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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
George Chapman (1559?–1634)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
GEORGE CHAPMAN, the translator of Homer, is of all the Elizabethan dramatists the most undramatic. He is akin to Marlowe in being more of an epic poet than a playwright; but unlike his young compeer “of the mighty line,” who in his successive plays learnt how to subdue an essentially epic genius to the demands of the stage, Chapman never got near the true secret of dramatic composition. Yet he witnessed the growth of the glorious Elizabethan drama, from its feeble beginning in ‘Gorboduc’ and ‘Gammer Gurton’s Needle’ through its very flowering in the immortal masterpieces. He was born about 1559, five years before Marlowe, the “morning star” of the English drama, and he died in 1634, surviving Shakespeare, in whom it reached its maturity, and Beaumont, Middleton, and Fletcher, whose works foreshadow decay. From his native town Hitchin he passed on to Oxford, where he distinguished himself as a classical scholar. Then for sixteen years nothing definite is known about him. His life has been called one of the great blanks of English literature. He is sometimes sent traveling on the Continent, as a convenient means of accounting for this gap, and also to explain the intimate acquaintance with German manners and customs and the language displayed in his tragedy ‘Alphonsus, Emperor of Germany,’ which argues at least for a trip to that country. In 1594 he published the two hymns in the ‘Shadow of Night’; and soon after he must have begun writing for the stage, for his first extant comedy, ‘The Blind Beggar of Alexandria,’ was acted in 1596, and two years later he appears in Francis Meres’s famous enumeration of the poets and wits of the time. Hereafter his life is to be dated by his publications.  1
  He occupies a position unique among the Elizabethans, because of his wide culture and the diverse character of his work. Though held together by his strong personality, it yet can be divided into the distinct groups of comedies, tragedies, poems, and translations. The first of these is the weakest, for Chapman was not a comic genius. ‘The Blind Beggar of Alexandria’ and ‘An Humorous Day’s Mirth’ deserve but a passing mention. In 1605 ‘All Fooles’ was published, acted six years earlier under the name ‘The World Runs on Wheels.’ It is a realistic satire, with some good scenes and character-drawing. ‘The Gentleman Usher’ is full of poetry and ingenious situations. ‘Monsieur D’Oline’ contains also some good comedy work. ‘The Widow’s Tears’ tells the well-known story of the Ephesian matron; though coarse, it is handled not without comic talent. In his comedy work Chapman is neither new nor original; he followed in Jonson’s footsteps, and suggests moreover Terence, Plautus, Fletcher, and Lyly. He has wit, satire, and sarcasm; but along with these, poor construction and little invention. He was going against his grain, and we have here the frankest expression of “pot-boiling” to be found among the Elizabethan dramatists. Writing for the stage was the only kind of literature that really paid; the playhouse was to the Elizabethan what the paper-covered novel is to a modern reader. This accounts for the enormous dramatic productivity of the time, and also explains why the most finely endowed minds, in need of money, produced dramas instead of other imaginative work. By the time he wrote his comedies, Chapman had already won his place as poet and translator, but it earned him no income. Pope, one hundred and twenty-five years later, made a fortune by his translation of Homer. But then the number of readers had increased, and publishers could afford to give large sums to a popular author. Chapman takes rank among the dramatists mainly by his four chief tragedies: ‘Bussy d’Ambois,’ ‘The Revenge of Bussy d’Ambois,’ ‘The Conspiracy of Charles, Duke of Byron,’ and ‘The Tragedy of Charles, Duke of Byron.’ They are unique among the plays of the period, in that they deal with almost contemporary events in French history; not with the purpose of exciting any feeling for or against the parties introduced, but in calm ignoring of public opinion, they bring recent happenings on the stage to suit the dramatist’s purpose. He drew his material mainly from the ‘Historiæ Sui Temporis’ of Jacques Auguste de Thou, but he troubled himself little about following it with accuracy, or even painting the characters of the chief actors as true to life. In these tragedies, more than in the comedies, we get sight of Chapman the man; indeed, it is his great failing as playwright that his own individuality is constantly cropping out. He alone, of all the great Elizabethan dramatists, was unable to go outside of himself and enter into the habits and thoughts of his characters. Chapman was too much of a scholar and a thinker to be a successful delineator of men. His is the drama of the man who thinks about life, not of one who lives it in its fullness. He does not get into the hearts of men. He has too many theories. Homer had become the ruling influence in his life, and he looked at things from the Homeric point of view and presented life epically. He is at his best in single didactic or narrative passages, and exquisite bits of poetry are prodigally scattered up and down the pages of his tragedies. Next to Shakespeare he is the most sententious of dramatists. He sounded the depths of things in thought which theretofore only Marlowe had done. He is the most metaphysical of dramatists.  2
