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Casimir Britannicus
English Translations, Paraphrases, and Emulations of the Poetry of Maciej Kazimierz Sarbiewski

Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Edited by Krzysztof Fordoński and Piotr Urbański. Vol. 11 of Critical Texts edited by John Batchelor. London: Modern Humanities Research Association, 2008. 288 pages. ISBN 978-0-947623-73-9. Paperback. $24.99.

Maciej Kazimierz Sarbiewski, known affectionately as “Casimir” in early modern Britain, was a major neo-Latin poet whose work—consisting of 133 odes in the style of Horace grouped into four “books” and 145 epigrams in the style of Martial—raised admiration across Europe at a time when Latin was the international language of the educated class and when the literary authority of the Ancients remained unchallenged. Born in Sarbiewo in 1595, Casimir joined the Jesuits in 1612; studied in Vilnius and Braniewo; taught poetry and rhetoric in Króża, Žmudź, and Połock; and was finally sent to study in Rome in 1623, the year he was ordained. It was in Rome that Casimir composed much of the poetry that made him famous as the “Christian Horace.”

First published in Cologne in 1625, the young Pole’s work earned him wide acclaim as well as a laurel and gold medal from the hand of Pope Urban VIII. That same year the Jesuits sent Casimir back to Vilnius, where for the next decade he lectured in rhetoric, philosophy, and theology, simultaneously earning two doctorates. Meanwhile, his poetry was published first in Antwerp in 1630, with a title-page designed by Rubens, and then in Leiden the following year. Casimir also composed two works of literary criticism, Praecepta poetica and De perfecta poesi sive Vergilius et Homerus, but these remained unpublished until the twentieth century. In the last few years of his life, which ended in 1640, he served as court preacher to King Vladislas IV Vasa.

Casimir Britannicus is a landmark publication, because it is the largest gathering of Casimir’s poetry in English since 1646. Although his work was translated into many European languages, Casimir was perhaps most loved (outside of his native Poland) in early modern England, where his work was introduced into the grammar school curriculum. Despite the fact that he was a Catholic and a Jesuit, he was taken up across the religious spectrum there by high churchmen and Protestant Dissenters alike. This collection features thirty-four known and seventeen anonymous English translators (including three women), writing from the mid-seventeenth century to the nineteenth century. We find here fifty-one of Casimir’s 133 odes in multiple English renditions and twenty-three of his epigrams.

The best-known English poets in this collection are Abraham Cowley, Richard Lovelace, Henry Vaughan, Isaac Watts, Robert Burns, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Vaughn is represented by seven odes. The most cherished and oft translated of Casimir’s lyrics was the third ode of Book II. In this song, the blissful poet is lying by a stream on a soft summer day when an unforeseen tempest arises and he must run for cover. In Coleridge’s version, the poem ends with “Swiftly flies the flatterer, Pleasure, / Headlong, ever on the wing.” In Burns’s version, fortune has “Of mony a joy and hope bereav’d me, / [yet] I bear a heart shall support me still.” The philosophical resignation implicit in this lovely poem is typical of the Christian stoicism underlying all of Casimir’s work.

Another favorite lyric was “The Ecstasy,” the fifth ode of Book II. In Abraham Cowley’s version the poet imagines himself rising above the clouds so that the “biggest Parts of Earth” look small and Britain cannot even be found. After passing other inhabited worlds, he reaches the sphere where all is “but one Galaxy” and horses are “of temper’d Lightning made.” However, the beauties of this place to which Elijah rose cannot truly be known

Till Phoenix Nature aged grown
To a better Being do aspire,
And mount herself, like Him, to Eternity in Fire.

In the following century the famous Nonconformist hymn-writer Isaac Watts offered a different version of this ode in “Strict Religion Very Rare,” a poem that likewise begins with the poet’s ascent into heaven: “I’m borne aloft, and leave the crowd, / I sail upon a morning cloud,” surveying all the globe.

