1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Michael Wodhull

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 32:228-31.



MICHAEL WODHULL, the first translator into English verse of all the tragedies and fragments of Euripides which are extant, was born Aug. 15, 1740, at Thenford, in Northamptonshire, and was sent first to Twyford, in Buckinghamshire, to the school of the rev. William Cleaver. This preceptor had three sons, William, bishop of St. Asaph, Eusebius, archbishop of Dublin, and John, student of Christ Church, Oxford, who were all attached to Mr. Wodhull with the sincerest friendship through life. To John, one of his poetical epistles (the ninth) is addressed, in which honourable mention is made of the father.

Beneath whose auspices his earlier age
Imbibed the dictates of the good and sage.

From Twyford he was removed to Winchester school and afterwards to Brasennose college, Oxford. He inherited from his father, who died while he was at school, a large fortune, of which the first use that he made was to build a handsome mansion on his patrimonial inheritance. In 1761 he married a lady of great personal accomplishments, and universally loved and respected, Miss Catherine Milcah Ingram, of an ancient family situated at Wolford, in Warwickshire, who left him a widower without family in 1808. In 1803 he took advantage of the short peace to gratify his curiosity in the libraries of Paris, and was one of the English detained by Bonaparte, but was afterward released on account of his age. He returned home an invalid and alone, and it was a source of great distress to him to be compelled to leave behind him in France his faithful servant. From that period his bodily infirmities gradually increased, his sight at length failed, and his voice became scarcely audible, but his senses and his memory, which was most singularly retentive, continued unimpaired to the last. He died without a struggle or groan, Nov. 10, 1816, in the seventy-seventh year of his age.

Of his politics, Mr. Wodhull says they were "those of a British whig, not run away with by national prejudices;" but he never entered into public life; his chief occupation and amusement being the study of books, of which he was celebrated as a collector. He disposed during his life of many which he had purchased, but left behind him above 4000 volumes, consisting principally of first editions and rare specimens of early printing. The duties of private and social life no man discharged with more fidelity or exactness. As a son, a husband, a friend, a master, a landlord, few could excel him, and his charities, which were numerous, were known generally to those only whom he benefited.

As to his religious sentiments, although he was an advocate for toleration, he invariably asserted the principle of conformity to the sound and apostolic establishments of the land. His practice, even when very infirm, was to attend divine service in his parish church, to read or procure some friend to read a sermon and prayers to his family and domestics every Sunday evening. He never spoke an unkind word to his servants, and there was hardly an instance known of any one quitting his service for that of another master. He never complained, nor tittered a peevish expression under the greatest privations and the most severe pain. His funeral was, by his own desire, as his life had been, without parade or ostentation, and the monumental stone declares no more than the name and age of him whose mortal reliques lie near it.

The first edition of Mr. Wodhull's translation of Euripides appeared in 1782, 4 vols. 8vo, since reprinted in 3 vols. 8vo. Whoever considers the number of dramas composed by the Greek tragedian, the variety of allusions which they contain to ancient manners, and to the tenets of philosophers; and the peculiar force of the language in which they were written, will acknowledge that the attempt to render them into English verse must have failed altogether without a rare union of perseverance, knowledge, and ability. Original composition is the surest test of genius, but the poetical images and ideas of one man cannot adequately be represented or expressed by another who does not himself possess the imagination and fancy of a poet. In his translation of Euripides, Mr. Wodhull has selected blank verse as the best adapted for the dialogue, and has rendered the choruses for the most part in a Pindaric ode. The difference therefore both of the subject and versification is such that no comparison can fairly be instituted with the poetical versions of the Aeneid and the Iliad. But as Dryden and Pope have secured to themselves a high rank in the list of British Classics by their translations, an honourable post will also be assigned to Mr. Wodhull, who has contributed no mean addition to the stock of British Literature, and naturalized among us him, whom he entitles "The Philosophic Bard."

Mr. Wodhull's poetical fame, however, does not rest merely on translations; he was the author of several poems published at different periods, which he collected in 1804, and printed with several alterations for the use of his friends in an elegant octavo volume, to which his portrait was prefixed. The poems consist of five odes, two songs, The Equality of Mankind; On Mr. Hollis's print of Dr. Mayhew; The Use of Poetry, and thirteen epistles addressed to different friends. When a very young man he wrote an Ode to Criticism, which is not found in this collection. It was intended as an attack on certain peculiarities in the writings of Thomas Warton. Warton took a singular mode of avenging himself, by inserting the ode in The Oxford Sausage among poems of a very different sort. This proceeding may perhaps be considered as a proof of humour in the laureate; but it is to be regretted that it has been the means of perpetuating a composition which its author would long ago have consigned to oblivion.