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- The Life of John Milton Vol. 3 1643-1649 - 120/128 -
has such a very singular faculty of reviving dead tongues and making foreign ones his own; hoping that there may be something agreeable to him in the sound of a language which he speaks and knows so well. I will take the same opportunity of earnestly begging you to be please to honour with your verses the glorious memory of Signor Francesco Rovai, a distinguished Florentine poet prematurely dead, and, to the best of my belief, well known to you: this having already been done at my request by the very eminent Nicolas Heinsius and Isaac Vossius of Holland, peculiarly intimate and valued friends of mine, and famous scholars of our age. [Footnote: About Nicolas Heinsius (1620-1681) and his intimacy with Dati and the other Florentine wits, see Vol. I. 721 2. Both he and Isaac Vossius (1618-1688) will reappear in closer connexion with Milton himself.] Signor Francesco was noble by birth, endowed by nature with a genius of the highest kind, which was enriched by culture and by unwearied study of the finest sciences. He understood Greek excellently, spoke French, and wrote Latin and Italian wonderfully. He composed Tragedies, and excelled also in lyrical Canzoni, in which he praised heroes and discountenanced all vice, particularly in one set of seven made against the seven capital sins. He was well-bred, courteous, a favourite with our Princes, or uncorrupted manners, and most religious. He died young, without having published his works: a splendid obituary ceremonial is being prepared for him by his friends, faulty only in the fact that the charge of the funeral oration has been imposed upon me. Should you be pleased to send me, as I hope, some fruit of your charming genius for such a purpose, you will oblige me not only, but all my country; and, when the Poems of Signor Francesco are published, with the eulogisms upon him, I will see that copies are sent you.--But, since I have begin to speak of our language and our poets, let me communicate to you one of the observations which, in the leisure-hours left me from my mercantile business, I occasionally amuse myself with making on our writers. The other day, while I was reflecting on that passage in Petrarch's _Triomf' d'Amor_, C. 3:
"Dura legge d'Amor! mà benchè obliqua, Servar conviensi, però ch' ella aggiunge Di cielo in terra, universale, antiqua," [Footnote: "Hard law of Love! but, however unjust, it must be kept, because it reaches from heaven to earth, universal, eternal."]
I perceived that already the gifted Castelvetro had noted in it some resemblance to the lines in Horace, Ode I. 33:
"Sic visum Veneri; cui placet impares Formas atque animos sub juga ahenea Sævo mittere cum joco,"-- [Footnote: "So it seemed good to Venus; whose pleasure it is, in savage jest, to bind unlike forms and minds in a brazen yoke of union."]
excellently imitated by the reviver of Pindaric and Anacreontic poesy, Gabriello Chiubrera, in Canzonetta 18:
"Ah! che vien cenere Penando un amator benche fedele! Cosi vuol Venere, Nata nell' ocean, nume crudele." [Footnote: "Ah that there should be ashes from the torture of a lover, though faithful! So Venus wills it, the ocean-born, a cruel deity."]
To me these verses look like a little bit taken from Horace, as the remainder is taken from Tibullus, not without a notable improvement; for in Tibullus, Eleg. I. 2, one reads this threat against the revealers of Love's secrets:--
"Nam, fuerit quicumque loquax, is sanguine natam, Is Venerem e rapido sentiet esse mari." [Footnote: "For whosoever is indiscreet with his tongue, he shall feel that Venus was born of blood and came from the rapid sea."]
[Dati then suggests the reading of _rabido_ in the last line and discusses the subject in six folio pages, with passages from Catullus, Ovid, Virgil, Horace, Seneca, Claudian, Homer, Tasso, &c.; and then proceeds as follows]:
I communicate to you these considerations of mine, sure of being excused, and kindly advised by your exquisite learning in such matters as I submit, urgently begging you to pardon me if excess of affection, the sense of being so long without you, and our great intimacy, have made me exceed the limits proper for a letter.--It is an extreme grief to me that the convulsions of the kingdom have disturbed your studies; and I anxiously await your Poems, in which I believe I shall have large room for admiring the delicacy of your genius, even if I except those which are in depreciation of my Religion, and which, as coming from a friendly mouth, may well be excused, though not praised. This will not hinder me from receiving the others, conscious as I am of my own zeal for freedom. Meanwhile I beg Heaven to make and keep you happy, and to keep me in your remembrance, giving me proofs thereof by your generous commands. All friends about me send you salutations and very affectionate respects.
Your most devoted,
Florence, 1st Nov. 1647. CARLO DATI [Footnote: The original of this letter is in the possession of Mr. J. Fitchett Marsh of Warrington, who has printed facsimiles of the opening and closing words ("_All' Illmo. Sig. Gio. Miltoni, Londra_," and "_Ser. Devotino. Carlo Dati_") in his Milton Papers. To Mr. Marsh's kindness I owe the transcript from which I have made the translation; and the words within brackets, describing the omitted portion in the middle, are Mr. Marsh's own.]
