1834 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Joshua Sylvester

Robert Aris Willmott, in Lives of Sacred Poets (1834) 57-58.



One of the most popular works of the reign of James, was SYLVESTER'S translation of The Divine Weeks of Du Bartas. The first part was published in 1598, but the folio edition appeared in 1621, recommended by eulogistic verses, by Daniel, Ben Jonson, Hall, and others. Jonson afterwards told Drummond, "that he wrote his verses before it, ere he understood to confer." But he need not have retracted his praise on the score of Sylvester's unfaithful translation; for the principal merit of the work consists in the occasional beauty and originality of some of the epithets and images.

Du Bartas was highly esteemed in England. Sir John Melvil mentions him in his memoirs: — "The Ambossadours were not well embarked when M. Du Bartas arrived here to visit the King's majesty, who, he heard, had him in great esteem for his rare poesy, set forth in the French tongue." In five or six years the editions of Du Bartas' poems exceeded thirty, and yet his name has now passed into a proverb in France to express "la barbarie et le mauvais gout de style." Goethe has truly observed that the just appreciation of what is pleasing with reference to the country, to the period, and the moral state of a people, constitutes taste properly so called, and instances Du Bartas, who has received in Germany the appellation of King of the French poets.

Wood says that Sylvester was an accomplished scholar. In addition to his versions from Du Bartas and Pibrac, whom Montaigne called "bon M. de Pibrac," and whose Quatrains have been rendered into all languages, he made some translations from the Latin of Fracastorius, the learned friend of Cardinal Bembo.

He died at Middleburgh, in Holland, after a life of adversity, on the 28th of September, 1618, in the 55th year of his age. "By what circumstances he was induced to quit his native country," says Mr. Chalmers, "we have not discovered." From Cole's MS. collections we learn that he was Secretary to the Company of Merchants in Middleburgh, in 1617, and it was probably with a view of obtaining this situation that he left England. Poor Sylvester had few inducements to remain in his own country; his poetical talents only procured him fame and flattery, and on this diet, like many of his brethren, he found it very difficult to subsist.

Mr. Dunster, in his considerations on Milton's early reading, has very ingeniously, and in many instances successfully, endeavoured to prove the obligations of the writer of Paradise Lost to the poems of Sylvester. Sylvester undoubtedly enriched our language with some picturesque epithets. His characteristics of the sweet-numbered Homer, the clear-styled Herodotus, and the choice-termed Petrarch, are not more gracefully poetic than critically correct. The melody and richness of some of his pictures of nature entitled him to the appellation bestowed by his contemporaries, of the "silver-tongued." The rose-crowned Zephyrus, and the saffron-coloured bed of Aurora, are worthy of Theocritus or Anacreon. Perhaps the whole range of our poetry does not present a more exquisite descriptive couplet than the following:—

Arise betimes, while th' opal-coloured morn
In golden pomp doth May-day's door adorn.