  Yet his thought is sometimes too much for him, and he becomes obscure. He packs words as tight as Browning, and the sense is often more difficult to unravel. He is best in the closet drama. ‘Cæsar and Pompey,’ published in 1631 but never acted, contains some of his finest thoughts.  3
  Chapman also collaborated with other dramatists. ‘Eastward Ho,’ in 1605, written with Marston and Jonson, is one of the liveliest and best constructed Elizabethan comedies, combining the excellences of the three men without their faults. Some allusion to the Scottish nation offended King James; the authors were confined in Fleet Prison and barely escaped having their ears and noses slit. With Shirley he wrote the comedy ‘The Ball’ and the tragedy ‘Chabot, Admiral of France.’  4
  Chapman wrote comedies to make money, and tragedies because it was the fashion of the day, and he studded these latter with exquisite passages because he was a poet born. But he was above all a scholar with wide and deep learning, not only of the classics but also of the Renaissance literature. From 1613 to 1631 he does not appear to have written for the stage, but was occupied with his translations of Homer, Hesiod, Juvenal, Musæus, Petrarch, and others. In 1614, at the marriage of the Princess Elizabeth, was performed in the most lavish manner the ‘Memorable Masque of the two Honorable Houses or Inns of Court; the Middle Temple and Lyncoln Inne.’ Chapman also completed Marlowe’s unfinished ‘Hero and Leander.’  5
  His fame however rests on his version of Homer. The first portion appeared in 1598: ‘Seven Bookes of the Iliade of Homer, Prince of Poets; Translated according to the Greeke in judgment of his best Commentaries.’ In 1611 the Iliad complete appeared, and in 1615 the whole of the Odyssey; though he by no means reproduces Homer faithfully, he approaches nearest to the original in spirit and grandeur. It is a typical product of the English Renaissance, full of vigor and passion, but also of conceit and fancifulness. It lacks the simplicity and the serenity of the Greek, but has caught its nobleness and rapidity. As has been said, “It is what Homer might have written before he came to years of discretion.” Yet with all its shortcomings it remains one of the classics of Elizabethan literature. Pope consulted it diligently, and has been accused of at times re-versifying this instead of the Greek. Coleridge said of it:—
          “The Iliad is fine, but less equal in the translation [than the Odyssey], as well as less interesting in itself. What is stupidly said of Shakespeare is really true and appropriate of Chapman: ‘Mighty faults counterpoised by mighty beauties.’… It is as truly an original poem as the ‘Faerie Queen’;—it will give you small idea of Homer, though a far truer one than Pope’s epigrams, or Cowper’s cumbersome, most anti-Homeric Miltonisms. For Chapman writes and feels as a poet,—as Homer might have written had he lived in England in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. In short, it is an exquisite poem in spite of its frequent and perverse quaintnesses and awkwardness, which are however amply repaid by almost unexampled sweetness and beauty of language, all over spirit and feeling.”
  6
  Keats’s tribute, the sonnet ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,’ attests another poet’s appreciation of the Elizabethan’s paraphrase. Keats diligently explored this “new planet” that swam into his ken, and his own poetical diction is at times touched by the quaintness and fancifulness of the elder poet he admired.  7
  Lamb, that most sympathetic critic of the old dramatists, speaks of him as follows:—
          “Webster has happily characterized the ‘full and heightened’ style of Chapman, who of all the English play-writers perhaps approaches nearest to Shakespeare in the descriptive and didactic, in passages which are less purely dramatic. He could not go out of himself, as Shakespeare could shift at pleasure, to inform and animate other existences, but in himself he had an eye to perceive and a soul to embrace all forms and modes of being. He would have made a great epic poet, if indeed he has not abundantly shown himself to be one; for his ‘Homer’ is not so properly a translation as the stories of Achilles and Ulysses rewritten. The earnestness and passion which he has put into every part of these poems would be incredible to a reader of more modern translations…. The great obstacle to Chapman’s translations being read is their unconquerable quaintness. He pours out in the same breath the most just and natural, and the most violent and crude expressions. He seems to grasp at whatever words come first to hand while the enthusiasm is upon him, as if all others must be inadequate to the divine meaning. But passion (the all-in-all in poetry) is everywhere present, raising the low, dignifying the mean, and putting sense into the absurd. He makes his readers glow, weep, tremble, take any affection which he pleases, be moved by words, or in spite of them be disgusted and overcome their disgust.”
  8
 
 
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