Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 4. Charles Cotton’s, Monsey’s and John Phillips’s Travesties of Vergil, Scudamore’s of Homer and Alexander Radcliffe’s of Ovid

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

§ 4. Charles Cotton’s, Monsey’s and John Phillips’s Travesties of Vergil, Scudamore’s of Homer and Alexander Radcliffe’s of Ovid

The fashion was already overpast in France, when Charles Cotton made his first experiment in English burlesque. In 1664, was published under the title Scarronides, or Virgil Travestie, a mock-poem on the first book of the Aeneid. To this, Cotton added the fourth book six years later, and, presently, put some of Lucian’s dialogues into “English fustian,” with the title Burlesque upon Burlesque: or the Scoffer Scoff’d. Of these experiments in the new craft, no more can be said than that they were better than the base imitations which speedily followed. Cotton, at any rate, was a man of letters, with a sense of style and variety, and if he stooped to play the tune which the tavern-haunters demanded, he played it with some skill and energy. He uses the artifices which they all use. He mixes ancient and modern inextricably. He measures the distance which Aeneas rowed by a familiar standard, “’twixt Parson’s Dock and Billingsgate.” As to Dido’s temple, “I cannot liken any to it,” says he, “unless ’t be Pancras, if you know it.” The humour is forced and barren; but those French critics are in the wrong, who declare that Cotton was content merely to translate Scarron. If his theory of burlesque was Scarron’s, the application of it was all his own.

Cotton’s success did not long remain unchallenged. Within a year, one Monsey of Pembroke hall, Cambridge, gave to the world his own Scarronides, a mock-poem, being the second and seventh books of Vergil’s Aeneid, which he dedicated, by what, no doubt, he thought a great stroke of humour, to “Lady Ann Dido, Countess of Carthage.” It is a work without character, scrupulously fashioned according to the pattern of the hour; and a reference to James Hind proves that this author also has learned the lesson of anachronism. Then John Phillips, a true habitant of Grub street, paraphrased, in his Maronides, the fifth and sixth books of the Aeneid. In a preface, he attempts a timid defence of his temerity. “I leave the world to determine,” says he, “whether it be not reason that he that has caused us so often to cry when we were Boys, ought not to make us laugh as much now we are men.” As Phillips travestied him, Vergil does not make us laugh, and the justification fails. The experiment, in truth, differed little from the others, save that its author, for the moment a zealous royalist, put the puritans in hell. There they all lie, Haselrigge and Pym, Hugh Peters, the chief of English rogues, Bradshaw,

  • in a Squarr
  • Of burning Canvas, lin’d with Tarr
  • and Cromwell himself,
  • that Devil of a Devil,
  • Whose Noddle was the Mint of Evil.
  • The licence which John Phillips allowed himself in his treatment of Vergil was vastly increased by the author of The Irish Hudibras, or Fingallian Prince, who boldly adapted the sixth book of the Aeneid to his own time, and turned it to a high encomium of William III, “this present Monarch, England’s timely Redeemer, whom Heaven long preserve.”

    Nor was Vergil the only one of the poets attacked in England with wanton insolence. In 1664, James Scudamore’s Homer à la Mode, A Mock Poem upon the first and second Books of Homer’s Iliads, came upon the town. The version is free from the brutality which disgraced many of its rivals, and gives promise of better things. The promise remained unfulfilled, for the author, who was bred at Christ Church, had but just taken his degree when he was drowned in the Wye, “to the great reluctancy of all those who were acquainted with his pregnant parts.” The author of Homerides: or Homer’s First Book Moderniz’d, who, some fifty years later, essayed Scudamore’s task over again, need not awaken our curiosity. He showed a spark of self-knowledge when he called himself Sir Iliad Doggerell, and a complete ignorance of literary fitness, when he regretted that Pope did not give Homer “the English air as well as tongue.” Ovid, better suited to the methods of burlesque, did but tempt the makers of travesties to a wilder extravagance. “Naso Scarronomimus,” the writer of Ovidius Exulans, can scarcely persuade the sorry tit of his humour to move for all his thwackings, and even Alexander Radcliffe, a captain, an inns-of-court-man and a poet, who, in The Ramble, An Anti-Heroic Poem, gave proof of a rough vigour and freshness, fails to arouse a laugh by his Ovid Travestie. To send Ulysses to Scotland as a volunteer, for the suppression of rebellion, and to leave him loitering at an inn on the homeward road, is an artifice which no literary fashion can justify. In truth, the taste of the dying seventeenth century was not our taste, and we can only wonder at the indiscretion of our ancestors.