Page images
PDF
EPUB

in the story of Palamon and Arcite, where the temple of
Diana is described, you find these verses, in all the edi-
tions of our author :

There saw I Dane turned into a tree,
I mean not the goddess Diane,

But Venus daughter, which that hight Danè:: Which after a little consideration I knew was to be reformed into this sense, that Daphine the daughter of Peneus was turned into a tree. I durft not make thus bold with Ovid, lest some future Milbourn should arise, and say, I varied from my author, because I understood him not.

But there are other judges who think I ought not to have translated Chaucer into English, out of a quite contrary notion : they suppose there is a certain veneration due to his old language; and that it is little less than profanation and sacrilege to alter it. They are farther of opinion, that somewhat of his good sense will suffer in this transfusion, and much of the beauty of his thoughts will infallibly be loft, which appear with more grace in their old habit. Of this opinion was that excellent person, whom I mentioned, the late earl of Leicester, who valued Chaucer as much as Mr. Cowley despised him. My lord dissuaded me from this attempt, (for I was thinking of it some years before his death) and his authority prevailed so far with ine, as to defer my undertaking while he lived, in deference to him: yet my reason was not convinced with what he urged against it. If the first end of a writer be

[ocr errors][ocr errors]

to

to be understood, then as his language grows obsolete, his thoughts must grow obscure : Multa renascentur quæ jam cecidere; cadentque,

Quæ nunc sunt in honore vocabula; fi volet usus, “Quem penès arbitrium est, & jus, & norma loquendi.” When an ancient word for its found and significancy deferves to be revived, I have that reasonable veneration for antiquity, to restore it. All beyond this is superstition. Words are not like landmarks, so sacred as never to be removed; customs are changed; and even statutes are filently repealed, when the reason ceases for which they were enacted. As for the other part of the argument, that his thoughts will lose of their original beauty, by the innovation of words; in the first place, not only their beauty, but their being is lost, where they are no longer understood, which is the present case. I grant that something must be lost in all transfusion, that is, in all translations ; but the sense will remain, which would otherwise be lost, or at least be maimed, when it is scarce intelligible; and that but to a few. How few are there who can read Chaucer, so as to understand him perfectly! And if imperfectly, then with less profit and no pleasure. It is not for the use of some old Saxon friends, that I have taken these pains with him : let them neglect my verfion, because they have no need of it. I made it for their fakes who understand sense and poetry as well as they, when that poetry and sense is put into words which they underítand. I will go farther, and dare to add, that what beauties I lose in some places, I give to others which had them not originally: but in this I

may

D 3

may, be partial to myself; let the reader judge, and I submit to his decision. Yet I think I have just occafion to complain of them, who, because they understand Chaucer, would deprive the greater part of their countrymen of the same advantage, and hoard him up, as misers do their grandam gold, only to look on it themselves, and hinder others from making use of it. In fum, I seriously protest, that no man ever had, or can have, a greater veneration for Chaucer, than myself. I have translated some part of his works, only that I might perpetuate his memory, or at least refresh it, amongst my countrymen. If I have altered him any where for the better, I must at the same time acknowledge, that I could have done nothing without him : “ Facile est inventis addere,” is no great commendation; and I am not so vain to think I have deserved a greater. I will conclude what I have to say of him singly, with this one remark : a lady of my acquaintance, who keeps a kind of correspondence with some authors of the fair sex in France, has been informed by them, that Mademoiselle de Scudery, who is as old as Sibyl, and inspired like her by the same god of poetry, is at this time translating Chaucer into modern French. From which I gather, that he has been formerly translated into the old Provençal (for how she should come to understand old English I know not). But the matter of fact being true, it makes me think that there is something in it like fatality; that, after certain periods of time, the fame and memory of great wits should be renewed, as Chaucer is both in France and England. If

[ocr errors]

this be wholly chance, it is extraordinary, and I dare not call it more, for fear of being taxed with superstition.

Boccace comes last to be considered, who, living in the same age with Chaucer, had the same genius, and followed the fame studies : both writ novels, and each of them cultivated his mother tongue. But the greatest resemblance of our two inodern authors being in their familiar stile, and pleasing way of relating comical adventures, I may pass it over, because I have translated nothing from Boccace of that nature. In the serious part of poetry, the advantage is wholly on Chaucer's side ; for though the Englishman has borrowed many tales from the Italian, yet it appears that those of Boccace were not generally of his own making, but taken from authors of former ages, and by him only modelled : so that what there was of invention in either of them, may be judged equal. But Chaucer has refined on Boccace, and has mended the stories which he has borrowed, in his way of telling; though prose allows more liberty of thought, and the expression is more easy when unconfined by numbers. Our countryman carries weight, and yet wins the race at disadvantage. I defire not the reader should take my word : and therefore I will set two of their discourses on the same subject, in the same light, for every man to judge betwixt them. I translated Chaucer first, and, amongst the rest, pitched on the Wife of Bath's tale; not daring, as I have said, to adventure on her prologue, because it is too licentious: there Chaucer introduces an old woman of mean parentage, whom a youthful knight of noble blood was

forced

D 4.

forced to marry, and confequently loathed her : the crone being in bed with him on the wedding-night, and finding his averfion, endeavours to win his affection by reason, and speaks a good word for herself, (as who could blame her?) in hope to mollify the fullen bridegroom. She takes her topics from the benefits of poverty, the advantages of old age and ugliness, the vanity of youth, and the filly pride of ancestry and titles without inherent virtue, which is the true nobility. When I had closed Chaucer, I returned to Ovid, and translated fome more of his fables; and by this time had so far forgotten the wife of Bath's tale, that, when I took up Boccace, unawares I fell on the same argument of preferring virtue to nobility of blood, and titles, in the story of Sigismunda ; which I had certainly avoided for the resemblance of the two difcourses, if my memory had not failed me. Let the reader weigh them both ; and if he thinks me partia} to Chaucer, it is in him to right Boccace.

I prefer in our countryman, far above all his other stories, the noble poem of Palamon and Arcite, which is of the Epic kind, and perhaps not much inferior to the Ilias or the Æneis : the story is more pleasing than either of them, the manners as perfect, the diction as poetical, the learning as deep and various ; and the disposition full as artful; only it includes a greater length of time, as taking up seven years at least; but Aristotle has left undecided the duration of the action; which yet is easily reduced into the compass of a year, by a narration of what preceded the re

turn

[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »