Sylvester, Josuah (DNB00)

SYLVESTER, JOSUAH (1563–1618), poet, translator of Du Bartas, born in 1563 in the Medway region of Kent, was the son of Robert Sylvester, a clothier. His mother was the daughter of John Plumbe of Eltham, and sister of William Plumbe (1533–1593) of Eltham, and latterly of Fulham, a substantial man, who married, as his first wife, Margaret, daughter of Sir Thomas Neville, knt., and widow of Sir Robert Southwell (cf. Harl. MS. 1551, f. 39; Faulkner, Fulham, p. 91). Both of Josuah's parents having died when he was young, he seems to have been in some measure adopted by his uncle, William Plumbe, and ‘the Honorable Mary Nevil,’ to whom he originally dedicated his ‘Automachia,’ was in all probability a kinswoman of his uncle's first wife. When he was ten years old he was sent to the select school of Adrian à Saravia [q. v.] at Southampton, among his contemporaries being Sir Thomas Lake [q. v.] and Robert Ashley [q. v.] There he acquired a sound knowledge of French, one of the rules making it obligatory for the boys to speak French under pain of wearing a fool's cap at meals. He seems to have stayed there about three years, and to have then entered a trading firm. His early removal ‘from arts to marts,’ that is from school to business, was a constant source of lament with him in after life. Joining the merchant adventurers of the Stade, he sought to become secretary of that ancient corporation in 1597, and the Earl of Essex wrote two letters on his behalf, but his application was unsuccessful. Meanwhile for six years at least Sylvester had devoted his leisure to poetic composition. His work was well received, but his numberless dedications and dedicatory sonnets yielded him, he complained, an extremely poor return (cf. Brydges, Restituta, ii. 412 sq.). Plot relates in his ‘Staffordshire’ that the poet was for some time residing at Lambourne in the capacity of steward to the ancient family of Essex; and this receives confirmation from the dedication to ‘Mistresse Essex of Lamborne’ of his 1606 volume (cf. Gent. Mag. 1743, p. 586). Sylvester hailed the accession of James I with hope, and wrote an appeal for the new king's favour with his own hand (letter facsimiled in Grosart, ii. front.); but in 1604 he met with a rebuff in an attempt to secure a clerkship in the House of Commons, and it was probably not until about 1606 that Prince Henry made him a groom of his chamber and gave him a small pension of twenty pounds a year (Cunningham, Revels at Court, 1842, Intr. p. xvii). ‘Queen Elizabeth,’ wrote Anthony à Wood, ‘had a great respect for him, King James I had a greater, and Prince Henry greatest of all, who valued him so much that he made him his first poet pensioner.’ His metrical lament upon the prince's death in 1612 has the merit of sincerity. The poet's affairs at the time seem to have been far from flourishing. In 1613, however, another patron—perhaps George Abbot—enabled him to obtain a secretaryship in the service of the merchant adventurers.

His functions, which were probably not distinguishable from those of a factor, compelled him, reluctantly enough, to leave England and settle at Middelburg, and there he spent the last five years of his life. Wood suggests that his freedom in correcting in his poems ‘the vices of the times’ caused ‘his step-dame country to ungratefully cast him off and become most unkind to him.’ Sylvester expressed the hope that he might his ‘rest of days in the calm country end’ (week 1, day 3); above all that he might repose in England (week 1, day 2). But he died at Middelburg on 28 Sept. 1618 (epitaph by John Vicars, prefixed to folio of 1641). By his wife Mary, who survived him (with her, if the autobiographical indications in ‘The Wood-man's Bear’ and elsewhere are to be trusted, his relations were frequently strained), he seems to have had five or six children, among them Ursula (b. 1612), Bonaventura (d. 1625), Henry, and Peter (d. 1657?).

Sylvester's literary work mainly consisted of translations of the scriptural epics of the Gascon Huguenot, Guillaume de Saluste, seigneur du Bartas (1544–1590). Du Bartas's poetry was translated into Latin, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, and Danish; but it was to the Teutonic races, especially to the Germans and the English, that he appealed most powerfully. James VI, Thomas Hudson (fl. 1610) [q. v.], Sir Philip Sidney [q. v.], Sylvester's old schoolfellow Ashley, William Lisle [q. v.], and others essayed translations of portions of Du Bartas's works; but Sylvester's version was soon established as the most complete and the most popular.