Yet another favorite lyric was Casimir’s admonition against weeping, the thirteenth ode of Book IV, where once again the poet invites us to embrace Christian stoicism. In a moving rendition, Richard Lovelace, the famous Cavalier poet, warns that “water’d eyes but swell our Woes,” since fate is a bully who “whips us first until we weep” and then continues to whip because he sees us “a-weeping.” The only way to defeat him is to take a brave stand: “One gallant thorough-made Resolve / Doth Starry Influence dissolve.” In Henry Vaughan’s equally fine rendition, we read,

If weeping Eyes could wash away
Those Evils they mourn for night and day,
Then gladly I to cure my fears
With my best Jewels would buy tears.

But here, as in George Hils’ version, it is not fate but fortune who is the bully and who “strikes more boldly” at a tearful face than at a dry one. And so, Vaughn concludes, only “a noble patience quells the spite / Of Fortune, and disarms her quite.” In a third version, Isaac Watts addresses a weeping woman and tells her that if tears could “wash our mortal cares away” he’d give “both Indies for a tear,” but these “rather feed than heal our woe.” Since “one drop calls another down, / Till we are drown’d in seas of grief,” she must stop those “useless streams” and put on “native courage.” Watts simply eliminates the passage on the bullying of Fortune or Fate.

Many versions of Casimir’s odes and epigrams included in this collection are far less polished than those I have just cited, yet even these less felicitous translations show how far reaching Casimir’s influence was. For instance, Joshua Dinsdale, an Anglican clergyman, published a version of the admonition against weeping in the 1741 The London Magazine, with these lines against “the tyrant”:

The tyrant’s pow’r with stern contempt
Would ruthless hear your piteous moan,
But from the dauntless look will run,
Though lord it o’er the humble groan.

Another of Casimir’s great themes is human restlessness. In the fifteenth ode of Book IV he shows people moving from place to place without ever finding contentment. In his version, Henry Vaughan praises the man whose “constancy” allows him to remain just where he was born and bred, and he ends by declaring that contentment dwells most often

In Country-shades, or to some Cell
Confines itself, and can alone
Make simple straw, a Royal Throne.

Here it is surprising to find that the solitude of a monastic “Cell” could appeal to a Protestant, at a time when monasticism had been extirpated in England for well over a century. In his literal translation of this ode, George Hils speaks only of “rustic ease” and “guiltless straw,” not of a “Cell”; the liberty Vaughn took thus shows how Casimir’s odes could be adapted to various poetic and religious sensibilities. By contrast, Isaac Watts climaxes this ode with the lines: “Happy the soul” that does not need to wander, “but sweetly hides herself at home” and is content with a seat of “humble turf.” And yet, he adds, if storms oblige her to wander she can make “her home where’er she goes.” Here Watts adapts Casimir’s ode to the plight of Nonconformists, who might have to travel to escape legal penalties.

In several more odes beloved by the English, Casimir emphasizes how treacherous fortune is. In George Hils’ translation of the second ode of Book I, we find a man suddenly raised by fortune to give laws to a city, and then just as suddenly cast down and forced to return to his farm, where he sees his neighbors jeering at him and where, for lack of wood, he must throw “the Fasces on the fire.” Another of Casimir’s themes is the implacably linear direction of a man’s life: each year the snows melt and the valleys revive, but the “chilling snow” on a man’s brow “will melt from thence no more.” In Sir John Bowring’s translation published in 1827, the ode ends on this note: he has “lived long and well, whose death enforces / Tears from his neighbours” and who has made “his glory / Heir to himself.”

To give an idea of Casimir’s epigrams, which tend to be more overtly religious than his odes, let me cite the exquisite version of epigram 16 by the English Catholic Sir Edward Sherburne. Consisting of only two lines and titled “Mary Magdalen weeping under the Cross,” it reads: “I thirst, my dear and dying Saviour cries: / These hills are dry: O drink then from my Eyes.”

Although he lived only to age forty-five and spent most of those years studying and teaching philosophy and theology, by his splendid poetry Casimir Sarbiewski has surely made “his glory / Heir to himself.” ◊

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