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Wit's Treasury

In Wit's Treasury, Stephen Orgel, one of our foremost interpreters of Renaissance literature and culture, charts how the conflict between Christian principles and classical manners and morals yielded the rich creative tension out of which emerged an unprecedented flowering of English drama, lyric, and the arts.

Wit's Treasury
Renaissance England and the Classics

Stephen Orgel

Aug 2021 | 216 pages | Cloth $39.95
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Table of Contents

A Note on Quotations
Chapter 1. Classicizing England
Chapter 2. The Uses of Prosody
Chapter 3. The Sound of Classical
Chapter 4. What Classical Looks Like
Chapter 5. From Black Letter to Roman
Chapter 6. Staging the Classical
Chapter 7. Looking Backward

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Chapter 1
Classicizing England

My title alludes to Francis Meres's Palladis Tamia: Wits Treasury; Being the Second Part of Wits Commonwealth, published in 1598. The book has become famous for its early appreciation of Shakespeare, but its relevance to my project is its assumption that the way to praise contemporary English literature was by comparing it with that of Greece and Rome: through a "Comparative Discourse," Elizabethan England is declared part of Palladis Tamia, the treasure house of Pallas Athena. Tamia may also include a pun on the name of the river Thames, so an alternative title would be Athena's Thames. The parallel with the classics was repeatedly invoked in the period, but it was neither simple nor without ambivalence. Humanism came to England relatively late, and even then much classical scholarship was devoted to biblical exegesis and theology, rather than to the revival of what we think of as the classics. John Colet, Thomas More, and the visiting Erasmus were superb Latinists, but their Latin was a living language, the language of modern literature and philosophy. Nevertheless, Christian humanism emphasized the continuity of ancient wisdom with Christian doctrine, and Erasmus duly compared John Colet to Plato. But though Colet was thoroughly familiar with the modern Platonists Ficino and Pico, he devoted much of his critical energy to interpreting the Epistles of Saint Paul; and Erasmus's Greek for over two decades was put at the service of establishing a correct text of the New Testament, not of reviving ancient philosophy.

Greek was introduced into the English school curriculum after Colet refounded St. Paul's School in 1512. By midcentury it was being regularly taught in the grammar schools, but even by the end of the century, though it was a tremendously prestigious subject, few scholars were sufficiently at home with it to work without a translation at hand. Sir Thomas North's Plutarch was based on the French version of Jacques Amyot, and even the famously scholarly George Chapman used a Latin trot for his Homer. There was unquestionably a good deal of Greek in circulation—rhetorical terms, scientific names, aphorisms; schoolboys studied it, and Cambridge students were required to attend weekly lectures on Greek (Oxford students made fun of them). Nevertheless, the expression "it's all Greek to me" as a trope of incomprehensibility was already proverbial in Shakespeare's day—it appears in Julius Caesar (1599), and in Dekker's Patient Grissel (1603).

Recent scholarship has shown that England was heavily invested in classical translation, even in Anglo-Saxon times, though there was obviously no settled notion of what a classical style for English would be. But the larger question was always the really elusive one: what would it mean for the principles of humanism to inform literature in the vernacular—how could English literature become "classical," not only classical in imitating the ancients, but classical in the sense subsequently applied to music, classical as opposed to popular, classical as formal, serious, and therefore good. The literary forebears, Chaucer, Gower, Lydgate, continued to be admired, but they lacked "correctness." Nor do the exceptions rescue the English past: Sir Philip Sidney praises Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, but wonders at his ability to produce it: "I know not whether to mervaile more, either that he in that mistie time could see so clearely, or that wee in this cleare age walke so stumblingly after him." What should English literature look and sound like, what rules should it follow—how can we, in this clear age, not stumble? In short, how can we produce a vernacular literature that is recognizably classical, whether ancient works in translation or modern works on the classical model; make the classics our own; make our own classics? The problem for Sidney is epitomized in Spenser's Shepheardes Calender, which is praised, but also criticized because it does things that Theocritus and Virgil did not do. Similarly, English drama for Sidney is defective insofar as it does not emulate Greek and Roman drama. The models, the tradition, are essential.

