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

§ 7. Philemon Holland

Philemon Holland was a translator of another kind. His legendary pen was apt for any enterprise. He was a finished master utriusque linguae, and so great was his industry that he is not the hero of one but of half a dozen books. It was not for him to ask the aid of French or Italian. He went straight to the ancient texts—Greek or Latin—and brought back with him to his native English spoils which were legitimately his own. His whole career was a proper training for the work of his mature years. Born in 1552, he was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and, having studied medicine, settled at Coventry in the practice of his profession. But humane letters had laid a stern hand upon him, and, while he cured the poor in charity, he became usher in the Coventry Grammar School, and gave his life to scholarship and the muses. Fuller, who had a genius for devising names, called him “the Translator Generall in his age,” and it is thus that he will be remembered unto the end of time. As I have said, his knowledge of Greek and Latin was accurate and profound. Still rarer was his knowledge of English. True, he did not possess the tact and simplicity of North. He could not produce wonderful effects by the use of a few plain words. His was the romance not of feeling, but of decoration. He loved ornament with the ardour of an ornamental age, and he tricked out his authors with all the resources of Elizabethan English. The concision and reticence of the classics were as nothing to him. He was ambitious always to clothe them in the garb which they might have worn had they been not mere Englishmen, but fantastics of his own age. Like all his contemporaries, he was eager to excuse his own shortcomings.

  • “According to this purpose and intent of mine,” he wrote, “I frame my pen, not to any affected phrase, but to a meane and popular stile. Wherein, if I have called againe into use some old words, let it be attributed to the love of my countrey language: if the sentence be not so concise, couched and knit togither as the originall, loth I was to be obscure and darke: have I not Englished every word aptly? ech nation hath several maners, yea, and tearmes appropriate by themselves.”
  • His phrase is never affected; his style is neither mean nor popular; and thus far he speaks the language of convention. The rest of the passage is the soundest criticism. Holland had a natural love of the old words and proverbs which distinguished his country language. His sentences are seldom concise or knit together, and his translations, though not apt to their orginals, are apt enough to the language of their adoption. If he seldom echoed the sound of Greek and Latin, he never missed the sense, nor did he fear a comparison of his own work with the classical texts. When it was said that his versions were not in accord with the French or Italian, he knew that he was in the right of it. “Like as Alcibiades said to one”—thus he wrote—“[char], i.e. strike hardly (Euribiades) so you heare me speake: even so I say; Find fault and spare not; but withal, read the original better before you give sentence.” Let his own test be applied to him, and he will not fail. Take, for instance, a famous passage in the fifth book of Livy, which describes the salvation of the Capitol from the Gauls. Here is the Latin, simple and straightforward:

  • Anseres non fefellere, quibus sacris Junonis in summa inopia cibi tamen abstinebatur. Quae res saluti fuit; namque clangore eorum alarumque crepitu excitus M. Manlius, qui triennio ante consul fuerat, vir bello egregius, armis arreptis simul ad arma ceteros ciens vadit.
  • Holland’s English, close as it keeps to the text of Livy, has its own colour and quality:
  • “But they could not so escape the geese”—thus it runs—“which were consecrated unto Juno, and for all the scarcitie of victuals were spared and not killed up. And this it was that saved them all. For with their gagling and fluttering of their wings, M. Manlius, who three yeares before had been Consul, a right hardie and noble warriour, was awaked. Who taking weapon in hand, speedily went forth and raised the rest withall to take armes.”
  • The English has a plainness to which Holland very rarely attains; but it is not its plainness nor its perfect harmony that gives it a character of its own. In the first place, “gagling” arrests the ear so sharply, that the reader is as wide awake as M. Manlius himself. And then how admirable in sound and sense is the equivalent of vir bello egregius—“a right hardie and noble warriour”! It is by such touches as this and by a feeling of what is musical in prose, which never deserted him, that Holland produced his effects. His failing from a pedantic point of view is an excess of ornament. He was not always content to say what he had to say once. He delighted to turn a statement about—to put it now in this light, now in that. “Jacta est alea,” writes Suetonius. “The dice be thrown,” says Holland; “I have set up my rest; come what will of it.” His variety and resource are endless. In a single passage he makes Vitellius his own contemporary.
  • “Being given most of all to excessive bellie cheere and crueltie,” he writes, “he devided his repast into three meales every day at least, and sometime into foure, to wit, Breakfast, Dinner, Supper, and rere-bankets.”
  • From this, the last drop of Latin austerity is squeezed. And you can hear Vespasian rioting with his friends when Holland writes:
  • given exceedingly hee was to skoffs, and those so skurrile and filthy, that he could not so much as forbeare words of ribaudrie. And yet there be many right pleasant conceited jests of his extant.
  • In such terms as these might Rabelais have composed the lives of the Roman Emperors. Excellent in tone and movement as is the Suetonius, in some respects his Pliny is Holland’s masterpiece. The difficulty of this enterprise was far greater. If the obstacle in the way of a familiar rendering might have seemed insuperable, Holland has easily surmounted it. He has thawed the frigid original at the fire of his romantic temper. “Sirrah (quoth he) remember you are but a shoemaker, and therefore meddle no higher I advise you than with shoes.” The mere Sirrah carries you leagues away from Apelles and the shoemaker whom he bade look to his last, and reminds you of the truth that Holland, like the old painters, put the noblest of his Greeks and Romans into doublet and hose.

    His industry was universally applauded. He composed folios with as little toil as other men give to the writing of pamphlets. The two largest of his works are separated by a bare year. It was said that he wrote the whole of Plutarch’s Morals with one pen—a pen which became mythical. “It seemed that he leaned very lightly on the Neb thereof,” says Fuller, “though weightily enough in another sense, performing not slightly but solidly what he undertook.” Fuller, with his usual good sense, puts his finger upon the truth. It was the solidity of Holland’s achievement, not its extent, which was remarkable. His industry was always well directed. Few writers have ever kept so consistently at a high level of excellence. He was no master in the art of sinking. His narrative never flags; his argument knows no failure. His style was apt alike for history or reflection. And if he did not accurately represent in English the prose of Livy and Plutarch, of Suetonius and Pliny, he left us a set of variations upon ancient motives to which we may listen with an independent and unalloyed pleasure.