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This declaration of Dryden will, I am afraid, be found little more than one of those cursory civilities which one author pays to another; for when the sum of Lord Roscommon's precepts is collected, it will not be easy to discover how they can qualify their reader for a better performance of translation than might have been attained by his own reflections.
He that can abstract his mind from the elegance of the poetry, and confine it to the sense of the precepts, will find no other direction than that the author should be suitable to the translator's genius; that he should be such as may deserve a translation ; that he who intends to translate him should endeavour to understand him ; that perspicuity should be studied, and unusual and uncouth names sparingly inserted ; and that the style of the original should be copied in its elevation and depression. These are the rules that are celebrated as so definite and important, and for the delivery of which to mankind so much honour has been paid. Roscommon has indeed deserved his praises, had they been given with discernment; and bestowed not on the rules themselves, but the art with which they are introduced, and the decorations with which they are adorned.
The essay, though generally excellent, is not without its faults. The story of the quack, borrowed from Boileau, was not worth the importation. He has confounded the British and Saxon mythology :
“I grant that from some mossy idol oak,
In double rhymes, our Thor and Woden spoke.” The oak, as I think Gildon has observed, belonged to the British Druids, and Thor and Woden were Saxon deities. Of the double rhymes, which he so liberally supposes, he certainly had no knowledge.
His interposition of a long paragraph of blank verses is unwarrantably licentious. Latin poets might as well have introduced a series of iambics among their heroics.
His next work is the translation of the Art of Poetry; which has received, in my opinion, not less praise than it deserves. Blank verse, left merely to its numbers, has little operation either on the ear or mind : it can hardly support itself without bold figures and striking images. A poem frigidly didactic, without rhyme, is so near to prose, that the reader only scorns it for pretending to be verse.
Having disentangled himself from the difficulties of rhyme, he may justly be expected to give the sense of Horace with great exactness, and to suppress no subtlety of sentiment for the difficulty of expressing it. This demand, however, his translation will not satisfy; what he found obseure, I do not know that he has ever cleared.
Among his smaller works, the Eclogue of Virgil and the Dies irce are well translated ; though the best line in the Dies irce is borrowed from Dryden. In return, succeeding poets have borrowed from Roscommon.
At the desire of the Duke of Ormond, he translated into French Dr. Sherlock's discourse on passive obedience, entitled The Case of Resistance of the Supreme Powers.
* In the verses on the Lap-Dog, the pronouns 'thou' and 'you' are offensively confounded, and the turn at the end is from Waller.
His versions of the two odes of Horace are made with great liberty, which is not recompensed by much elegance or vigour.
His political verses are sprightly, and when they were written must have been very popular.
Of the scene of Guarini, and the prologue of Pompey, Mrs. Philips, in her letters to Sir Charles Cotterel, has given the history.
“Lord Roscommon,” says she, “is certainly one of the most promising young noblemen in Ireland. He has paraphrased a psalm admirably; and a scene of Pastor Fido very finely, in some places much better than Sir Richard Fanshaw. This was undertaken merely in compliment to me, who happened to say that it was the best scene in Italian, and the worst in English. He was only two hours about it. It begins thus :
Dear happy groves, and you the dark retreat
From these lines, which are since somewhat mended, it appears that he did not think a work of two hours fit to endure the eye of criticism without revisal.*
When Mrs. Philips was in Ireland, some ladies that had seen her translation of Pompey resolved to bring it on the stage at Dublin ; and, to promote their design, Lord Roscommon gave them a prologue, and Sir Edward Dering an epilogue; “which," says she, “ are the best performances of those kinds I ever saw.” If this is not criticism, it is at least gratitude. The thought of bringing Cæsar and Pompey into Ireland, the only country over which Cæsar never had any power, is lucky.