And originality? This critic was himself surely one of the two most daringly original poets of his age (the other was Marlowe, who was also an excellent classicist), but an adequate defense of poetry required of it stringent constraints on the new, continual deference to the old. There is, however, an element of question-begging in Sidney's Apologie for Poetrie: what in the English sixteenth century would constitute being traditional, adhering to tradition? If the tradition is classical, what should classical imply? What elements could stamp a work of vernacular literature or drama or art as classical? What does English classical look like, or sound like? Sidney's own sense of the classical in the Apologie appears to us absurdly limited: English plays that do not observe the unities of time and place are said to be not simply incorrect, but incomprehensible; audiences are assumed to be radically unimaginative (so much for Antony and Cleopatra). And yet Sidney's critique of English sonnets—that as love poems most are failures because they would not persuade the beloved of the reality of the lover's passion—makes the success of the poetry dependent entirely on its effect on the listener or reader. Though the model is clearly Petrarch, the originals produce no set of rules; and Sidney's own sonnet sequence, while it admirably responds to the critique in the Apologie, departs significantly from any Petrarchan model, and explicitly rejects "poor Petrarch's long-deceasèd woes."

But the rejection of a model is also a way of deferring to it. Sidney, rejecting Petrarch, acknowledges the priority of the Italian model, how essential the Italian model is as something to respond to or react against. He substitutes his own woes for Petrarch's; the result, one could say, is a new Petrarchan sonnet sequence—Sidney becomes a new Petrarch. The invocation of Petrarch is an essential part of the narrative. A good deal of energy in the period went into the devising of strategies for becoming the new ancients in this way, strategies of translation and adaptation, and the invention of appropriately classical-sounding models for vernacular verse, the domestication of the classic.

How to Be Classical

The locus classicus, so to speak, was provided by the Earl of Surrey, who in the 1530s translated two books of the Aeneid in a style designed to be "classical," a poetic meter intended to serve as an English equivalent to Virgilian hexameters. The meter was what became known as blank verse, and strictly speaking, all that was Virgilian about it was that it was unrhymed. Surrey presumably considered pentameter "natural" to English, as hexameter was to Latin, though in fact the Latin hexameter was not "natural"; it was modeled on the Greek. The assumption was ultimately prophetic, but in the 1530s, it would have seemed very surprising, and the translations, though they must have circulated in manuscript, remained unpublished until well after Surrey's death.

Recent claims for Surrey's influence on Marlowe and Milton are surely unwarranted. When Marlowe translates nondramatic poetry he almost invariably uses couplets (the one exception is his Lucan, discussed below). The blank verse of his drama is for him an innovation, and judging from Hero and Leander, if the Virgilian Dido Queen of Carthage had been conceived as a little epic, rather than as a play, it would have been in couplets. It has been argued that Surrey is somewhere behind Milton's blank verse, but there was no edition of Surrey's Aeneid translation after 1557, and Milton's chief source is surely Shakespeare—Paradise Lost was originally conceived as a drama. David Norbrook has argued persuasively that Milton's model for the ten-book 1667 Paradise Lost is Lucan's ten-book revolutionary epic Pharsalia, but there is no evidence that Milton was aware of Marlowe's blank verse translation of Book 1 of Pharsalia, which was published in 1600 and not reissued. Arthur Gorges's and Thomas May's translations of Pharsalia (1614, 1629) are in couplets; and in any case Milton, fluent in Latin, would surely not have been working from translations. Milton's application of dramatic blank verse to epic was his own idea, not borrowed from anyone.

As for the blank verse of drama, Robert Cummings suggests that "somebody, possibly Marlowe" first introduced blank verse onto the stage in the 1580s. But Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton's Gorboduc (performed 1561, published 1565) is the first English play in blank verse, followed shortly by George Gascoigne and Francis Kinwelmersh's Jocasta (performed 1566, published 1575)—these are playwrights who actually might have been reading Surrey; and there are of course numerous lost plays from the period of which we can say nothing. Marlowe in the prologue to Tamburlaine does say he has rescued drama from the verse of "rhyming mother-wits," but what that implies is that he is either unaware of earlier blank-verse drama, or ignoring it; and doubtless the blank verse of Gorboduc and Jocasta, elite plays composed for court and academic audiences, had little influence on popular theater. Many of the lost plays of Marlowe's era would have been in the rhyming ballad measure of the perennial favorite Cambises—the old style remained popular on the popular stage—and Marlowe thinks of himself, not Surrey, as the reformer.

