1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Joshua Sylvester

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 29:85-86.



JOSHUA SYLVESTER, the laborious and quaint translator of Du Bartas, was born in 1563, and died September 8, 1618. His death happened at Middleburg in Holland. By what circumstances he was induced, or compelled, to quit his native country we have not discovered; but John Vicars, his friend, who styles him "the best of Poets," speaks of it as a reproach to his country.

And hadst thou dy'd at home it had been better;
It would (at least) have giv'n thee much content;
But herein England's worthy to be shent,
Which to thy worth did prove so had a debtor.
Nor minde I this, but then I blush for shame,
To think, that though a cradle thee it gave,
Yet (O unkinde) deny'd thy corps a grave;
Much more a statue reared to thy name.

He was, in 1597, a candidate for the office of secretary to the company of merchant adventurers at Stade, of which he was a member; on which occasion the unfortunate earl of Essex interested himself in his favour, and wrote two letters in his behalf, dated from the court on the last of April; a private one to Mr. Ferrers, the deputy-governor, recommending Mr. Sylvester as an able and honest man; and a general one to the company, to the same purpose, in which he mentions that he had received a very good report of his sufficiency and fitness for the post of secretary, being both well qualified with language, and many other good parts, and honest and of good conversation; two especial motives of his lordship's request in his behalf. Sylvester's translation of Du Bartas is dedicated to king James; and among those who pay him the highest compliments appears Ben Jonson, whom tradition makes an intimate friend, and, as some think, a relation. He translated also the Quatrains of Pibrac, and many other pieces of French poetry; with some from the Latin of Fracastorius, &c. One of his own pieces has the ridiculously quaint title of "Tobacco battered, and the pipes shattered, (about their ears that idlely idolize so base and barbarous a weed; or at least-wise over-love so loathsome a vanitie:) by a volley of holy shot thundered from mount Helicon." This may be supposed to have been written to please the great enemy of tobacco, James I. Not much can now be said in favour of his compositions, either the translations, or those that are original, although he gained greater reputation from the former than the latter. Dryden tells us, in the Dedication to the Spanish Fryar, that "when he was a boy, he thought inimitable Spenser a mean poet, in comparison of Sylvester's Dubartas," and "was wrapt into an ecstacy" when he read these lines:

Now when the winter's keener breath began
To crystallize the Baltic ocean;
To glaze the lakes, to bridle up the floods,
And periwig with snow the bald-pate woods.

He seems to have been always in great poverty, and very earnest in courting the great for relief. He appears, in a dedication to the parliament, to allude to some person of the name of Bowyer, as the cause of his ruin; for he subscribes,

Your under-clarke, unworthily undon
By over trusting to a starting Bow-
Yer — while too strong, to my poor wrong and woe.

He was apparently much admired in his time, and yet was neglected; so that the most probable cause for his exile was the fear of a gaol at home.