Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 6. Sir Thomas North’s Plutarch

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

§ 6. Sir Thomas North’s Plutarch

The most famous, and, perhaps, the best, of Elizabethan translations is Sir Thomas North’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (1579). That Shakespeare used it in patient obedience, borrowing words as well as plots, is its unique distinction. But if Shakespeare had never laid upon it that hand of Midas, which transmuted whatever it touched into pure gold, the version had yet been memorable. It is not Plutarch. In many respects it is Plutarch’s antithesis. North composed a new masterpiece upon Plutarch’s theme. As I have said, he saw Plutarch through Amyot’s eye. And the result is neither Amyot nor Plutarch. No book, in truth, ever had a stranger history. There came out of Chaeronea in the first century after Christ a scholar and a writer who was destined to exert a powerful, if indirect, influence upon the greatest of our poets. Thus was Boeotia avenged of her slanderers; thus did a star of intelligence shine over despised Thebes. The Boeotian wrote a book, which, in due time, fell into the hands of Jacques Amyot. What Amyot did with the book, Montaigne, himself a humble debtor, shall proclaim:

  • “Je donne avec raison,” he writes, “ce me semble, la palme à Jacques Amyot, sur touts nos escrivains françois.… Nous, aultres ignorants estions perdus, si ce livre ne nous eust relevé du bourbier; sa mercy, nous osons à cett’ heure et parler et escrire: les dames en regentent les maistres d’eschole: c’est nostre breviaire.”
  • And Plutarch’s good fortune did not rest here. Amyot’s book, which was Montaigne’s breviary, came to Thomas North, who embellished Amyot, as Amyot had embellished Plutarch. North’s Plutarch is as far from Amyot’s as Amyot’s is from its original. Not merely the words, but the very spirit is transformed. Change the names, and you might be reading in North’s page of Philip Sidney and Richard Grenville, of Leicester and of the great lord Burghley. For North, though he knew little of the classics, was a master of noble English. He was neither schoolman nor euphuist. As he freed his language from the fetters which immature scholars had cast upon it, so he did not lay upon its bones the awkward chains of a purposed ingenuity. He held a central place in the history of our speech. He played upon English prose as upon an organ whose every stop he controlled with an easy confidence. He had a perfect sense of the weight and colour of words; pathos and gaiety, familiarity and grandeur resound in his magnificently cadenced periods. It was his good fortune to handle a language still fired with the various energy of youth, and he could contrive the effects of sound and sense which had neither been condemned nor worn out by the thoughtful pedant. Above all, his style had a dramatic quality which suggests to the reader a constant movement, and the value of which, no doubt, was candidly recognised by Shakespeare. An example will best illustrate this peculiar skill of the translator. Here is the prelude to the immortal discourse of Coriolanus:
  • It was even twy light when he entred the cittie of Antium, and many people met him in the streetes, but no man knewe him. So he went directly to Tullus Aufidius house, and when he came thither, he got him up straight to the chimney harthe, and sat him downe, and spake not a worde to any man, his face all muffled over. They of the house spying him, wondered what he should be, and yet they durst not byd him rise. For, ill-favoredly muffled up and disguised as he was, yet there appeared a certaine majestie in his countenance, and in his silence: whereupon they went to Tullus who was at supper, to tell him of the straunge disguising of this man.
  • The beauty of this passage is incontestable, and yet it is hard to explain. There is no striving after effect. There are no strange words. If it has a modern air, it is because the words used are of universal significance, and belong neither to this age nor to that. And, simple as they are, they breathe the very spirit of romance. They move and throb with life, as if they were not mere symbols, but were the very essence of drama and of action. Now turn to the French of Amyot, and you will discern the same quality sternly subdued to the finer classicism of the language:
  • Ainsy s’en alla droict à la maison de Tullus, là où de primsault il entra jusqu’au fouyer, et illec s’assit sans dire mot à personne, ayant le visage couvert et la teste affublée: de quoy ceulx de la maison feurent bien esbahis, et neantmoins ne l’oserent faire leiver: car encores qu’il se cachast, si recognoissoit on ne sçay quoy de dignité en sa contenance et en son silence, et s’en allerent dire à Tullus, qui souppoit, ceste estrange façon de faire.
  • At first sight the economy of the French is apparent. The words are fewer and are held together by a firmer thread than in the English version. But North has contrived by a touch here and there to give a picturesqueness to the scene which neither the French nor the Greek warrants. For instance, “they of the house spying him” introduces a new image. Ceulx de la maison is in Amyot’s version, and corresponds to [char]. But the spying is North’s own legitimate invention. And again, the words “ill-favoredly muffled up and disguised as he was,” which give an accent to the whole passage, represent no more than a particle in the Greek ([char]), and are far more finely dramatic than the French: encores qu’il se cachast. Moreover, the last words of the English passage, “the straunge disguising of this man,” find their excuse neither in French nor in Greek. There is a commonness of phrase in [char] as in ceste estrange façon de faire, which finds no echo in North’s splendidly inaccurate rendering. He instantly calls your attention from the thing to the man, and asks you to look once again at the strange muffled figure sitting by the hearth. And this, perhaps, is one of his secrets: an intent always to flatter the eye as well as the ear, and to reveal in pictures the meaning of his author. At any rate, there are few who, were the choice given them, would not rather read Plutarch in the noble English of North than in the restrained and sometimes inexpressive Greek of Plutarch. North, it is true, turned Plutarch’s men into heroes of English blood and bone, but, in separating them thus ruthlessly from their origin, he endowed them with a warm, pulsing humanity, of which their author dreamed not.