1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Sotheby

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:360-61.



WILLIAM SOTHEBY, an elegant and accomplished scholar and translator, was born in London on the 9th of November, 1757. He was of good family, and educated at Harrow School. At the age of seventeen he entered the army as an officer in the 10th dragoons. He quitted the army in the year 1780, and purchased Bevis Mount, near Southampton, where he continued to reside for the next ten years. Here Mr. Sotheby cultivated his taste for literature, and translated some of the minor Greek and Latin poets. In 1788, he made a pedestrian tour through Wales, of which he wrote a poetical description, published, together with some odes and sonnets, in 1789. Two years afterwards the poet removed to London, where he mixed in the literary and scientific society of the metropolis. In 1798 he published a translation from the Oberon of Wieland, which greatly extended his reputation, and procured him the thanks and friendship of the German poet. He now became a frequent competitor for poetical fame. In 1799 he wrote a poem commemorative of the battle of the Nile; in 1800, appeared his translation of the Georgics of Virgil; in 1801, he produced a Poetical Epistle on the Encouragement of the British School of Painting; and in 1802, a tragedy on the model of the ancient Greek drama, entitled Orestes. The threatened invasion of the French roused the military spirit of Sotheby, and he entered with zeal upon the formation of a volunteer corps. When this alarm had blown over, he devoted himself to the composition of an original sacred poem, in blank verse, under the title of Saul, which appeared in 1807. The fame of Scott induced him to attempt the romantic metrical style of narrative and description; and in 1810, he published Constance de Castille, a poem in ten cantos. In 1814, he republished his Orestes, together with four other tragedies; and in 1815, a second corrected edition of the Georgics. This translation is one of the best of a classic poet in our language. A tour on the continent (during which Mr. Sotheby was absent for eighteen months) gave occasion to another poetical work, Italy, descriptive of classic scenes and recollections. He next began a labour which he had long contemplated, the translation of the Iliad and Odyssey, though he was upwards of seventy years of age before he entered upon the Herculean task. The summer and autumn of 1829 were spent in a tour of Scotland, during which he visited Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford, and explored some of the most interesting of the Highland districts. The following verses, written in a steam-boat during an excursion to Staffa and Iona, shew the undiminished powers of the veteran poet:

Staffa, I scaled thy summit hoar,
I passed beneath thy arch gigantic,
Whose pillared cavern swells the roar,
When thunders on thy rocky shore
The roll of the Atlantic.

That hoar the wind began to rave,
The surge forgot its motion,
And every pillar in thy cave
Slept in its shadow on the wave,
Unrippled by the ocean.

Then the past age before me came,
When 'mid the lightning's sweep,
Thy isle with its basaltic frame,
And every column wreathed with flame,
Burst from the boiling deep.

When 'mid Iona's wrecks meanwhile
O'er sculptured graves I trod,
Where Time had strewn each mouldering aisle
O'er saints and kings that reared the pile
I hailed the eternal God:
Yet, Staffa, more I felt His presence in thy cave
Than where Iona's cross rose o'er the western wave.

Mr. Sotheby's translation of the Iliad was published in 1831, and was generally esteemed spirited and faithful. The Odyssey he completed in the following year. This was the last production of the amiable and indefatigable author. He still enjoyed the society of his friends, and even made another tour through North Wales; but his lengthened life was near a close, and after a short illness, he died on the 30th of December 1833. The original poetical productions of Mr. Sotheby have not been reprinted; his translations are the chief source of his reputation. Wieland, it is said, was charmed with the genius of his translator; and the rich beauty of diction in the Oberon, and its facility of versification, notwithstanding the restraints imposed by a difficult measure, were eulogised by the critics. In his tragedies, Mr. Sotheby displays considerable warmth of passion and figurative language, but his plots are ill-constructed. His sacred poem, Saul, is the longest of his works. "There is delicacy and grace in many of the descriptions," says Jeffrey, "a sustained tone of gentleness and piety in the sentiments, and an elaborate beauty in the diction, which frequently makes amends for the want of force and originality." The versification also wants that easy flow and melody which characterise Oberon. Passages of Sotheby's metrical romance are happily versified, and may be considered good imitations of Scott. Indeed, Byron said of Mr. Sotheby that he imitated everybody, and occasionally surpassed his models.