1882 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Henry Francis Cary

Margaret Oliphant, in The Literary History of England (1882) 2:305-12.



Another most gentle and friendly figure which links itself on to this group, in the beginning of the century, by means of the Lambs, is Cary, the translator of Dante, he who had begun his poetical career under the wing of the Swan of Lichfield, and exchanged poetical complaints in that old-world coterie. Cary was as unlike as it is possible to conceive to the half-educated and restless writers above mentioned [Leigh Hunt and William Hazlitt]. He was a scholar born, and a wide and unwearied reader, keeping journals which are little more from beginning to end than a list of books carefully mastered and annotated, a student whose library was his workshop, his field of action, the centre of his life. From his childhood he had exercised himself in the work of translation. "When he was only eight years old," we are informed, "I have heard him say pleasantly, laughing at his own precocious taste for translating and blank verse, that at that age he rendered a considerable portion of the first book of the Odyssey into his childish prose, and, having done so, cut it into lengths of ten syllables each, which he then wrote out under the persuasion that it was poetry." When he was a boy at Rugby, in a more advanced stage, he agreed with two of his friends "to attempt a metrical translation of the chief Greek poets." Thus the child was father to the man. His university career seems to have passed tranquilly without any special distinction, and he entered the Church in accordance with his father's wishes in due time, and was in 1797, when all the new poets and writers of the undeveloped age were at their fullest activity, the vicar of Abbots Bromley, newly married, and in the enjoyment of that perfect tranquillity and happiness which seem nowhere more likely to be attained than in a parsonage. Here he began, with a pleasant irregularity, by the Purgatorio, his great work. But it was not till 1805, when he had changed to another living, and was surrounded by children, that the first volume of the translation, beginning, as was necessary, with the Inferno, was published. It is amusing to find that it did not at all please Miss Seward, the "dear mistress," whose strictures he listened to with affectionate patience, and who neither liked the original nor the translation. There is a proof of a certain superficial growth at least of culture and knowledge among us in the present day, in the frankness with which the people of that time expressed their opinions upon subjects which are now sacred from irreverent remark. Miss Seward frankly did not like Dante, and owned it. A "Muse" of society occupying her position nowadays might be of the same mind, but would not venture to confess as much. And she found Cary's translation to be defaced by obscurity and vulgarisms of language, which she set forth in a long, very long, letter, full of verbal criticism, though without convincing the author. But either the world was of Miss Seward's opinion concerning Dante or, as is more probable, knew nothing about that great poet, and the translation fell dead and was no more heard of. The happy chance by which it was introduced to general notice and the light of day affords one of the prettiest of literary anecdotes. Cary had suffered great domestic griefs, which shook his being to its very depths, and, in the summer of 1817, was at the seaside at Littlehampton, sadly healing from one of those great wounds, and teaching his eldest boy, by way of occupation for his languid life. It is this boy, his biographer in after years, who tells the story.

"After a morning of toil over Greek or Latin composition, it was our custom to walk on the sands and read Homer aloud, a practice adopted partly for the sake of the sea-breezes, and not a little, I believe, in order that the pupil might learn to read 'ore rotundo,' having to raise his voice above the noise, of the sea that was breaking at our feet. For several consecutive days Coleridge crossed us in our walk. The sound of the Greek, and especially the expressive countenance of the tutor, attracted his notice; so one day, as we met, he placed himself directly in my father's way, and thus accosted him: 'Sir, yours is a face I should know. I am Samuel Taylor Coleridge.' His person was not unknown to my father, who had already pointed him out to me as the great genius of our age and country. Our volume of Homer was shut up; but, as it was ever Coleridge's custom to speak it could not be called talking or conversing — on the subject that first offered itself, whatever it might be, the deep mysteries of the blind bard engaged our attention during the remainder of a long walk. I was too young at the time to carry away with me any but a very vague impression of his wondrous speech. All that I remember is, that I felt as one from whose eyes the scales were just removed, who could discuss and enjoy the light, but had not strength of vision to bear its fulness.... The close of our walk found Coleridge at our family dinner-table. Among other topics of conversation, Dante's 'divine' poem was mentioned. Coleridge had never heard of my father's translation, but took a copy home with him that night. On the following day, when the two friends (for so they may from their first day of meeting be called) met for the purpose of taking their daily stroll, Coleridge was able to recite whole pages of the version of Dante, and though he had not the original with him, repeated passages of that also, and commented on the translation. Before leaving Littlehampton, he expressed his determination to bring the version of Dante into public notice; and this, more than any other single person, he had the means of doing in his course of lectures delivered in London during the winter months."

