1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Christopher Pitt

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 24:534-35.



CHRISTOPHER PITT, an English poet, was born in 1699 at Blandford, the son of a physician much esteemed. He was, in 1714, received as a scholar into Winchester college, where he was distinguished by exercises of common elegance; and, at his removal to New college in 1719, presented to the electors, as the product of his private and voluntary studies, a complete version of Lucan's poem, which he did not then know to have been translated by Rowe. This is an instance of early diligence which well deserves to be recorded. The suppression of such a work, recommended by such uncommon circumstances, is to be regretted. It is indeed culpable, to load libraries with superfluous books; but incitements to early excellence are never superfluous, and from this example the danger is not great of many imitations. When he had resided at his college three years, he was presented to the rectory of Pimpern in Dorsetshire, 1722, by his relation, Mr. Pitt of Stratfeildsea in Hampshire; and, resigning his fellowship, continued at Oxford two years longer, till he became M.A. 1724. He probably about this time translated "Vida's Art of Poetry," which Tristram's elegant edition had then made popular. In this translation he distinguished himself, both by the general elegance of his style, and by the skilful adaptation of his numbers to the images expressed; a beauty which Vida has with great ardour enforced and exemplified. He then retired to his living, a place very pleasing by its situation, and therefore likely to excite the imagination of a poet; where he passed the rest of his life, reverenced for his virtue, and beloved for the softness of his temper, and the easiness of his manners. Before strangers he had something of the scholar's timidity and diffidence; but, when he became familiar, he was in a very high degree cheerful and entertaining. His general benevolence procured general respect; and he passed a life placid and honourable, neither too great for the kindness of the low, nor too low for the notice of the great. At what time he composed his "Miscellany," published in 1727, it is not easy nor necessary to know: those poems which have dates appear to have been very early productions. The success of his "Vida" animated him to a higher undertaking; and in his thirtieth year he published a version of the first book of the Aeneid. This being commended by his friends, he some time afterwards added three or four more; with an advertisement in which he represents himself as translating with great indifference, and with a progress of which himself was hardly conscious. At last, without any further contention with his modesty, or any awe of the name of Dryden, he gave a complete English "Aneid," which we advise our readers to peruse with that of Dryden. It will be pleasing to have an opportunity of comparing the two best translations that perhaps were ever produced by one nation of the same author. Pitt, engaging as a rival with Dryden, naturally observed his failures and avoided them; and, as he wrote after Pope's Iliad, he had an example of an exact, equable, and splendid versification. With these advantages, seconded by great diligence, he might successfully labour particular passages, and escape many errors. If the two versions are compared, perhaps the result will be, that Dryden leads the reader forward by his general vigour and sprightliness, and Pitt often stops him to contemplate the excellence of a single couplet; that Dryden's faults are forgotten in the hurry of delight, and that Pitt's beauties are neglected in the languor of a cold and listless perusal; that Pitt pleases the critics, and Dryden the people; that Pitt is quoted, and Dryden read. He did not long enjoy the reputation which this great work deservedly conferred; for he died April 15, 1748, and lies buried under a stone at Blandford, with an inscription, which celebrates his candour, and primitive simplicity of manners; and says that be lived innocent, and died beloved; an encomium neither slight nor common, though modestly expressed.