1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

George Chapman

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 1:210-11.



GEORGE CHAPMAN, the translator of Homer, wrote early and copiously for the stage. His first play, the Blind Beggar of Alexandria, was printed in 1598, the same year that witnessed Ben Jonson's first and masterly dramatic effort. Previous to this, Chapman had translated part of the Iliad; and his lofty fourteen-syllable rhyme, with such lines as the following, would seem to have promised a great tragic poet:—

From his bright helm and shield did burn a most unwearied fire,
Like rich Autumnus' golden lamp, whose brightness men admire,
Past all the ether host of stars, when with his cheerful face,
Fresh wash'd in lofty ocean waves, he doth the sky enchase.

The beauty of Chapman's compound Homeric epithets (quoted by Thomas Warton), as "silver-footed" Thetis, the "triple-feathered" helm, the "fair-haired" boy, "high-walled" Thebes, the "strong-winged" lance, &c., bear the impress of a poetical imagination, chaste yet luxuriant. But however spirited and lofty as a translator, Chapman proved but a heavy and cumbrous dramatic writer. He continued to supply the theatre with tragedies and comedies up to 1620, or later; yet of the sixteen that have descended to us, not one possesses the creative and vivifying power of dramatic genius. In didactic observation and description he is sometimes happy, and hence he has been praised for possessing "more thinking" than most of his contemporaries of the buskined muse. His judgment, however, vanished in action, for his plots are unnatural, and his style was too hard and artificial to admit of any nice delineation of character. His extravagances are also as bad as those of Marlow, and are seldom relieved by poetic thoughts or fancy. The best known plays of Chapman are Eastward Hoe (written in conjunction with Jonson and Marston), Bussy D'Ambois, Byron's Conspiracy, All Fools, and the Gentleman Usher. In a sonnet prefixed to "All Fools," and addressed to Walsingham, Chapman states that he was "mark'd by age for aims of greater weight.' This play was written in 1599. It contains the following fanciful lines:—

I tell thee love is Nature's second sun,
Causing a spring of virtues where he shines:
And as without the sun, the world's great eye,
All colours, beauties both of art and nature,
Are given in vain to men; so, without love,
All beauties bred in women are in vain,
All virtues bred in men lie buried;
Far love informs them as the sun doth colours.

In "Bussy D'Ambois" is the following invocation for a Spirit of Intelligence, which has been highly lauded by Charles Lamb:—

I long to know
How my dear mistress fares, and be inform'd
What hand she now holds on the troubled blood
Of her incensed lord. Methought the spirit,
When he had utter'd his perplex'd presage,
Threw his chang'd count'nance headlong into clouds:
His forehead bent, as he would hide his face
He knock'd his chin against his darken'd breast,
And struck a churlish silence through his powers.
Terror of darkness! O thou king of flames!
That with thy music-footed horse dost strike
The clear light out of crystal on dark earth;
And hurl'st instinctive fire about the world:
Wake, wake the drowsy and enchanted night
That sleeps with dead eyes in this heavy riddle.
Or thou, great prince of shades, where never sun
Sticks his far-darted beams; whose eyes are made
To see in darkness, and see ever best
Where sense is blindest: open now the heart
Of thy abashed oracle, that, for fear
Of some ill it includes, would fain lie hid:
And rise thou with it in thy greater light.

The life of Chapman was a scene of content and prosperity. He was born at Hitching Hill, in Hertfordshire, in 1557; was educated both at Oxford and Cambridge; enjoyed the royal patronage of King James and Prince Henry, and the friendship of Spenser, Jonson, and Shakspeare. He was temperate and pious, and, according to Oldys, "preserved, in his conduct, the true dignity of poetry, which he compared to the flower of the sun, that disdains to open its leaves to the eye of a smoking taper." The life of this venerable scholar and poet closed in 1634, at the ripe age of seventy-seven.

Chapman's Homer is a wonderful work, considering the time when it was produced, and the continued spirit which is kept up. Marlow had succeeded in the fourteen-syllable verse, but only in select passages of Ovid and Musaeus. Chapman had a vast field to traverse, and though he trod it hurriedly and negligently, he preserved the fire and freedom of his great original. Pope and Waller both praised his translation, and perhaps it is now more frequently in the hands of scholars and poetical students than the more polished and musical version of Pope. Chapman's translations consist of the "Iliad" (which he dedicated to Prince Henry), the "Odyssey" (dedicated to the royal favourite Carr, Earl of Somerset), and the "Georgics of Hesiod," which he inscribed to Lord Bacon. A version of "Hero and Leander," left unfinished by Marlow, was completed by Chapman, and published in 1606.