Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 13. Sylvester, Fairfax, Harington

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

§ 13. Sylvester, Fairfax, Harington

Of modern poets there is not so long a tale to tell. Dante was unknown, and Petrarch was revealed for the most part surreptitiously under the names of his translators. The most widely read of them all was Du Bartas, styled by Gabriel Harvey “the Treasury of Humanity and the Jewell of Divinity,” whose Divine Weekes and Workes was translated into rimed decasyllabic verse by Joshua Sylvester (1590–2). The popularity which this version enjoyed is not easily intelligible, and the fact that Milton sought therein some sort of inspiration is not enough to tempt a modern curiosity. Tasso’s master-piece found two translators in Edward Fairfax and Richard Carew, and Sir John Harington, at the behest of queen Elizabeth, made a version of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1591) in eight-lined stanzas. His translation, like the other verse translations of the time, displays care and fluidity without distinction. Its rapid course knows neither check nor variety. Its style is rather familiar than dignified, and Harington errs like Stanyhurst in the use of modern slang. Such lines as

  • They tooke them to a fort, with such small treasure,
  • And in so Scarborow warning they had leasure,
  • suggest the barbarism of the barbarous Aeneid. Harington, moreover, embellished his text with a set of notes, in which he extols his family and his friends. In brief, he was a pedant and a courtier, who took to letters as a pastime, and practised them after the fashion of his kind. In a characteristic preface, he defended the craft of the poet, his chosen author, and his own enterprise. Though the craft, as he knew well enough, needed no apology, he could not refrain from breaking a lance with Puttenham, whose treatise had recently been published, and who had withheld the “high and supernatural” title of maker from mere translators. In his defence of Ariosto, Harington appeals to authority and to sound morals. The Italian poet, says his translator, follows the rules of Aristotle. More than this, he follows Vergil with a patient fidelity. “Virgill extolled Aeneas to please Augustus; Ariosto prayseth Rogero to the honour of the house of Este.” And does not Alcina beguile Rogero, as Dido beguiled Aeneas? It is clear, therefore, that Ariosto should share the common eulogy of Vergil. Indeed, he may claim a higher praise, because there may be found in his many writings passages of which Vergil was incapable—such as the Christian demeanour of Charlemagne in the 14th book, and the conversion of Rogero to the Christian faith in the 41st. Briefly, Harington treats Vergil as Golding treated Ovid, and reproves him, in sorrow rather than in anger, for his inevitable paganism. As for the mention of himself and his kinsmen in his notes, to which Harington pleads guilty, he made them because Plutarch blamed Homer for nowhere explaining of what stock he was, of what town, or of what country. “Excuse me, then,” says he, “if I in a work that may perhaps last longer than a better thing, and being not ashamed of my kindred, name them here and there to no man’s offence.” No excuse is necessary. Who would blame a whimsical scholar for chattering of himself and for interrupting a serious work with amiable anecdotage?