Circumstanced as Milton was when he received this letter, he can hardly have been in a mood to respond sufficiently to its minute and overflowing _dilettantismo._ The amiability and polite affectionateness, perceptible even yet through the dilettantism, may have been pleasant to him; and he may have noted the subtle and delicate expression of sympathy with his domestic unhappiness which seems to be conveyed in the passages quoted, as if by accident, from Petrarch, Horace, Chiabrera, and Tibullus. Dati may have been there replying to that portion of Milton's letter in which he had vaguely intimated his private melancholy in being doomed to unfit companionship; or he may have heard more particular rumours in Florence of Milton's marriage-mishap and its consequences. At all events, there is no trace of any answer by Milton to this long epistle from Dati, or of any poetical contribution sent by him, as Dati had requested, to the exequies of the interesting Rovai.
About the time when Milton should have been answering Dati's epistle, enclosing the requested tribute to the memory of Rovai, and also the exquisite comments which Dati expected on his quotations from Petrarch, Horace, Chiabrera, and Tibullus, his occupation, we find, was very different. "_April_, 1648, _J. M. Nine of the Psalms done into Metre, wherein all but what is in a different character are the very words of the Text translated from the Original;_" such is the heading prefixed by Milton himself to the Translations of Psalms LXXX.-LXXXVIII. which are now included among his Poetical Works. [Footnote: The heading stands so in the Second Edition of Milton's Miscellaneous Poems, published by himself in 1678.] Through some mornings and evenings of that month, therefore, we can see him, in his house in High Holborn, with the Hebrew Bible before him, making it his effort to translate, as literally as possible, these nine Psalms into English verse. On looking at the result, as it now stands among his Poems, with Hebrew words printed occasionally in the margin, and every phrase for which there is not a voucher in the original printed carefully in italics, one has little difficulty in perceiving one of the motives of Milton in this metrical experiment. It was his knowledge of the interest then felt in the chance of some English metrical version of the Psalms that should supersede, for popular purposes and in public worship, the old version of Sternhold and Hopkins. Rous's version, with amendments, had been recommended by the Westminster Assembly, and approved by the Commons (_antè,_ 425); the Lords were still standing out for Barton's competing version (_antè,_ 512); other versions were in the background, but had been heard of. In these circumstances, might not a true poet, attending to all the essential conditions, and especially to the prime one of exactness to the Hebrew original, exhibit at least a specimen of a better version than any yet offered?
Unfortunately, if this was Milton's intention, it cannot be said that he succeeded. By all the critics it is admitted that his version of those Nine Psalms is inferior to what we should have expected from him; nor is it, I think, the mere prejudice of habit that leads those that have been accustomed to one particular revision of Rous's version--that which has been the Scottish authorized Psalter since 1650--to prefer Psalms LXXX.- LXXXVIII. as there given, rude though the versification is, to the Translations of the same Psalms proposed even by Milton. Something of this impression may have prevailed even in 1648, if, as is likely enough, Milton took the trouble of showing his translations to some who were interested in the question of the new Psalter, and wavering between Rous's and Barton's. On the faith of dates, however, there is another interest to us now in these careful translations by Milton of Psalms LXXX.-LXXXVIII. in April 1648. Why did he choose those particular Psalms? Not for metrical experiment only, but also because their mood fitted him. He needed the strong Hebrew of those Psalms himself, and he drank it in afresh from the text that he might reproduce it for himself and others. Petrarch, Tibullus, Horace, Chiabrera! silence all such for the time, and let the Hebrew Psalmist speak! Thus (Psalm LXXX.):--
"Turn us again; thy grace divine To us, O God, vouchsafe; Cause thou thy face on us to shine, And then we shall be safe."
Or again, with reference to the dangers then gathering round Parliamentary England (Psalm LXXXIII.):--
"For they consult with all their might, And all as one in mind Themselves against thee they unite, And in firm union bind. The tents of Edom, and the brood Of scornful Ishmael, Moab, with them of Hagar's blood That in the desert dwell, Gebal and Ammon, there conspire, And hateful Amalec, The Philistims, and they of Tyre, Whose bounds the sea doth check. With them great Asshur also bands And doth confirm the knot All these have lent their armed hands To aid the sons of Lot. Do to them as to Midian bold That wasted all the coast, To Sisera, and, as is told Thou didst do to Jabin's host, When at the brook of Kishon old They were repulsed and slain, At Endor quite cut off, and rolled As dung upon the plain."
Or perhaps, with closer personal reference, such lines as these (Psalm LXXXVII.):--
"The Lord shall write it in a scroll
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