Richard Stanihurst

DIED A. D. 1618

From The Irish Nation: Its History and Its Biography

By James and Freeman Wills

THE father of Stanihurst was a lawyer, and the recorder of Dublin. He was also speaker of the Irish House of Commons, and died in 1573, aged 51.

Richard received the first rudiments of education in Dublin, from whence he was sent to Oxford, where he was admitted in 1563, in University college. Having graduated, he entered as a student, first at Furnival's Inn, and then at Lincoln's. He next appears to have returned to Ireland, where he married a daughter of Sir Charles Barnwall, knight, with whom he returned to resume his studies in London, here his wife died in childbirth, at Knightsbridge, 1579. Having changed his religion, he left England, and went to live at Leyden, where his course is not very distinctly traceable, though it is certain that he acquired great reputation among the learned, for his scholarship and his writings. He was uncle to the celebrated Primate Usher, who was the son of his sister, and took great pains to convert his nephew to his own faith. Having entered into holy orders, he became chaplain to the archduke of Austria, and died in the Netherlands in 1618. He left one son who became a Jesuit, and died 1663.

Stanihurst is now chiefly known by his "Descriptio Hiberniae," a work in the hands of every student of Irish history and antiquity. It is described by Bishop Nicholson as "highly commendable," with the exception of some tedious and frivolous digressions. He translated four books of Virgil, in a style which has entitled him to be distinguished by critics and commentators, with unusual, but not undeserved severity. He seems to have been utterly devoid of all perception of the essential distinction between burlesque and serious poetry. A distinguished modern poet and critic sums up all that can be said in these words, "As Chaucer has been called the well of English undefiled, so might Stanihurst be called the common sewer of the language. It seems impossible that a man could have written in such a style, without intending to burlesque what he was about, and yet it is certain that Stanihurst intended to write heroic poetry. His version is exceeding rare, and deserves to be reprinted for its incomparable oddity."[1] To our apprehension, the burlesque of Stanihurst represents but the extreme of the defects to which there is a universal tendency among the poets of his time; the most free from burlesque, the loftiest in conception, and most harmonious in metre, seem every now and then to have a narrow escape. Stanihurst would have been burlesque at any time; he was no poet, and wrote when the distinction between different departments of literature were little understood; a person having the name of a scholar, wrote English verse for the same reasons that such persons now write Latin verse. But it must be also said, that the sense of the age was very obtuse on the subject of burlesque. More than half their representations of the solemn, terrific, or sublime, were undoubtedly burlesque. But it must be remembered, that nothing is laughable but by association. We give the following, examples from Warton. "He calls Chorebus, one of the Trojan chiefs, a Bedlamite; he says that old Priam girded on his sword Morglay, the name of a sword in the Gothic romances; that Dido would have have been glad to have been brought to bed even of a cockney, a Dandiprate Hopthumb; and that Jupiter, in kissing his daughter, bussed his pretty prating parrot." Of his verse, the following specimen may suffice:—

"With tentive listening each wight was settled in hearkening,
Their father Aneas chronicled from loftie bed hautie;
You bid me, O princess, to sacrifice a festered old sore,
How that the Trojans were prest by the Grecian armie."

The reader will have noticed that the verse is a wretched imitation of the Latin hexameter. This was the fashion of his day, it was introduced by Gabriel Harvey, and adopted by Sidney, Spenser, and all the poets of the day, but soon rejected. Harvey enumerates Stanihurst, with Spenser, Sidney, and other celebrated writers, as commendably employed, and enriching their native tongue, and sounds his own glory as the inventor of the English hexameter.

Stanihurst's works are the following:—Harmonica, seu Catena Dialectica in Porphyrium; De rebus in Hibernia Grestis; Descriptio Hiberniae, inserted in Holinshed's Chronicle; De Vatae et Patricii Hibernia Apostoli; Hebdomada Mariana; Hebdomada Eucharistica; Brevis praemonitis pro futura concertatione cum Jacobo Userio; The principles of the Roman Catholic Religion; The four first books of Virgil's Aeneid, in English hexameter, published with versions of the four first Psalms in Iambic metre.

[1] Southey.