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THE NATIONAL REVIEW.
ART. I.-PLUTARCH'S LIVES: CLOUGH.
Plutarch's Lives. The Translation called Dryden's, corrected from the
Greek and revised by A. H. Clough. 5 vols. Sampson Low. 1859. SINCE first the growing accuracy of the classical historians of the nineteenth century began to "give with Greek truth the good old Greek the lie," the Lives of Plutarch may perhaps have lost something of popularity and general esteem. There is undeni
. ably a wide distance between the unhesitating readiness to repose in every plausible statement of fact which characterised the classical studies of our less critical forefathers, and the dispassionately sceptical babit of mind into which the modern student of Greek and Roman history is trained by the example and influence of the unwearied searchers after truth whose labours he has the opportunity of weighing. But Mr. Clough's work of love for the old Chæronean biographer is not out of place. In reproducing the versions of Creech, Evelyn, Somers, Rycaut, and the other translators for Dryden's edition, revised in accordance with his own excellent taste and scholarship, he has done good service to the cause of literature. Few, even among firstrate classical scholars, are given to reading Plutarch's Lives in the language in which they were written, except for the purpose of verifying the exact meaning of a particular passage, or satisfying their minds as to the alleged rhetorical crabbedness of the general style. It is all the more important that, as long as the Lives are read at all, they should be readable in the best possible form at second-hand. Without wishing to depreciate
No. XX. APRIL 1860.
the actual merits of the generally known translation by Langhorne, we may certainly say that it is not the best possible. It is fluent, but dull; and destitute altogether of that idiomatic strength and closeness of language which sometimes enable the reader happily to forget that a translation is not an original. Mr. Clough has used a wise economy in republishing a corrected copy of the united labours of Dryden's eminent coadjutors, in preference to undertaking an entirely new version in the more expansive but less solidly sculptured English of the nineteenth century.
It needs no great boldness to assert that Plutarch's Lives will continue to be widely read, however much they may be depreciated as a substantive historical authority. It may even be prophesied that their real greatness will preserve them from oblivion all the more securely, in proportion to the growth of a more thoroughly discriminating and scientific appreciation of their value. The terms of the epigram of Agathias, which is paraphrased by Dryden for a peroration to his life of Plutarch, are none the less applicable now than when it was written in the reign of Justinian :
αλλά τεου βιότοιο παράλληλον βίον άλλον
ουδε συ γ' αν γράψαις ου γάρ όμοιον έχεις. There is no parallel instance to him among writers of memoir or biography; no one who has concentrated in similar pictures the view taken of their own great men by those nations which up to his time had been the foremost of the world; no one who has modelled the heroic likeness in so many and so characteristic individual attitudes. The title to such an encomium is not damnified by the imputation, or even the proof, of inaccuracy as a narrator. It is possible that the Richard the Third of Shakespeare may not be a literally true portrait of the historical individual, nor the sequence and connection of the facts detailed in his dramas as belonging to the Wars of the Roses a faithful rendering of English history; yet if the personal and general inexactitude of these representations were sedulously demonstrated twenty times over, they would be none the less vivid and none the less immortal. The best measure of their greatness is the power needed to destroy them. The same may be said of those fictions by Defoe which counterfeit fact most truly, and of Plutarch's Lives. Such works bear a peculiar stamp on their face which has never been forged successfully, and which no lapse of time can obliterate. Plutarch's Lives may not be what they have been taken for—a thoroughly reliable source of history; and whenever this failure arises from mis-statement, and not from omission, they are not strictly what they profess to be
lives. But they will continue to represent, as they have represented for so many centuries already, the types of Greek and Roman character as understood by a careful, learned, imaginative, and philosophic surveyor of the time of Trajan. However widely the conclusions of modern inquiry may deviate from the received beliefs of simpler generations in modifying or contradicting particular impressions derived from Plutarch, they cannot neutralise or destroy the fact, that the idealised ancient Roman and Grecian of at least the three last centuries has grown into shape more through Plutarch's teaching than through the lessons of any other single authority, if not of all other authorities put together. True portrait or not, that ideal image has undoubtedly had a peculiar and not inconsiderable influence on European history; and that influence is exactly what no imputation on the accuracy of the portrait can wash away. The individual citizen of the commonwealths of Greece or Rome may have been more like the ordinary bourgeois of modern Europe, or even more like the modern Greek or Roman, than our forefathers thought. We may learn from Grote or Merivale to view the particular actions and the general springs of action of leading statesmen in Rome or Athens by a different light, reHected upon the single figures through a more modern and realistic conception of the multitude behind them. We may form a new idea of some characters among the individual leaders. But the fact remains, that to Plutarch's Lives we still look for the general distinguishing outline of personal story and character which has made the great men whom he deals with famous among our fathers and ourselves, through a series reaching down from the half-mythical times of Theseus to the civilised and tragic epoch of Julius Cæsar and Mark Antony. “One of Plutarch's heroes” is still, and will long remain, a proverbial expression in most of the languages of Europe, in one shape or other.
