1753 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Christopher Pitt

Anonymous, in Cibber-Shiels, Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland (1753) 5:298-307.



The celebrated translator of Virgil, was born in the year 1689. He received his early education in the college near Winchester and in 1719 was removed from thence to new college in Oxford. When he had studied there four years, he was preferred to the living of Pimperne in Dorsetshire, by his friend and relation, Mr. George Pitt; which he held during the remaining part of his life. While he was at the university, he possessed he affection and esteem of all who knew him; and was particularly distinguished by that great poet Dr. Young, who so much admired the early displays of his genius, that with an engaging familiarity he used to call him his son.

Amongst the first of Mr. Pitt's performances which saw the light, were a panegyric on lord Stanhope, and a poem on the Plague of Marseilles: But he had two large Folio's of MS. Poems, very fairly written out, while he was a school-boy,which at the time of election were delivered to the examiners. One of these volumes contained an entire translation of Lucan; and the other consisted of Miscellaneous pieces. Mr. Pitt's Lucan has never been published perhaps from the consideration of its being the production of his early life, or from a consciousness of its not equalling the translation of that author by Rowe, who executed this task in the meridian of his genius. Several of his other pieces were published afterwards, in his volume of Miscellaneous Poems.

The ingenious writer of the Student hath obliged the world by inserting in that work several original pieces by Mr. Pitt; whose name is prefixed to them.

Next to his beautiful Translation of Virgil, Mr. Pitt gained the greatest reputation by rendering into English, Vida's Art of Poetry, which he has executed with the strictest attention to the author's sense, with the utmost elegance of versification, and without suffering the noble spirit of the original to be lost in his translation.

This amiable poet died in the year 1748, without leaving one enemy behind him. On his tombstone were engraved these words, "He lived innocent, and died beloved."

Mr. Auditor Benson, who in a pamphlet of his writing, has treated Dryden's translation of Virgil with great contempt, was yet charmed with that by Mr. Pitt, and found in it some beauties, of which he was fond even to a degree of enthusiasm. Alliteration is one of those beauties Mr. Benson so much admired, and in praise of which he has a long dissertation in his letters on translated verse. He once took an opportunity, in conversation with Mr. Pitt, to magnify that beauty, and to compliment him upon it. Mr. Pitt thought this article far less considerable than Mr. Benson did; but says he, since you are so fond of alliteration, the following couplet upon Cardinal Woolsey will not displease you,

Begot by butchers, but by bishops bred,
How high his honour holds his haughty head.

Benson was no doubt charmed to hear his favourite grace in poetry so beautifully exemplified, which it certainly is, without any affectation or stiffness.

Waller thought this a beauty; and Dryden was very fond of it. Some late writers, under the notion of imitating these two great versifiers in this point, run into downright affectation, and are guilty of the most improper and ridiculous expressions, provided there be but an alliteration. It is very remarkable, that an affectation of this beauty is ridiculed by Shakespear, in Love's labour Lost, Act II. where the Pedant Holofernes says,

I will something affect the letter, for it argues facility.
The praiseful princess pierced, and prickt.—

Mr. Upton, in his letter concerning Spencer, observes, that alliteration is ridiculed too in Chaucer, in a passage which every reader does not understand.

"The Ploughman's Tale is written, in some measure, in imitation of Pierce's Ploughman's Visions; and runs chiefly upon some one letter, or at least many stanza's have this affected iteration, as

A full sterne striefe is stirr'd now,
For some be grete grown on grounde.

When the Parson therefore in his order comes to tell his tale, which reflected on the clergy, he says,

I am a southern man,
I cannot jest, rum, ram, raff, by letter,
And God wote, rime hold I but little better."

Ever since the publication of Mr. Pitt's version of the Aeneid, the learned world has been divided concerning the just proportion of merit, which ought to be ascribed to it. Some have made no scruple in defiance of the authority of a name, to prefer it to Dryden's, both in exactness, as to his author's sense, and even in the charms of poetry. This perhaps, will be best discovered by producing a few shining passages of the Aeneid, translated by these two great masters.

