Edmund Spenser. Engraving by George Vertue, 1727
Only half the story of the English imagination resides in England itself; the rest derives from continental sources. Allusions to the “Renaissance” began to appear only in the 1840s, having been borrowed from the French, and from the historian Michelet in particular; it would be unwise, in any case, to set any specific date for the cultivation of continental European learning in England. It began in the years of the Roman settlement, and was considerably enlarged by the Anglo-Saxons. There has never been a time, in fact, when European scholarship and cultivation did not materially affect the fabric of English life. Boccaccio described the English as tardy in classical studies—“studiis tardi”—but by the fifteenth century the introduction of the “new learning,” largely based upon Latin translations of Greek originals, was effected by Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and brother of Henry V. The assertion of national sovereignty did not impede the development of an international movement in letters.
London became a centre of learning, catholic in every sense, and even in the early fourteenth century there are records of St. Paul’s almonry school holding volumes of Ovid, Horace and Virgil. The central pathway of learning, therefore, was between England and Italy; from Rome and Florence and Ferrara came newly discovered or newly translated classical texts. There were English scholars and theologians, also, who studied Greek in an effort to reclaim the learning of Europe. An analogy might be made with English domestic architecture when, in the middle of the fifteenth century, the number of windows increased so that “almost for the first time sunlight is allowed to pour into the house.”1
And so the first English humanists—among them William Grocyn, Thomas Linacre and John Colet—travelled abroad in search of the purer light of learning. They read Aristotle and Plato in the original, in an effort to imbibe the language of the ancients without the intermediaries of medieval scholastic or encyclopedic commentaries. Colet established a new school in the precincts of St. Paul’s, and there instituted a curriculum largely under the influence of the Dutch humanist Erasmus; Erasmus himself visited London, claiming that it harboured more genuine scholars than Italy itself, and took up a post as Professor of Greek at Cambridge. Just as the proponents of the “new learning” wished to restore classical texts to their original purity by a more rigorous approach to matters of grammar, so they wished to renovate the Catholic Church by removing its scholastic and superstitious accretions. Erasmus and Colet in turn were the mentors and companions of Thomas More, who was the first man to translate the work of the Greek satirist Lucian into English and who wrote his treatise Utopia in Latin for the benefit of a European community of scholars.
England was therefore in the advance guard of a new European civilisation. By introducing Greek and Latin authors as models for imitation and composition the proponents of the new learning, whether at St. Paul’s School or at Cambridge University, were shaping English sensibility along the lines of classical European scholarship. This in turn was to have a profound effect upon many generations of English pupils and undergraduates, who became aware of ancient Greek and Roman history before they were acquainted with its English variant, and who learned how to write verse in those ancient tongues before they ever ventured into the English language. When Erasmus suggested that the English schoolmaster should instruct his pupils in Cicero and in Ovid, and that his “themes be selected from Homer, Sophocles, Euripides, Virgil or even sometimes from histories,” we may observe that what became a peculiarly English education was in fact based upon the precepts of a classical European civilisation. Milton may have considered the English to be the chosen nation, but he believed Europe to be his home. He denounced a king in Latin, so that Europe might hear. When we remember, too, that Spenser and Sidney imbibed their neo-Platonism from its sources in fifteenth-century Italy, and that Spenser in particular derived his style from Erasmus’s lessons upon copia or rich and abundant style, then we may recognise that the origins of the English imagination are not wholly to be found in England itself. Christopher Wren remarked in 1694 “that our English Artists are dull enough at Inventions but when once a foreigne patterne is sett, they imitate so well that commonly they exceed the originall.” It is a shrewd observation, and may explain why the great English poets have excelled at translation. A German art historian, Hans Swarzenski, has in turn noted that “English art needed repeated stimulation from abroad to remain productive and creatively alive,” as if the national genius were not strong enough to exist upon its own resources. This may account for the intrinsic tone of melancholy noticed by others. Yet it may also be the cause of humour. In The Unfortunate Traveller , Thomas Nashe remarks that “I, being a youth of the English cut . . . imitated four or five sundry nations in my attire at once.” In The Merchant of Venice a “young baron of England” is depicted thus: “I think he bought his doublet in Italy, his round hose in France, his bonnet in Germany, and his behaviour everywhere.”
