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

§ 11. Golding’s Ovid

The best loved of all the ancient poets was Ovid, whose popularity is attested by many translations of varying worth. The first version in point of date is The Fable of Ovid treting of Narcissus, translated oute of Latin into Englysh Mytre, with a moral therein to, very pleasante to rede. This was followed, five years later, by the first edition of Arthur Golding’s work (1565), of which more will be said presently. In 1567, George Turbervile printed The Heroycall Epistles of the learned Poet Publius Ovidius Naso, and, in 1577, there came from the press two versions of Ovid his Invective against Ibis, one of which is the work of Thomas Underdowne, to whom, also, we owe the Aethiopian Historie of Heliodorus. Marlowe turned the Elegies into rimed couplets, and George Chapman, in 1595, published Ovid’s Banquet of Sauce, a coronet for his Mistress Philosophy, and his amorous Zodiac. De Tristibus was Englished by Churchyard, and Francis Beaumont gave proof of his skill in a lively version of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus. The cause of Ovid’s popularity is not far to seek. He was an efficient guide to the Greek and Roman mythologies, and he furnished the poets with theme, sentiment and allusion. Of all the translations, by far the most famous was Arthur Golding’s rendering of the Metamorphoses. The first edition (1565) contained but four books. In 1567, the work was complete. It is described on the title-page as “a worke very pleasaunt and delectable,” and a stern couplet warns the reader against frivolity:

  • With skill, heede, and judgement, thys work must be red,
  • For els to the reader it stands in small stead.
  • Golding’s motive, in truth, was above suspicion. His work was “pleasaunt and delectable” by accident. He wished to improve the occasion before all things. In a long epistle, addressed to Robert earl of Leicester, he clearly sets forth his purpose. There is no fable of Ovid which does not make for edification. For instance:
  • In Phaeton’s fable untoo syght the Poet dooth expresse
  • The natures of ambition blynd, and youthful wilfulnesse.
  • And a little ingenuity will interpret every book in a sense most profitable to the reader. That Ovid and his heroes were paynims he confesses with regret, and takes heart in the reflection that they may all be reduced “too ryght of Christian law.” In the same spirit, he hopes that the simple sort of reader will not be offended when he sees the heathen names of feigned gods in the book, and assures him that every living wight, high and low, rich and poor, master and slave, maid and wife, simple and brave, young and old, good and bad, wise and foolish, lout and learned man, shall see his whole estate, words, thoughts and deeds in this mirror. It is a bold claim of universality, which Ovid himself would not have made. But it was in tune with the temper of the age, and, doubtless, added to the popularity of the work.

    The chief characteristic of the translation is its evenness. It never falls below or rises above a certain level. The craftsmanship is neither slovenly nor distinguished. The narrative flows through its easy channel without the smallest shock of interruption. In other words, the style is rapid, fluent and monotonous. The author is never a poet and never a shirk. You may read his mellifluous lines with something of the same simple pleasure which the original gives you. Strength and energy are beyond Golding’s compass, and he wisely chose a poet to translate who made no demand upon the qualities he did not possess. He chose a metre, too, very apt for continuous narrative—the long line of fourteen syllables—and it is not strange that his contemporaries bestowed upon him their high approval. Puttenham paid him no more than his due when he described him as “in translation very cleare and very faithfully answering his author’s intent.” He won the rare and difficult praise of Thomas Nashe, and he was honoured by Shakespeare, who did not disdain to borrow of his verses. The lines which follow will recall to everyone a celebrated passage in The Tempest:

  • Ye Ayres and windes: ye Elves of Hills, of Brookes, of Woods alone,
  • Of standing Lakes, and of the Night approche ye everychone.
  • And Golding was by no means a man of one book. He turned Latin and French into English with equal facility. Had it not been for Holland, he might justly have been called the “Translator Generall in his age.” A friend of Sir Philip Sidney, he completed that poet’s translation of De Mornay’s Woorke concerning the trewnesse of the Christian Religion. To him we owe our earliest and best version of Caesar’s Gallic War (1565), besides The abridgemente of the Histories of Trogus Pompeius, gathered and written in the Latin tung by the famous Historiographer Justin (1570), several works translated from Calvin and the Politicke, Moral and Martial Discourses written in French by M. Jacques Hurault (1595). In brief, he tried his hand at many enterprises and failed in none, and Webbe’s panegyric might still stand for his epitaph:
  • For which Gentleman surely our Country hath greatly to gyve God thankes: as for him which hath taken infinite paynes without ceasing, travelling as yet indefatigably, and is addicted without society by his continuall laboure to profit this nation and speeche in all kind of good learning.