In 1554, seven years after Surrey's execution for treason, the printer John Day issued Surrey's translation of one book of the Aeneid, with the following explanation on the title page: "The fourth boke of Virgill, intreating of the love between Aeneas and Dido, translated into English, and drawne into a straunge metre by Henrye, late Earle of Surrey, worthy to be embraced." Blank verse in 1554 is "a strange [that is, foreign] meter," worth domesticating. Historians of prosody explain that the meter was foreign in that it was influenced by the Italian verso sciolto—unrhymed hendecasyllables; literally "free (or open) verse"—which by the sixteenth century was being used as an Italian equivalent to classical hexameters. But how strange it also was is clear from the bafflement registered by such contemporary critics as Roger Ascham, Gabriel Harvey, and William Webbe as late as the 1590s. Webbe says that Surrey "translated . . . some part of Virgil into verse indeed, but without regard of true quantity of syllables." Such critics assumed Surrey was attempting to write quantitatively (that is, with the meter determined not by stress, but by the length of syllables, as is the case in Greek and Latin poetry), or that he should have been doing so, and therefore, naturally, found all sorts of mistakes. For such readers, the only verse that sounded classical was quantitative verse, which did seem to have a real future in the English 1590s; Sidney in the Apologie argues for both the ancient and the modern systems, "there beeing in eyther sweetnes, and wanting in neither majesty," and intersperses a number of exemplary quantitative lyrics among the accentual poems included in the Arcadia. He also asserts, in a wonderful bit of linguistic imperialism, that "Truely the English, before any other vulgar language I know, is fit for both sorts"—he considers it superior to Latin as a language for poetry, and outclassed only by Greek.To those for whom quantitative verse alone was properly poetic, blank verse would certainly be "strange," but in fact, there was nothing foreign about it. Surrey may have been imitating versi sciolti, but he was writing in Chaucer's meter, simply without the rhyme. Possibly it was not recognized as Chaucer's meter because by the sixteenth century the culture had forgotten how to read Chaucer; Chaucer was perfectly regular in middle English, but sounded rough as pronunciation changed, and especially as the final e's were no longer sounded.

In 1557, three years after John Day's edition of Surrey's Aeneid IV, Richard Tottel issued, in the space of less than two months, what was essentially Surrey's complete works: both the second and fourth books of the Aeneid in blank verse, and two separate editions of Songes and Sonettes Written By the Ryght Honorable Lord Henry Howard, late Earle of Surrey, and other—the volume that has become known as Tottel's Miscellany. The principal "other" was Thomas Wyatt. Wyatt and Surrey were all at once major poets, but Surrey was the benchmark. Wyatt's irregular metrics were therefore duly revised to accord with Surrey's style. Tottel, that is, understood that Surrey's verse was "regular," and was not a bungled attempt at quantitative metrics.

Tottel clearly expected some resistance. In a brief and acerbic preface, he writes, "If perhappes some mislike the statelyness of style removed from the rude skil of common eares: I aske helpe of the learned to defende theyr learned frendes, the authors of this woorke: And I exhort the unlearned, by reading to learne to be more skilful, and to purge that swinelike grossenesse that maketh the sweete majerome [marjoram] not to smel to their delight." Pigs were said to hate the smell of marjoram—unsophisticated readers are pigs. Surrey's "stateliness of style" is something unfamiliar, but also educated and aristocratic. It is what English poetry should aspire to; as John Day had said, it is "worthy to be embraced." In contrast, Tottel's edition of the Aeneid translation makes no special claims. The title page says only "Certain Bokes of Virgiles Aeneis turned into English meter"—Tottel, unlike Day, markets blank verse not as "strange," but as English. And unlike the Songes and Sonnettes, Tottel's Aeneid edition has no apology or justification, no critical harangue, not even the usual dedicatory and commendatory verses. The poem begins at once, on the next leaf: this is, quite simply, English Virgil.

