George Sandys Essay - Critical Essays

Sandys, George


George Sandys 1578-1644

English translator, poet, and travel writer.

Sandys was considered a skilled poet, learned scholar, and one of the most sophisticated writers of the English language in his time. His immensely popular accounts of his travels set a new standard for travel literature, and his translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses, the first book written in America, was considered the best English version of that work. Although he wrote little original poetry, Sandys was praised for the meter and language of his decasyllabic, or heroic couplets, which influenced poets of the eighteenth century. Alexander Pope, for example, declared that “English poetry owes much of its present beauty to Sandys,” and John Dryden called Sandys “the best versifier of the former age.” All of Sandys's works reveal his great erudition and familiarity with classical sources. Modern scholars have continued to admire Sandys's translations for their originality and grandeur of language, and his travel writings are of interest because of the light they shed on seventeenth-century English society, culture, and attitudes.

Biographical Information

Sandys was born in Yorkshire, England, the youngest son of Edwin Sandys, Archbishop of York. In 1589, he entered St. Mary's Hall at Oxford before transferring to Corpus Christi College. The details of his life between 1589 and 1610 are sketchy, but it is thought that he may have been admitted to the Middle Temple at the Inns of Court, where he studied law but never earned his legal degree, and that his family arranged his marriage to Elizabeth Norton. In 1615, Sandys published an account of his travels in A Relation of a Journey Begun An: Dom: 1610. Foure Bookes Containing a description of the Turkish Empire, of Aegypt, of the Holy Land, of the Remote parts of Italy, and Ilands adioyning. Scholars speculate that he went on the journey, which took place between 1610 and 1612, to escape his estranged wife and related legal troubles, as Norton's relatives had taken him to court for desertion and lack of financial support.

Around 1607, Sandys had become involved with the Virginia Company in London. After his trip abroad, he became an active stockholder in the company, and in August, 1621, he traveled to America and served as the company's treasurer in Jamestown; the colony's governor was his friend Sir Francis Wyatt, who was also his niece's husband. Shortly before he left for America, Sandys's translation The First Five Bookes of Ovids Metamorphosis appeared. The book was well received in literary circles: it was reprinted twice within a year of its publication and a new edition was issued in 1623. While on board the ship to Virginia in 1621, Sandys translated two more books of Ovid's classic work.

In Virginia, Sandys served as a colonial official whose duties included supervising the collection of annual rents, overseeing industry, promoting staple commodities, and hearing civil suits involving land, rent, tobacco, and trade. He was at Jamestown during the 1622 massacre of the colonists by the Tappahannocks and led the avenging party against the attackers. In addition to his activities as a colonist and civil servant—in Virginia, he is said to built the first water mill in America and started the American shipbuilding industry—Sandys translated the last eight books of the Metamorphoses. The entirety of Sandys's translation of the Metamorphoses appeared in London as Ovid's Metamorphosis Englished by G. S. in the spring of 1626, the same year Sandys returned to England. The book was probably published at the request of King Charles I, Sandys's patron.

Over the next fifteen years, Charles honored Sandys with several modest appointments, including gentleman of the privy chamber. In 1632, Sandys published another edition of Ovid, and in 1636 he produced A Paraphrase upon the Psalmes of David And upon the Hymnes Dispersed throughout the Old and New Testaments, a collection of verse paraphrases of 150 psalms and hymns. These poems were included two years later in A Paraphrase upon the Divine Poems with the addition of paraphrases from Job, Ecclesiastes, and Lamentations. This volume was prefaced by laudatory poems to Sandys from such well-known figures as Wyatt, Lord Falkland, Sidney Godolphin, Thomas Carew, Sir Dudley Digges, and Edmond Waller. In 1639, Sandys retired to Boxley in Kent. The following year, he completed a translation of the Dutch writer Hugo Grotius's Christus patiens, which Sandys rendered as Christs Passion. A Tragedie. With Annotations. Many consider Sandys's version to be superior to the original. His last published work, A Paraphrase upon the Song of Solomon, appeared in 1641. Sandys died in 1644 in Boxley.