The metre adopted by Sylvester was the rhymed decasyllabic couplet. Though no exact scholar (his rendering is indeed far more of a paraphrase than a translation), he had some pre-eminent qualifications for the task he had undertaken. His religious sympathy with his original was profound, and he had a native quaintness that well reflected the curious phraseology of Du Bartas. His enthusiasm overflowed in embellishments of his own, in which he is often at his best.

Ben Jonson, in his conversations with Drummond of Hawthornden, complained that ‘Sylvester wrote his verses before he understood to confer,’ referring apparently to the verbal inaccuracy of the rendering. Drummond, however, spoke of the translation as happily matching the felicity of the original, and this was the general opinion among contemporaries. Michael Drayton in his ‘Moyses in a Map of his Miracles’ (1604) eulogised Sylvester along with his original. Bishop Hall mentions him with praise in his letters, and Richard Niccolls in his ‘Vertues Encomium’ (1614) speaks of the song of ‘a sweet Sylvester nightingale.’ He was frequently quoted in Swan's ‘Speculum Mundi’ of 1643. On the strength of such and many similar references Southey styled Sylvester the most popular poet of the reign of James I. Together with Spenser, Sylvester formed the chief poetical nutriment of Milton when a boy, and his influence was transmitted through William Browne to other pastoral writers. It is not too much, perhaps, to surmise that from Du Bartas and Sylvester Milton first conceived the possibilities of the sacred epic; but the influence upon Milton was mainly indirect, and the parallelisms are occasional and accidental rather than studied and deliberate.

Dryden was also impressed by Sylvester in youth. ‘I remember when I was a boy,’ he says (in his translation of Boileau's ‘Art of Poetry,’ Scott's edit. xv. 231–3), ‘I thought inimitable Spenser a mean poet in comparison of Sylvester's “Du Bartas;”’ but in Dryden's maturer judgment Sylvester's verse was ‘abominable fustian.’ Dryden's later view prevailed. After 1660 Sylvester ceased to be read, and was only referred to, like his original in France, as a pedantic and fantastic old poet, disfigured by bad taste and ludicrous imagery. In 1800 Charles Dunster, in his remarkable essay entitled ‘Considerations on the Prima Stamina of Milton's “Paradise Lost,”’ carefully sifted the ‘Deuine Weekes,’ and selected a number of fragments of real poetic value from this antiquated heap of literary refuse. He was followed by Nathan Drake, who in the fourth edition of his ‘Literary Hours’ (1820, iii. 123 sq.) made some additions to Dunster's selections.

Sylvester appeared in print as a translator of Du Bartas at least as early as 1590, when was issued ‘A Canticle of the Victorie obteined by the French King Henrie the fourth. At Yvry. Written in French by the noble, learned, and divine poet William Salustius, Lord of Bartas, and Counsailor of estate unto his Majestie. Translated by Josuah Silvester, Marchant Adventurer,’ London, 1590, 4to. The work is dedicated in a ‘quatorzaine’ to ‘Maister James Parkinson and Maister John Caplin, Esquires, his wel-beloved friendes.’ It was probably the last work of Du Bartas, being written between the great victory of the Huguenot hero (his special patron) on 14 March 1590, in which he himself had a share, and the poet's death, four months later. The ‘Canticle’ was issued in several of Sylvester's later volumes, but the separate publication is rare (Narcissus Luttrell's copy is at Britwell; the British Museum has what appears to be a fragment of another issue; cf. Collier, Bibl. Account of Early English Literature, ii. 410).

The next year (1592) saw the publication of the first fragments of Sylvester's translation of Du Bartas's magnum opus, ‘La Semaine,’ which first appeared at Paris in 1578, and was followed in 1584 by ‘La Seconde Semaine.’ The first ‘Week’ or birth of the world contains seven books or ‘Days.’ The second week, forming a metrical paraphrase of the sacred history of the world, was designed on a larger scale than the first; but of its days (each subdivided into four parts) the author completed only four. Sylvester began upon the ‘third day’ of the ‘Second Week’ in his ‘The Triumph of Faith. The Sacrifice of Isaac. The Ship-wracke of Ionas. With a song of the victorie obtained by the French King at Yvry. Written in French by W. Salustius, lord of Bartas, and translated by Josua Silvester, Marchant Adventurer,’ London, 4to; dedicated to William Plumbe, esq., from London, 30 May 1592 (Britwell; the British Museum copy is imperfect). It was reprinted in 1605 (Devine Weekes, p. 543) as ‘formerlie dedicated, and now for euer consecrated to the gratefull Memorie … of William Plumbe.’ The ‘Sacrifice of Isaac’ was subsequently embodied in the second part of the third ‘Day’ of the ‘Second Week.’ Other parts of his version of the two ‘Semaines’ were issued in 1593, 1598, 1599, and probably in other years, each part being printed with independent title-pages and pagination, so that they might be sold separately at the option of the purchaser.