But English classicists, even those who were not attempting quantitative verse, were without exception unconvinced. Surrey's blank verse seems, in the history of English prosody, revolutionary, but it did not start a revolution; and blank verse was reinvented several times before it became a norm. What was really new about Surrey's Virgil, as James Simpson has brilliantly argued, was the elimination of the translator's voice, the abolition of fifteen hundred years of reading and commentary. The only voice in this work in sixteenth-century English purports to be that of Virgil.

In 1558, the year after Tottel published Surrey's Virgil, the first seven books of Thomas Phaer's Aeneid appeared. Phaer's English classical verse was fourteener couplets (the translation was eventually completed by Thomas Twine in 1584). In 1565 Arthur Golding's first four books of Ovid's Metamorphoses "Translated Oute of Latin into Englishe Meter" were published. Golding's English meter was again rhyming fourteeners. The complete translation appeared in 1567, and was continuously in print for half a century; the Elizabethan classical meter was essentially a ballad measure. By 1595 the verse could already be parodied by Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night's Dream, when Bottom suddenly breaks into a bit of old-fashioned classicism:

The raging rocks
And shivering shocks
Shall break the locks
Of prison gates;
And Phibbus' car
Shall shine from far,
And make and mar
The foolish fates. (1.2.27-34)

In 1621 Golding's Ovidian fourteeners were finally superseded not by blank verse, but by pentameter couplets, with the publication of the first five books of George Sandys's translation of the Metamorphoses, completed in 1626. This set the standard for English Ovid for the next two centuries. Sandys is Ovid in a style that looks to us recognizably neoclassical.

As for the Aeneid after Phaer, Richard Stanyhurst's version of the first four books in "English heroical verse" was first published in Leiden in 1582. English heroical verse in this case was quantitative hexameters—genuinely classical, though finally not English enough. A second edition was published in London in the next year, but there was no subsequent edition until antiquarians rediscovered it in the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, Stanyhurst's Aeneid marks a significant moment of transition, and we shall return to it.

The English Virgilian tradition may be said to have developed a norm when Ben Jonson, near the end of his play Poetaster (performed 1601), has Virgil recite a passage from the Aeneid, and his prosody was pentameter couplets. Although Phaer and Twine's Aeneid continued to be the standard translation (the last edition was in 1612), the pentameter couplet had become "classic."

Refiguring the Classics

The refiguring of the classics into English was not a novelty, and it did not begin with Surrey. The enduring prestige of translation in England may be gauged by Chaucer's claim that his Troilus and Criseyde is not original, but derives from the work of an otherwise unknown Roman poet named Lollius. The fictitious classical author provides a degree of authority missing from Chaucer's real source, Boccaccio's Filostrato—contemporary, not ancient; Italian, not Latin. A more puzzling example may indicate the prestige of specifically English translation: Marie de France claimed to have translated her Aesop not from the Greek, but from a version in Old English by Alfred the Great, a royal source. No trace of this work, nor any other reference to it, survives.

But pervasive as the knowledge of the classics surely was in medieval England, translation was neither systematic nor comprehensive. To begin with, as Stephen Medcalf points out, "As long as to be literate normally involved belonging to the clergy, whose language was Latin, the Latin classics were a literary heritage to be retold, continued or imitated, like the Aeneid in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, but there was no great point in translating them." Here, in addition to the examples already discussed, are the highlights up to 1600, including a few surprises. The principal surviving Anglo-Saxon example is a Boethius from the ninth or tenth century. There are in addition saints' lives, and an adaptation of Lactantius. But there was also a fragment of an eleventh-century Old English translation of the Greek romance Apollonius of Tyre, which suggests that there was a good deal more of which we have no record (and there certainly may have been an Aesop).

