Arthur Golding Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Arthur Golding 1536-1606

English translator and essayist.

Arthur Golding produced one of the most significant translations of Ovid's Metamorphoses in English. Also known in his own time as the translator of several Puritan-leaning religious works, including the commentaries and sermons of John Calvin, Golding attempted to render Ovid's bawdy tales as moral exempla for the careful reader. Golding's translation of Ovid remains a work of interest for modern readers in part because it has continued to stand as a fine and accessible translation of the Latin text, but also because it was the most popular Ovidian text of the English Renaissance, providing a source for several playwrights and poets, particularly William Shakespeare.

Biographical Information

Arthur Golding was born in 1536, one of seven children of John Golding, an auditor of the Exchequer who had been admitted to the Middle Temple, and Ursula Marston. His birthplace is unknown, but he likely spent his childhood in Belchamp St. Paul's, Essex. He had an older half sister from John Golding's first marriage, Margaret, who married John de Vere, the sixteenth earl of Oxford, in 1548, giving Golding a useful and important social connection throughout his life. He entered Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1552, with the status of “fellow commoner,” a designation conferring significant privileges chiefly for students of wealthy families who paid an extra fee. There exists no record of his activities or studies there, and he left without a degree, likely in response to the Catholic purges of the institution following the accession of Queen Mary. Professors Martin Bucer and Paul Fagius were tried and burned during a purge in 1555, an event that inspired Golding's first translation, from Conradus Hubertus's A Briefe Treatise Concerning the Burnynge of Bucer and Phagius, at Cambrydge (1562). To this first publication Golding affixed his own anti-Catholic preface, the first indication of the strong anti-Catholic sentiments that would also mark Golding's later work. In 1562 John de Vere died, and Golding was appointed an executor for his nephew Edward de Vere until he reached the age of majority as the seventeenth earl of Oxford. He dedicated a number of translations to his nephew, exhorting him to study the example of classical heroes in his Histories of Trogus Pompeius (1564) and to maintain his Protestant faith in his preface to John Calvin's Commentaries on the Psalms (1571). In 1565 he published the first portion of his translation of Ovid's Metamorphosis (Golding's spelling), dedicating it to Robert Dudley, the earl of Leicester, who had a reputation as an avid supporter of translators of the classics. The work was immediately well received, and confirmed Golding's place as one of the first translators in England. He completed an edition of all fifteen books of the Latin work in 1567. Among his major translations after the Ovid are his five additional translations of Calvin, including Calvin's well-known Offences (1567), and his sermons on Job (1574), Galatians (1574), Ephesians (1577), and Deuteronomy (1583). The works reflect Golding's puritanical bent, and were an important part of the dissemination of Calvin's ideas to a wider English public. During this time, Golding married Ursula Roydon, and the first of their eight children was born in 1575. In 1575 Golding also inherited his family's estate upon the death of his elder brother. The inheritance was hardly a boon for Golding, who spent the next twenty years embroiled in lawsuits over the estate, which included several large properties. Around 1595, his time among the landed gentry ended with a term in Fleet Prison for debt. His 1595 translation of Jacques Hurault's Politicke, Moral, and Martial Discourses mentions assistance he received from Lord Cobham in his efforts to be released from prison; the work was the last he published in his prolific lifetime. He died in 1606, still plagued by financial troubles, and was buried May 13 at the parish church of Belchamp St. Paul's.

Major Works

An extremely talented translator, Golding's gift gave him the mixed blessing of being remembered chiefly for the works of other authors. His lasting contribution to literature is primarily his translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses, which was widely read and greatly admired in his own time. Golding's translation of Ovid was the only source of the classical text for many Renaissance readers and writers, including William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, and Christopher Marlowe. Unique features of Golding's Metamorphosis include his use of “fourteeners” (a verse form using couplets of seven metrical feet each), his free use of English idiom to capture the spirit of the text, and his attempt to frame the text and its bawdy and violent tales in a moral light. The use of fourteeners allowed Golding a long poetic line in which to translate Ovid's compressed Latin, creating a marked difference in the styles of the poems, but allowing Golding some freedom in descriptive details. At times the length of the lines also encouraged Golding to be somewhat repetitive and to add unnecessary text to fill out the meter, a strategy many modern commentators have found objectionable. The sound of the lines also supports a comic tone, sometimes appropriate to Ovid's wit, though at other times interfering with the meaning of the original. The freedom provided by the use of fourteeners also supported Golding's effort to create a truly English version of the Metamorphoses. Golding often did not attempt to render subtle Latin wordplay into comparable English, nor did he try to capture a Latinate prosody in his lines. Using the fourteeners and heavy Anglo-Saxon language, Golding created a more rustic, less sophisticated Metamorphosis, one that perhaps resonated with English readers in a way that a more precise, less expansive edition could not have. Though Golding made free with Ovid's language, he did not take similar freedoms with his stories. His “Preface to the Reader” of 1567 is careful to inform readers that the stories of his Metamorphosis are offered as moral lessons; “lewd behavior” there may be, but it is usually appropriately punished. Thus Golding the Puritan did not opt to bowdlerize the tales, but instead made every effort to warn his readers of their immorality and explain carefully their proper Christian interpretation. Yet Golding's biographer Louis Thorn Golding suggests that he may not have been fully successful in moving his readers to appreciate Ovid solely in a didactic light. Though the Metamorphosis was a tremendous success, Golding limited his translations primarily to explicitly moral works for the remainder of his career. In particular, Golding is remembered as a translator of Calvin's Offences and his sermons.

Critical Reception

Golding's translation of the Metamorphoses went through seven editions before 1612, and remained the standard English version of the text until George Sandys published his translation in 1632. After that, Golding's popularity waned significantly, although in 1904 Golding's Metamorphosis appeared in a new edition by William Henry Denham Rouse. Modern scholars generally appreciated Golding's abilities as a translator. The modernist poet Ezra Pound was effusive in his praise for Golding's Metamorphosis, ranking him with Chaucer and comparing him to Milton in his poetic skill. Golding would likely have been forgotten, however, were it not for his intimate connection with the works of Shakespeare. Although many scholars believe that Shakespeare would have possessed adequate Latin skills to read Ovid in the original, the playwright clearly relied on Golding's translations of Ovid as an important source for his works, especially A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595) and The Tempest. The Pyramus and Thisbe drama staged by Peter Quince, Bottom, and the mechanicals in A Midsummer Night's Dream have drawn particular interest as commentaries on Golding's translation of Ovid: several critics have interpreted the awkward, exaggerated dialogue of “Pyramus and Thisbe” within the play as a parody of Golding's padded and repetitious fourteeners, and some have suggested Golding's admonitory preface as a source for the tone in which they introduce their “tragedy.” This is not to suggest that Shakespeare or his contemporaries would have considered Golding wholly laughable. On the contrary, Shakespeare appears to have borrowed frequently from Golding for a number of his plays, as scholars Anthony Brian Taylor and Jonathan Bate have demonstrated. In both comedies and tragedies, Shakespeare seems to have taken Golding's phrasings and word choices as effective and admirable poetic expressions worthy of appropriation. Later critics in particular have worked to redeem Golding's reputation from an overemphasis on Shakespeare's likely parody of his verse in A Midsummer Night's Dream, stressing Golding's importance in shaping English literature. Sarah Annes Brown and Raphael Lyne are among those who have observed Golding's efforts to translate Ovid not only into the English language, but into an English sensibility. In doing so, Lyne suggests, Golding made Ovid a part of English culture and helped to guide the direction of Renaissance literature and to define English national identity.