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LIFE OF PITT,
BY DR. JOHNSON.
CHRISTOPHER PITT, of whom whatever I shall relate, more than has been already published, I owe to the kind communication of Dr. Wharton, was born in 1699, at Blandford, the son of a physician much esteemed.
He was, in 1714, received as a scholar into Winchester College, where he was distinguished by exercises of uncommon elegance, and, at his removal to New College in 1719, presented to the electors, as the product of his private and voluntary studies, a complete version of Lucan's poem, which he did not then know tó have been translated by Rowe.
This is an instance of early diligence which well deserves to be recorded. The suppression of such a work, recommended by such uncommon circumstances, is to be regretted. It is indeed culpable to load libraries with superfluous books; but incitements to early excellence are never superfluous, and from this example the danger is not great of many imitations.
When he had resided at his college three years, he was presented to the rectory of Pimpern in Dorsetshire (1722), by his relation, Mr. Pitt, of Stratfield Say in Hampshire; and, resigning his fellowship, continued at Oxford two years longer, till he became master of arts (1724).
He probably about this time translated Vida's Art of Poetry, which Tristram's splendid edition had then made popular. In this translation he distinguished him. self, both by its general elegance, and by the skilful adaptation of his numbers to the images expressed; a beauty which Vida has with great ardour enforced and exemplified.
He then retired to his living, a place very pleasing by its situation, and therefore likely to excite the imagination of a poet; where he passed the rest of his life, reverenced for his virtue, and beloved for the softness of his temper and the easiness of his manners. Before strangers he had something of the scholar's timidity or distrust; but when he became familiar he was in a very high degree cheerful and entertaining. His general benevolence procured general respect; and he passed a life placid and honourable, neither too great for the kindness of the low, nor too low for the notice of the great.
AT what time he composed his Miscellany, published in 1727, it is not easy or necessary to know: those which have dates appear to have been very early produc tions, and I have not observed that any rise above mediocrity.
The success of his Vida animated him to a higher undertaking: and in his thirtieth year he published a version of the first book of the Eneid. This being, I suppose, commended by his friends, he some time afterwards added three or four more; with an advertisement, in which he represents himself as translating with great indifference, and with a progress of which himself was hardly conscious. This can hardly be true, and, if true, is nothing to the reader.
At last, without any farther contention with his modesty, or any awe of the name of Dryden, he gave us a complete English Eneid, which I am sorry not to see joined in this publication with his other poems'. It would have been pleasing to have an opportunity of comparing the two best translations that perhaps were ever produced by one nation of the same author.
Pitt, engaging as a rival with Dryden, naturally observed his failures, and avoided them; and, as he wrote after Pope's Iliad, he had an example of an exact, equable, and splendid versification. With these advantages, seconded by great diligence, he might successfully labour particular passages, and escape many errours. If the two versions are compared, perhaps the result would be, that Dryden leads the reader forward by his general vigour and sprightliness, and Pitt often stops him to contemplate the excellence of a single couplet; that Dryden's faults are forgotten in the hurry of delight, and that Pitt's beauties are neglected in the languor of a cold and listless perusal; that Pitt pleases the critics, and Dryden the people; that Pitt is quoted, and Dryden read.
He did not long enjoy the reputation which this great work deservedly conferred; for he left the world in 1748, and lies buried under a stone at Blandford, on which is this inscription.
ΤΟ GEORGE PITT, ESQ.
OF STRATFIELD SEA, IN HAMPSHIRE.
SINCE you vouchsafe to be a patron to these sheets, as well as to their author, I will not make an ill use of the liberty you give me, to address you in this public manner, by running into the common topics of dedications. Should I venture to engage in such an extensive theme as your character, the world would judge the attempt to be altogether unnecessary, because it had long before been thoroughly acquainted with your virtues; besides, I am sensible, that you as earnestly decline all praise and panegyric, as you eminently deserve them.
I hope, sir, on another occasion, to present you with the product of my severer studies; in the mean time be pleased to accept of this trifle, as one small acknowledgment of the many great favours you have bestowed on,
your obliged humble servant,
My translation of Vida's Art of Poetry having been more favourably received than I had reason to expect, has encouraged me to publish this little miscellany of poems and select translations. I shall neither embarrass myself nor my reader with apologies concerning this collection; for whether it is a good one or a bad one, all excuses are unnecessary in one case, and offered in vain in the other.
An author of a miscellany has a better chance of pleasing the world, than he who writes on a single subject; and I have sometimes known a bad, or (which is still worse) an indifferent poet, meet with tolerable success; which has been owing more to the variety of subjects, than his happiness in treating them.
I am sensible the men of wit and pleasure will be disgusted to find so great a part of this collection consist of sacred poetry; but I assure these gentlemen, whatever they shall be pleased to object, that I shall never be ashamed of employing my talents (such as they are) in the service of my Maker; that it would look indecent in one of my profession, not to spend as much time on the psalms of David, as the hymns of Callimachus; and farther, that if those beautiful pieces of divine poetry had been written by Callimachus, or any heathen author, they might have possibly vouchsafed them a reading even in my translation.
But I will not trespass further on my reader's patience in prose, since I shall have occasion enough for it, as well as for his good-nature, in the following verses; concerning which I must acquaint him, that some of them were written several years since, and that I have precisely observed the rule of our great master Horace-Nonumque prematur in annum. But I may say more justly than Mr. Prior said of himself in the like case, that I have observed the letter, more than the spirit of the precept.
TESTIMONIES OF AUTHORS.
TO MR. CHRISTOPHER PITT.
ON HIS POEMS AND TRANSLATIONS.
FORGIVE th' ambitious fondness of a friend,
So much you please, so vast is my delight,
In scenes which thy invention sets to view,
How vain and unsuccessful seems the toil,
But breathe the odours of Ausonia's field.
Vida no more the long oblivion fears, Which hid his virtues through a length of years; Ally'd to thee, he lives again; thy rhymes Shall friendly hand him down to latest times; Shall do his injur'd reputation right, While in thy work with such success unite His strength of judgment, and his charms of speech, That precepts please, and music seems to teach. Lest unimprov'd 1 seem to read thee o'er, Th' unhallow'd rapture I indulge no more; By thee instructed, I the task forsake, Nor for chaste love, the lust of verse mistake; Thy works that rais'd this frenzy in my soul, Shall teach the giddy tumult to control : Warm'd as I am with every Muse's charms, Since the coy virgins fly my eager arms, I'll quit the work, throw by my strong desire, And from thy praise reluctantly retire.
DR. COBDEN TO MR. PITT.
ON HIS HAVING A BAY LEAF SENT HIM FROM VIRGIL'S TOMB.
FORGIVE me, sir, if I approve
The judgment of your friend,
You, who the Mantuan poet dress
Who all his soul and flame express,
Those bays, which, water'd by your hand,
And, with fresh verdure crown'd, withstand
Let hence your emulation' fir'd
His matchless strains pursue, As, from Achilles' tomb inspir'd, The youth a rival grew.
Sce Mr. Pitts translation of Vida.