According to Rita Copeland, the most widely adapted ancient authors in medieval England were (in addition to Boethius, Virgil, and some Ovid) Statius and Lucan. These two poets may provide a good index to how much of a transformation humanism effected on the canon: the first printed English edition of Lucan was not published until 1589 (which means, probably after Marlowe did his translation), the second in 1618; and the first English edition of Statius did not appear until 1651. Nevertheless, Stuart Gillespie observes that Statius's influence throughout the English Renaissance was pervasive, and "as late a figure as Pope considers Statius 'of the old Latin poets . . . next in merit to those of the Augustan age.'" Statius and Lucan, then, were being read in editions published on the continent; but it must be to the point that English publishers did not anticipate a sufficient market for domestic editions. As for translations, after Marlowe's version of the first book of Lucan, published in 1600 (composed at least a decade earlier), there were Arthur Gorges's translation in 1618, and, starting in 1629, multiple editions of Thomas May's translation, along with his continuation of the epic up to the death of Julius Caesar, issued throughout the century. By the 1630s there was a healthy audience for the revolutionary epic. But Statius's Thebaid was not translated until 1648, by an otherwise unknown schoolmaster named Thomas Stephens; and there was no second edition.

Boethius is the only classical author Chaucer translated (if we except the chimerical Lollius), though Chaucer was obviously thoroughly familiar with Ovid, Virgil, and the corpus of Trojan War stories; and his skill at translation was in his own time a point of praise. Eustache Deschamps, in his Ballade on Chaucer, celebrates him specifically as a "grant translateur," referring presumably to his version of the Roman de la Rose, and perhaps also the Filostrato. The only English Cicero before the sixteenth century was the translations of De Senectute and De Amicitia from French versions, issued by Caxton, and the only Ovid was Caxton's Metamorphoses, a prose translation also based on a French prose version, which survives in a single manuscript and was never published—oddly: could Caxton not have considered it marketable? Caxton published a prose Aeneid, Eneydos (1490), which also derives from a French version. Nevertheless, by the 1490s Henry VII's poet laureate, the humanist cleric Bernard André, was writing his celebratory Historia Henrici Septimi not in English but in Latin. An allegorization of Henry's triumph modeled on the Labors of Hercules is also attributed to André—the latter, despite the classical context, was in French (it was clearly intended for courtly readers). The first Tudor monarch, invader and usurper, insisted on his right to the throne through his impeccably British credentials, but his poet laureate wrote exclusively in Latin or French. Neither work was printed; both survive only in presentation manuscripts—André's audience was small, exclusive, aristocratic, and learned. David Carlson writes that what is "distinctive about Andreì's Latin verse, both political and religious, is his willingness to try ancient lyric metres at a time when these were little practiced in England, and the pervasive classicism of his verse, apparent even in his religious poetry." Similarly, the first English secular drama, Henry Medwall's Fulgens and Lucres (ca. 1497), which centers on a debate about the relative claims of noble birth versus inner merit that is clearly a celebration of Henry's new meritocratic aristocracy, is nevertheless set in ancient Rome (discussed in Chapter 6). Humanism had arrived, and at the highest level of society.

In the next century Thomas Drant published a translation of Horace's Ars Poetica and two books of the Satires in 1566 and 1567, both in fourteener couplets—up to that point there had been only two Horace poems in print in English. The ten tragedies ascribed to Seneca were translated between 1559 and 1581; nine of these, like the Horace, were in fourteener couplets (one, Octavia, was in pentameter couplets; none was in blank verse). A partial translation of Caesar's Gallic War based on a French version had appeared in 1530; Arthur Golding did a complete translation from the Latin in 1565. The first bits of Tacitus did not appear until 1591. As we have seen, Marlowe's translation of the first book of Lucan's Pharsalia appeared in 1600, seven years after his death and the year after his Ovid Amores. The Lucan alone of all the English classics was in blank verse, and was the only volume of Marlowe's verse that was never reissued. It presumably dates from the mid-1580s, his college years, and for publishers by 1600 it would have constituted the bottom of the Marlowe barrel.