It is pleasant to find that much as Coleridge was in the habit of forgetting his promises and engagements, he did not forget this. On the margin of his notes for one of his lectures stands the memorandum, "Here to speak of Mr. Cary's translation:" and he did so speak of it that "the work, which had been published four years, but had remained in utter obscurity, was at once eagerly sought for. About a thousand copies of the first edition that remained on hand were immediately disposed of, and in less than three months a new edition was called for," while, to crown all, both the Edinburgh and Quarterly Reviews re-echoed the praises that had been sounded by Coleridge, and henceforth the claims of the translator of Dante to literary distinction were universally admitted. Before this, Cary, joining in the universal verdict, had announced to his brother-in-law his meeting with Coleridge as "the most extraordinary man I ever met with." It is pleasant, amid the accounts already quoted and those given by De Quincey and others of the chaotic character of the poet's lectures, to find so delightful an incident connected with them.

The work thus recommended to the world has kept its place ever since as the standard translation of Dante. Others may have greater literary excellence, but its faithfulness and completeness, and the, on the whole, dignified and sufficient manner in which the work is executed, give it a lasting value which no other translation has attained. Cary was guilty of many pipings of original song besides, which did not meet with such approval. We have already quoted the tender and sympathetic verses addressed to Lamb, who had found in the learned and gentle clergyman a congenial spirit. In the latter portion of his life Cary quitted the parsonage, over which the death of several children had thrown a lasting gloom, and received an appointment which exactly suited him in the British Museum. This brought him into the circle of literature in London, but not to its high places or among its fashionable votaries. He lived in Bloomsbury, as simply and as gravely as he had lived in the country; devoted to his books, and spending all his days in the great library which it was a happiness to him to watch over and care for; writing occasional magazine articles like the rest, and sending forth other essays in translation, among which was a version of the Birds of Aristophanes. But after ten years' enjoyment of this modest post, Cary's mind was disturbed and his position altered by the sudden elevation over him of the late well-known and celebrated Antonio Panizzi. Everybody is agreed nowadays that a more admirable appointment than that of Panizzi could not have been made; but it is curious to see, looking back, the hard case of the good Cary, who, whatever his business qualifications may have been, was a devoted lover of books, and the most creditable of public servants. The promotion of his subordinate, however, was more than his gentle temper could bear, and he addressed a spirited protest to the Lord Chancellor; but he had no success in his effort to undo the decision, and accordingly resigned his appointment after ten years' service. The loss, however, was not one that affected him vitally, and a few years later a pension was granted to him. He used the leisure thus forced upon him in miscellaneous literary work, and edited, among other things, a series of English poets — which, by the way, is a thing which almost every notable writer of the period seems to have done. What has become of all these series, specimens, extracts, new editions, one after the other, it is impossible to tell. But there was scarcely a bookseller or unoccupied author who did not plunge into some undertaking of the kind.

Cary died peacefully as late as 1844, in a gentle old age, consoled by the love and attention of his son. He seems to have had no special place in society, being always retiring and shy; but the Lambs, after their retirement, when Temple Lane was a thing of the past and they had gone into their suburban exile, came once a month to dine with him in Bloomsbury, a little festival which was looked forward to with pleasure on both sides. "We were talking of roast shoulder of mutton with onion sauce; but I scorn to prescribe to the hospitalities of mine host," is Lamb's playful suggestion in reference to one of these friendly dinners. Cary was brought in contact with other members of the craft at the "Magazine dinners," given generally by the publishers, which kept the contributors to the London Magazine together. At one of them a rustic author made his appearance whom we may note in passing, a gentle poet, for whom something friendly was done by the lovers of literature of the time, but who was not great, and had it not in him to attain any height. Among the gentlemen, he was a little out of place, and did not know what to do with himself. "The most interesting of the party was the poet Clare. He was dressed in a labourer's holiday suit. The punsters evidently alarmed him, but he listened with the deepest attention to his host" (who was Cary himself, the dinner being for some forgotten reason at his house). It required something beyond the range of a rustic versifier to make out what all the wits were after — Lamb, with his rolling stammer, skilfully exercised to the advantage of his genius, and all the younger talkers used to the quick exchanges of skilful conversation.