Page images

the efforts which produced these compositions, without considering the difficulty of substituting strength for softness, and legitimate ornament for conceit, at a time when true taste was nearly extinct, and talent chilled by the repulsive indifference of ignorant barbarians.

Nor is there less matter for surprise in the favourite subjects of this collection. The writers of a country on the decline are apt to overlook the commonplaces of poetry, and to seek a more distant field for ideas than is presented by the brief existence allotted to beauty and virtue, by remembrances of the accidents of human life, “the ills of age, sickness, or poverty, neglected love, or forsaken friendship.” Yet whoever expects to meet with amusement in this volume, must be contented to derive it from the representation of unlaboured and obvious sentiments; and if he has not sufficient delicacy of taste to feel that it is to such a representation the best beauties of poetry belong, he must be ignorant of its greatest charm.

With such claims on the attention of every literary man, it may be a reasonable cause of wonder that, while most of the other classics have been presented to us again and again in an English dress, scarcely a single scholar should have hitherto called upon us to admire these smaller relics of antiquity. The success of Cowley, Prior and Cumberland, in whatever they have chosen to translate, is well known, and their full share of merit is allowed to them in this volume. Many of their versions are admitted into it, and the air of originality which pervades them, leaves us only to regret that they, who could do so well, should have done so little; and that their success should not have sooner excited others to similar efforts. Before we proceed to Mr. Bland, we will say a few words on each of these writers, and our readers will then be better able to judge what pretensions the present translators have to rank with those whose praise, for as much as they have undertaken, is already so universal.

The ruling passion of Cowley, as far as it is to be collected from his writings, was the love of retirement. He spent the most active part of his life in the fatiguing attendance on the formalities of a court, and, as commonly happens to men familiar with greatness, he was thoroughly disgusted with the heartlessness of what is truly called public life. His essays in prose and verse are full of the pleasures of retirement, and the country; it was this predilection which led him to Virgil's “O fortunati nimiun”-Horace's “ Beatus ille qui procul negotiis," and the fable of the country mouse-Claudian's "Old Man of Verona"-Martial's “Vitam quæ faciant beatiorem," and " Vis fieri liber.” It is the same feeling wbich pervades the “ Epitaphium vivi anctoris,” so well known by its own classical beauty of sentiment and expression, and by Addison's admirable translation. The air of stiffness and restraint, more or less perceivable in all Cowley's writings, is partly owing to the unsettled state of the language, and partly to a style which not unfrequently has more of the Latin than of the English idiom. But the characteristic merit of his translations, which leads Mr. Bland to place him at the head of all the imitators of Anacreon, is their original spirit. Sir John Denham alludes to this excellence in some very beautiful lines “on the death of Cowley."

" To him no author was unknown,
Yet what he wrote, was all his own, &c.

Horace's wit, and Virgil's state,
He did not steal, but emulate:
And when like them he would appear,
Their garb, but not their clothes, did wear."


Prior's mind was of a very different cast. Born in the days of the gayest court which England ever saw, and at a time when language was cultivated only as a mode of elegance, he easily accommodated himself to the levity of his age, and was fortunate enough to be enabled, like Camilla in the Æneid, to skim along the surface without sinking. The bigotry and superstition which had degraded religion in the preceding times, had driven the gay courtiers of Charles II. with a libertine monarch at their head, into the opposite extremes of atheism and sensuality. Courage was their only virtue, liveliness their only merit. It was with them, as with the French at a later period, always jour de fete; they were bred up in the school of affliction, and when the sunshine of their fortune returned, they gave a loose to pleasure. But fortunately for the world, this is the artificial, not the natural state of society; the disorder was not incurable, and not very contagious; for it soon appeared that immorality had its cant as well as enthusiasın, and that the airy gayety and carelesness of skepticism, though adapted to the light heartedness of youth, were not qualities calculated to animate the decline of life, and sooth the dimness and infirmitics of our later years. This is the fiend that “ expects its evening prey," and exacts a terrible recompense for the moments of ease and merriment bestowed under the form of pleasure. Such was the character of this period—a few words yet remain to be said concerning its productions. The French early acquired a tone of refinement and elegance which was long neglected by other nations; their writers of course adopted a style suitable to the high cultivation which prevailed, and the delicacy and correctness of their productions were well calculated at once to gratify the nicely of a refined taste, and to atone for a certain deficiency of genius and energy. On the contrary, the licentiousness of the court of Charles was fatal to purity and elegance; and the rich vein of genius, which, however obscured by the false taste, or corrupted by the profligacy of the times, still perhaps remains unequalled, gives full scope to the imagination to conceive what might have been produced by the same talent, under happier auspices, and in a better age. Point and wit were the chief objects of attention in every branch of literature, and that labour which the writers would have expended profitably in correcting the looseness and extravagance of their productions, was consumed in an endless search after low conceits and artificial prettinesses. With all these faults-faults for which scarcely any vigour of conception or execution can atone-there is a raciness and spirit, a richness and variety of expression pervading the writings of the age, which must delight every reader. Prior had the good sense to avoid many of the grosser faults, and to make many of the beauties of his age more peculiarly his own. He has not been less happy in catching the manner of Fontaine, than Fontaine himself in embellishing the tales of Boccace, Poggio, and Ariosto, with natural strokes and archness of humour. His translations are chiefly of such poems as relate to love and gallantry, and no one has surpassed him in ease and vivacious, though not always strictly delicate, point. Nearly all his versions might be classed under the title of epigram, as the word is used by Martial, and every English writer; nor has he, so far as we recollect, attempted a translation of any of those moral and serious poems which are the chief ornaments of the Greek anthology.

