05 July 2012

The Elusive George Chapman

Like many other book addicts, one of the things that constantly drives the building of my little library is the discovery of gaps. For instance, I’ll be reading some fascinating book or article, that in turn will refer to another writer, and when I (usually metaphorically speaking) turn to my shelves to follow the reference, it’s not there. Some of these things I make efforts to acquire immediately. Some I defer for one reason or another, waiting to discover them for the right price or something. 

One that I’m beginning to feel I’ve put off too long is the obscure 16th- and 17th-century poet, George Chapman (1559-1634). Like most other people I suppose, I first heard of Chapman through Keats’s paean to his predecessor’s translation of Homer—the first ever into English: 

Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne:
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold: [1] 

Thanks in part to this recommendation by one of the great British Romantics, and in part, perhaps, to its being an old enough translation of a great Classic not to be subject to copyright, ‘Chapman’s Homer’ seems to have stayed in print in extremely affordable editions. I just recently bought the Wordsworth Edition (2000) for around $6, wherein Jan Parker’s general introduction observes: 

Chapman’s Iliad and Odyssey stand in their own right as great English epic poems. They also stand as two fo the liveliest and most readable translations of Homer. The language is Shakespeare’s, not ours; it represents a past golden age of heroes and adventurers—just so did Homer’s Greek represent to the Classical Greeks the heroes of the legendary Trojan War. 
Chapman’s translation is the first into English, written in the vibrant English of Shakespeare’s circle—stores of warfare and adventure written for those with ‘Elizabethan’ heroic expectations. As a poet Chapman crafted Elizabethan language into a formal yet supple flowing verse form that is a joy to read; there is a freshness that makes vivid the everyday natural and craftsman’s world as well as the worlds of the battlefield and of Mount Olympus. As a Reniassance playwright translating Homer while Shakespeare was writing Hamlet, he engaged with the idea of the hero, both as supremely inspiring (‘What a piece of work is a man’) and as tragically fragile (‘this quintessence of dust’). As a Humanist thinker he could convey the human and heroic condition from the perspectives of both man and (pre-Christian) god. [2] 

But it may be less well known that Chapman is also the author of a number of original works, and these are very hard to come by indeed. I first learned of Chapman’s work from Dame Frances Yates, who devotes to him a whole chapter of her study, The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age, entitled, ‘Agrippa & Elizabethan Melancholy: George Chapman’s Shadow of Night’. In this chapter, Yates interprets a particularly obscure 1594 work by Chapman called The Shadow of Night—‘One of the most mysterious poems of the Elizabethan age’ [3]—‘as a defence of the occult philosophy and its profound studies, a reply to the attack on such studies by Marlowe’, whose Doctor Faustus she sees as a portrait of John Dee. [4] The ‘Humour of the Night’ which the poem describes is the inspiring influence of Saturn and the contemplative ‘melancholy’ it engenders, which issues in creative, scholarly, and spiritual achievements. Here are the excerpts Yates quotes from the poem, arranged into their proper order (I apologise if this part is tedious—I’m doing this as much for myself as for my readers): 

...now let humour give
Seas to mine eyes, That I may quicklie weepe
The shipwracke of the world: or let soft sleepe
(Binding my senses) lose my working soule,
That in her highest pitch, she may controle
The court of skill, compact of misterie,
Wanting but franchisement and memorie
To reach all secrets.... [5]
And as when hosts of starres attend thy flight,
(Day of deepe students, most contentfull night)
The morning (mounted on the Muses stead)
Ushers the sonne from Vulcan’s golden bed,
And then from forth their sundries roofes of rest,
All sorts of men, to sorted taskes addrest,
Spread this inferious element: and yeeld
Labour his due: the souldier to the field,
States-men to counsell, ludges to their pleas,
Merchants to commerce, mariners to seas:
All beasts and birds, the groues and forrests range,
To fill all corners of this round exchange,
Till thou (deare Night, o goddesse of most worth)
Lets thy sweet seas of golden humor forth
And Eagle-like doth with thy starrie wings,
Beate in the foules and beasts to Somnus lodgings,
And haughtie Day to the infernall deepe,
Proclaiming silence, studie, ease and sleepe. [6]
Mens faces glitter, and their hearts are blacke,
But thou (great Mistresse of heauens gloomie racke)
Art blacke in face, and glitterst in thy heart.
There is thy glorie, riches, force, and Art. [7]
Fall Hercules from heauen in tempestes hurld,
And cleanse this beastly stable of the world:
Or bend thy brasen bow against the Sunne...
Now make him leaue the world to Night and dreames.
Neuer were vertues labours so enuy’d
As in this light: shoote, shoote, and stoope his pride
Suffer no more his lustful rayes to get
The Earth with issue: let him still be set
In Somnus thickets: bound about the browes,
With pitchie vapours, and with Ebone bowes. [8]
All you possest with indepressed spirits,
Indu’d with nimble and aspiring wits,
Come consecrate with me, to sacred Night
Your whole endeuors, and detest the light...
No pen can any thing eternal write,
That is not steept in humour of the night. [9]
And as heauens Geniall parts were cut away
By Saturnes hands, with a adamantine Harpey...
So since that adamantine powre is giuen
To thy chast hands, to cut of all desire
Of fleshly sports, and quench to Cupids fire [10]
Set thy Christal, and Imperiall throne...
(Girt in thy chaste, and never-loosing zone)
Gainst Europe’s Sunne directly opposite
And give him darkness that doth threat thy light. [11]
Forme then, twixt two superior pillars framed
This tender building, Pax imperii named. [12]
Then in thy clear and Isie Pentacle
Now execute a Magicke miracle. [13]
Ever since reading The Occult Philosophy, I have kept my eyes peeled for anything by George Chapman, and in particular something that would have Shadow of Night. In 10 years I have never seen any of Chapman’s work in any bookshop, used or new, nor have I ever discovered any of his work in any anthology of Renaissance, Elizabethan, or 17th-c. English literature. 