England has in fact relied upon translation to nourish its native genius. The Anglo-Saxon renderings of Augustine and Boethius are only the beginnings of a process which included Chaucer and Malory and Wycliff. Ezra Pound, a writer whose own true gift lay not in self-expression but in translation, remarked that after the Anglo-Saxon example “English literature lives on translation, it is fed by translation; every new exuberance, every new heave is stimulated by translations, every allegedly great age is an age of translations, beginning with Geoffrey Chaucer . . .”2 Here is an important truth. For many centuries, in fact, translation itself was the characteristic activity of the English imagination. In John Donne’s meditations it even becomes a metaphor for the sacred world. “All mankind is of one Author, and is one volume; when one Man dies, one Chapter is not torne out of the booke, but translated into a better language . . . God’s hand is in every translation; and his hand shall binde up all our scattered leaves againe, for that Librarie where every booke shall lie open to one another.” Before the twentieth century every serious poet, or at least every poet who wished to be considered as serious, attempted translation as a significant and necessary art. These poets were, in truth, creating new works of art. It might even be claimed that the English imagination most successfully conveyed itself through the medium of translation; it stimulated fresh creation and brought renewed life into the language. Thomas Wyatt translated Petrarch and Marlowe translated Ovid, Jonson translated Catullus and Milton translated Horace, Dryden translated Virgil and Pope translated Homer, Congreve translated from the Greek and Johnson from the Latin, Shelley translated Plato and Tennyson translated Homer. The references could be multiplied indefinitely.
The practitioners of this art argued over the relative merits of metaphrase (direct word-for-word translation), paraphrase (a freer rendition) and imitation (a looser transcription in a modern setting). Of the last John Denham wrote, in 1667: “If Virgil must needs speak English, it were fit he should speake not only as a man of this Nation, but as a Man of this Age.” Perhaps the greatest artist of translation, John Dryden, believed that imitation consisted in “taking only some general hints from the original, to run division on the ground work as he pleases.” That is why Dryden himself preferred paraphrase, where the translator remained faithful to the purport and sense of the original without exact copying. The technique is suggested by Ben Jonson in The Poetaster when he describes the ability of the true poet “to convert the substance, or riches of another poet, to his own use . . . to draw forth out of the best and choicest flowers with the bee, and turn all into honey, work it into one relish and savour: make our imitation sweet: observe how the best writers have imitated, and follow them.” In one sense this practice continued the medieval traditions of authorship, when the individual maker bowed in humility and reverence before the established authorities and where imitatio, in the Platonic sense, was the condition of poetry itself.
Yet the art of translation has been modified over the centuries. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there was a progressive loosening of texture, so that a certain awkward novelty in Elizabethan translation was replaced by smoothness and fluency. In the first wave of sixteenth-century translation, however, the whole wealth of antique learning flooded into the language. Among the histories, for example, were those of Sallust, Livy, Thucydides, Plutarch, Herodotus, Tacitus, Pliny, Xenophon and Suetonius; they remained the staple of classical scholarship into the twenty-first century. Among the poets were Ovid, Virgil, Homer, Juvenal, Lucretius, Seneca, Martial, Sappho, Horace, Lucian and Propertius. But if this activity represented an Elizabethan voyage of discovery, to use a metaphor current at the time, it was also a voyage of expropriation and colonisation. Of the Romans one translator, Philemon Holland, wrote: “They conquered us by the dent of their sword, we have to conquer them by the dint of our pen.”
Translation also replicated splendour. Even in the middle of the sixteenth century it was possible for Roger Ascham to conclude that “as for the Latin or greke tonge, every thynge is so excellentlly done in them that none could do better. In the Englysh tonge contrary every thinge in a maner so meanly, both for the matter and handelynge, that no man can do worse.” The opinion of Ascham may be over-emphatic, but it can at least be affirmed that the absorption of the Latin and Greek tongues did indeed modify whatever was “meanly” in the native language. When Marlowe translated Ovid’s Elegies he experimented with the abrupt tone and declamatory style of the dramatic monologue, with suggestive consequences for the rest of Tudor drama. The introduction of new forms, and an unfamiliar range of feeling, meant that the possibilities of the language were infinitely extended. Blank verse, that measure which more than any other seems to have moved with the English imagination, was introduced by the Earl of Surrey for his translation of the second and fourth books of Virgil’s Aeneid; the unrhymed iambic pentameters represented a deliberate attempt to imitate the plangency and gravity of Virgil’s hexameters, and in turn they were deployed by Marlowe, who scorned the “jigging veins of rhyming mother-wits.”
