Our nine lives this time around come from Plutarch, that revered first-century bestseller whose inexhaustible masterwork, the Parallel Lives, survives as one of the greatest literary wonders of the ancient world. As some of you will know, Plutarch’s Lives is one of my favorite books, one of that small shelf of volumes that, though not always of the first rank in terms of literary merit, have been indispensable companions to me in good times and bad; I suspect all readers have such a group of books, and Plutarch has been in mine since its beginning. I was recently given a pretty paperback of an abbreviated edition that set me re-reading with merry abandon.
It’s the current Wordsworth trade paperback, and although I don’t usually approve of abridgements, Plutarch is a bit of an exception. Read the whole thing, by all means, but the fact remains: in being fiercely nationalistic, Plutarch ends up spending too much time and effort on the lives of ancient Greeks to ballast out his lives of ancient Romans. For good or ill, Dion, Themistocles, and Agesilaus simply haven’t retained their general cultural interest in the way that Pompey, Caesar, and Cicero have - or at least, they haven’t for me. An edition of Plutarch that leans towards the Romans is therefore more congenial, although such a volume can’t omit the Greeks – lives like those of Theseus, Alcibiades, and of course Alexander the Great are too good not to include. But I usually end up concentrating on the Roman lives, and that’s what we’re doing today.
One life before the others, though, and neither a Roman nor a Greek: Thomas North, our Elizabethan translator! Because our source book today is, wonderfully enough, the North translation of Plutarch, which is far more often cited – chiefly because North’s was the Plutarch Shakespeare used and knew so well - than read. This is a great shame, because even among the Elizabethans (whose prose tends to tower rather embarrassingly over other eras), North was a master prose stylist. Even so mighty a wordsmith as Shakespeare can often find no better way of phrasing something than North’s way – time and again in the plays, Shakespeare pays North the ultimate compliment of word-for-word copying.
Our translator wasn’t originally intended for the literary life, and it’s possible he didn’t intend it himself. He was born around 1535, the second son of Lord North, and he was probably educated at Peterhouse, Cambridge, where his imperious father intended him to study the law (some form of employment being of course necessary for a second son, let alone the second son of a notoriously impecunious family, newly tacked-on ‘Lord’ or no). Young Thomas discovered in himself a facility for language, which is a not inconsiderable benefit in the study of law – but he also found some part of his pith that was alive to the beauty of language, and that part is anathema to legal studies. So Thomas gave up the law and turned to verse-making (none survive, thank the good lord) and translating: his version of The Morall Philosophie of Doni (a loose Spanish version of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius) was a modest surprise hit with its tiny publisher, although it made poor Thomas no less poor.
The Elizabethan smart set was acutely conscious of the fact (or at least the conceit) that they were living in a new golden age, and they were consequently hungry for manuals and guidebooks on how to do that. Knowing no other golden ages but one, they turned their eyes to the classics of ancient Greece and Rome, and suddenly a market for translations opened up. Thomas would become a major entrant in that market, and the avenue he took to get there brings him past the orbit of our old friend Marguerite of Navarre. She had a favorite at her court in France, a dissolute half-talent named Jacques Amyot, who in the late 1550s had the inspired idea of making a popular translation (into French, naturally) of Plutarch’s Lives. It was this translation Thomas came upon in the bookstalls when he accompanied his brother Roger (by then Lord North) to France on an embassy in 1574.
Thomas saw the commercial potentials as well as Amyot had, so he didn’t bother at first even to avail himself of a Greek text of the work (he was rusty anyway, although languages flowed for him like water) – he just set about translating Amyot’s translation. It proved a mighty task – Plutarch wrote a long book, and his prose is a labyrinth of unending sentences (his famed ‘periods’) that have to be seen to be believed. It’s not the sort of thing you can work on for long stretches of time if you value your sanity, and Thomas was often distracted (by romance, illicit and otherwise, by disastrous get-rich-quick schemes, once by poor health, etc.). But five years later, in 1579, he brought forth his Englished Plutarch and it was immediately successful not only with the literary set (by 1590, there was hardly a schoolroom or library in England that didn’t own either a copy or a knock-off) but with the great and influential of the land – including the lady at the top.
