The Age of Shakespeare/Chapter 8
George Chapman, translator of Homer, dramatist, and gnomic poet, was born in 1559, and died in 1634. At fifteen, according to Anthony Wood, 'he, being well grounded in school learning, was sent to the university' of Oxford; at thirty-five he published his first poem: 'The Shadow of Night.' Between these dates, though no fact has been unearthed concerning his career, it is not improbable that he may have travelled in Germany. At thirty-nine he was reckoned 'among the best of our tragic writers for the stage'; but his only play published at that age was a crude and formless attempt at romantic comedy, which had been acted three years before it passed from the stage to the press; and his first tragedy now extant in print, without name of author, did not solicit the suffrage of a reader till the poet was forty-eight. At thirty-nine he had also published the first instalment of his celebrated translation of the 'Iliad,' in a form afterward much remodelled; at sixty-five he crowned the lofty structure of his labour by the issue of an English version of the 'Hymns' and other minor Homeric poems. The former he dedicated to Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, the hapless favourite of Elizabeth; the latter to Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, the infamous minion of James. Six years earlier he had inscribed to Bacon, then Lord Chancellor, a translation of Hesiod's 'Works and Days.' His only other versions of classic poems are from the fifth satire of Juvenal and the 'Hero and Leander' which goes under the name of Musæus, the latter dedicated to Inigo Jones. His revised and completed version of the 'Iliad' had been inscribed in a noble and memorable poem of dedication to Henry Prince of Wales, after whose death he and his 'Odyssey' fell under the patronage of Carr. Of the manner of his death at seventy-five we know nothing more than may be gathered from the note appended to a manuscript fragment, which intimates that the remainder of the poem, a lame and awkward piece of satire on his old friend Jonson, had been 'lost in his sickness.'
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 sincere 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 sublime or beautiful interludes than in crabbed and bombastic passages. His rarest jewels of thought and verse detachable from the context lie embedded in the tragedy of 'Cæsar 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 crudity, 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 our heroic age.
The severest critic of his shortcomings or his errors, if not incompetent to appreciate his achievements and his merits, must recognise in Chapman an original poet, one who held of no man and acknowledged no master, but throughout the whole generation of our greatest men, from the birth of Marlowe wellnigh to the death of Jonson, held on his own hard and haughty way of austere and sublime ambition, not without an occasional pause for kindly and graceful salutation of 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 intelligence of Mr. 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 the critic has 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 cognisance of English poetry an honoured place in its highest annals for the memory of Chapman.