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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

VIII. The Court Poets

§ 14. Roscommon’s Essay on Translated Verse

Poetry, it may be assumed, was but an interlude in the life of Mulgrave. Politics were always his chief employment, from which he retired only while William III was on the throne. The favourite of queen Anne, he held high office during her reign, opposed the duke of Marlborough, ill requited the queen’s amiability by inviting the princess Sophia to England, and built the palace in the park, which, more than his works, keeps green his name. Wentworth Dillon, earl of Roscommon, on the other hand, meddled in the affairs of the court as little as he practised its vices. Born in Ireland during the reign of Strafford, his kinsman, he was given the name of that statesman, who presently sent him to his own estate in Yorkshire to be educated. He showed an aptitude for learning, and, as his biographer says, “attain’d to write in Latin with classical elegance and propriety.” When the blow fell upon Strafford, Roscommon was sent to Caen to complete his education, and spent the years of civil war in learning the life and language of foreign countries, “applying himself particularly to the knowledge of medals, which he gained in perfection.” He returned to England at the restoration, a scholar, an honest man, and something of a prig. He had but one vice, the unamiable vice of gambling, with which he diminished his resources, and which once, in Dublin, went near to cause his death. A friend of Dryden, he engaged that great man’s sympathy for his favourite project, the founding of a British Academy which should “refine and fix the standard of our language.” And the academic bent of his mind is seen in his verses. His Essay on Translated Verse might well have been an exercise presented to an academy of letters. It is tame, frigid and uninspired. Johnson says he is “the only correct writer of verse before Addison,” a judgment which sets a strange meaning upon correctness. The poets to whom Roscommon owes the greatest debt are Horace, whom he says he has served more than twenty years, and Boileau, whose apologue of the quack he introduces into his poem without pertinence. The style of the Essay never rises above a prosaic commonplace. It is only by courtesy that we call such couplets as these poetry:

  • Provok’d too far, we resolutely must
  • To the few virtues that we have be just,
  • or
  • From hence our gen’rous Emulation came,
  • We undertook, and we perform’d the same.
  • The few precepts which he gives us would not prove of the smallest use to the translator. They are little else than the platitudes generally beloved by moral guides. Polonius himself might have composed this specimen:

  • The first great work (a Task perform’d by few)
  • Is that yourself should to yourself be true.
  • He was as resolute a champion of “good sense” as Rymer himself, and he treats Homer with the same scant courtesy which the author of A Short View meted out to Shakespeare:

  • For who, without a qualm, hath ever lookt
  • On holy garbage, tho’ by Homer Cookt,
  • Whose rayling hero’s, and whose wounded gods
  • Make some suspect, He snores as well as nods.
  • In the controversy between morality and art, he is strongly ranged on the side of morality. “Want of decency is want of sense,” says he in a line that Mulgrave pilfered. He shines most brilliantly in aphorisms, but he cannot sustain his wisdom; and what most surprises us in An Essay on Translated Verse is its reception. In Granville’s eyes, he, with Mulgrave’s aid, had entirely eclipsed “the Stagyrite and Horace.” Henceforth, said this too flattering critic, “we need no foreign guide.” But let it not be forgotten that Roscommon, before Mulgrave, discerned the genius of Milton and the splendour of blank verse. His theory was better than his precept. In his version of Ars Poetica, he proved that, however deep might be his admiration of Milton, he could not emulate the noble dignity of his style. Nevertheless, the merit of one who, in 1684, dared to write blank verse, is not that he uses it well, but that he uses it at all. Perturbed by the religious strife which followed James II’s accession to the throne, Roscommon took the prudent resolution, says his biographer, “to pass the remainder of his life at Rome, telling his friends it would be better to sit next to the chimney when the chamber smok’d.” He did not effect his purpose. Overtaken by the gout, he died suddenly, reciting as he died two lines of his own:

  • My God, my father, and my friend,
  • Do not forsake me at my End.