Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Pitt, Christopher

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PITT, CHRISTOPHER (1699–1748), poet and translator, was born at Blandford, Dorset, in 1699. His father, Christopher, the descendant of a well-to-do Dorset family, was a physician of good standing, who practised in Blandford, and died there in 1723. He contributed the ‘Plague of Athens’ to the well-known translation of Lucretius by Thomas Creech [q. v.], a work dedicated to his kinsman, George Pitt of Strathfieldsaye, father of George Pitt, first baron Rivers [q. v.] The poet's elder brother, Robert Pitt, was elected a fellow of Wadham in 1719, and displayed scholarly taste in a translation into Latin of five books of Milton's ‘Paradise Lost.’ Robert Pitt [q. v.], the physician and fellow of the Royal Society, was probably a great-uncle, and Governor Thomas Pitt (1653–1726) [q. v.] was the poet's first cousin.

Christopher was admitted a scholar at Winchester in 1713. He matriculated from Wadham College on 5 April 1718, but in the following March was elected scholar of New College, and presented the electors with an English metrical version of Lucan. This was never printed, in consequence of the appearance of Rowe's translation in the same year. While still an undergraduate, however, he published a ‘Poem on the Death of the late Earl of Stanhope. Humbly inscribed to the Countess of Stanhope,’ London, 1721, 8vo. Lady Stanhope (daughter of Governor Pitt) was his second cousin. He was elected a fellow of New College on 5 March 1721, and graduated B.A. on 10 Oct. 1722. A few days later he was presented by George Pitt to the rectory of Pimperne in Dorset. He continued in residence at Oxford until he obtained the degree of M.A. in 1724, but spent the remainder of his life at Pimperne in single contentment and seclusion. Combining an enthusiasm for literature with a modest estimate of his own powers, he devoted his best energies to translations. In 1725 he published a verse translation of the ‘De Arte Poetica’ of Marcus Hieronymus Vida, bishop of Alba, first published at Paris in 1534. This work had long been popular abroad, but had only recently been rendered familiar to English readers in the sumptuous edition of T. Tristram (Oxford, 1723, 12mo). Pitt's translation saw a second edition in 1742. About 1726 he sent to Pope a translation of the twenty-third book of the ‘Odyssey,’ which the poet acknowledged in flattering terms and used extensively in correcting the labours of his journeyman, William Broome [q. v.] In the following year he dedicated to George Pitt, under the title ‘Poems and Translations,’ some juvenile poems, together with metrical versions of psalms. It was in 1728 that he first turned his attention to a translation of Virgil's ‘Æneid,’ for which his facility in smooth and graceful versification specially fitted him. In that year he issued an ‘Essay on Virgil's Æneid, being a Translation of the first Book,’ London, 8vo, which elicited warm praise from Dr. Young, Bishop Secker, Spence, Broome, Duncombe, and other patrons and friends. In March 1732 Spence, then travelling in Italy, wrote him a highly complimentary letter ‘from the Tomb of Virgil.’ Thus encouraged, he completed, on 2 June 1738, a translation of the whole poem into heroic couplets, which was dedicated to Frederick, prince of Wales, and published in two handsome quarto volumes, London, 1740. Pitt carefully read all the versions of his predecessors, and describes the fatigue experienced during the perusal of the translation by John Ogilby [q. v.] He disarmed any very scathing comment on his hardihood in following in Dryden's footsteps by the remark in his preface that ‘a Painter of a lower Rank may draw a Face that was taken by Titian and think of mending his Hand by it, without any thought of equalling his master.’ Pitt's translation was included, with high commendation, in Warton's edition of Virgil (4 vols. 8vo, 1753); but the prevailing opinion of contemporaries, that it rivalled the work of Dryden in beauty while it surpassed it in accuracy, has not been confirmed by subsequent critics. Dr. Johnson remarked that ‘Dryden's faults are forgotten in the hurry of delight, and Pitt's beauties are neglected in the languor of a cold and listless perusal; Pitt pleases the critics, and Dryden the people; Pitt is quoted, and Dryden read.’ After the lapse of a century, Professor Conington remarks: ‘Besides Dryden's, Pitt's is the only version which can be said to be at present in existence: a dubious privilege which it owes to the fact of its having been included in the successive collections of English poetry, of which Johnson's was the first.’

Like more distinguished members of his family, Pitt suffered from an early age from a very severe form of gout, which undermined his constitution. He died at Pimperne on 15 April 1748, and was buried in Blandford church, where a mural inscription celebrates ‘his candour and primitive simplicity of manners,’ and states that ‘he lived innocent and died beloved.’ A portrait engraved by Cook is prefixed to the selection of his verses given in Bell's ‘Poets’ (1782, vol. xcix.). Selections, prefixed by memoirs, are also given in Anderson's ‘Poets’ (viii. 796), Chalmers's ‘Poets’ (vols. xii. xix.), Park's ‘British Poets’ (vol. iii.), and Sanford's ‘British Poets’ (vol. xxi.). Several letters from Pitt to Duncombe are printed in the correspondence of John Hughes.

[Hutchins's Dorset, i. 236; Foster's Alumni Oxon. 1500–1714; Kirby's Winchester Scholars; Gardiner's Register of Wadham; Cibber's Lives of the Poets, v. 298; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. ii. 260; Johnson's Poets, ed. Cunningham, iii. 219; Chalmers's Biogr. Dict. xxiv. 593; Gent. Mag. 1813, i. 537; Pope's Works, ed. Elwin and Courthope, passim; Julian's Dict. of Hymnology; Brit. Mus. Cat.]

T. S.