This poet was second son to the rev. Mr. Joseph Trapp, rector of Cherington in Gloucestershire, at which place he was born, anno 1679. He received the first rudiments of learning from his father, who instructed him in the languages, and superintended his domestic education. When he was ready for the university he was sent to Oxford, and was many years scholar and fellow of Wadham-College, where he took the degree of master of arts. In the year 1708 he was unanimously chosen professor of poetry, being the first of that kind. This institution was founded by Dr. Henry Birkhead, formerly fellow of All-Souls, and the place of lecturer can be held only for ten years.
Dr. Trapp was, in the early part of his life, chaplain to lord Bolingbroke, the father of the famous Bolingbroke, lately deceased. The highest preferment Dr. Trapp ever had in the church, though he was a man of extensive learning, was, the rectory of Harlington, Middlesex, and of the united parishes of Christ-Church, Newgate-street, and St. Leonard's Foster-Lane, with the lectureship of St. Lawrence Jewry, and St. Martin's in the Fields. The Dr.'s principles were not of that cast, by which promotion could be expected. He was attached to the High-Church interest, and as his temper was not sufficiently pliant to yield to the prevalence of party, perhaps for that very reason, his rising in the church was retarded. A gentleman of learning and genius, when paying a visit to the Dr. took occasion to lament, as there had been lately some considerable alterations made, and men less qualified than he, raised to the mitre, that distinctions should be conferred with so little regard to merit, and wondered that he (the Dr.) had never been promoted to a fee. To this the Dr. replied, "I am thought to have some learning, and some honesty, and these are but indifferent qualifications to enable a man to rise in the church."
Dr. Trapp's action in the pulpit has been censured by many, as participating too much of the theatrical manner, and having more the air of an itinerant enthusiast, than a grave ecclesiastic. Perhaps it may be true, that his pulpit gesticulations were too violent, yet they bore strong expressions of sincerity, and the side on which he erred, was the most favourable to the audience as the extreme of over-acting any part, is not half so intolerable as a languid indifference, whether what the preacher is then uttering, is true or false, is, worth attention or no. The Dr. being once in company with a person, whose profession was that of a player, took occasion to ask him, "what was the reason that an actor seemed to feel his part with so much sincerity, and utter it with so much emphasis and spirit, while a preacher, whose profession is of a higher nature, and whose doctrines are of the last importance, remained unaffected, even upon the most solemn occasion, while he stood in the pulpit as the ambassador of God, to teach righteousness to the people?" the player replied, "I believe no other reason can be given, sir, but that we are sincere in our parts, and the preachers are insincere in theirs." The Dr. could not but acknowledge the truth of this observation in general, and was often heard to complain of the coldness and unaffected indifference of his brethren in those very points, in which it is their business to be sincere and vehement. Would you move your audience, says an ancient sage, you must yourself be moved; and it is a proposition which holds universally true. Dr. Trapp was of opinion, that the highest doctrines of religion were to be considered as infallibly true, and that it was of more importance to impress them strongly on the minds of the audience, to speak to their hearts, and affect their passions, than to bewilder them in disputation, and lead them through labyrinths of controversy, which can yield, perhaps, but little instruction, can never tend to refine the passions, or elevate the mind. Being of this opinion, and from a strong desire of doing good, Dr. Trapp exerted himself in the pulpit, and strove not only to convince the judgment, but to warm the heart, for if passions are the elements of life, they ought to be devoted to the service of religion, as well a the other faculties, and powers of the soul.
But preaching was not the only method by which this worthy man promoted the interest of religion; he drew the muses into her service, and that he might work upon the hopes and fears of his readers, he has presented them with four poems, on these important subjects; Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. The reason of his making choice of those themes on which to write, he very fully explains in his preface. He observes, that however dull, and trite it may be to declaim against the corruption of the age one lives in, yet he presumes it will be allowed by every body, that all manner of wickedness, both in principles and practice, abounds amongst men. "I have lived (says he) in six reigns, but for about these twenty years last past, the English nation has been, and is so prodigiously debauched, its very nature and genius so changed, that I scarce know it to be the English nation, and am almost a foreigner in my own country. Not only barefaced, impudent, immorality of all kinds, but often professed infidelity and atheism. To stop these overflowings of ungodliness, much has been done in prose, yet not so as to supersede all other endeavours and therefore the author of these poems was willing to try, whether any good might be done in verse. This manner of conveyance may, perhaps, have some advantage, which the other has not; at least it makes variety, which is something considerable. The four last things are manifestly subjects of the utmost importance. If due reflexions upon Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell, will not reclaim men from their vices, nothing will. This little work was intended for the use of all, from the greatest to the least. But as it would have been intolerably flat, and insipid to the former, had it been wholly written in a stile level to the capacities of the latter; to obviate inconveniences on both sides, an attempt has been made to entertain the upper class of readers, and, by notes, to explain such passages in divinity, philosophy, history, &c. as might be difficult to the lower. The work (if it may be so called) being partly argumentative, and partly descriptive, it would have been ridiculous, had it been possible to make the first mentioned as poetical as the other. In long pieces of music there is the plain recitative, as well as the higher, and more musical modulation, and they mutually recommend, and set off each other. But about these matters the writer is little sollicitous, any otherwise, than as they are subservient to the design of doing good."
