard’s Deliciae Quorundam Poetarum Danorum (Lugd. Bat. 1693). In his second and third books in especial, Owen is echoed again and again. We find the same themes, the same points and the same play upon words. Harder shows considerable skill in this style, and, in many cases, if epigrams of his were inserted among Owen’s, it would require a close acquaintance with the latter’s writings to detect the imposition.

There are many references to Owen and some imitations of his epigrams in the English literature of the century. Robert Burton quotes him several times without acknowledgment, and there are traces of indebtedness in such widely different authors as Sir John Harington and “the matchless Orinda.” But the strangest phenomenon about Owen’s influence is to be found in the German literature of the seventeenth century. At a time when artificiality and pedantry were rampant, a whole school of writers arose who devoted themselves to epigram, after the manner of Owen. This singular and interesting episode of literary history has been treated by Erich Urban, in his Owenus und die deutschen Epigrammatiker des XVII Jahrhunderts. In the eighteenth century, Owen’s work was still alive. Lessing criticised him with severity but paid him the sincerest form of flattery. Cowper translated some of his epigrams. In the second year of the French republic, one of the very first books issued from the press of Didot, when the scarcity of compositors due to the recent troubles came to an end, was the epigrams of Owen, edited by Renouard. Southey’s omnivorous taste did not neglect Owen.

The last edition of the epigrams appeared at Leipzig in 1824. Collected editions published after his death contain a few posthumous epigrams, but, by a curious fate, many moral and political distiches of Michael Verinus and an epigram of Ausonius came also to be included, and a great number of inaccuracies crept into the text. It is not possible that Owen should ever again be so highly valued as in the past, but it is equally certain that his present neglect is undeserved. It is strange that he should be so little read at a time when some knowledge of Latin is still an essential part of literary training.