Some of these forms, newly translated, were wholly unfamiliar. Wyatt intoduced the epistolary satire into English, for example, through his translations of Horace; then, in his translations of Italian poetry, he deliberately introduced what the Italians knew as the “magnificent” style. At a later date Milton adapted it within his graver and more sonorous music. Cowley encountered quite by chance the Greek odes of Pindar and “having considered at leisure the height of his invention and the majesty of his style, he tried immediately to imitate it in English.” It is this urgency, this excitement, which characterised the role of the translator. In The Shepheardes Calender Spenser modeled his poetry on that of Virgil’s Eclogues and the “new poet,” as Spenser was known, thus created “a new vernacular language.” 3 From Ovid and Martial, through the medium of Nicholas Grimald and Christopher Marlowe, came the closed decasyllabic couplet which was to exert a powerful hold upon eighteenth-century poetry:
In summer’s heat, and mid-time of the day, To rest my limbs upon a bed I lay
It wrought a change in the English language as great as anything recorded in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. When Joseph Hall copied Juvenal and Horace he declared:
I first adventure: follow me who list, And be the second English satyrist
So satire, which would become an intrinsic aspect of the English imagination, was itself borrowed from European classicism. Thus fluency and dignity are compounded with novelty. Translation had become a means of conflating the tradition and the individual talent. The music of the past, to adapt Samuel Johnson’s phrase, helps to tune the tongues of the present. It is the story of English literature itself.
In an edition of his works, published in 1735, Pope offered a commentary upon his translations of Horace. “The occasion of my publishing these Imitationswas the clamour raised by some of my Epistles. An answer from Horace was both more full, and of more dignity, than I could have made in my own person.” It is an interesting claim, to have adopted or borrowed another voice with such success that it is no longer Pope who writes. It may be called pastiche or imitation, but the practice is deeply congenial to the English imagination principally because it combines the twin tendencies towards historicism and theatricality; the self-effacing narrator can hide himself in another persona while at the same time displaying all the ornamentation and complexity of an old style made new.
This curious art of reincarnation was also maintained by John Dryden who, in the preface to one translation, remarked: “I desire the false Criticks wou’d not always think that those thoughts are wholly mine, but that either they are secretly in the Poet, or may be fairly deduc’d by him.” This of course might be used simply as a device to divert attention or criticism; contemporary satires, in particular, might be open to perilous scrutiny if they were not presented as the work of Juvenal or Horace. It affords the opportunity of what is called “plausible denial.” With the use of allusion and quotation, for example, the political situation of the 1640s could be depicted in the convex mirror of the Roman civil wars; indeed Thomas Hobbes discovered one of the causes of the war between Charles I and Cromwell in the excessive reading of classical history.
But there are also more powerful forces at work in the adoption of a persona through translation. It offers access to an earlier world or previous civilisation, so that writer and reader are both in their own time and somewhere other. Ben Jonson’s drinking songs use sixteenth-century London taverns as the doorway into the banqueting halls of first-century Rome; the cities of the second and eighteenth centuries are mingled in Samuel Johnson’s “London,” modelled upon Juvenal. It is a way of understanding the past by seeing it as part of the present, affording glimpses of a larger continuity which can be vouchsafed through language itself. Much can be discovered in the process. Entirely new moral structures, or structures of feeling, can emerge from an enriched and more complex language. New verse systems can lead ineluctably to new forms of perception; the “pagan beauty” of the classics can create a new aesthetic, and the introduction of blank verse can help to fashion a new sensibility. The importation of the essay, the epigram and the satire directly fashioned the English virtues of individualism and scepticism.
It was believed at the time that newly translated works would create new knowledge. Nicholas Udall declared, in a work published in 1549, that “a translator travailleth not to his own private commodity, but to the benefit and public use of his country.” Ten years earlier Richard Taverner translated Erasmus “to the furtherance and adornment” of his country and its language. The culture was “refined” in every sense. Sir Thomas Hoby’s translation of Baldassare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, in 1561, was extraordinarily influential in the social and administrative life of the nation; it had been read in the original by Thomas Wyatt, Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More, among others, and its “Englysshing” conferred upon it instant popularity. John Florio’s translation of Montaigne’s Essays in 1601 modified the consciousness of an entire age; it altered, in particular, the language of Shakespeare’s plays. Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives of Famous Greeks and Romans assisted Shakespeare’s art, also, and furnished material for Antony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and Coriolanus. Thomas Hoby, in the preface to his translation of Castiglione, had encouraged “profound learned men in the Greek and Latin” to undertake similar work so that “wee alone of the world may not be still counted barbarous in our tongue, as time out of mind we have beene in our maners.”
