1826 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Abraham Cowley

Richard Ryan, in Poetry and Poets: being a Collection of the choicest Anecdotes relative to the Poets of every Age and Nation (1826) 3:152-54.



In the time of the late civil wars, King Charles I. was at leisure for a little diversion. A motion was made to go to the Sortes Virgilianae; that is, to take a Virgil, and either with the finger, or sticking a pin, or the like, upon any verses, at a venture, and the verses touched shall declare his destiny that toucheth, which sometimes makes sport, and at other times is significant, nor not, as the gamesters choose to apply. The King laid his finger on the place towards the latter end of the fourth Aeneid, which contains Dido's curse to Aeneas:

At bello audacis populi vexatus et armis,
Finibus extortis, complexu avulsus Iuli.
Auxilium imploret, videatque indigna suorum
Funera; nec quum se sub leges pacis iniquae
Tradiderit, regno aut optata luce fruatur,
Sed cadat ante diem, mediaque inhumatus arena!

This made the sport end in vexation, as much as it began in merriment: the King read the fate which followed him in too many particulars, as time discovered. He was then, and afterwards, "vexed with the conquering arms of his subjects"; he would have been glad to have escaped with "banishment"; "he was torn from his son, the Prince"; he saw the "deaths of most of his friends"; he would gladly have "made peace" (at the Isle of Wight) upon "hard terms"; he neither "enjoyed his crown nor life long," but was "beheaded on a scaffold" before his own door, "and God knows where buried!" Mr. Cowley was desired to translate the above lines into English (without being informed that the King had drawn them), which he did, as follows:

By a bold people's stubborn arms oppress'd,
Forc'd to forsake the land which he possess'd;
Torn from his dearest son, let him in vain
Beg help, and see his friends unjustly slain:
Let him to base unequal terms submit,
In hopes to save his crown, yet lose both it
And life at once: untimely let him die,
And on an open stage unburied lie!

Lord Falkland and some others were with the King at the time.

This anecdote is taken from the first leaf of Bishop Wilkins's Virgil, where it is written in his own hand-writing.