My interest was heightened when I read C.S. Lewis’s Preface to Paradise Lost, wherein he quotes Chapman as an epigram to the eighth chapter. Here is the passage Lewis includes: 

One hand a Mathematique Christall swayes,
Which, gathering in one line a thousand rayes
From her bright eyes, Confusion burnes to death,
And all estates of men distinguisheth.
By it Morallitie and Comelinesse
Themselves in all their sightly figures dresse.
Her other hand a lawrell rod applies,
To beate back Barbarisme and Avarice,
That follow’d, eating earth and excrement
And human limbs; and would make proud ascent
To seates of gods, were Ceremonie slaine. [14] 

This is taken from the elusive Elizabethan’s completion of an unfinished work of Christopher Marlowe—Hero and Leander. Yates explains his decision to complete the work of a poet with whom she believes he differs in a philosophically fundamental way: 

Chapman’s completion of Marlowe’s poem, Hero and Leander, has been seen as a reply to Marlowe’s theme of the unchastity-before-marriage of the lovers. Chapman’s continuation of the poem is an elaborately mythological defence of Chastity, with significant reference to chaste Ceremony—possibly a veiled defence of an Elizabethan reformed church. [15] 

Rosemond Tuve’s difficult study, Elizabethan & Metaphysical Imagery, devotes more space to Chapman than one would expect, but aside from a quote or two from his prefatory letter to Ovids Banquet of Sence (1595), the vast majority of the references are to Hero & Leander. Tuve does make the interesting observation:

Chapman expected from his readers an amount of information about Elizabethan notions of psychology considerably larger than the amount we possess....Hidden technicalities cause the obscurity—to us—of a fair number of Chapman’s images. Others simply demand alert reading, with full willingness to allow images to state abstract notions as dialectic does, precisely and acutely, inviting a gneralized conclusion. [16]

Douglas Bush, however, gives the poor man an entire chapter of his own in Mythology & the Renaissance Tradition in English Poetry, quoting from and discussing a number of Chapman’s works. The opening paragraph of the chapter is quite complementary:

If any proof were needed that the classic artist is born and not made it might be found in the work of George Chapman. A man of vigorous and independent mind and character, with a high and serious conception of the function and craft of poetry, endowed with more than a spark of the true poetic fire, and, finally, possessed by a religious adoration for Homer—such a man, one might think, would stand forth as a modern embodiment of authentic classicism. Yet Chapman has been a byword for every kind of Elizabethan vice of thought and expression. Of late, however, critics, following eagerly where Mr Eliot leads, [17] have been praising him, sometimes apparently reading him. He has taken rank as a metaphysical poet of importance; [18] and, since he has not been conveniently anthologized and since he propounds an earnest moral philosophy, there is less danger than in the case of Donne that his vogue will become an uncritical cult. [19]

Bush quotes a ‘lyrical epithalamium’ from the end of Hero & Leander that ‘shows Chapman at his best’:

Come, come deare night,
Loues Mart of kisses,
Sweet close of his ambitious line,
The fruitfull summer of his blisses,
Loues glorie doth in darknes shine.
O come soft rest of Cares, come night,
Come naked vertues only tire,
The reaped haruest of the light,
Bound up in sheaues of sacred fire. [20]

But Bush is considerably less sanguine than Jan Parker, and certainly than John Keats, about Chapman’s Homer:

