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

I. Translators

§ 10. Phaer’s Vergil

To Stanyhurst, Thomas Phaer was an insignificant competitor. But he had enjoyed twenty years of fame before Stanyhurst’s version was printed, and, though momentarily depressed, he survived the absurd fashion of the hexameter in the esteem of his contemporaries. Webbe praises his “most gallant verse,” and chooses him as an example to prove “the meetnesse of our speeche to receive the best forme of poetry.” The proof is deficient. Phaer was no poet, and very ill-skilled to present the beauty of Vergil in English verse. As Anthony à Wood says, he was “a person of a mutable mind,” who addicted his muse to many studies. Educated at Oxford, he studied law, wrote a work Of the Nature of Writts and presently adopted medicine as his profession. In brief, translation was his pastime, and, doubtless, his knowledge of the healing art was profounder than his knowledge of English or Latin. His Vergil, composed in lines of fourteen syllables, like Golding’s Ovid and Chapman’s Homer, never rises above a facile mediocrity. The translator constantly sacrifices taste and sense to the demands of rime, and mixes in a kind of familiar jingle the easy stateliness of the original. Even in the rare passages which display some movement and energy, he descends suddenly upon the wrong word, and sets the reader on his guard. Here, for instance, is his rendering of the celebrated lines, Monstrum horrendum ingens, etc., in the fourth book:

  • A monster gastly great, for every plume her carkas beares
  • Lyke number leering eies she hath, like number harckning eares,
  • Lyke number tounges and mouthes she waggs, a wondrous thing to speake;
  • At midnight fourth she flies, and under shade her sounde doth squeake.
  • If the first two lines might pass muster, no word can be said in defence of the others. With the word “squeake,” Phaer descends into bathos, and the best that can be said for him is that, while Stanyhurst always lets his reason go, Phaer is sometimes sane.