The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

X. Writers of Burlesque and Translators

§ 11. His Don Quixote

There is one book—his translation of Don Quixote—which, for good or evil, is all his own. Not even Ned Ward, whose inappropriate courage persuaded him to turn the masterpiece of Cervantes into Hudibrastic verse, committed so great an outrage on a noble original as did John Phillips when he made The History of the most Renowned Don Quixote English “according to the humour of our Modern Language.” It is difficult to describe this rash experiment. Imagine Hamlet turned into the lingo of the music hall, and fitted with occasional songs and dances, and you will have a faint impression of Phillips’s impropriety. Little as he respected his author, he respected still less the time and place of his incomparable romance. He has reduced to the level of his own Grub street the style and manner of Cervantes. His work is less a translation than a travesty. He has treated Don Quixote as Scarron treated the Aeneid. He has composed a debased fantasia of his own upon a well-known and beautiful theme. In other words, he has employed an imagery as vulgar as the slang of the tavern can make it. Rosinante, in his eyes, is a “Dover post-horse,” the inn keeper is “as true a thief as ever sung psalm at Tyburn.” The fish which Don Quixote has for his supper is “so ill-dress’d as if it had been cook’d in Ram Alley or White-Fryers.” Such humour as anachronism will afford may be found on every page, and, as though it were not enough to create a confusion of time, Phillips never ceases to confound the Spain of the age of Cervantes with the England of his own. The sail of the windmill throws the knight sprawling, says he, “at the distance of more yards than would have measured Long Megg of Lincoln a gown and petticoat.” He likens the lovers to “young citizens and their wives in an Epsom coach”; in his version, Tolosa masquerades as Betty, “the daughter of a Cobbler in Southwark, that kept a stall under a Chandler’s shop in Kent street”; and, by way of a crowning absurdity, the lady tells Don Ferdinand “to read Baxter’s Saints’ Everlasting Rest.” Now, he merely hints at a false comparison, as when he says that Cardenio held his Lucinda “as the Lobster held the Hair upon Salisbury Plain.” Now, he seems to exhaust his ingenuity in a single passage. When the inn keeper tells Don Quixote that he, too, had been a knight errant, he boasts, in Phillips’s travesty, how

  • he himself had pursu’d the same Chace of Honour in his youth, travelling through all parts of the World in search of bold Adventures; to which purpose he had left no corner unvisited of the King’s Bench Rules, the Skulking Holes of Alsatia, the Academy of the Fleet, the Colledge of Newgate, the Purliews of Turnbull, and Pickt Hatch, the Bordellos of St. Giles’s, Banstead-Downs, Newmarket-Heath: … not a Publick Bowling Green where he had not exercis’d his heels; nor an Execution-crowd, nor a Hedge-Tavern, where he had not employ’d his pauming, topping, cogging fingers.
  • This is monumental, but it is not Cervantes. And by how many leagues is it removed from the splendid simplicity of Shelton!

    Worse still, the ingenious Phillips makes Don Quixote an occasion for setting forth his preferences and his animosities. He packs his pages with modern instances. He drags in Hobbes and the Protector by the heels; nor does he lose a chance of insulting Milton, to whom he owed such scholarship as he possessed. Thus it is that Don Diego di Miranda describes his son’s attainments:

  • he is a great admirer of Horace, Juvenal, and Persius—but as for the modern poets he allows very few to be worth a straw; among the rest he has a particular Peek against Du Bartas, and Paradise Lost, which he says has neither Rhime nor Reason.
  • To defend such a work as Phillips’s Don Quixote is not easy. There is a flippant irreverence in its jests and gibes which criticism is forced to condemn. No man has a right thus licentiously to transform a masterpiece of literature. The very readiness with which a writer of burlesque can achieve a laugh should warn him that the laugh is not worth achievement. Yet, when all is said that can be said in dispraise, we cannot but acknowledge the supreme skill with which Phillips has performed his task. His zest never flags, his imagery never grows tired. On every page he has a fresh, if perverse, simile. With untiring energy, he illustrates Cervantes from the life of the taverns which he frequented. The vigour and levity of his style are amazing; his understanding of the original is seldom at fault, and, though it may be said that the book should never have been done, it must be added that it is done exceedingly well. For, if it gives us a very blurred picture of Don Quixote, it presents the clear image of the most flippant, restless and debauched mind of an age which ill understood the punctilio of life or letters.