Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. I. Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century
 
Critical Introduction by Charles Whibley
Sir Thomas North (1535–1601?)
 
[Sir Thomas North, translator of Plutarch and Guevara, was the son of Edward North, first Baron North of Kirtling. The most of our knowledge concerning him is derived from the title-pages of his translations. He translated Guevara in 1557, and Plutarch (from the French of Amyot) in 1579. In 1601 there appeared The Morall Philosophie of Doni, “Englished out of Italian by Sir Thomas North, Knight,” and little else is recorded of him but that he was still alive in 1603.]  1
 
SIR THOMAS NORTH’S Plutarch has won a wider celebrity than any other of the Tudor translations, because it afforded Shakespeare a direct and potent inspiration. Not only did the dramatist seek his material in the English version of The Lives, but he did not disdain to adopt the very turns and phrases of their translator. Thus has a sentimental, though legitimate, interest been aroused in a work which may claim our admiration and respect for its own most solid merits. The discovery of the masterpieces of classical literature to such as had little Latin and less Greek was an enterprise which suited the Elizabethan spirit of adventure. Nor was it undertaken with the narrow ambition of the pedant. Sir Thomas North was a man of letters rather than a scholar. His translation is not marred by the timid accuracy and awkwardness which distinguish the modern crib. He did not even trouble to acquaint himself with the Greek original, and made his version from the French of “James Amiot, Abbot of Bellozane, Bishop of Auxerre, one of the King’s privie counsell, and great Almner of France.” Though he followed Amyot with tolerable fidelity, in places he permitted himself a liberal treatment of the French, so that his version, made at secondhand with admirable vigour and freshness, is free from the vices which are wont to mar even the most finished translations. Indeed, from end to end the Plutarch displays the strength and colour of an original work. There are no traces of the restraint imposed by a foreign idiom. North’s style was in a sense his own invention. His vocabulary is expressive and copious. His knowledge of French, Latin, and Italian gave him a generous command of strange words, which he did not shrink from Anglicising at need. Thus we find “Almaines,” “seigniory,” “ambassade,” with such curious Latinisms as “manumissed,” “divines” (soothsayers), and “pilled” in its etymological sense, “neither pilled nor polled” being North’s equivalent for “neither robbed nor taxed.” Of words which have now become obsolete or colloquial North had an endless store, and if you would match his use of them you must have recourse to Cotgrave or Nares. “Cop-tank,” “slent” (a jest), and “yarage” (surely a [Greek]) are like dashes of colour on the folio page. How fine a flavour of slang is there in the phrase, “Alcibiades smelling straight their fetch!” What more polished metaphor would be so expressive? And it was by the use of these and similar words and locutions that North imposed a distinctive character upon his work. Now and again we encounter an expression which, though exiled from literature, is still heard at the street corner. “She gave it him finely,” says North of Cleopatra, and Pericles is described as “Pisistratus up and down.” But English prose has altered strangely since the sixteenth century. The language of letters has more definitely divorced itself from the dialect of everyday life. There has been a gain of accuracy, but a serious loss of vigour. Though Sir Thomas North contributed indirectly to the triumph of Euphuism by his translation of Guevara’s Dial of Princes, he came before Lyly—whose Euphues was published in the same year as the Lives—and escaped the affectations and deliberate antitheses which were cultivated by a whole generation. So that his prose is as easy and flexible an instrument as can be imagined. He cherishes no rigid superstition concerning the “parts of speech.” His syntax is far more various and complex than the syntax of to-day. If he choose, adjectives and nouns are straightway converted into verbs. “Though Nicias did contrary it,” he writes, and again, “they themselves that did somewhat malice and envy his glory.” Indeed he employs with marvellous effect all the resources of the language. For him there is more than one mood, and he employs countless constructions. His long periods are always relieved by a pleasantly changing rhythm, and despite their repetition and prolixity, they read as clearly and cleanly as the best array of the short sentences which are the mark of modern prose. Nor does his style suffer from a tedious monotony. Though he has a real gusto for words, though he delights above all things in strangely-devised phrases and quaint turns, he can write English as pure and simple as may be found even in the Authorised Version. It is difficult, for instance, to surpass the directness and dignity of the following passage, wherein is described the arrival of Coriolanus at Antium:—“It was even twi-light when he entred the city of Antium, and many people met him in the streets, but no man knew him. So he went directly to Tullus Aufidius house, and when he came thither, he got him straight to the chimney hearth, and sate him down, and spake not a word to any man, his face all muffled over. They of the house spying him, wondered what he should be, and yet they durst not bid him rise. For ill-favouredly muffled and disguised as he was, yet there appeared a certain majesty in his countenance, and in his silence: whereupon they went to Tullus who was at supper, to tell him of the strange disguising of this man. Tullus rose presently from the board, and coming towards him, asked him what he was, and wherefore he came. Then Martius unmuffled himself, and after he had paused a while, making no answer, he said unto himselfe, ‘If thou knowest me not yet, Tullus, and seeing me, doest not perhaps believe me to be the man I am indeede, I must of necessity bewray myself to be that I am.’” Here there is not a superfluous or impertinent word. All is simple and restrained. The tone is properly subdued to the subject, and the passage is distinguished by that fitness, which is the essence of style. At other times Sir Thomas will produce an effect by alliteration and the artifice of familiar slang. Of Alcibiades it is said that he put men in trust, “because they were good fellowes, and would drinke drunke with him and were full of mariners mocks and knavish jests.” So also in such a phrase as “sundry delicate dishes of Meats, Tarts, and Marchpaines,” the reader cannot but admire the keen curiosity which suggests so quaint and wholesome a word as “Marchpaines.” But the prime merit of North is his sustained energy and vigour. The prose never flags: whether serious or gay, philosophic or narrative, it still keeps its high level of progress. Its colour and inventiveness are characteristic of the author and of the age; a fine body and wholesome substance distinguish it from the work of most of North’s contemporaries. Indeed, though The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans give us but an indifferent impression of Amyot, and no sensation of Plutarch, it is none the less a well of vital and genuine English, and one among the richest sources of our literary language.  2
 
 
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