The English language was indeed strengthened and rendered more resourceful. One of the merits of translation, for example, was its encouragement of variety in both syntax and vocabulary. When John Dryden suggested that Virgil “maintains majesty in the midst of plainness” he was signalling his own ambitions for his translation, and so successful was he that in the process he managed to recast the native idiom. It appeared at the time to be an experiment, but two hundred years later Dryden was celebrated by Gerard Manley Hopkins for evincing “the native thew and sinew of the English language.” Foreign sources and idioms were so thoroughly absorbed that they became “native.” When Dryden put Virgil’s Georgics into English it was remarked by Addison that the Roman poet “has so raised the natural rudeness and simplicity of his subject with such a significance of expression, such a pomp of verse, such variety of transitions and such a solemn air in his reflections ”; at the same time he was complimenting Dryden on his ability to bring these qualities into English verse. It has in fact been suggested that Dryden’s greatest poetry does indeed lie within his translations, but that his genius lay in his conceiving of them as “new” poems. Dryden’s prose furnishes another example, in his ability to incorporate the Latin periodic sentence within the English language and thereby to produce an Augustan prose which was admired for its copiousness and grace; it became the standard for all eighteenth-century prose so that Englishness itself, the English of Addison and Steele, of Gibbon and of Johnson, was created out of a foreign idiom.
The power of translation is nowhere more evident than on the English stage. It would hardly be overstating the case, in fact, to suggest that English comedy and English tragedy, as we now understand them, sprang directly from the imitation of classical models. Once more the native genius, or what is generally taken to be a wholly native art, was created and maintained by a broadly European culture. The Latin tragedies of Seneca were first printed in 1474, with further editions some twenty years later. They were translated in the latter half of the sixteenth century. The first known performance of Senecan tragedy in England, that of the Troades, took place at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, in the winter of 1551; eight years later the first English translation of the play was published. Three years after that publication, in 1562, what is generally regarded as the first English tragedy, Gorboduc , was staged in the hall of the Inner Temple. The important point, in this medley of dates and places, is that Gorboduc itself is directly based upon the plays of Seneca; the line of English tragedy then continued with Jocasta and Gismond of Salerne, which are also modelled upon Seneca in their fervent rhetoric and sensational effects. These Roman plays were profoundly congenial to the sixteenth-century English imagination, filled as they were with high sentence and bloody action, impassioned meditations upon fate and melodramatic turnings of the plot. Out of Gorboduc and Jocasta come Marlowe’s Tamburlaine and the whole panoply of English tragedy; the basic five-act structure of the drama was also copied out of Seneca, and the plangent bombast of his monologues helped to colour the blank verse of the English stage. It is a direct example of the manner in which translation becomes a creative principle.
It is appropriate, therefore, that what by common consent is Marlowe’s first play, Dido Queen of Carthage, should be in large part a dramatic transcription of Virgil’s Aeneid; that Tamburlaine relies upon a translated life of that ruler by Petrus Petrondinus; that Doctor Faustus was inspired by a translation out of the German Historia von D. Johann Fausten.
If we look deeply enough, the great works of the English language appear to spring from mixed and muddled origins. It is well enough known that Shakespeare employed translations of Latin originals, among them North’s Plutarch and Golding’s version of Ovid’s Metamorphoses; phrases from them emerge in his verse as if by some surreptitious act of magic.
It is recognised, too, that for the plot and structure of his comedies Shakespeare freely borrowed from the Roman dramatists Terence and Plautus. But it is less readily understood that the form and texture of English comedy itself are derived from classical originals. In 1527 the pupils of St. Paul’s staged the Menaechmi of Plautus and then, in the following year, Terence’s Phormio. The first translation of a Roman play, published in 1530, was that of Terence’s Andria. This may be seen as part of the curriculum of the “new learning,” as promulgated by More and Erasmus, but it also had material consequences for the development of English drama. In 1533 Nicholas Udall, a schoolmaster of Eton and Westminster, published a translation entitled Floures for Latine Spekynge Selected and Gathered oute of Terence; it was a grammatical treatise, but four years later Udall wrote a play, Ralph Roister Doister, which has the merit of being the first formal English comedy. The connection, then, is clear. The five-act structure of English tragedy came out of Seneca; the five-act structure of English comedy emerged from Terence.
The debt to the classical tradition is various and profound. It created what might be called the horizon of English literature, beyond which the bright multifarious works arose. In fact by force of example it can be said to have created the English literary tradition itself. Dryden once remarked that “Shakespeare was the Homer or father of our dramatic poets; Jonson was the Virgil, the pattern of elaborate writing” with the farther analogy that “Spenser and Milton are the nearest in English to Virgil and Horace in the Latin.” After the language had gained a fresh access of strength and power from classical sources, therefore, English itself could be seen as equivalent to Greek or Latin with its own history and traditions. The antiquarian William Camden began to compile an historical digest of the language, for example, and in the early seventeenth century Richard Verstegan wrote of “the great Antiquitie of our ancient English toung.” In succeeding years the Old English of the Anglo-Saxons was thoroughly examined, too, with the appearance of the “Caedmon manuscripts” of homiletic verse. But principal attention was paid to the poetry of the medieval period. “As Greece has three poets of great antiquity,” it was written, “and Italy other three auncient poets: so hath England three auncient poets, Chaucer, Gower and Lydgate.” Thus a literary tradition was formed.
The passion for classical literature also engendered an image which has endured for almost five hundred years. Hopkins called it the “Sweet especial rural scene.” It first emerges in Virgil’s pastoral poetry, where the shepherd Tityrus lies beneath the shade of a spreading beech and pipes a woodland song upon his reed; generations of schoolchildren assimilated this sylvan picture of ease and gracefulness since, according to Sir Thomas Elyot, “the pretty controversies of the simple shepherds therein contained wonderfully rejoiceth the child that heareth it well declared.” It became the inspiration for Edmund Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender as well as for the pastoral poetry which sprang from it; it was also the context for Sir Philip Sidney’s defence of poetry itself, when he declared that “Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as diverse poets have done.” The use of this classical landscape may even represent the beginning of nature-worship itself in English, as opposed to the Anglo-Saxon wariness concerning the natural world. The contrast between city and country, and the role of the poet as a simple Orpheus murmuring:
. . . let woods and rivers be My quiet though inglorious destiny
echoed through English poetry, until the pastoral vision was taken up in transcendental form by William Wordsworth. Wordsworth himself translated Catullus. So, in a sense, the cycle of influence is complete. A country parson in Mrs. Gaskell’s Cousin Phillis puts a similar point very well—“It’s wonderful how exactly Virgil has hit the enduring epithets, nearly two thousand years ago, and in Italy; and yet how it describes to a T what is now lying before us in the parish of Heathbridge, country——, England.”
Just as there are archetypal scenes and images echoing through the classicism of English literature, so there are representative passages in translation which, passing through many hands, create new forms of English music. One such is the chorus from the second act of Seneca’s Thyestes , a passage from which was first translated by Sir Thomas Wyatt:
For hym death greep’ the right hard by the croppe That is moche knowen of other, and of him self alas, Doth dye unknowen, dazed with dreadfull face
That last phrase, in its dark magnificence, is redolent of a whole language. In the translation of Jasper Heywood it becomes:
That knowne hee is to much to other men: Departeth yet unto him selfe unknowne
The lines carry the open vowel sounds that are so much part of the melody of English and, in the seventeenth-century translation of Sir Matthew Hale, they take on the dying fall of the couplet:
To be a publick Pageant, known to All, But unacquainted with Himself, doth fall
They become more complex in the poetry of Abraham Cowley:
Does not himself, when he is Dying know Nor what he is, nor whither he’s to go
But they reappear, refreshed, in Marvell’s gay perplexity:
Into his own Heart ne’er pry’s, Death to him’s a Strange surprise
There had been much critical debate about the disabling number of monosyllables in the language, which resisted the attempts to beautify and “benefit” that language through translation; the example of Marvell, however, suggests that the native resourcefulness of English can be carried even by its simplest words. The line continues.