The first collective impression, of which perfect copies exist, was issued in 1605–6 as ‘Du Bartas his Devine Weekes and Workes. Translated … by Josuah Sylvester; London, by Humfrey Lownes,’ 4to. The title is engraved, and some portions have separate titles, but the signatures are continuous. The second volume, dedicated to ‘Mistresse Essex, wife to the right worthie William Essex of Lamborne, Esquire, and eldest daughter of the right valiant and Nobly Descended Sir Walter Harecourt of Stanton Harecourt,’ contains among other ‘Fragments, and other small works of Du Bartas’ ‘The Tryumph of Faith’ (see above), ‘The Profit of Imprisonment,’ which had first appeared in 1594 (see below), and ‘Tετράστιχα, or the Quadrains of Guy de Faur, lord of Pibrac.’ At the end comes ‘Posthumus Bartas,’ containing the ‘Third Day’ of the ‘Second Week;’ the ‘Fourth Day’ did not appear until 1611. The extant copies vary considerably (cf. Brit. Mus. and Bodleian copies with the collation in Hazlitt's Collections, iii. 218–19). The work was dedicated by Sylvester to James I in French and Italian; then come the ‘Inscriptio’ and the ‘Corona Dedicatoria,’ in which all the muses are introduced for the purpose of rendering fulsome homage to the king, followed by ‘A Catalogue of the Order of the Bookes,’ a eulogy of Sidney, ‘England's Apelles, rather our Apollo, World's Wonder,’ &c., and numerous sets of verses by Samuel Daniel and Ben Jonson among others. A second edition, also printed by Humfrey Lownes, appeared in 1608, London, 4to; a third in 1611, and a fourth in 1613. The next edition was considerably wider in its scope, as appears in the title: ‘Du Bartas his Diuine Weekes and Workes, with a compleate Collectiõ of all the Other most delight-full Workes translated and written by ye famous Philomusus, Joshua Sylvester, gent.,’ London, 1633, fol., with a portrait of Du Bartas and woodcuts, and containing the ‘Parliament of Vertues Royal’ and other pieces by Sylvester. The last and most complete of the old editions appeared in 1641, fol., London, printed by Robert Young, ‘with Additions.’ This contains all Sylvester's translations from Du Bartas, together with Thomas Hudson's version of ‘Judith,’ Sylvester's other translations, his miscellanies and ‘Posthumi or … Divers Sonnets, Epistles, Elegies, Epitaphs, Epigrams, and other Delightfull Devises revived out of the ashes of that silver-tongued translatour, Master Josuah Sylvester, never till now imprinted’ (these last words are not accurate; several of these pieces had been printed). Appended to the translations is ‘A Briefe Index explaining most of the hardest Words.’

Apart from his translation of Du Bartas, Sylvester's chief separate publications are:

