1860 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Joshua Sylvester

George Gilfillan, in Specimens with Memoirs of the less-known British Poets (1860) 1:157-58.



JOSHUA SYLVESTER is the next in the list of our imperfectly-known, but real poets. Very little is known of his history. He was a merchant-adventurer, and died at Middleburg, aged fifty-five, in 1618. He is said to have applied, in 1697, for the office of secretary to a trading company in Stade, and to have been, on this occasion, patronised by the Earl of Essex. He was at one time attached to the English Court as a pensioner of Prince Henry. He is said to have been driven abroad by the severity of his satires. He seems to have had a sweet flow of conversational eloquence, and hence was called "The Silver-tongued." He was an eminent linguist, and wrote his dedications in various languages. He published a large volume of poems, very unequal in their value, and inserted in it The Soul's Errand, with interpolations, as we have seen, which prove it not to be his own. His great work is the translation of the Divine Weeks and Works of the French poet, Du Bartas, which is a marvellous medley of flatness and force — of childish weakness and soaring genius — with more seed poetry in it than any poem we remember, except Festus, the chaos of a hundred poetic worlds. There can be little doubt that Milton was familiar with this work in boyhood, and many remarkable coincidences have been pointed out between it and Paradise Lost. Sylvester was a Puritan, and his publisher, Humphrey Lownes, who lived in the same street with Milton's father, belonged to the same sect; and, as Campbell remarks, "it is easily to be conceived that Milton often repaired to the shop of Lownes, and there met with the pious didactic poem." The work, therefore, some specimens of which we subjoin, is interesting, both in itself, and as having been the prima stamina of the great masterpiece of English poetry.