[To Anna Seward, 7 May 1792; on early poets.]

Memoir of the Rev. Henry Francis Cary, M.A., Translator of Dante. With his Literary Journal and Letters. 2 Vols [Henry Cary, ed.]

Rev. Henry Francis Cary

Oxford undergraduate Henry Francis Cary, later famous as the translator of Dante, defends the Italian School of poetry to his patron Anna Seward. She had written to Cary, "The taste for Italian poetry, you have well defended by example; — but I have always understood that modern Italian poetry is much degenerated; that it is disgraced by quaint ideas, and by playing with particular words, and bandying them about from line to line. This is a practice which always disgusts me, even when I find it in Spenser and Shakespeare" 16 March 1790; in Seward, Letters, ed. Scott (1811) 2:393.

See her reply to Cary's letter, dated 29 May 1792. Anna Seward never did come around; Cary wrote to her 16 August 1806: "Your opinion of Dante I do not attempt to controvert. It is so much a matter of taste, that I am sure it would be vain to say anything on the subject. Together with Chaucer and Spenser, it will ever be to you, as 'caviare to the multitude,' and as Ossian is to me" Memoir, 2:227.

Leigh Hunt: "We are much more likely to get at a real poetical taste through the Italian than through the French school, — through Spenser, Milton, and Ariosto, than Pope, Boileau, and their followers; the former will teach us to vary our music and to address ourselves more directly to nature; but nature herself is, of course, the great and perfecting mistress, without whom we become either eccentric pretenders, or danglers after inferior beauty, or repeaters, at best, of her language at second hand" note to Feast of the Poets (1814) 56-57.

Oliver Elton: "No more solid monument of English verse was built up during the early years of the [nineteenth] century than the translation of the Divine Comedy, called The Vision of Dante, by the Rev. Henry Francis Cary (1772-1844). Already, in the Gentleman's Magazine, Cary had shared with Bowles in the timid revival of the sonnet-form; and his versions of Italian sonnets and lyrics, to be found in the notes of his greater work, are admirably turned and among the earliest of the kind. While a Christ Church undergraduate, he had begun to study Dante as well as Dante's authorities, contemporaries, and followers, with a thoroughness that had then no parallel in England, or perhaps elsewhere; and in 1805-6 he published the Inferno in blank verse along with the Italian text. Its excellence was awhile unregarded, but in 1814 Cary, at his own cost, produced his version (with commentary) of the whole Comedy. It now caught the notice of the poets. Moore named it to Rogers, who, as he informs us, told Wordsworth, who told Coleridge. An article in the Edinburgh Review in 1817, by Ugo Foscolo and Mackintosh, and probably also a lecture by Coleridge, brought the work into note, and its fame was soon assured. Editions followed, and in 1844 Cary published his final revision. Dante lore has swelled in the last seventy years; but some of the best modern scholars have attested Cary's soundness of judgment and the wide sweep and pertinence of his erudition. Equal honour must be paid to his work as a poem, despite the unending stream of verse translations that has flowed since his day" Survey of English Literature 1780-1930 (1912) 2:258-59.

Dear Madam,

As I expect my father will soon pass through this place, I take the opportunity of sending a line by him to thank you for your kindness in remembering me in your letter to Smith. The extract from some critic who pretends to write about Italian poetry, which I thought you seemed more pleased with than it deserved, was read to me. I much wonder that you should listen to the idea, that a fondness for Italian poetry is the corruption of our taste, when you cannot but recollect that our greatest English poets, Chaucer, Spenser, and Milton, have been professed admirers of the Italians, and that the sublimer province of poetry, imagination, has been more or less cultivated among us, according to the degree of estimation in which they have been held.

The poetry of the French is diametrically opposite to that of the Italians: the latter are full of sublimity, pathos, and imagination; the former of ethics, and descriptions of common life. No wonder then if Boileau descried a style of which he was so incapable to judge; no wonder if Addison, who, we are agreed, had little of the poet in his composition, charmed with the good sense of Boileau, so congenial to his own talents, echoed back his criticism; no wonder if Pope, in compliance with the judgment of his friend, leaving the wilds of fancy, as he himself says, turned himself to another walk of poetry in which he was so much more fitted to excel. But we have lately condescended to go back a little to our old masters, and to them and the Greek poets we owe all the best writers of our own times, Gray, Warton, Hayley, Mason, and thence one might perhaps say a Seward and a Williams. You must excuse this long tiresome piece of criticism, because I am pleading in defence of my own favorite fixed principles. Give a few months to the acquisition of Italian; go and see the wonders of Dante's Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso; remember what a vast interval of time there is between Homer and him; remember in what a state of country and age in which he lived, and how pure the language in which he wrote, and then abuse him, if you dare. . . .