The wide influence which these Lives have had in creating and maintaining modern respect for the heroes of antiquity is not direct only. For all readers of English literature, and for Englishmen especially, Plutarch is enshrined for ever in the royal dreas put upon him by Shakespeare. Every body knows, or is likely to know, as a matter of fact, that Plutarch was Shakespeare's main authority in his greatest classical dramas, Coriolanus, Julius Cæsar, and Antony and Cleopatra. North's translation of the French version of Plutarch's Lives by Amyot, published as a new book in Elizabeth's reign, has a peculiar value attached to it as having been the version accessible to Shakespeare, which the greater closeness, force, or accuracy of later translations into English at first hand can never take away. Under
the doubt, which in common with many we must acknowledge, how much in Timon of Athens is the genuine work of Shakespeare, it is superfluous to refer to the contents of that drama critically as accumulating proofs of the obligations to Plutarch under which our greatest poet lies. Yet even with this doubt the identity (in all but one word) of North's translation of the two epitaphs quoted in the life of Mark Antony as by Callimachus and Timon himself with the four lines engraved upon Timon's tomb in the English drama gives a singular reality to the feeling that in reading North we are studying Timon's character through the same mediuin with Shakespeare. But when we come to the Roman tragedies, the debt of the English dramatist to the Greek biographer is at once far deeper in kind, and far more undeniable in its manifestation.
However generally admitted this may be as a fact, it is probable that only a small proportion of Shakespeare's readers are aware of the degree to which it is true. It is really curious to place the Coriolanus of North's Plutarch and of Shakespeare side by side. Incident upon incident, personage after personage, and in some places, we may say, line after line and word upon word, are adopted without hesitation or scruple as to their appropriateness and truth. After passing through the crucible of Shakespeare's genius, they come out from their fusion into a dramatic and continuous form so little intrinsically altered, as still individually to recall the particular spot in the mine from which each of them has been taken. The very blunders of the Englishman's little learning are so many flowers plucked out of the Greek writer's cornucopia of allusiveness, and planted in the wrong places. When the Lartius of Shakespeare praises Coriolanus as a soldier,
even to Cato's wish, not fierce and terrible
Only in strokes,"the anachronism which every schoolboy pounces upon, of quoting the unborn Cato as an authority on military matters at the date of the Volscian wars, springs simply from a misconstruction of the words in Plutarch's biography. The critical observation upon Cato's idea of a soldier, which Plutarch makes in his own person and from his own point of view, has been unfortunately put into the mouth of Titus Lartius. S. me similar carelessness of adaptation may perhaps be responsible for Hector's cclebrated reference to Aristotle's philosophy in Troilus and Cressida. But if the one or two slips of Shakespeare are due to an unhesitating following of his classical authority, so are many of the beauties. The details of the honours paid on the field of
. battle by the Roman army to the taker of Corioli, the touches
of the personal character of Caius Marcius in the receipt of those honours, and in his subsequent candidateship at Rome, the several incidents of his hereditary titles to popular esteem and gratitude, and the nature of the political stumbling block over which he fell, are carefully gathered up in a handful out of which not one has dropped, sorted, and reproduced in the scenes of Shakespeare. In the wonderfully heroic representation of the visit of the banished Coriolanus to his great enemy, Aufidius, in his house at Antium, the speech of the exile is taken from North's version of Plutarch's words with a singularly literal closeness. The grammatical construction of the sentences is merely altered so far as was needed to make them fall in with a metrical arrangement. Every thought, every salient phrase and word, are transcribed and set in their places by the simplest process. And from the beginning of the action of Coriolanus to its final catastrophe, it may be said that, beyond the lighter parts of Menenius (for whose portrait as a humorous patrician the notorious fable of the Belly and the Members gave the cue), and the purely Shakespearian representation of the many-headed plebeian multitude of Rome, there is but little of either plot, incident, or individual character, for which Shakespeare's audience are not directly or indirectly indebted to Plutarch.
As much may be said, and with equal truth, of the noble trilogy—for in the sense of the old Greek drama a trilogy it is -in which the first climax of Nemesis mounts to the death of Cæsar, the next to that of Brutus, while the last culminates in the end of Antony. We can only tire our imaginations in guessing at the rapidity with which the intuition of genius may have enabled the English dramatist to seize at a glance the exquisite completeness of the portraiture of character, and of fate as dependent upon character, which lay open before him in the lines of the Chæronean biographer. But the more closely we look into Plutarch as the main authority of Shakespeare in matters of Latin learning, the more highly shall we be obliged to estimate the care and labour bestowed by our greatest poet on picking out the separate touches of high thought, honourable action, majesty of circumstance and behaviour, for use in the composition of his own tragic pictures of the sharpest civil wars that ever racked the ancient mistress of the world. It is in no sense a detraction from the creative originality of such a magician as Shakespeare, to say that he placed an instinctive faith in the reality and fitness of all this authority gave him as materials for his own structure, and that in this faith he refused to walk within Plutarch's circle by any other light than Plutarch's own. It is scarcely requisite to place him by the side of other adapters from the same store, to show that to bring out the true