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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

§ 16. Charles Cotton and his Montaigne

Charles Cotton, in his translations, set before himself the same ideal as Roger L’Estrange. He hoped that his versions might have the air of true originals. And certain it is that you may read them without any thought of his texts. Though his style, too, errs, now and again, on the side of the tavern, he sternly avoids the excesses of slang, which soil the works of his contemporaries. Moreover, he made a resolute attempt to keep close to the sense of the authors whom he translated, and, here again, he separated himself rigidly from the custom of his age. His versions are made one and all from the French, and, within the limits of this language, he permitted himself a great latitude of choice. Corneille’s Horace is among his works, and Du Vair’s Moral Philosophy of the Stoics. These he followed by Girard’s History of the Life of the Duke of Espernon, and the admirable Commentaries of Blaise de Montluc. In this last, perhaps, his talent found its worthiest expression. He had a natural sympathy with the original, and he translated it into an English that is both dignified and appropriate. Narrative was in closer accord with his temper than philosophical disquisition, and, though it is by his version of Montaigne’s Essays that he is principally remembered to-day, his Commentaries of Montluc approach more nearly in style and quality to what a translation should be.

In translating Montaigne, Cotton was at a disadvantage, of which he himself was wholly unconscious. He followed in the footsteps of a far greater adept in the difficult art, John Florio. Florio had all the virtues, save accuracy. If his book fails to represent the style of Montaigne, and not infrequently distorts his meaning, it is none the less a piece of living prose. Perhaps, it tells you more of Florio than of Montaigne; but it has that enduring quality, character, and it is unlikely that fashion will ever drive it from the minds of admiring scholars. Cotton’s version is of other stuff. Though not always correct, though never close-knit as is the original, it is more easily intelligible than Florio’s, and gives, may be, a clearer vision of the French. That, indeed, was Cotton’s purpose. “My design,” says he, “in attempting this translation was to present my country with a true copy of a very brave original.” Both translators use too many words for their purpose, Florio because he delights in the mere sound of them, Cotton, because he had not acquired the gift of concise expression, because he did not always know how to discard the tiresome symbols which encumber his sentences as with pack-thread. Florio, on the one hand, wrote like a fantastic, to whom embroideries were essential, Cotton, on the other, wrote like a country gentleman, who, after a day’s fishing, turned an honest penny by the pursuits of scholarship. The one lacks precision, the other distinction, and each man will decide for himself which he prefers.

Charles Cotton, in truth, holds a place apart in the literary history of his time. Though L’Estrange was born to an ancient house in Norfolk, the strife of art and politics, the necessities of his journals had driven him to London and the taverns. Cotton, well as he knew London, remained still faithful to his dale in Derbyshire. In Lamb’s phrase, he “smacked of the rough magnanimity of the old English vein.” It was in all sincerity that he praised his beloved caves,

  • from Dog-star heats,
  • And hotter persecution safe retreats
  • When poverty drove him to do the work of a hack, he did it with what skill and spirit he might. If The Compleat Gamester was unworthy his pen, his Planter’s Manual is a pleasant and practical little treatise. His verses have own the approval of Coleridge and Lamb and Wordsworth, and his lines to his “dear and most worthy Friend, Mr. Isaac Walton” remind us of Horace and his Sabine farm:
  • A day without too bright a Beam,
  • A warm, but not a scorching Sun,
  • A Southern gale to curl the Stream,
  • And (master) half our work is done.
  • These four lines are worth the whole of Scarronides, and, doubtless, they will be remembered when the translation of Montaigne has faded utterly from the minds of men.