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

§ 9. Stanyhurst’s Vergil

By far the bravest of them was Richard Stanyhurst, who, in 1582, published “the First Foure Bookes of Virgil his Aeneis translated intoo English heroical verse.” Whether he wrote in prose or verse, he surpassed in a fantastic eccentricity the vainest of his contemporaries. Never was there a stranger mixture of pedantry and slang than is to be found in his work. His criticism is his own and expressed in his own terms. The verses of Ennius, he says, “savoure soomwhat nappy of thee spigget,” and he classes him with Horace, Juvenal and Persius among a “rablement of cheate Poëtes.” Vergil, on the other hand, “for his peerelesse style, and matchlesse stuffe doth beare thee prick and price among al thee Roman Poëts.” He declares that, if any hold that Phaer’s version lightened his enterprise, they “are altogether in a wrong box.” He offers to go over these books again and give them a new livery, which shall neither “jet with Mr. Phaer his badges, ne yeet bee clad with this apparaile wherewith at this present they coom furth atyred.” Indeed, he makes light of his labour. Phaer took fifteen days to translate the fourth book. He “huddled up” his in ten. And for this he asks no praise but pardon, adding, characteristically, that “forelittring bitches whelp blynd puppies.” But, though he wasted not his time, he did nothing at haphazard. He expounds his theory of the hexameter with great care, and gives every syllable its proper quantity, varying its length according to its termination and to the consonant or vowel which follows it. His labour is lost. Even if his theory were admissible, it would not save his version from ridicule.

Yet, absurd as it is, Stanyhurst’s Vergil is worth examination. It is a work which owes no debt to anything save to its author’s perverted ingenuity. Orthography, metre, vocabulary are each unique. Stanyhurst aimed, not merely at a new prosody, but at a new language. He invented a set of onomatopoeic symbols, which you cannot match elsewhere in literature. What can we make of such lines as these:

  • Theese flaws theyre cabbans wyth stur snar jarrye doe ransack.
  • Now doe they rayse gastly lyghtnings, now grislye reboundings
  • Of ruffe raffe roaring, mens harts with terror agrysing,
  • With peale meale ramping, with thwick thwack sturdelye thundring?
  • Not content with these mimicries of sound, he invented whatever new words seemed useful for his purpose. “Mutterus humming,” “gredelye bibled,” “smacklye bebasse thee,” “boucherous hatchet”—these are a few of his false coins. And he used the slang which was modern in his day for the interpretation of Vergil without scruple or shame. Imagine Dido, queen of Carthage, asking in fury: “shall a stranger give me the slampam”! With an equal contempt of fitness he renders pollutum hospitium by “Paltock’s Inn,” and so pleased is he with “Scarboro warning,” for the blow before the word, that he uses it with no better excuse than incautam, and, in another place, he is guilty of “Scarboro scrabbling” without any excuse at all. As little did he hesitate to mar the epic dignity of Vergil with the popular proverbs of every day, such as “in straw there lurketh some pad,” or “as wild as a March hare.” And, being bound in the chains of the hexameter, he distorts the order of the words out of all semblance to English, until his version is wholly unintelligible without the friendly aid of the Latin. Yet his monstrous incongruities pleased the taste of his time. Harvey is proud to have been imitated by “learned Mr. Stanyhurst”: and Phaer fell, that this “thrasonicall huffe snuffe” might rise. Richard Carew mentions him in the same breath with Sir Philip Sidney, and Francis Meres cites him without disapproval. But critics there were who saw through his pretence. Nashe, above all, rated him at a proper value; and Barnabe Rich did him ample justice in few words: “Among other Fictions,” says Rich, “he tooke upon him to translate Virgill, and stript him out of a Velvet gowne into a Fooles coate, out of a Latin Heroicall verse into an English riffe raffe.” The question of the English hexameter has received a final answer, and, for us, Stanyhurst is but an episode in the history of literature. And what an episode! His very gravity makes him the more ludicrous, and his only pupils are Charles Cotton, Thomas Bridges, captain Alexander Radcliffe and the other writers of burlesque.