1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Chapman, George

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CHAPMAN, GEORGE (? 1559–1634), English poet and dramatist, was born near Hitchin. The inscription on the portrait which forms the frontispiece of The Whole Works of Homer states that he was then (1616) fifty-seven years of age. Anthony à Wood (Athen. Oxon. ii. 575) says that about 1574 he was sent to the university, “but whether first to this of Oxon, or that of Cambridge, is to me unknown; sure I am that he spent some time in Oxon, where he was observed to be most excellent in the Latin and Greek tongues, but not in logic or philosophy.” Chapman’s first extant play, The Blind Beggar of Alexandria, was produced in 1596, and two years later Francis Meres mentions him in Palladis Tamia among the “best for tragedie” and the “best for comedie.” Of his life between leaving the university and settling in London there is no account. It has been suggested, from the detailed knowledge displayed in The Shadow of Night of an incident in Sir Francis Vere’s campaign, that he saw service in the Netherlands. There are frequent entries with regard to Chapman in Henslowe’s diary for the years 1598–1599, but his dramatic activity slackened during the following years, when his attention was chiefly occupied by his Homer. In 1604 he was imprisoned with John Marston for his share in Eastward Ho, in which offence was given to the Scottish party at court. Ben Jonson voluntarily joined the two, who were soon released. Chapman seems to have enjoyed favour at court, where he had a patron in Prince Henry, but in 1605 Jonson and he were for a short time in prison again for “a play.” Beaumont, the French ambassador in London, in a despatch of the 5th of April 1608, writes that he had obtained the prohibition of a performance of Biron in which the queen of France was represented as giving Mademoiselle de Verneuil a box on the ears. He adds that three of the actors were imprisoned, but that the chief culprit, the author, had escaped (Raumer, Briefe aus Paris, 1831, ii. 276). Among Chapman’s patrons was Robert Carr, earl of Somerset, to whom he remained faithful after his disgrace. Chapman enjoyed the friendship and admiration of his great contemporaries. John Webster in the preface to The White Devil praised “his full and heightened style,” and Ben Jonson told Drummond of Hawthornden that Fletcher and Chapman “were loved of him.” These friendly relations appear to have been interrupted later, for there is extant in the Ashmole MSS. an “Invective written by Mr George Chapman against Mr Ben Jonson.” Chapman died in the parish of St Giles in the Fields, and was buried on the 12th of May 1634 in the churchyard. A monument to his memory was erected by Inigo Jones.  (M. Br.) 

Chapman, his first biographer is careful to let us know, “was a person of most reverend aspect, religious and temperate, qualities rarely meeting in a poet”; he had also certain other merits at least as necessary to the exercise of that profession. He had a singular force and solidity of thought, an admirable ardour of ambitious devotion to the service of poetry, a deep and burning sense at once of the duty implied and of the dignity inherent in his office; a vigour, opulence, and loftiness of phrase, remarkable even in that age of spiritual strength, wealth and exaltation of thought and style; a robust eloquence, touched not unfrequently with flashes of fancy, and kindled at times into heat of imagination. The main fault of his style is one more commonly found in the prose than in the verse of his time,—a quaint and florid obscurity, rigid with elaborate rhetoric and tortuous with labyrinthine illustration; not dark only to the rapid reader through closeness and subtlety of thought, like Donne, whose miscalled obscurity is so often “all glorious within,” but thick and slab as a witch’s gruel with forced and barbarous eccentricities of articulation. As his language in the higher forms of comedy is always pure and clear, and sometimes exquisite in the simplicity of its earnest and natural grace, the stiffness and density of his more ambitious style may perhaps be attributed to some pernicious theory or conceit of the dignity proper to a moral and philosophic poet. Nevertheless, many of the gnomic passages in his tragedies and allegoric poems are of singular weight and beauty; the best of these, indeed, would not discredit the fame of the very greatest poets for sublimity of equal thought and expression: witness the lines chosen by Shelley as the motto for a poem, and fit to have been chosen as the motto for his life.

