By far the best-known translation of the "Jerusalem Delivered," of Tasso, is Mr. Hoole's. It has appeared, and still appears, in editions of all sizes; and is gathered, as a matter of course, into collections of the British Poets. The sole reason of this is, not that Mr. Hoole translated the work, but that his original was Tasso. It is the name of Tasso, solely, that has carried him on from generation to generation, like a corpse attached to the immortal spirit of the Italian, and making it dull with the burden.
The re-publication, in various quarters, of the finer translation by Fairfax, will doubtless help to detach one idea from the other; but as Mr. Hoole's version has also been often reprinted of late, and as Fairfax himself presents some difficulties in the way of popularity, a few observations on the two works may not be useless in furthering the public interests of poetry.
Hoole is a singular example of the popularity which a man may obtain, by taking up a great author to translate, with whom he has nothing in common, and merely subserving to the worst taste of the times. It was lucky for this gentleman, that he had the period he wrote in, almost all to himself. There was not a single real poet surviving, except Cowper. — Gray, Armstrong, Akenside, Collins, Churchill, — every body was gone who was likely to detect him publicly; and the age, in every respect, was then in the fulness of its poetical emptiness. The French school was in its last weedy exuberance. The apprentices and their mistresses, in their pretty transparent Acrostic masks, walked forth by hundreds to meet each other in Poet's Corner in the magazines; and as nobody knew any thing about poetry, except that it had to repeat "ingenious" common-places, to rhyme upon heart, improve, love, prove, &c., and to pause, as Pope did, upon the fourth and fifth syllables, every body could write poetry, and admit it in others: Pope, whose real merits they did not understand after all, was the greatest poet that ever lived; next to him were Goldsmith, and Collins, and Gray; the two latter, however, were very little understood: then, or, perhaps, before them, was Dr. Johnson, whom our master at school gave us as a poetical model: then came, in their respective circles, though at due distance, Mr. Jenkins, Mr. Tomkins, or Mr. Hopkins, who wrote lines on the beautiful Miss Y. of Bristol, or the charming Miss Z. of Fish Street Hill; and nothing was wanting to make such a person as Mr. Hoole a great and popular writer with those gentlemen and ladies, but that he should write a great quantity of verses; which he accordingly did.
That Dr. Johnson should speak a good word for Mr. Hoole, much less write a Dedication for him, is not surprising; though what a poet must he be, who goes to another to write a Dedication for him! Johnson was in the habit of writing Dedications for those who were conscious of not being good turners of a prose paragraph, and who wished to approach, the great with a proper one; and Mr. Hoole, it seems, was among these modest persons, though he did not scruple to approach Tasso and Ariosto with his poetry. The Dedication, which is to the late Queen, and which expresses a wish that Tasso had lived in a happier time, and experienced from the descendants of the House of Este, "a more liberal and potent patronage," is elegant and to the purpose. The good word is a mere word, and very equivocal besides. Johnson, who is now pretty generally understood not to have been so good a critic in poetry, as he was strong in general understanding, and justly eminent in some respects, might have been very capable of applauding a translation upon Mr. Hoole's principles; but it is more than to be suspected, that he would have desired a higher order of workmanship out of the manufactory. Hoole was a pitch too low for his admiration, though it appeared he had private qualities sufficient to secure his good wishes; and even those, there is good reason to conclude, could not have prevented a feeling of contempt for a translator of great poets, who could come to him for a Dedication. When Boswell, in one of his maudlin fits of adulation, affected to consider something with Goldsmith's name to it as supplied by the Doctor, the latter could not restrain his scorn; and said, that Goldsmith would no more come to him for a paragraph, than he would to be fed with a pap-spoon. And it is curious to observe, after all, how, and in what place, Johnson has said his good word for our translator. It is at the end of the Life of Waller, and amounts to this coy prophecy; — that Fairfax's work, "after Mr. Hoole's translation, will not soon be reprinted."