In biographical writing, the first and most essential principal is candour, which no reverence for the memory of the dead, nor affection for the virtues of the living should violate. The impartiality which we have endeavoured to observe through this work, obliges us to declare, that so far as our judgment may be trusted, the latter poet has done most justice to Virgil; that he shines in Pitt with a lustre, which Dryden wanted not power, but leisure to bestow; and a reader, from Pitt's version, will both acquire a more intimate knowledge of Virgil's meaning, and a more exalted idea of his abilities. Let not this detract from the high representations we have endeavoured in some other places to make of Dryden. When he undertook Virgil, he was stooping with age, oppressed with wants, and conflicting with infirmities. In this situation, it was no wonder that much of his vigour was lost; and we ought rather to admire the amazing force of genius, which was so little depressed under all there calamities, than industriously to dwell on his imperfections.

Mr. Spence in one of his chapters on Allegory, in his Polymetis, has endeavoured to shew, how very little our poets have understood the allegories of the antients, even in their translations of them; and has instanced Mr. Dryden's translation of the Aeneid, as he thought him one of our most celebrated poets. The mistakes are very numerous and some of them unaccountably gross. Upon this, says Mr. Warton, "I was desirous to examine Mr. Pitt's translation of the same passages; and was surprized to find near fifty instances which Mr. Spence has given of Dryden's mistakes of that kind, when Mr. Pitt had not fallen into above three or four." Mr. Warton then produces some instances, which we shall not here transcribe, as it will be more entertaining to our readers to have a few of the most shining passages compared, in which there is the highest room for rising to a blaze of poetry.

Spelunca alta fuit, vastoque immanis hiatu,
Scrupea, tuta lacu nigro, nemorumque tenebris;
Quam super haud uliae poterant impune volantes
Tendere iter pennis; talis sese halitus atris,
Faucibus effundens supera ad convexa ferebat:
Unde locum Graii dixerunt nomine Aoron.
Quatuor hic primum nigrantes terga juvencos
Constituit, frontique invergit vina sacerdos;
Et, summas carpens media inter cornua fetas,
Ignibus imponit sacris libamina prima,
Voce vocans Hecaten, caeloque ereboque potentem.

DRYDEN.
Deep was the cave; and downward as it went,
From the wide mouth, a rocky grove descends;
And there th' innavigable lake extends.
O'er whose unhappy waters, void of light,
No bird presumes to steer his airy flight;
Such deadly stenches from the depth arise,
And steaming sulphur that infects the skies.
From hence the Grecian bards their legends make,
And give the name Aornus to the lake.
Four sable bullocks in the yoke untaught,
For sacrifice, the pious hero brought.
The priestess pours the wine between their horns:
Then cuts the curling hair, that first oblation burns,
Invoking Hecate hither to repair;
(A powerful name in hell and upper air.)

PITT.
Deep, deep a cavern lies, devoid of light,
All rough with rocks, and horrible to sight;
Its dreadful mouth is fenc'd with sable floods,
And the brown horrors of surrounding woods.
From its black jaws such baleful vapours rise,
Blot the bright day, and blast the golden skies,
That not a bird can stretch her pinions there,
Thro the thick poisons, and incumber'd air,
But struck by death, her flagging pinions cease;
And hence Aornus was it call'd by Greece.
Hither the priestess, four black heifers led,
Between their horns the hallow'd wine she shed;
From their high front the topmost hairs she drew,
And in the flames the first oblations threw.
Then calls on poetent Hecate, renown'd
In Heav'n above, and Erebus profound.

The next instance we shall produce, in which, as in the former, Mr. Pitt has greatly exceeded Dryden, is taken from Virgil's description of Elyisum, which says Dr. Trap is so charming, that it is almost Elysium to read it.

His demum exactis, perfecto munere divae,
Devenere locos laetos, & amoena vireta
Fortunatorum nemorum, sedesque beatas.
Largior hic campos aether & lumine vestit
Purpureo, solemque suum, sua sidera norunt.
Pars in gramineis exercent membra palaestris,
Contendunt ludo, & fulva lucanter arena:
Pars pedibus plaudunt choreas, & carmina dicunt,
Necnon Threicius longa cum veste sacerdos
Oblonquitur numeris septem discrimina vocum:
Jamque eadem digitis, jam pectine pulsat eburno.

PITT.
These rites compleat, they reach the flow'ry plains,
The verdant groves, where endless pleasure reigns.
Here glowing Aether shoots a purple ray,
And o'er the region pours a double day.
From sky to sky th' unwearied splendour runs,
And nobler planets roll round brigher suns.
Some wrestle on the sands, and some in play
And games heroic pass the hours away.
Those raise the song divine, and these advance
In measur'd steps to form the solemn dance.
There Orpheus graceful in his long attire,
In seven divisions strikes the sounding lyre;
Across the chords the quivering quill he flings,
Or with his flying fingers sweeps the strings.