Often translation was, logically, in the service of teaching Latin. Abraham Fleming's version of Virgil's Eclogues and Georgics was published in 1575 and again in 1589, as he says in a preface, "for the profit and furtherance of English youths desirous to learne, and delighted in poetrie . . . , not in foolish rime . . . but in due proportion and measure . . . that yoong Grammar boyes, may even without a schoolemaister teach themselves by the help thereof." Fleming's "due proportion and measure" is not, as one might expect, quantitative verse, but unrhymed fourteeners. The translation is quite literal, and scrupulously places in brackets words that have been included either to satisfy the demands of English grammar or to fill out the meter. And although Terence was part of the academic curriculum both in the classroom and in performance, the only translation of the plays was Nicholas Udall's Floures for Latine spekynge selected and gathered oute of Terence, and the same translated in to Englysshe, together with the exposition and settynge forthe as welle of suche latyne wordes, as were thought nedefull to be annoted, as also of dyvers grammatical rules, very profytable [and] necessarye for the expedite knowledge in the latine tongue, published in 1534, and in subsequent editions throughout the century. The Flowers are taken from three plays, Andria, Eunuchus, and Heautontimoroumenos; and as the title indicates, the volume offers only renderings of exemplary bits of dialogue. Terence was here presented as a model not for comedy, but for Latin conversation.

Figure 1

Figure 1 is one of the surprises. In 1588, William Byrd published a setting of a bit of Ovid's Heroides, the opening eight lines of Penelope's epistle to Ulysses, translated by an anonymous poet into English quantitative measures. This example is unique in Byrd's vast oeuvre: even when Byrd set Latin quantitative poems, he did not set them quantitatively. But Byrd understood the scansion perfectly, setting long syllables to half notes and short syllables to quarter notes. The music even corrects three errors in the metrics (these are outlined in the reproduction). Byrd's amendment of the scansion is a tiny indication of how actively involved in the issue of poetic quantity English culture actually was at this time. The poem is always ascribed to Thomas Watson, because he was acquainted with Byrd and wrote at least one (nonquantitative) song text for him. But I doubt that this can be right: Watson was a thoroughly proficient classicist, who wrote much more Latin poetry than English. He would not have made mistakes in composing hexameters. Byrd was more expert than his poet here.

Another surprise: a single epigram of Martial's, the poem to himself on the good life ("Vitam quae faciunt beatiorem"), translated by the Welsh poet Simon Vachan into both Welsh couplets and English rhyme royal, appeared in 1571 on a broadsheet, presumably to be sold as ballads were (a translation into quatrains had earlier been done by Surrey, and appears in Tottel, Songes and Sonettes). The first English Horace, two satires full of dire examples of misspent lives translated into fourteener couplets in 1565 by Lewis Evans, schoolmaster (judging from the name, another Welshman), had similarly been printed to be sold as single sheets. Though substantial translations of Horace appeared soon afterward, the next Martial in English was not published till 1629.

There was no Catullus until Jonson's Volpone attempted to seduce Celia with a translation of "Vivamus mea Lesbia" in 1606; no Lucretius until the 1650s, no Tibullus until 1694, and not even a Latin text of Propertius until 1697. The first British Aeneid, translated by Gavin Douglas into Scots dialect in 1513 (not published till 1553) had been in loose pentameter couplets, a striking premonition; but as anomalous for the English tradition for most of the century as it was for the Scots. Indeed, the translation was, in a sense, well in advance of its time, and Douglas prefaced it with an elaborate apology to Virgil:

Quhy suld I than, with dull forhede and vane
With rude ingyne, and barane emptiue brane
With bad harsk spech, and lewit barbare toung
Presume to write, quhare thy sueit bell is roung

The answer is simply so "that thy fecund sentence, mycht be soung / In our langage, als weil as latyne toung," an acknowledgment of the growing importance of vernacular literacy.