Prior has detained our attention so long, that our remarks on Cumberland must be very brief. It is well known that the latter author grew at once into notice as a scholar, and established his claim to the title, by the admirable essays on the fragments of the Greek drama published in the Observer. The excellence of these observations subjected Cumberland to a singular suspicion. When they first came out, he was better known by his relationship to Bentley, than by his learning, and it was hinted that he might have aken the substance of the essays, or the essays themselves, from manuscripts of his grandfather which had fallen into his possession. This is a charge of which the character of Bentley himself does not stand quite clear, and we have many anecdotes to prove that literary honesty is not always the accompaniment of learning; but Cumberland was a man of no common talent or cultivation of mind, who, if he had written less hastily, would have been inimitable. Several of his versions from the dramatic authors are admitted into the volume before us, and we have been greatly struck with the mixed force and feeling which they display. There is a rare combination of sententiousness and poetical ornament in the following couplets, which leaves nothing for regret, except the smallness of their number. We have not compared then with the originals, but they are exactly in the spirit and manner of those gnomic lines which so frequently occur in the ancient drama, and though condemned by some judges as unseasonable, are generally to be ranked among the most valuable relics which time has left us.


Old Age.

“These shrivelled sinews, and this bending frame,
The workmanship of time's strong hand proclaim;
Skill’d to reverse whate'er the gods create,
And make that crooked which they fashion straight :
Hard choice for man, to die or else to be
That tottering, wretched, wrinkled thing you see.
Age, then, we all prefer; for age we pray,
And travel on to life's last ling’ring day;
Then sinking slowly down from worse to worse,
Find heaven's extorted boon our greatest curse."


The same Subject.
“ Age is the heaviest burden man can bear,
Compound of disappointment, pain, and care;
For when the mind's experience comes at length,
It comes to mourn the body's loss of strength ;
Resign'd to ignorance all our better days,
Knowledge just ripens when the man decays:
One ray of light the closing eye receives,

And wisdom only takes what folly leaves.” P. 226. We now turn to the book which has given rise to the preceding remarks, and which we scarcely know whether we are to call a new edition, or a new work. It has not altogether a right to this latter title, for a volume was published five or six years ago, on the same plan, the materials of which were furnished, we believe, by the same authors. We do not know how much of its predecessor has been incorporated into the new volume, and it is not noticed in the title-page, or the preface; but, if our memory is correct, the relationship between them is nearly what the foundation of a building bears to its superstructure. The name of Mr. Bland appears singly on the title-page, but there are various signatures affixed to the translations, and in the preface the following passage occurs.

“ It will doubtless appear strange, that, of the two principal authors, he who has contributed the least portion of the body of the work, should be most prominent to the public. While he regrets the necessity, he has been compelled to yield to the instances of his associate; and has, at the same time, been induced, by the representations of their publisher, who objected to the plan of a book entirely anony

mous, to suffer his own name to appear in a place to which it is entitled no otherwise than by participation."

Mr. Bland's share of the work appears to be marked by the initial B, and we have heard names assigned to most of the other contributions; but as there has evidently been a wish for at least a partial concealment, we do not think it fair to withdraw the veil, whatever may be the motives, professional or domestic, which have led to its adoption.

We naturally expected, in a miscellaneous collection like the present, to meet with great inequality in the closeness of the transsations. This is a point of considerable delicacy; something of the expectations of the reader must be conceded to the difficulty of transfusing with fidelity the spirit of one language into the idioms of another; and much must be left to the taste of the translatorhe will sometimes judge wisely in imitating, as nearly as our language will permit, the unornamented simplicity of the original; sometimes will neglect or soften an image unsuited to modern associations ; sometimes qualify or refine expressions which are too harsh and farfetched. Every one who is acquainted with the poems of the Greek anthology, knows that passages occasionally occur which are liable to the charge of extravagance. The cotemporaneous taste of the times is more or less discoverable in the productions of every country, and a love of conceits was the prevailing fault, the most prominent feature, of the ages in which the epigrammatists flourished. Besides, the more obvious and natural thoughts, always most pleasing to true taste, were preoccupied, and if novelty was to be attempted, the choice lay among materials of a baser kind; if a new garland was to be entwined, it must have been of flowers which Virgil, and Horace, and Catullus had already rejected. The first poem in the collection, entitled “ The Lover's Message,” from Meleager, affords an instance of the fault of which we have been speaking. The passage is omitted in the translation, but is thus noticed in the Illustrations.

“ The sixth line in the origiual has caused much dispute. Its literal interpretation is, 'Expect me not as a sailor, but as one who trarels on foot to behold you;' a hyperbolical expression, implying (saye Jacobs) · The desire of seeing you will support me over the seas, even without the aid of a ship.' P. 41.

We must remark, however, that while the translator has avoided in one instance the fault of the original, he has, in the very next couplet, fallen into one equally great.

“Go, heralds of my soul! to Phanion's ear,
On all your shrouds the tender accents bear.” P. 1.

« PreviousContinue »