1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Joshua Sylvester

Thomas Campbell, in "Essay on English Poetry" Specimens of the British Poets (1819; 1841) lxix.



Joshua Sylvester's version of the Divine Weeks and Works of the French poet Dubartas was among the most popular of our early translations; and the obligations which Milton is alleged to have owed to it, have revived Sylvester's name with some interest in modern criticism. Sylvester was a puritan, and so was the publisher of his work, Humphrey Lownes, who lived in the same street with Milton's father; and from the congeniality of their opinions, it is not improbable that they might be acquainted. It is easily to be conceived that Milton often repaired to the shop of Lownes, and there first met with the pious didactic poem. Lauder was the earliest to trace Milton's particular thoughts and expressions to Sylvester; and, as might be expected, maliciously exaggerated them. Later writers took up the subject with a very different spirit. Mr. Todd, the learned editor of Spenser, noticed in a number of the Gentleman's Magazine [November 1796], the probability of Milton's early acquaintance with the translation of Dubartas's poem; and Mr. Dunster has since, in his Essay on Milton's early reading, supported the opinion, that the same work contains the "prima stamina" of Paradise Lost, and laid the first foundation of that "monumentum aere perennius." Thoughts and expressions there certainly are in Milton, which leave his acquaintance with Sylvester hardly questionable; although some of the expressions quoted by Mr. Dunster, which are common to them both, may be traced back to other poets older than Sylvester. The entire amount of his obligations, as Mr. Dunster justly admits, cannot detract from our opinion of Milton. If Sylvester ever stood high in his favour, it must have been when he was very young. The beauties which occur so strangely intermixed with bathos and flatness in Sylvester's poem, might have caught the youthful discernment, and long dwelt in the memory, of the great poet. But he must have perused it with disgust at Sylvester's general manner. Many of his epithets and happy phrases were really worthy of Milton; but by far the greater proportion of his thoughts have a quaintness and flatness more worthy of Quarles and Wither.