DRYDEN.
These holy rites perform'd, they took their way,
Where long extended plains of pleasure lay.
The verdant fields with those of heav'n my vie;
With Aether vested, and a purple sky:
The blissful seats of happy souls below;
Stars of their own, and their own suns they know.
Their airy limbs in sports they exercise,
And on the green contend the wrestlers prize.
Some in heroic verse divinely sing,
Others in artful measures lead the ring.
The Thracian bard surrounded by the rest,
There stands conspicuous in his flowing vest.
His flying fingers, and harmonious quill,
Strike seven distinguish'd notes, and seven at once they fill.

In the celebrated description of the swiftness of Camilla in the VIIth Aeneid, which Virgil has laboured with so much industry, Dryden is more equal to Pitt than in the foregoing instances, tho' we think even in this he falls short of him.

Illa vel intactae segetis per summa volaret
Gramina, nec teneras cursu laesisset aristas:
Vel mare per medium, fluctu suspensa tumenti
Ferret iter; celeres nece tingeret aequore plantas.

DRYDEN.
—The fierce virago fought,—
Outstrip'd the winds, in speed upon the plain,
Flew o'er the fields, nor hurt the bearded grain:
She swept the seas, and as she skim'd along,
Her flying feet, unbath'd, on billows hung.

PITT.
She led the rapid race, and left behind,
The flagging floods, and pinions of the wind;
Lightly she flies along the level plain,
Nor hurts the tender grass, nor bends the golden grain;
Or o'er the swelling surge suspended sweeps,
And smoothly skims unbath'd along the deep.

We shall produce one passage of a very different kind from the former, that the reader may have the pleasure of making the comparison. This is the celebrated simile in the XIth Book, when the fiery eagerness of Turnus panting for the battle, is resembled to that of a Steed; which is perhaps one of the most picturesque beauties in the whole Aeneid.

Qualis, ubi abruptis fugit praesepia vinc'lis,
Tandem liber equus, campoque potius aperto;
Aut ille in pastus armentaque tendit equarum,
Aut affuetus aquae perfundi flumine noto
Emicat; arrectisque fremit cervicibus alte
Luxurians, luduntque jubae per colla, per armos.

DRYDEN.
Freed from his keepers, thus with broken reins
The wanton courser prances o'er the plains:
Or in the pride of youth, o'erleaps the mounds,
And snuffs the females in forbidden grounds.
Or seeks his wat'ring in the well-known flood,
To quench his thirst, and cool his fiery blood:
He swims luxuriant in the liquid plain;
And o'er his shoulders flows his waving main.
He neighs, he snorts, he bears his head on high;
Before his ample chest, the frothy waters fly.

PITT.
So the gay pamper'd steed with loosen'd reins,
Breaks from the stall, and pours along the plains;
With large smooth strokes he rushes to the flood,
Bathes his bright sides, and cools his fiery blood;
Neighs as he flies, and tossing high his head,
Snuffs the fair females in the distant mead;
At every motion o'er his neck reclin'd,
Plays his redundant main, and dances in the wind.

From the above specimens, our readers may determine for themselves to whose translation they would give the preference. Critics, like historians, should divest themselves of prejudice: they should never be misguided by the authority of a great name, nor yield that tribute to prescription, which is only due to merit. Mr. Pitt, no doubt, had many advantages above Dryden in this arduous province: As he was later in the attempt, he had consequently the version of Dryden to improve upon. He saw the errors of that great poet, and avoided them; he discovered his beauties, and improved upon them; and as he was not impelled by necessity, he had leisure to revise, correct, and finish his excellent work.

The Revd. and ingenious Mr. Joseph Warton has given to the world a compleat edition of Virgil's works made English. The Aeneid by Mr. Pitt: The Eclogues, Georgics, and notes on the whole, by himself; with some new observations by Mr. Holdsworth, Mr. Spence, and others. This is the compleatest English dress, in which Virgil ever appeared. It is enriched with a dissertation on the VIth Book of the Aeneid, by Warburton. On the Shield of Aeneas, by Mr. William Whitehead. On the Character of Japis, by the late Dr. Atterbury bishop of Rochester; and three Essays on Pastoral, Didactic, and Epic Poetry, by Mr. Warton.