Page images
PDF
EPUB

not shewn that they fixed it; for the French of the present time is very different from that of the last century.

In this country an academy could be expected to do but little. If an academician's place were profitable, it would be given by interest; if attendance were gratuitous, it would be rarely paid, and no man would endure the least disgust

. Unanimity is impossible, and debate would separate the assembly.

But suppose the philological decree made and promulgated, what would be its authority? In absolute governments, there is sometimes a general reverence paid to all that has the sanction of power, and the countenance of greatness. How little this is the state of our country needs not be told. We live in an age in which it is a kind of public sport to refuse all respect that cannot be enforced. The edicts of an English academy would probably be read by many, only that they might be sure to disobey them.

That our language is in perpetual danger of corruption cannot be denied; but what prevention can be found? The present manners of the nation would deride authority; and therefore nothing is left but that every writer should criticise himself.

All hopes of new literary institutions were quickly suppressed by the contentious turbulence of King James's reign; and Roscommon, foreseeing that some violent concussion of the state was at hand, purposed to retire to Rome, alleging, that "it was best to sit near the chimney when the chamber smoked;" a sentence, of which the application seems not

His departure was delayed by the gout; and he was so impatient either of hinderance or of pain, that he submitted himself to a French empiric, who is said to have repelled the disease into his bowels.

At the moment in which he expired, he uttered, with an energy of voice that expressed the most fervent devotion, two lines of his own version of “Dies Iræ:"

very clear.

My God, my Father, and my Friend,

Do not forsake me in my end. He died in 1684, and was buried with great pomp in Westminster Abbey

His poetical character is given by Mr. Fenton:

“In his writings," says Fenton, “ we view the image of a mind which was naturally serious and solid; richly furnished and adorned with all the ornaments of learning, unaffectedly disposed in the most regular and elegant order. His imagination might have probably been more fruitful and sprightly, if his judgment had been less severe. But that severity, (delivered in a masculine, clear, succinct style) contributed to make him so eminent in the didactical manner, that no man,

with justice, can affirm he was ever equalled by any of our nation, without confessing at the same time that he is inferior to none. In some other kinds of writing his genius seems to have wanted fire to attain the point of perfection; but who can attain it?

From this account of the riches of his mind, who would not imagine that they had been displayed in large volumes and numerous performances? Who would not, after the perusal of this character, be surprised to find that all the proofs of this genius, and knowledge, and judgment, are not sufficient to form a single book, or to appear otherwise than in conjunction with the works of some other writer of the same petty size? But thus it is that characters are written: we know somewhat, and we imagine the rest. The observation, that his imagination would probably have been more fruitful and sprightly, if his judgment had been less severe, may be answered by a remarker somewhat inclined to cavil, by a contrary supposi. tion, that his judgment would probably have been less severe, if his imagination had been more fruitful. It is ridiculous to oppose judgment to imagination; for it does not appear that men have necessarily less of one as they have more of the other.

We must allow of Roscommon, what Fenton has not mentioned so distinctly as he ought, and what is yet very much to his honour, that he is, perhaps, the only correct writer in verse before Addison: and that, if there are not so many or so great beauties in his compositions as in those of some contemporaries, there are at least fewer faults. Nor is this his highest praise; for Mr. Pope has celebrated him as the only moral writer of King Charles's reign:

Unhappy Dryden! in all Charles's days,
Roscommon only boasts unspotted lays.

Verse,

His great work is his "Essay on Translated Verse;" of which Dryden writes thus in his preface to his “Miscellanies:" “It was my Lord Roscommon's 'Essay on Translated

says Dryden, “which made me uneasy, till I tried whether or no I was capable of following his rules, and of reducing the speculation into practice. For many a fair precept in poetry is like a seeming demonstration in mathematics, very specious in the diagram, but failing in the mechanic operation. I think I have generally observed his instructions: I am sure my reason is sufficiently convinced both of their truth and usefulness; which, in other words, is to confess no less a vanity than to pretend that I have, at least in some places, made examples to his rules."

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.

his

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, translation will not satisfy; what he found obscure, I do not know that he has ever cleared.

Among, his smaller works the “Eclogue of Virgil” and the "Dies Iræ" are well translated; though the best line in the “Dies Ira" is borrowed from Dryden. In return, succeeding poets have borrowed from Roscommon.

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

Of silent horror, Rest's eternal seat."

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.

« PreviousContinue »