  1. ‘Monodia, Imprinted by Peter Short’ [this is the whole title, on A 2 is a headline, thus] ‘Monodia: An Elegie, in commemoration of the Virtuous Life, and Godlie Death of … Dame Hellen Branch, Widdowe’ [wife of Sir John Branch, lord-mayor] [1594], 4 leaves, 4to. The British Museum copy was supposed to be the only one extant (Bright, 1845, 7l.; resold Corser, 1871, 18l. 10s.), but there is also one, formerly the Isham copy, at Britwell. It was included in the folio of 1641 (Brit. Mus.).
  2. ‘The Profit of Imprisonment, a Paradox (against libertie). Written in French by Odet de la Noue, lord of Teligni, being prisoner in the castle of Tournay. Translated by Josuah Silvester. Printed at London by Peter Short for Edward Blunt,’ 1594, 4to (18 leaves in verse; the Britwell copy is probably unique).
  3. ‘The Miracle of the Peace in Fraunce. Celebrated by the Ghost of the diuine Du Bartas … for Iohn Browne,’ London, 1599, 4to (Britwell, probably unique).
  4. ‘Avtomachia, or the Self-Conflict of a Christian, London. Printed by Melch. Bradwood for Edward Blovnt’ (from the Latin of George Goodwin [q. v.]), 1607. Dedicated to Lady Mary Nevil, ‘one of the daughters … of the Earle of Dorcet,’ and in 1615, after this lady's death, rededicated to her sister, Lady Cecily. The diminutive copy in the original velvet binding in the Huth Library is apparently unique (Cat. iv. 1421).
  5. ‘Lachrimæ Lachrimarum, or the Distillation of Teares Shede For the vntymely Death of the incomparable Prince Panaretvs by Josuah Syluester, London, for Humfrey Lownes,’ 1612, 4to (Brit. Mus.; Huth Coll.; Britwell). Printed on one side of the page only, the other blackened; the title in white letters on a black ground, and the letterpress surrounded by skeletons and other emblems of death. On C appears ‘The Princes Epitaph written by his Highn. seruant, Walter Quin,’ followed by poems in Latin, French, and Italian from the same pen. A second edition appeared in 1612 and two others in 1613. This work is entered in the ‘Stationers' Register’ as ‘Lachrymæ Domesticæ. A viall of household teares … by his highnes fyrst worst Poett and pensioner Josua Sylvester’ (see Arber, Transcript, iii. 230; Huth. Libr. Cat. iv. 1421). To the third edition of this was appended ‘An Elegie and Epistle Consolatorie against Immoderate Sorrow for th' immature Decease of Sr William Sidney, knight, Sonne and Heire apparant to the Right Honourable Robert, Lord Sidney …’ London, 1613, 4to. This is often bound with the later editions of the ‘Lachrimæ.’
  6. ‘The Parliament of Vertues Royal (summoned in France; but assembled in England) for Nomination, Creation, and Confirmation of the most excellent Prince Panaretvs. A præsage of Pr. Dolphin: A Pourtrait of Pr. Henry: A Promise of Pr. Charles. Translated and dedicated to His Highnes, by Josvah Sylvester’ [London, 1614–15], 8vo. This includes ‘Panaretus, a lengthy elegy upon Prince Henry;’ ‘Bethulian's Rescue’ (dedicated to Queen Anne); ‘Little Bartas’ (dedicated to the Princess Elizabeth); ‘Micro-Cosmographia’ (a translation of Henry Smith's Latin Sapphics); ‘Lachrimæ Lachrimarum’ (No. 5 above). Then comes ‘The Second Session of the Parliament of Vertues Reall (continued by prorogation) for better Propagation of all true Pietie … Inscribed to the High Hopefull Charles, Prince of Great Britaine’ [1615] 8vo. This includes ‘Jobe triumphant in his tryall’ (dedicated to Archbishop George Abbot and William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke); ‘Memorials of Mortalitie’ (ded. to Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton, and to Robert, Earl of Essex); ‘The Tropheis of the Life and Tragedie of the Death of that vertuous and victorious Prince Henry the Great, late of France and Navarre. Translated and dedicated to the L. Vis-count Cranborne’ (originally annexed to Grymeston's translation of Matthieu's ‘Life and Death of Henry IV,’ 1612, 4to); ‘St. Lewis the King: or a Lamp of Grace’ (inscribed to Prince Charles); ‘A Hymn of Almes’ (also ded. to Abbot); ‘The Batail of Yvry’ (dedicated this time to the Earl of Dorset); ‘Honor's Farewel, or the Lady Hay's Last Will’ (with a dedication to Dr. Hall). The two volumes are frequently bound together. All the pieces enumerated have separate title-pages. In some are bound up, for the sake of completeness, the following additional items, the dates of which are uncertain (i.) ‘Tobacco Battered and the Pipes Shattered (about their Ears that idly idolize so base and barbarous a weed, or a least-wise over love so loathsome vanity).’ This was republished in 1672 along with James I's ‘Counterblast.’ (ii.) ‘Simile non est idem … or All's not Gold that Glisters. A character of the corrupted Time which makes Religion but a cover-crime’ (dedicated to Sir Henry Baker, bart.) (iii.) ‘Automachia; or the Self-Conflict of a Christian’ (see above). (iv.) ‘A Glimpse of Heavenly Joyes: or the New Hiervsalem in an Old Hymne extracted from the most Divine St. Avgvstine’ (dedicated to Sir Peter Manwood). The British Museum has three variant copies, one in a finely embroidered cover, another containing the rare portrait (see below). With the above should be compared the collations by Hazlitt and Lowndes and those of the copies in the Bodleian and Huth libraries. On the flyleaf of a copy inspected by Mr. W. C. Hazlitt is the inscription apparently in the poet's own hand ‘1617. In Middlebourgh 19o Septembrs. To my worthy ffrind Mr. George Morgan, Marchant Adventurer,