The book bore a dedicatory epistle to Queen Elizabeth, and in some ways it’s more remarkable than anything in the long book it precedes. Oh, it contains the usual fulsome fawning –there was a form for these things, after all, and it had taken a little work for Thomas’ friend-of-a-friend Lord Leicester to get him covert permission to make the dedication in the first place. Thomas assures the Queen that she’s more fit to be written up by Plutarch than read by him, and he hopes that the ‘common sort’ of her subjects will learn from the book how better to serve her, etc. But there are lines scattered throughout the dedication that read much more like one seasoned linguist speaking directly to another (Elizabeth had translated Plutarch, although not any of the Lives, and knew the tangle he could be). He reminds her of the simple truth, that she “can better understand it in Greek, than any man can make it English.”
Elizabeth could be a tricky dedicatee (her wit was barbed), but she must have liked receiving an almost professional compliment among the dross flattery of her day. She smiled upon the book, and sales soared.
In 1591 Thomas was knighted. In 1595 he brought out a second edition of his Lives. In 1601 he was made Justice of the Peace and, more importantly by far, granted forty-pound annual pension by the Queen. In 1603 he published a third, much expanded, edition of his Lives. Until Dryden and the Dryden Industry came along, the North Plutarch stood as the English Plutarch, and it still resounds with that particular swash and swagger that the prose of Dryden (and my love for my three John-poets is well known) can’t match on its best day, and there’s always that tell-tale Elizabethan twinkle in the eye, as when he relates the drastic measures the Trojan women took to cure their sea-sickness in the life of Romulus:
Other say, that after the taking and destruction of Troya, there were certain Troyans which saving themselves from the sword, took such vessels as they found at adventure in the haven, and were by winds put with the Thuscane shore, where they anchored near unto the river of Tyber. There their wives being so sore sea sick, that possibly they could not any more endure the boisterous surges of the seas, it happened one of them among the rest (the noblest and wisest of the company) called Roma, to counsel the other women her companions to set their ships afire, which they did accordingly. Wherewith their husbands at first were marvellously offended.
Puckish humor can also be found glinting through the life of famed Roman financier Crassus – some of this humor is Plutarch’s, but North gives it an end-line bounce found neither in the master nor in Amyot:
Licinia had a goodly pleasant garden hard by the suburbs of the city, wherewith Crassus was marvellously in love, and would fain have had it good cheap: an upon this only occasion was often seen in speech with her, which made the people suspect him. But for as much as it seemed to the judges that his covetousness was the cause that made him follow her, he was cleared of the incest suspected, but he never left following of the nun, till he had got the garden of her.
And just as North sometimes accentuates Plutarch’s dry humor, he always expands a little on his author’s not-infrequent philosophical digressions on the nature of fortune and man. These digressions are the blood that pump through the factwork of the Parallel Lives – they’re what keeps the book immortal, as North must have known as well as anybody, and he’s always alive to the rhetorical possibilities involved, as in his life of Coriolanus:
… he was so carried away with the vehemence of anger, and desire of revenge, that he had no sense nor feeling of the hard state he was in, which the common people judge not to be sorrow, although indeed it be the very same. For when sorrow (as you would say) is set afire, then it is converted into spite and malice, and driveth away for that time all faintness of heart and natural fear. And this is the cause why the choleric man is so altered, and mad in his actions, as a man set afire with a burning ague: for when a man’s heart is troubled, his pulse will beat marvellous strongly.
Or the a sidelong glance at the too-temporary nature of any ‘good hap,’ as in the life of Marius:
But that which never suffereth men quietly to enjoy the good hap of any victory clearly, but in this mortal life doth ever mingle the ill with the good, be it either fortune or spite of fatal destiny, or else the necessity of the natural causes of earthly things, did shortly after this great joy bring news unto Marius, of his companion Catulus Luctatius the other consul, who was like a cloud in a fair bright day, and brought the city of Rome again into new fear and trouble.