Of Roscommon's works the judgment of the public seems to be right. He is elegant, but not great; he never labours after exquisite beauties, and he seldom falls into gross faults. His versification is smooth, but rarely vigorous; and his rhymes are remarkably exact. He improved taste, if he did not enlarge knowledge, and may be numbered among the benefactors to English literature. +
* “ First Mulgrave rose, Roscommon next, like light
To clear our darkness, and to guide our flight;
Lord Lansdowne's Essay upon Unnatural Flights in Poetry. + A portion of his lordship’s Ode upon Solitude may afford a fair specimen of the few original poems which he left behind him :
" Hail, sacred Solitude! From this calm bay
And with wise pride despise
All those senseless vanities.
(1636-1713.) Thomas Spratt was born in 1636, at Tallaton in Devonshire, the son of a clergyman; and having been educated, as he tells of himself, not at Westminster or Eton, but at a little school by the churchyardside, became a commoner of Wadham College in Oxford ; and, being chosen scholar next year, proceeded through the usual academical course, and in 1657 became master of arts. He obtained a fellowship, and commenced poet.
In 1659 his poem on the death of Oliver was published, with those of Dryden and Waller. In his dedication to Dr. Wilkins, he appears a very willing and liberal encomiast both of the living and the dead. He implores his patron's excuse of his verses, both as falling “ so infinitely below the full and sublime genius of that excellent poet who made this way of writing free of our nation,” and being
so little equal and proportioned to the renown of a prince on whom they were written: such great actions and lives deserving to be the subject of the noblest pens and most divine fancies.” He proceeds : “ Having so long experienced your care and indulgence, and been formed, as it were, by your own hands, not to entitle you to any thing which my meanness produces would be not only injustice, but sacrilege.”I
He published the same year a poem on the Plague of Athens; a subject of which it is not easy to say what could recommend it. To these he added afterwards a poem on Mr. Cowley's death.
After the Restoration he took orders, and by Cowley's recom
Unhappy men, or adverse fate,
† " Aptly named Sprat, as being one of the least among the poets."-Southey.
# He acquired the name of the Pindaric Sprat by this poem, as Mr. Wood relates, but had reason to be ashamed of the title; and no doubt was heartily sick, after the Restoration, of all the reputation this poem had gained him, since it then exposed him to great contempt and insult, and to the severities of every writer who either disliked his person or his principles. “I shall not,” says the famous Henry Stubbe, in a piece written against Sprat's History of the Royal Society, “I shall not have any Pindaric ode in the press, dedicated to the happy memory of the most renowned Prince Oliver, Lord Protector ;' nothing to recommend the 'sacred urn' of that blessed spirit to the veneration of posterity, as if
His fame, like man, the elder it doth grow,
Without what needless art can do.' I never compared that regicide to Moses, or his son to Joshua, when other men's flatteries did exarbitate," &c.
mendation was made chaplain to the Duke of Buckingham, whom he is said to have helped in writing The Rehearsal. He was likewise chaplain to the king.
As he was the favourite of Wilkins, at whose house began those philosophical conferences and inquiries which in time produced the Royal Society, he was consequently engaged in the same studies, and became one of the fellows: and when, after their incorporation, something seemed necessary to reconcile the public to the new institution, he undertook to write its history, which he published in 1667. This is one of the few books which selection of sentiment and elegance of diction have been able to preserve, though written upon a subject flux and transitory. The History of the Royal Society is now read, not with the wish to know what they were then doing, but how their transactions are exhibited by Sprat.
In the next year he published Observations on Sorbière's Voyage into England, in a Letter to Mr. Wren. This is a work not ill performed, but perhaps rewarded with at least its full proportion of praise.
In 1668 he published Cowley's Latin poems, and prefixed in Latin the life of the author, which he afterwards amplified and placed before Cowley's English works, which were by will committed to his care.
Ecclesiastical benefices now fell fast upon him. In 1668 he became a prebendary of Westminster, and had afterwards the church of St. Margaret, adjoining to the abbey. He was in 1680 made canon of Windsor ; in 1683, dean of Westminster; and in 1684, Bishop of Rochester.