    Accept with his poore Mite a minde
    That honnours worth in euerie kinde’

(Collect. iii. 102).
  1. ‘The Maiden's Blush: Ioseph, Mirror of Modestie, Map of Pietie, Maze of Destinie. Or rather Divine Providence. From the Latin of Fracastorius. Translated and Dedicated to the High Hopefull Charles, Prince of Wales,’ London, 1620, 12mo (Brit. Mus.).
  2. ‘The Wood-man's Bear. A Poeme. By Io. Sylvester. Semel insanavimus omnes,’ London, 1620, 8vo. Dedicated to the author's ‘worshipfull and most approved friend,’ Robert Nicholson (the Britwell copy, from Heber's Library, is probably unique).
  3. ‘Panthea: or, Divine Wishes and Meditations. Written by Io. Silvester. Revised by I[ames] M[artin], Master of Arts. Fero et Spero. Whereunto is added an Appendix, containing an Excellent Elegy written by the L. Visct. St. Albans, late Lord High Chancellor of England …,’ London, 1630, 4to (Brit. Mus.; Huth Library).

Sylvester has commendatory verses in Charles Fitzgeffrey's ‘Affaniæ,’ 1601, Sir Clement Edmondes's ‘Observations upon Cæsar's Commentaries,’ 1609, fol.; James Johnson's ‘Epigrammatum Libellus,’ 1615; Herring's ‘Mischief's Mystery,’ 1617; Francis Davison's ‘Poems,’ 1621, and J. Blaxton's ‘English Usurer,’ 1634.

His poetry was abundantly represented in that great thesaurus the ‘England's Parnassus’ of 1600 (see Collier, Seven English Poetical Miscellanies, 1867, vol. vi.), and a fine sonnet, ‘Were I as base as is the lowly plaine,’ is in Davison's ‘Rhapsody,’ 1602 (cf. Mr. A. H. Bullen's edition, 1891, p. lxxxv; Palgrave, Golden Treasury, 1878, p. 16). Dr. Grosart in 1880 brought out a complete edition of Sylvester's ‘Works’ with memorial introduction and some critical notes in his ‘Chertsey Worthies Library’ (London, 2 vols. 4to).

A portrait of Sylvester, crowned with bays, engraved by Cornelius von Dalen, was prefixed to some copies of the ‘Poems’ of 1614–15, and to the folio of 1641. This was copied by W. J. Alais for Dr. Grosart's edition.

[In addition to the Memoir prefixed to Grosart's edition of Sylvester, 1880, and the works of Dunster and Nathan Drake mentioned above, see Hunter's Chorus Vatum (Addit. MS. 24487, ff. 233–4) and Hunter's Collectanea, vol. xi. (Addit. MSS. 24445, f. 38, and 24501, f. 68); Wood's Athenæ Oxon. ed. Bliss, i. 594; Cibber's Lives of the Poets, i. 143; Ritson's Bibliograph. Poetica, pp. 355–7; Phillips's Theatrum Poetarum, p. 277; Ellis's Specimens, ii. 330; British Bibliographer, iv. 220; Gent. Mag. 1796 ii. 918, 1846 ii. 339–43; Ames's Typogr. Antiq. ed. Herbert; Collier's Bibl. Account of Early English Lit. 1865; Brydges's Censura Lit. vol. ii.; Pellissier's Vie et les Œuvres de Du Bartas, Paris, 1883; Poirson's Règne de Henri IV, Paris, 1856, ii. 376; Robiou's Lit. pendant la première moitié du XVIIme Siècle, 1858, p. 69; Brunet's Manuel du Libraire, s.v. ‘Saluste;’ Lowndes's Bibl. Manual, ed. Bohn; Dibdin's Library Companion, pp. 707 sq.; Bragge's Bibliotheca Nicotiana, p. 9; Masson's Life of Milton, i. 90, 451, vi. 530; Revue de Paris, t. xlix. pp. 5–17; Fraser's Magazine, 1842, lviii. 480; Plot's Staffordshire, p. 57; Todd's Spenser, iv. 2 (where Sylvester's indebtedness to the ‘Faerie Queene’ is emphasised); notes kindly furnished by R. E. Graves, esq.; Brit. Mus. Cat.]

T. S.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.262
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
264 i 18f.e. Sylvester, Josuah: for Frascatorius read Fracastorius