Reference > Cambridge History > Cavalier and Puritan > Writers of the Couplet > George Sandys
  Sir John Beaumont Edmund Waller  


The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

III. Writers of the Couplet.

§ 3. George Sandys.

Drayton, also, was the friend, and, in no small degree, the master, of George Sandys, who has some importance in the history of the couplet. Sandys, born on 2 March, 1577/8, was the youngest son of Edwin Sandys, archbishop of York. He entered St. Mary hall, Oxford, in 1589; but nothing further is known of him until, in 1610, he began his travels in the east, the relation of which he published, with a dedication to the prince of Wales, in 1615. In August, 1621, he went to America, as treasurer of the English company for the colony of Virginia, with the governor of the colony, his brother-in-law, Sir Francis Wyatt. There can be no doubt that, before he went, the first five books of his translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses had appeared in print. No copy of this publication has been traced; and Sandys, in his preface to the whole translation, published in 1626, implies that the work was done during his residence in Virginia. However, there is an elegy by Drayton addressed to Sandys, which was written very soon after Sandys’s departure, and contains historical allusions to events in the Thirty Years’ war which show that it was composed in the winter of 1621–2. Drayton praises the first five books of the Metamorphoses already translated, and begs his correspondent to “let ’s see what lines Virginia will produce.” Aided by such encouragement, Sandys persevered, dedicating the day, as he tells Charles I, “to the service of your Great Father, and your Selfe,” and “that unperfect light, which was snatcht from the houres of night and repose” to the completion of his translation, and, probably, the polishing of its earlier books.   5
  The influence of the study of Ovid upon a more concise and pointed type of couplet had been already a remarkable feature of Drayton’s poetry. Sandys endeavoured to translate as literally as possible. In the end, his translation exceeded the original by only some eleven hundred lines. He is sometimes excessively literal. “When auxil’ary brasse resounds in vaine” is an almost too exact rendering of Cum frustra resonent aera auxiliaria. 2  “I see the better, I approve it too; The worse I follow” is faithful to its original, without reproducing its real force. 3  Wilful embroidery on the text is sometimes admitted, where a few additional words give a picturesque or dramatic touch to the context. Thus, in these lines from the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe,
When Pyramus, who came not forth so soone,
Perceived by the glimpses of the Moone
The footing of wild Beasts;  4 
and, in this couplet from the tale of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus,
Her sisters oft would say; Fie, Salmacis,
Fie lazie sister, what a sloth is this!  5 
the italicised words are not even implied by Ovid. More often, probably, Sandys aimed at condensing the sense of the Latin in his English, where an effect was possible. As a rule, however, he renders Ovid’s sense with extraordinary faithfulness, and in verse which is strong and melodious. Nowhere are his ability and ingenuity so apparent as in passages containing long lists of names of persons or places. The relish which, as a traveller, he must have found in Ovid’s enumeration of the mountains and rivers affected by Phaëthon’s experiment with his father’s horses is clearly apparent.  6  A love of outdoor sport, which elsewhere suggests casual words and phrases, led him to find appropriate English equivalents for the names which Ovid gives to Actaeon’s hounds:  7  his account of the tragedy gains strength thereby. In almost every part of the poem we may find passages of vigour and picturesqueness, sustained for many lines together. Such are the descriptions of the cave of Envy;  8  of the plague;  9  of Pythagoras and his vegetarian counsels;  10  and the comparison of the ages of man to the seasons.  11  In his rendering of “the good-natured story of Baucis and Philemon,” Sandys works with that simplicity of language which the homely subject demands.  12  He was not habitually superior to what he would have called the “ambages” of his contemporaries. Richard Hooper, the editor of his poems, has indicated the obligation under which, in the matter of phrase, he lay to Chapman, not the best model of a perspicuous style. But, on the whole, his style was consistently direct and intelligible; it is even, at times, colloquial. Every one of Ovid’s heroes, gods, or monsters assumes, with Sandys, a tendency to “skip” or “caper”; while
Furious Medea, with her haire unbound,
About the flagrant Altar trots a Round.  13 
