Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 2. Translations of the Classics

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

§ 2. Translations of the Classics

The translators’ range of discovery was wide. They brought into the ken of Englishmen the vast continent of classical literature. Only a few provinces escaped their search, and, of the few, one was the province which should have had the quickest attraction for them. It is not a little strange that the golden age of our drama should have seen the translation of but one Greek play. Of Aeschylus and Sophocles there is nothing. A free paraphrase of the Phoenissae, presented at Gray’s Inn under the name of Jocasta in 1566 by George Gascoigne and Francis Kinwelmersh, and made not from the Greek but from the Italian of Ludovico Dolce, is the Elizabethans’ only and fragile link with Euripides. Plautus fared not much better: we have no more than the Menaechmi of William Warner (1595), which may have given Shakespeare a hint for The Comedy of Errors. More popular were Seneca and Terence—Seneca, no doubt, for his ingenious maxims, and Terence because he was appointed to be read in schools. Of the historians, both Greek and Latin, there is a long list. An unknown translator, who hides his name under the initials B. R., and who may be Barnabe Rich, published two books of Herodotus in 1584, and Thomas Nicolls, already mentioned, gave to England a complete Thucydides in 1550. Of Livy, we have a fragment by Antony Cope (1544), and a version of all that remains by the incomparable Philemon Holland (1600), to whose industry also are due Suetonius (1606), Ammianus Marcellinus (1609) and Xenophon’s Cyropaedia (1632). Sallust, as might be expected, was a favourite of Tudor England. His Catiline was translated by Thomas Paynell (1541), his Jugurtha by Alexander Barclay (1557), and both histories by Thomas Heywood, the dramatist (1608). Golding’s Caesar (1565), Brende’s Quintus Curtius (1553), and Stocker’s Diodorus Siculus (1569), by no means complete the tale. What Sir Henry Savile did for the Histories and the Agricola of Tacitus (1591), Richard Greenwey did for the Annals and the Description of Germany (1598), and there is no author Englished for us in fuller and worthier shape than the wisest of Roman historians. Xenophon found other translators besides Holland, and Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans fell happily into the hands of Sir Thomas North, whose skill gave them a second and a larger immortality.

The philosophers and moralists of the ancient world chimed with the humour of Tudor England. Their simple disputations possess the charm of freshness and curiosity. The problems of conduct posed by Cicero and Plutarch are of a kind that found an eager solution in the minds of men, still simple enough to love casuistry for its own sake. Such questions as how a man may praise himself without incurring envy or blame, or whether philosophers ought to converse with princes and rulers, were met, it is certain, with many arguments and various answers. And the translators supplied those ignorant of the dead languages with a mighty armoury of intellectual weapons. Of Plato, to be sure, there is little enough. Besides Sir Thomas Elyot’s Of the Knowledge which maketh a wise man (1533), distantly inspired by the philosopher, immediately suggested by Diogenes Laertius, there is but a version of the Axiochus, a doubtful dialogue. Aristotle received more generous treatment. His Ethics were translated from the Italian by John Wylkinson (1547), and, as has been said, one J. D. made a version of the Politics from the French of Loys Leroy, dit Regius (1598). Far more popular were Cicero and Seneca, the chief instructors of the age. Tully’s Offices, translated by Robert Whittington, laureate in grammar (1533), and by Nicholas Grimald (1555), were confidently commended to rulers, schoolmen, orators and rhetoricans:

  • “At few words,” says the ingenious Grimalde, “al men, that of wisdome be studious, may gette sommewhat herein to sharpe the wyt, to store the intelligence, to fede the minde, to quicke the sprite, to augment the reason, to direct the appetite, to frame the tounge, to fashion the maners.”
  • Nor were the two treatises on Friendship and Old Age overlooked. The one was translated by John Harington (1550), the other by Thomas Newton (1569), and both have as handsome an appearance in their English dress as any books of the time; and, in 1561, John Dolman “englysshed these fyve Questions, which Marke Tullye Cicero disputed in his Manor of Tusculanum.” Upon Seneca, also, Whittington tried his hand, to whom we owe The Fame and Rule of Honest lyvynge (1546) and The Remedyes against all casuall Chances. For the rest, Arthur Golding translated The Woorke concerning Benefyting (1558), and, in 1614, Thomas Lodge published his monumental version of Seneca’s prose, a work undimmed by comparison even with Holland’s translation of Plutarch’s Morals (1603).