Home  »  Volume VIII: English THE AGE OF DRYDEN  »  § 6. French Influence through Translations; Heroic Romances

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

XVI. The Essay and the Beginning of Modern English Prose

§ 6. French Influence through Translations; Heroic Romances

In 1651, D’Avenant published his unfinished heroic poem Gondibert, which he had written at Paris, and which, in general conception and tone, shows the influence of the heroic romances. Their popularity in England is well known. Gomberville’s Polexandre appeared in an English dress in 1647 but “so disguised” that Dorothy Osborne, that ardent reader of romances, “hardly knew it.” A translation of La Calprenède’s Cléopâtre, and two translations of his Cassandre, began to appear in 1652 (Sir Charles Cottrell’s translation of the former was published in 1676). English versions of Madeleine de Scudéry’s Ibrahim, Le Grand Cyrus and Clélie followed in 1652, 1653–5 and 1656–61. There was a subsequent version of the last named in 1678, and translations by John Phillips of La Calprenède’s Pharamond and of Madeleine de Scudéry’s Almahide in the previous year. English imitations also appeared of lord Broghill (Orrery)’s Parthenissa (the first part came out in 1654), with which, in spite of its “handsome language,” Dorothy Osborne was “not very much taken.” A complete edition, in three volumes, was published in 1665 and 1667; Sir George Mackenzie’s Aretina, or the Serious Romance, followed in 1661. The most active translator at this time was John Davies of Kidwelly. Besides Clélie (1652) and the last four parts of Cléopâtre (1658–60), he translated novels by Scarron (1657–67); Voiture’s Letters (1657), which soon eclipsed Balzac’s in favour and are recommended by Locke as a pattern for “letters of compliment, mirth, railery or conversation”; Sorel’s Le Berger extravagant (1653); and Scarron’s Nouvelles tragicomiques (1657–62). The same author’s Don Japhet d’Arménie and Les trois Dorothées were translated in 1657, and his Roman comique in 1676. But it was his burlesques which had the greatest vogue in this country and produced numerous imitators. Charles Cotton led the way with his Scarronides, a burlesque of the first book of Vergil, in 1664, and followed it up with the fourth book in 1665. Other writers burlesqued Homer and Ovid, all outdoing Scarron in coarseness and vulgarity. In the words of Dryden, Parnassus spoke the cant of Billingsgate.