The Greek classics, not surprisingly, got a later start, though a number of works were published in Greek in England, and by the midcentury it was a prestigious subject of study—the schoolboy notebooks of King Edward VI, who died at the age of fifteen, include fifty essays in Greek, along with fifty-five in Latin. The STC records thirty-two titles printed during Elizabeth's reign that are wholly or largely in Greek—that is a minuscule number compared with the number of Latin books produced in the period, but it does indicate that there were available typesetters and proofreaders, and a real if limited market. The Greek titles appeared for the most part in the 1580s and 1590s, and are not only schoolbooks and religious texts; in 1553 the printer Reyner Wolfe had issued George Etheridge's translation of the second book of Virgil's Aeneid into Greek. Printers in London, Oxford, and Cambridge produced texts by Homer, Aristophanes, Demosthenes, and Plutarch. As Kirsty Milne writes, "It is of course possible that some were printed as one-off ventures, experiments to test the market or boutique orders from a patron. But their survival indicates, at least, that English printers had the equipment and the expertise to produce Greek books, and thought it worth their while to do so. At most, it suggests a need to reappraise the role of Greek in late sixteenth-century intellectual and cultural life." She points out that since the London printer John Day produced a Greek Trojan Women in 1575, George Gascoigne and Francis Kinwelmersh's Jocasta, itself adapted from an Italian version (performed in 1566, published in 1575), did not constitute England's only access to Euripides.

As for translations of the major prose works, the first Thucydides in English appeared in 1550, Herodotus in 1584. The first comprehensive Aristotle was a translation of the Politics from the French published in 1598; Leonardo Bruni's Latin translation of the Ethics had been published by a short-lived Oxford press in 1479, and an English summary of the Ethics appeared in 1547. A Latin translation of the Poetics was published in 1623 and the Greek text in 1696, but no English version appeared until 1705, and that, like the Politics over a century earlier, was based on a French translation. (Most of the English works ascribed to Aristotle in the period consisted of versions of "Aristotle's Masterpiece" or "Secrets of Aristotle," spurious gynecological and medical handbooks—Aristotle's Masterpiece went on being published into the twentieth century.) Though Plato is frequently cited, there were no English editions of any of the dialogues, and the only sixteenth-century English translation was of the Hellenistic Axiochus, published in 1592 (when it was thought to be by Plato) and credited to one "Edward Spenser." The name is apparently merely an inexpert marketing strategy: there is no evidence connecting the poet with this work. The first authentic Platonic dialogues to appear in English translations were the Apology and the Phaedo, published anonymously in 1675.

Milnes's cautionary observation about "one-off ventures, experiments to test the market or boutique orders from a patron" needs to be kept in mind—the Greek translation of Aeneid II is surely an example; so is the 1479 Oxford Ethics. Most of the Greek works, whether in the original language or in translation, were published only once—the market in England was obviously not large. The only sixteenth-century prose translation from the Greek popular enough to appear in multiple editions was the romance novel Aethiopica of Heliodorus, first published in 1569 and reissued six times by 1627. The Thucydides was based on a French version, the Heliodorus on a Latin one. Only the Herodotus appears to derive directly from the Greek.

Of verse, the first Theocritus translation, published anonymously in 1588, is, like most of the Latin translations, in hexameter and fourteener couplets, with the last of the idylls in trimeter couplets. The only attempt at dramatic translation, aside from the Euripidean Jocasta (of which more presently), was Jane, Lady Lumley's Iphigenia in Aulis, in the 1550s, in prose, and unpublished; and George Peele's translation of one of the Iphigenia plays, performed by Paul's Boys sometime in the 1570s, also unpublished, and now lost. Queen Elizabeth studied Greek with Roger Ascham and was said to have translated a play of Euripides, of which nothing more is known. Thomas Watson's Latin Antigone appeared in 1581; the play had apparently been performed—Gabriel Harvey saw it in London, or perhaps in Cambridge. The manuscript of an English version of Oedipus for performance by schoolboys, prepared around the turn of the century, was recently acquired by the Elizabethan Club at Yale. It is in fourteener couplets, and includes comic scenes and two songs, one with the music. It has nothing to do with Sophocles: it gives the whole story, including the abandonment of the infant Oedipus (one of the songs is a lullaby) and the encounter with the sphinx; and much of it is, verbatim, Alexander Neville's midcentury translation of the Oedipus of Seneca. It certainly does not imply that either the masters who prepared the text or the schoolboys who performed it had any familiarity with the Greek play.

