1779 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Christopher Pitt

Samuel Johnson, Lives of the English Poets (1779-81); ed. Hill (1905) 3:277-80.



CHRISTOPHER PITT, of whom whatever I shall relate more than has been already published I owe to the kind communication of Dr. Warton, was born in 1699 at Blandford, the son of a physician much esteemed.

He was, in 1714, received as a scholar into Winchester College, where he was distinguished by exercises of uncommon elegance; and, at his removal to New College in 1719, presented to the electors, as the product of his private and voluntary studies, a compleat version of Lucan's poem, which he did not then know to have been translated by Rowe.

This is an instance of early diligence which well deserves to be recorded. The suppression of such a work, recommended by such uncommon circumstances, is to be regretted. It is indeed culpable to load libraries with superfluous books; but incitements to early excellence are never superfluous, and from this example the danger is not great of many imitations.

When he had resided at his College three years he was presented to the rectory of Pimpern in Dorsetshire (1722) by his relation, Mr. Pitt of Stratfeildsea in Hampshire, and, resigning his fellowship, continued at Oxford two years longer, till he became Master of Arts (1724).

He probably about this time translated Vida's Art of Poetry, which Tristram's splendid edition had then made popular. In this translation he distinguished himself, both by its general elegance and by the skilful adaptation of his numbers to the images expressed; a beauty which Vida has with great ardour enforced and exemplified.

He then retired to his living, a place very pleasing by its situation, and therefore likely to excite the imagination of a poet, where he passed the rest of his life, reverenced for his virtue and beloved for the softness of his temper and the easiness of his manners. Before strangers he had something of the scholar's timidity or distrust, but when he became familiar he was in a very high degree chearful and entertaining. His general benevolence procured general respect; and he passed a life placid and honourable, neither too great for the kindness of the low nor too low for the notice of the great.

At what time he composed his Miscellany, published in 1727, it is not easy or necessary to know: those which have dates appear to have been very early productions, and I have not observed that any rise above mediocrity.

The success of his Vida animated him to a higher undertaking, and in his thirtieth year he published a version of the first book of the Aeneid. This being, I suppose, commended by his friends, he some time afterwards added three or four more; with an advertisement, in which he represents himself as translating with great indifference, and with a progress of which himself was hardly conscious. This can hardly be true, and, if true, is nothing to the reader.

At last, without any further contention with his modesty, or any awe of the name of Dryden, he gave us a complete English Aeneid, which I am sorry not to see joined in the late publication with his other poems. It would have been pleasing to have an opportunity of comparing the two best translations that perhaps were ever produced by one nation of the same author.

Pitt engaging as a rival with Dryden naturally observed his failures, and avoided them; and, as he wrote after Pope's Iliad, he had an example of an exact, equable, and splendid versification. With these advantages, seconded by great diligence, he might successfully labour particular passages, and escape many errors. If the two versions are compared, perhaps the result would be, that Dryden leads the reader forward by his general vigour and sprightliness, and Pitt often stops him to contemplate the excellence of a single couplet; that Dryden's faults are forgotten in the hurry of delight, and that Pitt's beauties are neglected in the languor of a cold and listless perusal; that Pitt pleases the criticks, and Dryden the people; that Pitt is quoted, and Dryden read.

He did not long enjoy the reputation which this great work: deservedly conferred for he left the world in 1748, and lies buried under a stone at Blandford, on which is this inscription:

In memory of
CHR. PITT, clerk, M.A.
Very eminent
for his talents in poetry;
and yet more
for the universal candour of
his mind, and the primitive
simplicity of his manners.
He lived innocent,
and died beloved,
Apr. 13, 1748,
aged 48.