A good man would naturally wish, that such generous attempts, in the cause of virtue, were always successful. With the lower class of readers, it is more than probable that these poems may have inspired religious thoughts, have awaked a solemn dread of punishment, kindled a sacred hope of happiness, and fitted the mind for the four last important periods; But with readers of a higher taste, they can have but little effect. There is no doctrine placed in a new light, no descriptions are sufficiently emphatical to work upon a sensible mind, and the perpetual flatness of the poetry is very disgustful to a critical reader, especially, as there were so may occasions of rising to an elevated sublimity.
The Dr. has likewise written a Paraphrase on the 104th Psalm, which, though much superior in poetry to his Four Last Things, yet falls greatly short of that excellent version by Mr. Blacklocke, quoted in the Life of Dr. Brady.
Our author has likewise published four volumes of sermons, and a volume of lectures on poetry, written in Latin.
Before we mention his other poetical compositions, we shall consider him as the translator of Virgil, which is the most arduous province he ever undertook. Dr. Trapp, in his preface, after stating the controversy, which has been long held, concerning the genius of Homer and Virgil, to whom the superiority belongs, has informed us, that this work was very far advanced before it was undertaken, having been, for many years, the diversion of his leisure hours at the university, and grew upon him, by insensible degrees, so that a great part of the Aeneis was actually translated, before he had any design of attempting the whole.
He further informs us, "that one of the greatest geniuses, and best judges, and critics, our age has produced, Mr. Smith of Christ Church, having seen the first two or three hundred lines of this translation, advised him by all means to go through with it. I said, he laughed at me, replied the Dr. and that I should be the most impudent of mortals to have such a thought. He told me, he was very much in earnest; and asked me why the whole might not be done, in so many years, as well as such a number of lines in so many days? which had no influence upon me, nor did I dream of such an undertaking, 'till being honoured by the university of Oxford with the public office of professor of poetry, which I shall ever gratefully acknowledge, I thought it might not be improper for me to review, and finish this work, which otherwise had certainly been as much neglected by me, as, perhaps, it will now be by every body else."
As our author has made choice of blank verse, rather than rhime, in order to bear a nearer resemblance to Virgil, he has endeavoured to defend blank verse, against the advocates for rhime, and shew its superiority for any work of length, as it gives the expression a greater compass, or, at least, does not clog and fetter the verse, by which the substance and meaning of a line must often be mutilated, twisted, and sometimes sacrificed for the sake of the rhime.
"Blank verse (says he) is not only, more majestic and sublime, but more musical and harmonious. It has more rhime in it, according to the ancient, and true sense of the word, than rhime itself, as it is now used: for, in its original signification, it consists not in the tinkling of vowels and consonants, but in the metrical disposition of words and syllables, and the proper cadence of numbers, which is more agreeable to the ear, without the jingling of like endings, than with it. And, indeed, let a man consult his own ears.
—Him th' Almighty pow'r
Hurl'd headlong, flaming from the aetherial sky,
With hideous ruin and combustion, down
To bottomless perdition there to dwell
In adamantine chains, and penal fire;
Who durst defy th' Omnipotent to arms.
Nine times the space that measures day and night
To mortal men, he with his horrid crew
Lay vanquish'd, rowling in the fiery gulph,
Confounded, tho' immortal—
Who that hears this, can think it wants rhime to recommend it? or rather does not think it sounds far better without it? We purposely produced a citation, beginning and ending in the middle of a verse, because the privilege of resting on this, or that foot, sometimes one, and sometimes another, and so diversifying the pauses and cadences, is the greatest beauty of blank verse, and perfectly agreeable to the practice of our masters, the Greeks and Romans. This can be done but rarely in rhime; for if it were frequent, the rhime would be in a manner lost by it; the end of almost every verse must he something of a pause; and it is but seldom that a sentence begins in the middle. Though this seems to be the advantage of blank verse over rhime, yet we cannot entirely condemn the use of it, even in a heroic poem; nor absolutely reject that in speculation, which. Mr. Dryden and Mr. Pope have enobled by their practice. We acknowledge too, that in some particular views, that way of writing has the advantage over this. You may pick out more lines, which, singly considered, look mean and low, from a poem in blank verse, than from one in rhime, supposing them to be in other respects equal. For instance, the following verses out of Milton's Paradise Lost, b. ii.