The romantic and sometimes barbaric grandeur of Chapman’s Homer remains attested by the praise of Keats, of Coleridge and of Lamb; it is written at a pitch of strenuous and laborious exaltation, which never flags or breaks down, but never flies with the ease and smoothness of an eagle native to Homeric air. From his occasional poems an expert and careful hand might easily gather a noble anthology of excerpts, chiefly gnomic or meditative, allegoric or descriptive. The most notable examples of his tragic work are comprised in the series of plays taken, and adapted sometimes with singular licence, from the records of such part of French history as lies between the reign of Francis I. and the reign of Henry IV., ranging in date of subject from the trial and death of Admiral Chabot to the treason and execution of Marshal Biron. The two plays bearing as epigraph the name of that famous soldier and conspirator are a storehouse of lofty thought and splendid verse, with scarcely a flash or sparkle of dramatic action. The one play of Chapman’s whose popularity on the stage survived the Restoration is Bussy d’Ambois (d’Amboise),—a tragedy not lacking in violence of action or emotion, and abounding even more in sweet and sublime interludes than in crabbed and bombastic passages. His rarest jewels of thought and verse detachable from the context lie embedded in the tragedy of Caesar and Pompey, whence the finest of them were first extracted by the unerring and unequalled critical genius of Charles Lamb. In most of his tragedies the lofty and labouring spirit of Chapman may be said rather to shine fitfully through parts than steadily to pervade the whole; they show nobly altogether as they stand, but even better by help of excerpts and selections. But the excellence of his best comedies can only be appreciated by a student who reads them fairly and fearlessly through, and, having made some small deductions on the score of occasional pedantry and occasional indecency, finds in All Fools, Monsieur d’Olive, The Gentleman Usher, and The Widow’s Tears a wealth and vigour of humorous invention, a tender and earnest grace of romantic poetry, which may atone alike for these passing blemishes and for the lack of such clear-cut perfection of character and such dramatic progression of interest as we find only in the yet higher poets of the English heroic age.

So much it may suffice to say of Chapman as an original poet, one who held of no man and acknowledged no master, but from the birth of Marlowe well-nigh to the death of Jonson held on his own hard and haughty way of austere and sublime ambition, not without kindly and graceful inclination of his high grey head to salute such younger and still nobler compeers as Jonson and Fletcher. With Shakespeare we should never have guessed that he had come at all in contact, had not the keen intelligence of William Minto divined or rather discerned him to be the rival poet referred to in Shakespeare’s sonnets with a grave note of passionate satire, hitherto as enigmatic as almost all questions connected with those divine and dangerous poems. This conjecture Professor Minto fortified by such apt collocation and confrontation of passages that we may now reasonably accept it as an ascertained and memorable fact.

The objections which a just and adequate judgment may bring against Chapman’s master-work, his translation of Homer, may be summed up in three epithets: it is romantic, laborious, Elizabethan. The qualities implied by these epithets are the reverse of those which should distinguish a translator of Homer; but setting this apart, and considering the poems as in the main original works, the superstructure of a romantic poet on the submerged foundations of Greek verse, no praise can be too warm or high for the power, the freshness, the indefatigable strength and inextinguishable fire which animate this exalted work, and secure for all time that shall take cognizance of English poetry an honoured place in its highest annals for the memory of Chapman.  (A. C. S.) 

Chapman’s works include:—Σκιά νυκτός: The Shadow of Night: Containing two Poeticall Hymnes . . . (1594), the second of which deals with Sir Francis Vere’s campaign in the Netherlands; Ovid’s Banquet of Sence. A Coronet for his Mistresse Philosophie; and His Amorous Zodiacke with a translation of a Latine coppie, written by a Fryer, Anno Dom. 1400 (1595, 2nd ed. 1639), a collection of poems frequently quoted from in England’s Parnassus (1600); “De Guiana, carmen epicum,” a poem prefixed to Lawrence Keymis’s A Relation of the second voyage to Guiana (1596); Hero and Leander. Begun by Christopher Marloe; and finished by George Chapman (1598); The Blinde begger of Alexandria, most pleasantly discoursing his variable humours . . . (acted 1596, printed 1598), a popular comedy; A Pleasant Comedy entituled An Humerous dayes Myrth (identified by Mr Fleay with the “Comodey of Umero” noted by Henslowe on the 11th of May 1597; printed 1599); Al Fooles, A Comedy (paid for by Henslowe on the 2nd of July 1599, its original name being “The World runs on wheels”; printed 1605); The Gentleman Usher (c. 1601, pr. 1606), a comedy; Monsieur d’Olive (1604, pr. 1606), one of his most amusing and successful comedies; Eastward Hoe (1605), written in conjunction with Ben Jonson and John Marston, an excellent comedy of city life; Bussy d’Ambois,[1] A Tragedie (1604, pr. 1607, 1608, 1616, 1641, &c.), the scene of which is laid in the court of Henry III.; The Revenge of Bussy d’Ambois. A Tragedie (pr. 1613, but probably written much earlier); The Conspiracie, And Tragedie of Charles Duke of Byron. Marshall of France, ... in two plays (1607 and 1608; pr. 1608 and 1625); May-Day, A witty Comedie (pr. 1611; but probably acted as early as 1601); The widdowes Teares. A Comedie (pr. 1612; produced perhaps as early as 1605); Caesar and Pompey: A Roman Tragedy, declaring their warres. Out of whose events is evicted this Proposition. Only a just man is a freeman (pr. 1631), written, says Chapman in the dedication, “long since,” but never staged.