The court having thus a claim to his diligence and gratitude, he was required to write the history of the Rye-house Plot; and in 1685 published A true Account and Declaration of the horrid Conspiracy against the late King, his present Majesty, and the present Government; a performance which he thought convenient, after the Revolution, to extenuate and excuse.
The same year, being clerk of the closet to the king, he was made dean of the chapel royal; and the year afterwards received the last proof of his master's confidence, by being appointed one of the commissioners for ecclesiastical affairs. On the critical day when the Declaration distinguished the true sons of the Church of England, he stood neuter, and permitted it to be read at Westminster, but pressed none to violate his conscience; and when the Bishop of London was brought before them, gave his voice in his favour.
Thus far he suffered interest or obedience to carry him ; but further he refused to go. When he found that the powers of the ecclesiastical commission were to be exercised against those who had refused the Declaration, he wrote to the lords and other commissioners a formal profession of his unwillingness to exercise that authority any longer, and withdrew himself from them. After they had read his letter, they adjourned for six months, and scarcely ever met afterwards.
When King James was frighted away, and a new government was to be settled, Sprat was one of those who considered in a conference the great question, Whether the crown was vacant ? and manfully spoke in favour of his old master..
He complied, however, with the new establishment, and was left unmolested; but in 1692 a strange attack was made upon him by one Robert Young and Stephen Blackhead, both men convicted of infamous crimes, and both, when the scheme was laid, prisoners in Newgate. These men drew up an association, in which they whose names were subscribed declared their resolution to restore King James, to seize the Princess of Orange dead or alive, and to be ready with 30,000 men to meet King James when he should land. To this they put the names of Sancroft, Sprat, Marlborough, Salisbury, and others. The copy of Dr. Sprat's name was obtained by a fictitious request, to which an answer in his own hand was desired. His hand was copied so well, that he confessed it might have deceived himself. Blackhead, who had carried the letter, being sent again with a plausible message, was very curious to see the house, and particularly importunate to be let into the study, where, as is supposed, he designed to leave the association. This, however, was denied him, and he dropped it in a flower-pot in the parlour.
Young now laid an information before the Privy Council ; and May 7, 1692, the bishop was arrested, and kept at a messenger's under a strict guard eleven days. His house was searched, and directions were given that the flower-pots should be inspected. The messengers, however, missed the room in which the paper was left. Blackhead went, therefore, a third time, and finding his paper where he had left it, brought it away.
The bishop, having been enlarged, was, on June the 10th and 13th, examined again before the Privy Council, and confronted with his accusers. Young persisted with the most obdurate impudence, against the strongest evidence; but the resolution of Blackhead by degrees gave way. There remained at last no doubt of the bishop's innocence, who, with great prudence and diligence, traced the progress and detected the characters of the two informers, and published an account of his own examination and deliverance; which made such an impression upon him, that he commemorated it through life by a yearly day of thanksgiving.
With what hope or what interest the villains had contrived an accusation which they must know themselves utterly unable to prove, was never discovered.
After this he passed his days in the quiet exercise of his function. When the cause of Sacheverell put the public in commotion, he honestly appeared among the friends of the Church. He lived to his seventy-ninth year, and died May 20, 1713.
Burnet is not very favourable to his memory; but he and Burnet were old rivals.* On some public occasion they both preached before the House of Commons. There prevailed in those days an indecent custom : when the preacher touched any favourite topic in a manner that delighted his audience, their approbation was expressed by a loud “hum,” continued in proportion to their zeal or pleasure.
* Bishop Burnet says of him, that “his parts were very bright in his youth, and gave great hopes, but were blasted by a lazy libertine course of life, to which his temper and good-nature carried him, without considering the duties, or even the decencies, of his profession. He was justly esteemed,” adds he, “ a great master of our language, and one of our correctest writers."