As in the original, so in North: it’s often possible (indeed, thrilling) to follow the thread of great stories as that thread winds through different lives, as when a scene in the life of Cicero about the willful and soon-to-be-renegade senator Catiline shows us the beginnings of his public downfall:
In the end Cicero coming out of his house, called the senate to the temple of Jupiter Stator (as much to say, stayer), which standeth at the upper end of the holy street as they go to the Mount Palatine. There was Catiline with others, as though he meant to clear himself of the suspicion that went of him: howbeit there was not a senator that would sit down by him, but they did all rise from the bench where Catiline had taken his place. And further, when he began to speak, he could have no audience for the great noise they made against him.
And a scene in the life of Julius Caesar shows us the beginnings of that downfall’s aftermath, when two of Catiline’s cohorts in crime, Lentulus and Cethegus, are being tried after Catiline himself had “scaped out of the hands of justice.” Cicero wants them put to death (illegal and virtually unprecedented, but Cicero kept claiming the survival of the Republic depended on it), and Julius Caesar alone stand to defend them and the laws that are supposed to protect them (Plutarch hints and North echoes that Caesar was bribed; goading Cicero might have been sufficient reward):
…when they were convinced in open senate, Cicero being at that time consul, asking every man’s opinion in the senate, what punishment they should have, and every one of them till it came to Caesar, gave sentence they should die, Caesar then rising up to speak, made an oration (penned and premeditated before) and said, that it was neither lawful nor yet their custom did bear it, to put men of such nobility to death (but in an extremity) without lawful indictment and condemnation. And therefore, that if they were put in prison in some city of Italy, where Cicero thought best, until that Catiline were overthrown, the senate might then at their pleasure quietly take such order therein, as might best appear unto their wisdoms.
The greatest of these background-stories is of course the shattering of that Republic Cicero was so eager to commit murder to preserve, and in the shadow of that great drama, every Roman character is likewise brought to life by Plutarch’s fantastic combination of fact, rumor, and those aforementioned philosophical expansions. We see Brutus making his peace with Pompey in a cold-blooded calculation of who was likely to win in that great struggle:
Afterwards when the empire of Rome was divided into factions, and that Caesar and Pompey both were in arms one against the other, and that all the empire of Rome was in garboyle and uproar, it was thought then that Brutus would take part with Caesar, because Pompey not long before had put his father unto death. But Brutus preferring the respect of his country and commonwealth, before private affection, and persuading himself that Pompey had juster cause to enter into arms than Caesar, he then took part with Pompey, though oftentimes meeting him before, he thought scorn to the murderer of his father.
And we see poor befuddled Marc Antony! Plutarch usually has no hesitation in letting his readers know which historical figures he considers worthy and otherwise, but he – like all sensible historians before and after him – has categorical trouble with Antony. The man could be so charming, after all, and yet he birthed conflicting reports before he got out of bed in the morning, sometimes quite literally:
Then was Antonius straight marvellously commended and beloved of the soldiers, because he commonly exercised himself among them, and would oftentimes eat and drink with them, and also be liberal unto them, according to his nobility. But then in contrary manner, he purchased divers other men’s evil wills, because that through negligence he would not do them justice when they were injured, and dealt very churlishly with them that had suit unto him: and besides all this, he had an ill name to entice other men’s wives.
All these details and countless others Amyot squeezed out of the recondite, twisting, turning, breathless Greek of Plutarch and rendered in workaday French prose, and that result Thomas North then worked into one of the greatest extended virtuoso epics of Elizabethan prose ever written. Thank God for this Wordsworth paperback, but the truth remains: North’s Plutarch has been almost entirely forgotten, except perhaps as the inspiration for some of Shakespeare. It deserves a universal readership – not as a translation (although North often manages to massage Amyot closer to the ancient Greek) but as an almost unrivalled adventure story about the roles that courage and luck play in the lives of great men. In my perfect library, there’s a fat, gorgeous Penguin Classic titled The North Plutarch and lavished with footnotes, endnotes, an enthusiastic Introduction, and perhaps even a twenty-page profile of the dear brave translator, who led a sometimes happy but often beleaguered life but managed nevertheless to accomplish two miracles: to create a great book and to win the approval of history’s pickiest patron.
Make the acquaintance of this darling book and learn its ways. You won’t be sorry; it’s good for your garboyles.