1826 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Edward Fairfax

Richard Ryan, in Poetry and Poets: being a Collection of the choicest Anecdotes relative to the Poets of every Age and Nation (1826) 1:85-88.



EDWARD FAIRFAX led a life which a brother poet might envy. He was of a distinguished family, the same as that of Fairfax, the Parliament General; and having an estate of his own, and the greater estates of leisure and genius, he passed the whole of his days at a seat in the Forest of Knaresborough, in the bosom of his family, and in the cultivation of poetry. He appears to have had all, and more than a poet wants, — tranquility, a fortune beyond competence, books, rural scenes, and an age that could understand him. He flourished just at the close of that golden period, that height and strong summer-time of our poetry, when language, wisdom, and imagination were alike at their noblest, and thoughts were poured forth as profusely as words have been since. He was inclined to the music of verse; and the age was full of music, of every species; — he was of a romantic, and, most probably, superstitious turn of mind; and popular superstitions were still more in favour, than during the preceding era; — he had, perhaps, something of the indolence of a man of fortune; and, in the course of his Italian luxuries, he met with a poet, whose tendencies were like his own, and who was great enough to render the task of translation honorable as well as delightful.

He accordingly produced a version of Tasso, which we do not say is equal to the original, or at all exempt from errors which a future translator (always provided he is a poet too) may avoid; but which we, nevertheless, do not hesitate to pronounce the completest translation, and most like its original, of any we have ever seen.

We do not wonder that Collins was fond of this author, and Fairfax, his translator, since Johnson has told us, in that piece of prose music of his, that "he loved fairies, genii, and monsters," — that "he delighted to rove through the meanders of enchantment, to gaze on the magnificence of golden palaces, and to repose by the water-falls of Elysium." Collins has given Fairfax a high and proud eulogy, in his Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands. — Speaking of Tasso, he says,

How have I sat, when piped the pensive wind,
To hear his harp by British Fairfax strung,
Prevailing poet! whose undoubting mind
Believed the magic wonders which he sung:—

And then he goes on in a strain of softness and luxury, that seems inspired by the object of his praise. Yet Collins, be it observed, was an accomplished scholar, and quite conversant with the merits of the original. Indeed, that was one great cause of his eulogy. Waller, who appears to have known Italian, and Dryden, who, undoubtedly, did so, were both great admirers of Fairfax. Waller professed to have "derived the harmony of his numbers" from him; and so did Dryden, if a reported speech of his to the Duke of Buckingham is to be taken for granted. He gives him high praise at any rate, and joins him with Spenser as "great masters in our language." But his greatest title to regard, on the score of authority, comes from Milton, who, when he borrowed from Tasso, took care to look at Fairfax also, and to add now and then something from him by the way.