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Fairfax, Edward (c. 1575–1635) - BIOGRAPHY, MAJOR WORKS AND THEMES, CRITICAL RECEPTION

translation fairfax’s boulloigne tasso

Edward Fairfax was born in Leeds about 1575. The second (and possibly illegitimate) son of an important Yorkshire gentleman, Fairfax shunned the active life, choosing rather to live in retirement with his family near the small Yorkshire town of Fewston. There he devoted himself to studies and to the leisurely literary life of a country squire, producing little and publishing less. Indeed, Fairfax would have been almost completely unknown in his time (and would be forgotten today) if it were not for his youthful translation of Torquato Tasso’s* Jerusalem Delivered . Entitled Godfrey of Boulloigne, or the Recoverie of Ierusalem , it appeared in print in 1600 and immediately became an enormous success.

As far as we know, however, Fairfax made no effort to capitalize on this success. Although the translation is said to have been a favorite of both James I* and Charles I, Fairfax, in sharp contrast with Tasso, not only stayed away from court but also never even bothered to publish his other works. Of his twelve pastoral eclogues, for example, only three survive, and none appeared in print until the eighteenth century. His only other known work, a Discourse of Witchcraft , in which Fairfax describes what he believed to be the bewitchment of two of his own children, remained in manuscript until the nineteenth century despite the fact that the general topic was of great interest in the 1620s, when the work was written. He died and was buried in Fewston in 1635.

MAJOR WORKS AND THEMES

Fairfax’s extant eclogues are charming, sophisticated exercises in a conventional, mainly Spenserian, pastoral manner. Equally conventional—and less charming—is the learning of the Discourse on Witchcraft , although the work has some special interest that derives from the intimate family circumstances that prompted its writing; Fairfax seems to have had no doubts about the power of the black arts. None of these works, however, provide anything but the remotest glimpse of the brilliance that he displays as a poetic translator in his Godfrey of Boulloigne .

Sparkling with the language and rhythms of Elizabethan narrative poetry at its best—reminiscent especially of Spenser’s* Faerie QueeneGodfrey of Boulloigne is still the best way for the English reader with no Italian to get a sense of the Jerusalem Delivered . Fairfax follows Tasso very closely, rendering each ottava rima stanza in the original by one of his own, giving an accurate sense of action and character, and rarely falling into the awkwardness that is so often the affliction of translators forced to follow a genius that is not their own. Occasionally, it is true, Fairfax’s knowledge of Italian appears to let him down, and sometimes he alters the tone, making Tasso’s generalized descriptions more concrete, simplifying ambiguities, moralizing explicitly where Tasso—even in the Jerusalem Conquered —refrains from comment. Anyone who wishes to understand Tasso thoroughly cannot rely on Fairfax. Nevertheless, the virtues of his translation far outweigh its limitations, and it remains, nearly four centuries after its publication, a genuine pleasure to read.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

As previously mentioned, the poem’s success was immediate and general. Besides the first two Stuart kings, its admirers included John Dryden, who reports in the preface to the Fables that he had heard Edmund Waller say that he learned his metrical skill from Fairfax’s translation. This was high praise, because Dryden and later Augustans attributed to Waller a seminal role in the development of the polished style that they considered the standard of poetic taste. Since the Romantics, that standard has fallen from favor, of course, but Fairfax’s translation has never really lost its preeminence despite the competition of later versions that might claim to be more literal or more up-to-date. It has been republished at least once in every century since it appeared and is still available.

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