The only attempt at a Homer before Chapman was Arthur Hall's 1581 translation of ten books of the Iliad into fourteener couplets, based on a French verse translation. Chapman's Iliad, published beginning in 1598, is also in the by-now-antiquated (or "classic") fourteener couplets, though the account of Achilles's shield from Book 18, published separately in the same year, is in pentameter couplets. For the final version of the complete poem, published in 1611, Achilles's shield was redone in fourteeners, to accord with the rest. By 1616, for the Odyssey, Chapman had switched to pentameter couplets. The standard had again been set by Marlowe, with his thrilling adaptation of Musaeus's Hero and Leander, pentameter couplets like his Ovid—by the turn of the century this was the voice of English classicism; though it has to be added that Marlowe's little epic is not very much like Musaeus's, even with Chapman's dutiful continuation. Nevertheless Chapman, returning to the poem in 1616 to produce a proper translation (the title page declares it "Translated according to the original"), casts it in pentameter couplets.

In short, the poets interested in Surrey's blank verse were mainly the dramatists, starting in the 1560s, but (judging from what survives) not regularly till late in the century—the midcentury academic plays based on Plautus and Terence, Gammer Gurton's Needle, Ralph Roister Doister, Jack Juggler, are all in loose hexameter couplets. Subsequently, with a very few exceptions such as Gascoigne's Ovidian satire The Steele Glas and Marlowe's translation of Lucan, blank verse was useful not as a rendering of classical verse but for dramatic dialogue. As a version of classical verse it served for Seneca in Gorboduc (the first English play in blank verse), though not, as we have seen, for translations of Seneca; for Euripides in Jocasta, Gascoigne and Francis Kinwelmersh's version of The Phoenician Women, though not for Lady Lumley's Iphigenia; for Plautus in The Comedy of Errors, Terence in The Taming of the Shrew (in both cases liberally interspersed with couplets, and in Errors at one point with old-fashioned rhyming hexameters); and for English drama of the period generally, for Kyd, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Jonson, producing an English classic theater. But after Surrey, with the single exception of Gascoigne, never for English Virgil, Ovid, Homer. Those required another kind of "classical."

English epics, moreover, significantly, were nothing like any of these: the stanzaic verse of Spenser, Drayton, Daniel derived from the Chaucer of Troilus, from rhyme royal, from Ariosto, Boiardo, Tasso—Sir John Harington's translation of Orlando Furioso (1591) showed how successfully the Italian style could be domesticated. The classic models here were those of the romance tradition; and even they had started to sound unnatural by the late seventeenth century. In 1687 an anonymous "Person of Quality" brought The Faerie Queene up to date, as the title page advertised, with Spenser's "Essential Design preserv'd, but his obsolete Language and manner of Verse totally laid aside. Deliver'd in Heroick Numbers." The heroic numbers were, by now inevitably, pentameter couplets. Milton, a century after Surrey, was still bucking the tide in declaring blank verse to be the natural language of English epic poetry. Thanks to Marlowe, the pentameter couplet had, almost overnight, become the classical standard.

For English poetry, the 1580s were a decade of profound stylistic ambivalence. George Gascoigne had been an adventurous poet, and in hindsight appears to be a transitional figure; indeed, a volume of collected poems was issued in 1587, ten years after his death. He had wide interests and wrote in a number of poetic formats—prose and verse drama, hexameter couplets, rhyme royal, pentameter quatrains, poulter's measure, even blank verse in The Steele Glas—though he had never used the verse of the future, pentameter couplets (surprisingly, because it was also the verse of the past: he acknowledged Chaucer as his model). But by 1587 taste had moved on; Gascoigne was already outdated, and there was no subsequent edition of the poems. The volume turned out to be a monument, not a harbinger. The crucial transitional figures from our point of view are Marlowe, the Ovidian outsider, both notorious and admired for violating all the norms, poetic and social, but thereby creating a new norm for poetry, and the Virgilian Spenser, working within the system but no less revolutionary.


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