Major Works

Sandys's Relation occupies an important place in the tradition of Elizabethan travel books for its innovative approach to this literary genre. Sandys took the notes of his personal observations and added to them the accounts of ancient geographers and church fathers, as well as past and contemporary travelers and historians. Sandys also wove into his account his own translations of passages from various classical writers. His quotations are carefully placed in the narrative to emphasize distinctions between ancient and modern life, comment on human nature, and discourse on theological matters. Sandys's travel book also differed from those of his contemporaries in its cultural sensitivity and relatively measured attitude toward “heathen” religions.

If the Relation established Sandys's reputation as a world traveler and a man of learning, his translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses consolidated his fame as a scholar and poet, which culminated in the 1632 edition titled Ovid's Metamorphosis Englished, Mythologiz'd, and Represented in Figures. An Essay to the Translation of Virgil's Aeneis, which was a large folio edition with elaborate prose commentaries and copperplate engravings illustrating each book. Sandy's commentaries occupy at least as much space as the poetic text, and the work also includes a translation in decasyllabic couplets of the first book of Virgil's Aeneid.

Sandys's later work was concerned with biblical sources and themes. His A Paraphrase upon the Psalmes of David And upon the Hymnes Dispersed throughout the Old and New Testaments was first published in 1636 and two years later the paraphrases appeared in a folio edition with transcribed musical compositions by Henry Lawes together with paraphrases of Job, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, and various songs of the Old and New Testaments. These paraphrases as well as his translation of Grotius's Christus patiens and the paraphrase of the Song of Solomon are notable for Sandys's use of decasyllabic and octosyllabic couplets, which were little used by his contemporaries. Sandys was thus a precursor of such eighteenth-century masters of the couplet form as Pope and Dryden. What readers and critics alike have found most remarkable about these paraphrases is that, while preserving all the elements of original compositions, Sandys also infused these works with his classical learning, imagination, and experiences as a world traveler.

Critical Reception

During his lifetime and for more than a century after his death, Sandys was well known in literary circles. The Relation was one of the most popular books of its day—by 1670 it had gone through seven editions and references to it appeared in works by Francis Bacon, William Shakespeare, and John Milton. Sandys's translation of Ovid enjoyed similar success, going through at least ten editions in the seventeenth century. The work was considered the standard translation of Ovid, and as late as the nineteenth century John Keats and his contemporaries were reading Sandys's version. However, later generations for the most part have found Sandys to be a writer of little note. Modern scholars have pointed out that this evaluation may be attributed to Sandys's fondness for classical allusions, his scholarly interests, and the religious themes that predominated his paraphrases—qualities that had fallen out of favor in both life and literature over the centuries. Although Sandys's work does not enjoy a wide audience, critics still consider his translation of Ovid to be one of the best in the English language. He is also an important figure in English literature for his contribution to the development of travel literature and of the English poetic form of the heroic couplet.

Principal Works

A Relation of a Journey Begun An: Dom: 1610. Foure Bookes Containing a description of the Turkish Empire, of Aegypt, of the Holy Land, of the Remote parts of Italy, and Ilands adioyning (prose) 1615

The First Five Bookes of Ovids Metamorphosis (translation) 1621

Ovid's Metamorphosis Englished by G. S. (translation) 1626

Ovid's Metamorphosis Englished, Mythologiz'd, and Represented in Figures. An Essay to the Translation of Virgil's Aeneis (translation and criticism) 1632

A Paraphrase upon the Psalmes of David And upon the Hymnes Dispersed throughout the Old and New Testaments (paraphrase) 1636

A Paraphrase upon the Divine Poems (paraphrase) 1638

Christs Passion. A Tragedie. With Annotations [translator] (poetry) 1640

A Paraphrase upon the Song of Solomon (poetry) 1641


Richard Hooper (essay date 1872)

SOURCE: Hooper, Richard. Introduction to The Poetical Works, Vol. 1, by George Sandys, edited by Richard Hooper, pp. ix-lv. 1968. Reprint. London: John Russell Smith, 1872.

