- The Augustan Art of Poetry: Augustan Translation of the Classics
Posterity has valued the works of the Cremonan prelate, scholar, and Latin poet Marcus Hieronymus Vida (c. 1485–1566) at a lesser rate than either his contemporaries or his more immediate Enlightenment inheritors. Vida's reputation as one of the greatest Italian poets of the sixteenth century was consolidated in his own lifetime by the publication of his major collection of verse epistles, hymns, and bucolics in 1527. He was even, in 1529, asked by Pope Leo X to write an epic poem celebrating the life of Christ, to be modeled explicitly on Virgil's Aeneid. Accordingly, the poet presented his Christiados libri sex to Pope Clement VII in 1532, and with that work—published in 1535 and eventually translated into English as The Christiad—earned for himself the reputation of "the Christian Virgil." Chief among Vida's more manifestly influential productions, however, was his De arte poetica (On the Art of Poetry). It was to this critical work of 1527 that John Dryden was referring when—in the preface to his Juvenal (1693)—he counted Vida among the exclusive company of Aristotle, Horace, and Bossu as one of the essential commentators and critics with whom any epic poet "worthy of that name" must be conversant. (See John Dryden, "A Discourse Concerning the Original and Progress of Satire," in John Dryden: Selected Criticism, eds. James Kinsley and George Parfitt [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970], 228.) Jonathan Swift was familiar with the work of the Italian poet, and—most famously—Alexander Pope, in his Essay on Criticism (1709), celebrated his predecessor's contribution to the poetic Renaissance of the sixteenth century:
Immortal Vida! On whose honour'd Brow The poet's Bays and Critick's Ivy grow: Cremona now shall ever boast thy Name, As next in place to Mantua, next in Fame! [End Page 130]
(Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism, in The Twickenham Edition of the Poems of Alexander Pope, ed. John Butt, 10 vols. [London: Methuen, 1938–68], I, 317–22.)
Just one of the many strengths of Robin Sowerby's The Augustan Art of Poetry is that it is the sort of volume that prompts its reader to return to critics such as Vida—critics who, although central to advancing and promulgating a classical standard for the "ideal properties of style" (2) for the practice of heroic poetry (and its theory) in the Renaissance, have lingered as little more than footnotes in the minds of many, if not most, modern readers. Sowerby makes careful use of Vida's three-part De arte poetica (translated into English by Pope's protégé Christopher Pitt in 1726) in the first chapter of his study to emphasize the centrality of Virgil to the humanist reception of their ancient inheritance, and to the subsequent refinement of that inheritance in the work of poets such as Dryden and Pope themselves. Sowerby with reason reads Vida's work as a succinct expression of "humanist ideals about the methods and ends of education" (11), and he argues convincingly for the extent to which the "Maronolatry" of Vida—his confident assertion of the superiority of Virgil over Homer—was not a Renaissance invention, but rather "something that the Latin humanists inherited from their Roman forebears" (20). This interest in Vida's manifesto espousing the neo-Latin version of Roman Augustanism is in many respects prefatory to the book's major aim of exploring "the translation of the Roman Augustan aesthetic into a vernacular equivalent in the English poetry of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries . . . by means of translation of the classics" (1).
Each of the three subsequent chapters of Sowerby's book clearly and patiently furthers this central purpose. His second chapter explores the manner in which the "Augustan Ideal" struggled to find its proper expression in "a workable English equivalent" of Virgil's Latin hexameters (62). Beginning with the experiments of Surrey and soon working his way up to the partial translations of Virgil by Waller and Denham...