Of Heav'n were falling, and these elements—
Instinct with fire, and nitre hurried him—
taken singly, look low and mean: but read them in conjunction with others, and then see what a different face will be set upon them.
—Or less than of this frame
Of Heav'n were falling, and these elements
In mutiny had from her axle torn
The stedfast earth. At last his sail-broad vans
He spreads for flight; and in the surging smoke
Uplifted spurns the ground—
—Had not by ill chance
The strong rebuff of some tumultuous cloud
Instinct with fire and nitre, hurried him
As many miles aloft. That fury stay'd;
Quench'd in a boggy syrtis, neither sea,
Nor good dry land: nigh founder'd on he fares,
Treading the crude consistence.
Our author has endeavoured to unify his choice of blank verse, by shewing it less subject to restraints, and capable of greater sublimity than rhime. But tho' this observation may hold true, with respect to elevated and grand subjects, blank verse is by no means capable of so great universality. In satire, in elegy, or in pastoral writing, our language is, it seems, so feebly constituted, as to stand in need of the aid of rhime; and as a proof of this, the reader need only look upon the pastorals of Virgil, as translated by Trapp in blank verse, and compare them with Dryden's in rhime. He will then discern how insipid and flat the pastorals of the same poet are in one kind of versification, and how excellent and beautiful in another. Let us give one short example to illustrate the truth of this, from the first pastoral of Virgil.
Beneath the covert of the spreading beech
Thou, Tityrus, repos'd, art warbling o'er,
Upon a slender reed, thy sylvan lays:
We leave our country, and sweet native fields;
We fly our country: careless in the shade,
Thou teachest, Tityrus, the sounding groves
To eccho beauteous Amaryllis' name.
O Melibaeus, 'twas a god to us
Indulg'd this freedom for to me a god
He shall be ever: from my folds full oft
A tender lamb his altar shall embrue:
He gave my heifers, as thou seest, to roam;
And me permitted on any rural cane
To sport at pleasure, and enjoy my muse,
Beneath the shade which beechen-boughs diffuse,
You, Tityrus, entertain your Silvan muse:
Round the wide world in banishment we roam,
Forc'd from our pleasing fields, and native home:
While stretch'd at ease you sing your happy loves:
And Amaryllis fills the shady groves.
These blessings, fiend, a deity bestow'd:
For never can I deem him lets than God.
The tender firstlings of my woolly breed
Shall on his holy altar often bleed.
He gave my kine to graze the flowry plain:
And to my pipe renew'd the rural strain.
Dr. Trapp towards the conclusion of his Preface to the Aeneid, has treated Dryden with less reverence, than might have been expected from a man of his understanding, when speaking of to great a genius. The cause of Trapp's disgust to Dryden, seems to have been this Dryden had a strong contempt for the priesthood, which we have from his own words, "Priests of all professions are the same" and takes every opportunity to mortify the usurping superiority of spiritual tyrants. Trapp, with all his virtues (for I think it appears he possessed many) had yet much of the priest in him, and for that very reason, perhaps, has shewn some resentment to Dryden but if he has with little candour of criticism treated Mr. Dryden, he has with great servility flattered Mr. Pope; and has insinuated, as if the Palm of Genius were to be yielded to the latter. He observes in general, that where Mr. Dryden shines most, we often see the least of Virgil. To omit many other instances, the description of the Cyclops forging Thunder for Jupiter, and Armour for Aeneas, is elegant and noble to the last degree in the Latin and it is so to a great degree in the English. But then is the English a translation of the Latin?
Hither the father of the fire by night,
Thro' the brown air precipitates his flight:
On their eternal anvil, here he found
The brethren beating, and the blows go round.
The lines are good, and truely poetical but the two first are set to render "Huc tunc ignipotens caelo descendit ab alto." There is nothing of "caelo ab alto" in the version; nor by "night," "brown air," or "precipitates his flight," in the original. The two last are put in the room of
Ferrum exercebant vasto Cylopes in antro,
Brontesque, Steropesque, & nudus membra Pyracmon.
