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1805–1812. Mr. Cary's translation of the Inferno of Dante is published.-Cor
respondence with Miss Seward about his version of Dante.Literary Journal for 1806.—Death of his youngest daughter.His consequent illness.—Letter to Mr. Birch, and to his Wife.Settles in the neighbourhood of London.—Appointed reader at Berkeley Chapel.—Letter to his Father.- Literary Journal for 1811 and 1812.
Early in the year 1805, the first volume of his version of the Inferno of Dante made its appearance before the public; and was followed by the second volume in the next year. In this edition the original is printed with the translation, a plan which, while it enables the reader to test the fidelity of the English version, at the same time much facilitates the study of the most difficult of Italian authors. There is probably no metrical version in our language of any poet, ancient or modern, which would so well bear, in point of faithfulness at least, to be thus put side by side with its original.
The success of the publication was not at all answerable to its merit; and the translator had to endure the mortification, common to the most gifted authors, of seeing the fruits of many years of toil received with coldness and indifference. In the “ Cri.
tical Review,” indeed, favourable notice was taken of the translation ; but as the article was written by his friend Price, who had already frequently expressed his commendation of the work, praise from such a quarter could not afford much encouragement; and the circulation was chiefly confined to a small number of personal friends, and perhaps a few Italian scholars. Even his friend, Miss Seward, not content with expressing her distaste for the subject of the poem, charged the translation with obscurity and vulgarism. This, however discouraging it may have been to the translator himself, is abundantly compensated by its having occasioned the following spirited defence of both the original and its copy.
TO MISS SEWARD.
Kingsbury, Coleshill, August 16, 1806. MY DEAR MISTRESS, You cannot wonder that after all the pains I have taken in the translation of a favourite poet, I am disappointed in having so utterly failed of pleasing one whom I have always ardently wished to please. Your opinion of Dante himself 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 to me. Voltaire was of your
mind. The old Tuscan was
the object of his bitterest ridicule, while our own Milton avowed the delight and admiration excited in his mind by that which only provoked derision in the Frenchman. That spirits confined in flames should make themselves heard, surely does not seem more absurd (as Mrs. C. has justly observed to me) than that those pent in trees should do the same in Virgil and Tasso, as well as in Dante. I know nothing in the whole circle of diablerie more terrible than the transformations in canto xxiv. and xxv. The two nauseous passages you have remarked, with something more of the same sort, I should have been heartily glad not to have met with: but I did not think myself justified in doing more than endeavouring to make them somewhat less offensive than they are in the original. I have always admired the art with which the poet has relieved the horrors of his tale by the little exquisite touches of landscape painting that are every here and there interspersed, as you may find them, perhaps feebly copied, in page 43, line 10, &c., (Inferno, canto xx., 44–47); page 45, (canto xx., 57, &c.); the whole page, 117, (canto xxiv., 1–16), of which you erroneously observe that it contains a description of hoar-frost similarised to moonlight; page 141, line last, (canto xxv., 52– 54); page 145, line 1, (canto xxv., 70—73); page 157, line S, &c., (canto xxvi., 22-27); page 233, line 7, (canto xxx., 30—33);-the passage you could not find. In the same way the attention is refreshed by the description of the Venetian dock-yards, at
the beginning of canto xxi.; and of the military manœuvres, canto xxii.; and by many similar contrivances.
The same artifice you well know is practised by Homer, Shakspeare, and Milton. The two former, like Dante in this instance, are always original : the last commonly borrows from his predecessors, but seldom fails to improve what he takes. That he does so in the description of Satan, I freely admit. He is truly sublime where Dante is little better than grotesque, but it is the grotesqueness of a masterly hand.
Of the two charges which you bring against the translation, obscurity and frequent vulgarisms, from the former it is impossible that I should clear myself without having the particular passages pointed out which appear to you liable to that objection. With respect to the latter, I must protest against the method of picking out particular words or expressions without taking the context, and the occasion on which they are used at the same time into consideration. You refer me to Milton for an example “of never stooping dignity in the infernal regions.” Now, I beg to know what you say to the following words and phrases, singled out from the first four books of the Paradise Lost, where the scene for the most part is laid in those regions, and entreat that you will answer me candidly, whether they are not, in their state of nudity, full as likely to raise a laugh as those unfortunates which you have stripped, “and held them dangling at arm's length in scorn," "slipping the occasion—bestirring themselves—so much odds-belike-likeliest-drudge-trumperybackside—likest—with a vengeance sent from Media post—unhoarding the cash-cringing—kicking the beam.” I could almost ask the spirit of Milton forgiveness for using him thus unfairly even in play.
If, my dear mistress, you and such youth-loving critics will cull from the temples of our venerable language every grey hair your scrutinising eye can discover, and others, admirers of antiquity like myself, should be equally solicitous to extirpate all the tokens of juvenility, alas ! what a bald pate will soon be left. I cry a truce then.
I sincerely congratulate you on the mark of respect you have received from Dr. Mansel, a man whose situation and literary character must make his notice valuable wherever it extends. Let it a little soften your resentment to the late Premier,* that Dr. M. was through his means distinguished, and placed at the head of Trinity College.
I am willing to cherish better hopes than you entertain of our present minister's recovery, or at least of an alleviation of his complaint, and a consequently prolonged and not uncomfortable exist
I look on the name alone of such a man as a sort of bulwark to the country.
Miss Fern is a false fleeting young lady. She promised to pay us a visit before her return to Col
* Charles James Fox.