1753 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Joshua Sylvester

Anonymous, in Cibber-Shiels, Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland (1753) 1:143-45.



JOSHUA SYLVESTER, the translator of the famous Du Bartas's Weeks and Works; was cotemporary with George Chapman, and flourished in the end of Elizabeth and King James's reign; he was called by the poets in his time, the silver-tongu'd Sylvester, but it is doubtful whether he received any academical education. In his early years he is reported to have been a merchant adventurer. Queen Elizabeth is said to have had a respect for him, her successor still a greater, and Prince Henry greater than his father; the prince so valued our bard, that he made him his first Poet-Pensioner. He was not more celebrated for his poetry, than his extraordinary private virtues, his sobriety and sincere attachment to the duties of religion. He was also remarkable for his fortitude and resolution in combating adversity: we are further told that he was perfectly acquainted with the French, Italian, Latin, Dutch and Spanish languages. And it is related of him, that by endeavouring to correct the vices of the times with too much asperity, he exposed himself to the resentment of those in power, who signified their displeasure, to the mortification and trouble of the author. Our poet gained more reputation by the translation of Du Bartas, than by any of his own compositions. Besides his Weeks and Works, he translated several other productions of that author, namely, Eden, the Deceit, the Furies, the Handicrafts, the Ark, Babylon, the Colonies, the Columns, the Fathers, Jonas, Urania, Triumph of Faith, Miracle of Peace, the Vocation, the Daw; the Captains, the Trophies, the Magnificence, &c. also a Paradox of Odes de la Nove, Baron of Teligni with the Quadrians of Pibeac; all which translations were generally well received; but for his own works, which were bound up with them, they received not, says Winstanley, so general an approbation, as may be seen by these verses:

We know thou dost well,
As a translator
But where things require
A genius and fire,
Not kindled before by others pains,
As often thou hast wanted brains.

In the year 1618 this author died at Middleburgh in Zealand, aged 55 years, and had the following epitaph made on him by his great admirer John Vicars beforementioned, but we do not find that it was put upon his tomb-stone.

Here lies (death's too rich prize) the corpse interr'd
Of Joshua Sylvester Du Bartas Pier;
A man of arts best parts, to God, man, dear;
In foremost rank of poets best preferr'd.