However, his directness does not lead to baldness of language, or to avoidance of a sounding word or phrase where it will serve its turn. Similarly, his versification is guided by its opportunities rather than by fixed prejudices in favour of certain rules. A number of couplets, each complete in itself, may quite easily be followed by a series of overlapping couplets. In either case, each couplet will be solid and weighty in texture and content. Sandys was not afraid of double consonants or strong monosyllabic rimes. He frequently allowed himself, and always with good effect, to rime two weak endings. In this freedom and variety of use, Drayton was his master; and it is impossible to say that Sandys did more than continue Drayton’s form of couplet versification with great skill and success, and on a larger scale than his master had employed.
  Sandys returned from Virginia about 1626, when the first complete edition of his Ovid was published. He was appointed a gentleman of the privy chamber to Charles I, and was able to spend the remainder of his life in long intervals of leisure, living at the country houses of his relations and consorting with the poets and wits whom Falkland attracted round him. To a new edition of his Ovid, published at Oxford in 1632, Sandys gave
what perfection [his] Pen could bestow; by polishing, altering, or restoring, the harsh, improper, or mistaken, with a nicer exactnesse than perhaps is required in so long a labour.
He added to this edition a translation in couplets of the first book of the Aeneid. His mind, however, as he confessed, was “diverted from these studies”; and he forsook “Peneian groves and Cirrha’s caves” for Holy Scripture. His Paraphrase upon the Psalms of David was published in 1636. Early in 1638, it appeared in a folio edition, with tunes by Henry Lawes, and in company with paraphrases of Job, Ecclesiastes, the Lamentations of Jeremiah and the various songs of the Old and New Testament. The decasyllabic couplet was employed in the versions of Job, Ecclesiastes and Lamentations, in nineteen of the Psalms and in two of the miscellaneous songs. Twenty-eight psalms, and three of the miscellaneous songs, are written in octosyllabic couplets. Thirty-six psalms are arrangements of octosyllabic lines, with various rimes, in stanza form. Among these should be noticed five examples of the stanza familiar to us as that of Tennyson’s In Memoriam. Sixteen psalms are composed of trochaic heptasyllabic couplets, and five of couplets of lines of six syllables. The remaining psalms consist, with nine exceptions, of stanzas in which lines of eight are mingled with lines of six or four syllables, or both. In seven of the exceptions, the stanza is formed by a quatrain of six-syllabled lines with alternate rimes, followed by a quatrain of four-syllabled lines, the rimes in which are formed by the two extreme and two middle lines respectively. The two remaining exceptions are composed of a series of quatrains of decasyllabic lines. The paraphrase of The Song of Solomon, published in 1641, is in octosyllabic couplets; the tragedy entitled Christ’s Passion, an imitation of Grotius’s tragedy on the same theme, is in decasyllabic couplets, with occasional incursions into the eight-syllabled measure. In these later works, Sandys’s versification, if it does not achieve perfect smoothness, is remarkably regular. The habitual parallelism of sense in single verses of Hebrew poetry supplied natural bounds to the couplet; and only here and there, as in the seventy-eighth psalm, does Sandys show a tendency to run his couplets into one another. He also has abandoned his earlier habit of riming weak endings; and, as a general rule, his rimes are less emphatic and consonantal than in his Ovid.
  The entry of Sandys’s burial (7 March, 1643/4), in the parish register of Boxley, describes him as poetarum Anglorum sui saeculi facile princeps; and Dryden’s opinion of “the ingenious and learned Sandys” as “the best versifier of the former age,” 14  gives a certain colour, with a necessary qualification, to the perhaps prejudiced encomium of the Kentish vicar. There cannot be any question that, to the younger generation, Sandys’s verse represented a praiseworthy contrast to the straggling licence of the couplet-writers of his day.   8

Note 2IV, 372 (Ovid, IV, 333). [ back ]
Note 3VII, 25, 26 (VII, 20, 21). [ back ]
Note 4IV, 115, 116 (IV, 105, 106). [ back ]
Note 5IV, 339 (IV, 305, 306). [ back ]
Note 6II, 235 ff. (Ovid, II, 216 ff.). [ back ]
Note 7III, 223 ff. (III, 206 ff.). [ back ]
Note 8II, 835 ff. (II, 760 ff.). [ back ]
Note 9VII, 573 ff. (VII, 523 ff.). [ back ]
Note 10XV, 69 ff. (XV, 60 ff.). [ back ]
Note 11XV, 237 ff. (XV, 199 ff.). [ back ]
Note 12VIII, 722 ff. (VIII, 639 ff.). [ back ]
Note 13VII, 281, 282 (VII, 257, 258). [ back ]
Note 14. Pref. to Fables (1700). [ back ]

  Sir John Beaumont Edmund Waller  

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