1817 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Joshua Sylvester

Nathan Drake, in Shakespeare and his Times (1817; 1838) 316-17.



JOSHUA SYLVESTER, a poet who has lately attracted a considerable degree of attention, from the discovery of his having furnished to Milton the Prima Stamina of his Paradise Lost. He was educated by his uncle, William Plumb, Esq., and died at Middleburgh, in Zealand, on the 28th of September, 1618, aped fifty-five. His principal work, a translation of the Divine Weeks and Works of Du Bartas, was commenced in 1590, prosecuted in 1592, 1598, 1599, and completed in 1605, since which period it has undergone six editions; three in quarto, and three in folio, the last being dated 1641.

Both the version of Sylvester, and his original poems, published with it, are remarkable for their inequality, for great beauties, and for glaring defects. His versification is sometimes exquisitely melodious, and was recognised as such by his contemporaries, who distinguished him by the appellation of "silver-tongued Sylvester." His diction also is occasionally highly nervous and energetic, and sometimes simply elegant; but much more frequently is it disfigured by tumour and bombast. Of the golden lines which his Du Bartas contains, it may be necessary to furnish the reader some proof, and the following, we imagine, cannot fail to excite his surprise:

O thrice, thrice happy he, who shuns the cares
Of city-troubles, and of state affairs;
And serving Ceres, tills with his own team
His own free land, left by his friends to him!—
And leading all his life at home in peace,
Always in sight of his own smoke; no seas,
No other seas he knows, nor other torrent,
Than that which waters with his silver current
His native meadows: and that very earth
Shall give him burial, which first gave him birth.

To summon timely sleep, he doth not need
Aethiop's cold rush, nor drowsy poppy seed,
The stream's mild murmur, as it gently gushes,
His healthy limbe in quiet slumber hushes;—
—all self-private, serving God, he writes
Fearless, and sings but what his heart indites,
'Till Death, dread Servant of the Eternal Judge,
Comes very late to his sole-seated Lodge.—

Let me, Good Lord among the Great unkenn'd
My rest of days in the calm country end:
My company, pure thoughts, to work thy will,
My court, a cottage on a lowly hill.

So popular was this version in the early part of the seventeenth century, that Jonson, no indiscriminate encomiast, exclaims, in an epigram to the translator,

Behold! the rev'rend shade of Bartas stands
Before my thought, and in thy right commands
That to the world I publish for him this
"Bartas doth wish thy English now were his"
So well in that are his inventions wrought,
As hits will now be the translation thought;
Thine the original; and France shall boast
No more the maiden glories she has lost.

The greatest compliment, however, which Sylvester has received, is the imitation of Milton.

The virtues of Sylvester were superior to his talents; he was, in fact, to adopt the language of one of his intimate friends, a poet

Whom Envy scarce could hate, whom all admir'd,
Who liv'd beloved, and a Saint expir'd.