"Vasto in antro," in the first of these lines, and the last line is entirely left out in the translation. Nor is there any thing of eternal anvils, or "here be found," in the original, and the brethren beating, and the blows go round, is but a loose version of "Ferrum exercebant." Dr. Trapp has allowed, however, that though Mr. Dryden is often distant from the original, yet he sometimes rises to a more excellent height, by throwing out implied graces, which none but so great a poet was capable of. Thus in the 12th book, after the last speech of Saturn,
Tantum effata, caput glauco contexit amictu,
Multa gemens, & se fluvio Dea condidit alto.
She drew a length of sighs, no more she said,
But with an azure mantle wrapp'd her head;
Then plunged into her stream with deep despair,
"And her last sobs came bubbling up in air."
Though the last line is not expressed in the original, it is yet in some measure implied, and it is in itself so exceedingly beautiful, that the whole passage can never be too much admired. These are excellencies indeed; this is truly Mr. Dryden. The power of truth, no doubt, extorted this confession from the Dr. and notwithstanding many objections may he brought against this performance of Dryden, yet we believe most of our poetical readers upon perusing it, will be of the opinion of Pope, that, "excepting a few human errors, it is the noblest and most spirited translation in any language." To whom it may reasonably he asked, has Virgil been most obliged? to Dr. Trapp who has followed his footsteps in every line; has shewn you indeed the design, the characters, contexture, and moral of the poem, that is, has given you Virgil's account of the actions of Aeneas, or to Mr. Dryden, who has not only conveyed the general ideas of his author, but has conveyed them with the same majesty and fire, has led you through every battle with trepidation, has soothed you in the tender scenes, and inchanted you with the flowers of poetry? Virgil contemplated thro' the medium of Trapp, appears an accurate writer, and the Aeneid a well conducted fable, but discerned in Dryden's page, he glows as with fire from heaven, and the Aeneid is a continued series of whatever is great, elegant, pathetic, and sublime.
We have already observed, in the Life of Dryden, that it is easier to discern wherein the beauties of poetical composition consist, than to throw out those beauties. Dr. Trapp, in his Praelectiones Poeticae, has shewn how much he was master of every species of poetry that is, how excellently he understood the structure of a poem; what noble rules he was capable of laying down, and what excellent materials he could afford, for building upon such a foundation, a beautiful fabric. There are few better criticisms in any language. Dryden's dedications and prefaces excepted, than are contained in these lectures. The mind is enlarged by them, takes in a wide range of poetical ideas, and is taught to discover how many amazing requisites are necessary to form a poet, In his introduction to the first lecture, he takes occasion to state a comparison between poetry and painting, and shew how small pretensions the professors of the latter have, to compare themselves with the former. The painter indeed (says he) has to do with the passions, but then they are such passions only, as discover themselves in the countenance; but the poet is to do more, he is to trace the rise of those passions, to watch their gradations, to paint their progress, and mark them in the heart in their genuine conflicts; and, continues he, the disproportion between the soul and the body, is not greater than the disproportion between the painter and the poet.
Dr. Trapp is author of a tragedy called Abramule, or Love and Empire, acted at the New Theatre at Lincoln's-Inn-Fields, 1704, dedicated to the Right Honourable the Lady Harriot Godolphin. Scene Constantinople. The story is built upon the dethronement of Mahomet IV.
Our author has likewise written a piece called The Church of England Defended against the False Reasoning of the Church of Rome. Several occasional poems were written by him in English; and there is one Latin poem of his in the Musae Anglicanae. He has translated the Paradise Lost into Latin verse, with little success, and, as he published it at his own risk, he was a considerable loser. The capital blemish of that work, is, the unharmonious versification, which gives perpetual offence to the ear, neither is the language universally pure.
He died in the month of November 1747, and left behind him the character of a pathetic and instructive preacher, a profound scholar, a discerning critic, a benevolent gentleman, and a pious Christian.
We shall conclude the life of Dr. Trapp with the following verses of Mr. Layng, which are expressive of the Dr's. character as a critic and a poet. The author, after applauding Dryden's version, proceeds thus in favour of Trapp.
Behind we see a younger bard arise,
No vulgar rival in the grand emprize.
Hail! learned Trapp! upon whose brow we find.
The poet's bays, and critic's ivy join'd.
Blest saint! to all that's virtuous ever dear,
Thy recent fate demands a friendly tear.
None was more vers'd in all the Roman store,
Or the wide circle of the Grecian lore,
Less happy, from the world recluse too long,
In all the sweeter ornaments of song;
Intent to teach, too careless how to please,
He boasts in strength, whate'er he wants in ease.