Many a reader, led by Keats to the ‘pure serene’ of Chapman, has been repelled by the smoke of conceits that obscures his very genuine fire and energy. No one ever loved Homer more ardently and jealously than Chapman, and no one could be, at times, less Homeric. The voice, quite often, is the voice of Jacob, the flesh is the flesh of Esau....As Arnold says, Homer is ‘tormented’; Chapman cannot forbear to interpose a play of thought between his object and its expression. Not only does he make Homer conceited and meatphysical in style, he often gives the text an explicit moral coloring from his own Platonic-Stoic creed, usually in a phrase, sometimes at length....Elizabethan freedom in translation could hardly go further—and yet Chapman has a mystical reverence for Homer. He is also a poet, however, and does not always fall short of his divine original; Odysseus is cast up on shore weary and spent, for ‘the sea had soakt his heart through’. [21]

I apologise that this little search through some of my books for shreds and scraps has led me so far from my initial point. Suffice to say, at this rate it appears that the only way I will ever obtain a book of Chapman’s poetry, is to order the Kessinger facsimile reprint of a 1904 edition with an introduction by Algernon Charles Swinburne (on whom see the last post) for at least $27.63. I don’t see myself doing that any time terribly soon, but who knows? The frustration may just become unbearable soon.

[1] John Keats, The Complete Poetical Works of Keats (Boston: Riverside-Houghton Mifflin, 1899), p. 9.

[2] Jan Parker, ‘General Introduction’, Chapman’s Homer: The Iliad & The Odyssey (Ware, UK: Worsdworth, 2002), pp. vii-viii.

[3] Dame Frances Yates, The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 157.

[4] Ibid., p. 158.

[5] Ibid., p. 159. Hymnus in Noctem, 8-15.

[6] Ibid., p. 162. HN, 201-18.

[7] Ibid., pp. 160-1. HN, 225-8.

[8] Ibid., p. 163. HN, 255-68.

[9] Ibid., p. 160. HN, 370-7.

[10] Ibid., p. 239, n. 17. Hymnus in Cynthiam, 21-8. 

[11] Ibid., p. 166. HC, 116-9. 

[12] Ibid., p. 167. HC, 187-9 [sic]. 

[13] Ibid., p. 167. HC, 515-6. 

[14] C.S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost (NY: Galaxy-Oxford U, 1965), p. 52; quoting Hero & Leander, III, 131. 

[15] Yates, p. 240, n. 24. 

[16] Rosemond Tuve, Elizabethan & Metaphysical Imagery: Renaissance Poetic & 20th-C. Critics (Chicago: Phoenix-U of Chicago, 1963), p. 268. 

[17] A glance at this article shows that Bush is not referring to an essay on Chapman by Eliot, since he did not write one, but, apparently, to Eliot’s enthusiasm for ‘thought and expression’ previously considered vicious.

[18] Though apparently not of enough importance to warrant inclusion in the Penguin Classics anthology of Metaphysical Poets, edited by the great Helen Gardner!

[19] Douglas Bush, Mythology & the Renaissance Tradition in English Poetry, rev. ed. (NY: Norton, 1963), p. 206.

[20] Bush, p. 217. 

[21] Bush, pp. 219, 220, 221.


Aaron Taylor said...

A comment on Facebook from Robert Germany, a classicist at Haverford College:

'‎"the obscure 17th- and 18th-century poet, George Chapman (1559-1634)" - This is a strange sentence for two reasons. First, I'm not sure obscure is the right word for Chapman. You apply the same adjective to Shadow of Night and the completion of Hero and Leander, and I can see where it might fit there. But Chapman in general? I guess I take your point in titling the post after his elusiveness and calling him thrice obscure, but I don't think the shoe fits. I suppose being surrounded by people who regularly cite Chapman's Homer is something of an occupational hazard, obscuring my own view of obscurity, but even outside the classics world Keats' reference must have kept the candle lit pretty bright, no? Second, I think you may be miscounting the centuries.'

Aaron Taylor said...

My reply:

'Oh, you're definitely right about the centuries! Whoops. Well, sure, for the audience I imagine I'm writing for, "Chapman's Homer" will be a well known entity. But I still think that as a poet in his own right he's obscure enough. How many people who know of "Chapman's Homer" have any idea beyond the name of who "Chapman" is? And of those who do have some idea, how many of them are at all familiar with his work? Simply the fact that he's never included in anthologies and there are no current editions of his work would, I would think, warrant the description.

'Btw, you have certainly convinced me to modify my use of the word "obscure". At the very least, I don't want it to sound like I've forgotten I've used it before, or like I can't think of any other adjectives!

'One other point: I certainly wouldn't suggest that Chapman is obscure to specialists in 16th- and 17th-c. English lit., just to dilettantes like myself.'