The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

V. Lesser Poets, 1790–1837

§ 37. Francis Cary

It is no small relief to turn from indifferent performance and undiscoverable promise to something, and that no small thing, not merely attempted but definitely done. Henry Francis Cary wrote some prose sketches of poets, not without merit, in continuation or imitation of Johnson’s Lives; and was a translator on a large scale; but one of his efforts in this latter difficult and too often thankless business has secured him the place (and, again, it is no scanty or obscure one) which he occupies in English literature. It may be impossible to translate Dante into English verse after a fashion even nearly so satisfactory to those who can read the Italian poet, and who can estimate English poetry, as is the prose of J. A. Carlyle and A. J. Butler. But it may be very seriously doubted whether, of the innumerable attempts in verse up to the present day, any is so satisfactory to a jury composed of persons who answer to the just given specifications as Cary’s blank verse. It is, no doubt, in a certain sense, a “refusal”; but it is not in the least, in the sense of the famous passage of its original, a rifiuto. It is, on the contrary a courageous, scholarly and almost fully justified recognition that attempts directly to conquer the difficulty by adopting rimed terza rima are doomed to failure; and that all others, in stanza or rimed verse of any kind, are evasions to begin with, and almost as certain failures to boot. It may even be said to be a further, and a very largely successful, recognition of the fact that blank verse, while “nearest prose” in one sense, and, therefore, sharing its advantages, is almost furthest from it in another, in the peculiar qualities of rhythm which it demands. Cary does not quite come up to this latter requisition, but, unless Milton had translated Dante, nobody could have done so. Meanwhile, Cary’s verse translation has gone the furthest and come the nearest. It is no slight achievement.