The Tragedy of Alphonsus Emperour of Germany (see the edition by Dr Karl Elye; Leipzig, 1867) and Revenge for Honour (1654)[2] both bear Chapman’s name on the title-page, but his authorship has been disputed. In The Ball (lic. 1632; pr. 1639), a comedy, and The Tragedie of Chabot Admirall of France (lic. 1635; pr. 1639) he collaborated with James Shirley. The memorable Masque of the two Honourable Houses or Inns of Court; the Middle Temple and Lyncoln’s Inne, was performed at court in 1613 in honour of the marriage of the Princess Elizabeth.

The Whole Works of Homer: Prince of Poets. In his Iliads and Odysseys . . . appeared in 1616, and about 1624 he added The Crowne of all Homers works Batrachomyomachia or the Battaile of Frogs and Mise. His Hymns and Epigrams. But the whole works had been already published by instalments. Seaven Bookes of the Iliades of Homer had appeared in 1598, Achilles Shield in the same year, books i.-xii. about 1609; in 1611 The Iliads of Homer, Prince of Poets . . .; and in 1614 Twenty-four Bookes of Homer’s Odisses were entered at Stationers’ Hall. In 1609 he addressed to Prince Henry Enthymiae Raptus; or the Teares of Peace, and on the death of his patron he contributed An Epicede, or Funerall Song (1612). A paraphrase of Petrarchs Seven Penitentiall Psalms (1612), a poem in honour of the marriage of Robert Carr, earl of Somerset, and Frances, the divorced countess of Essex, indiscreetly entitled Andromeda Liberata . . . (1614), a translation of The Georgicks of Hesiod (1618), Pro Vere Autumni Lachrymae (1622), in honour of Sir Horatio Vere, A justification of a Strange Action of Nero . . . also . . . the fifth Satyre of Juvenall (1629), and Eugenia ... (1614), an elegy on Sir William Russell, complete the list of his separately published works.

Chapman’s Homer was edited in 1857 by the Rev. Richard Hooper; and a reprint of his dramatic works appeared in 1873. The standard edition of Chapman is the Works, edited by R. H. Shepherd (1874–1875), the third volume of which contains an “Essay on the Poetical and Dramatic works of George Chapman,” by Mr Swinburne, printed separately in 1875. The selection of his plays (1895) for the Mermaid Series is edited by Mr W. L. Phelps. For the sources of the plays see Emil Koeppel, “Anellen Studien zu den Dramen George Chapman's, Philip Massinger’s und John Ford’s” in Quellen und Forschungen zur Sprach und Kulturgeschichte (vol. 82, Strassburg, 1897). The suggestion of W. Minto (see Characteristics of the English Poets, 1885) that Chapman was the “rival poet” of Shakespeare’s sonnets is amplified in Mr A. Acheson’s Shakespeare and the Rival Poet (1903). Much satire in Chapman’s introduction is there applied to Shakespeare. For other criticisms of his translation of Homer see Matthew Arnold, Lectures on translating Homer (1861), and Dr A. Lohff, George Chapman’s Ilias-Übersetzung (Berlin, 1903).  (M. Br.) 

  1. Chapman’s source in this piece remains undetermined. It cannot be the Historia sui temporis of Jacques de Thorn, for the 4th volume of his work, which relates the story, was not published until 1609 (see Koeppel, p. 14).
  2. This play appears to have been issued in 1653 with the title The Parracide, or Revenge for Honour as the work of Henry Glathorne.