[In the following essay, Hooper notes the high esteem in which prominent men of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries held Sandys, offers biographical information taken from contemporary accounts, discusses the publication and reception of various editions of Sandys's works, and concludes that Sandys has been overlooked as a poet.]

Such has been the growing taste for Sacred Poetry during the past forty years that little apology is needed for re-introducing to the public the works of...

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J. M. Attenborough (essay date 1905)

SOURCE: Attenborough, J. M. “George Sandys, Traveler and Poet.” Westminster Review CLXIII (January-June 1905): 643-55.

[In the following essay, Attenborough provides an overview of Sandys's life and works.]

All frequenters of the second-hand book-shop must be familiar with the noble seventeenth-century folio volumes which bear on their backs the joined names of Ovid and George Sandys. Those who have had the curiosity to reach one down from its place have been well rewarded by the sight of its strange and magnificent illustrations. The few who have borne away a copy cannot fail to have been delighted by the once-praised but now-forgotten verses which fill its long...

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Edmond S. de Beer (essay date 1937)

SOURCE: De Beer, Edmond S. “George Sandys's Account of Campania.” Transactions of the Bibliographical Society, new series, XVII, no. 4 (March 1937): 458-65.

[In the following essay, de Beer argues that the account of Campania in the fourth book of the Relation is almost entirely derived from other sources.]

George Sandys's A Relation of a Iourney begun An: Dom: 1610, first published in 1615, was one of the most popular of seventeenth-century travel books.1 The account of Campania contained in the fourth book2 is probably the least important part of the work; the object of the present article is to show that it is almost entirely...

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Russell H. Barker (essay date 1937)

SOURCE: Barker, Russell H. “George Sandys' Relation.Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Art and Letters XXX (1937): 253-73.

[In the following essay, Barker discusses Relation as a work written by Sandys for the purpose of educating his readers.]

Evidence is not hard to find for the popularity soon achieved by George Sandys' Relation, his account of a journey to Turkey, Egypt, the Holy Land, and the “Remote parts of Italy, and Ilands adjoining,” published in 1615. By 1670 the book had gone through seven editions, and parts of it had been included by Samuel Purchas among His Pilgrimes. During the seventeenth century...

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Richard Beale Davis (essay date 1947)

SOURCE: Davis, Richard Beale. “America in George Sandys's ‘Ovid.’” William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, 4 (July 1947): 297-304.

[In the following essay, Davis asserts that Sandys's experiences of the life and landscape of North America strongly influenced his translation of Ovid.]


The translation of the fifteen books of Ovid's Metamorphoses by George Sandys has been called “the first utterance of the conscious literary spirit articulated in America.”1 The circumstances of its production provides the basis for this assertion. Sandys, treasurer and director of industry at Jamestown from 1621 until late in...

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Richard Beale Davis (essay date 1955)

SOURCE: Davis, Richard Beale. “Courtier and Sacred Poet.” In George Sandys, Poet-Adventurer: A Study in Anglo-American Culture in the Seventeenth Century. London: The Bodley Head, 1955, 320 p.

[In the following excerpt, Davis examines Sandys's paraphrases and original poems and finds that the author's weaknesses and strengths were both the result of the fact that he was a scholar as well as a poet.]

Sandys' life from the publication of the 1626 Ovid to his death at the outbreak of the Civil War was apparently busy and happy. Not too much direct evidence as to his personal actions remains. But the surviving details pieced together with the knowledge of what his...

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Richard Beale Davis (essay date 1956)

SOURCE: Davis, Richard Beale. “Sandys's Song of Solomon: Its Manuscript Versions and Their Circulation.” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 50 (1956): 328-41.

[In the following essay, Davis analyzes Sandys's intent in writing his paraphrase of the Song of Solomon, the manner of and motive for circulating the poem in manuscript, the reason for the delay in its publication, and the probability that there was a lost additional printed version of the poem.]

The ten known printed and manuscript texts of George Sandys' A Paraphrase upon the Song of Solomon (1641) present several problems regarding this particular poem and offer interesting...

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Douglas Bush (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: Bush, Douglas. Foreword to Ovid's Metamorphosis, Englished, Mythologized, and Represented in Figures, by George Sandys, edited by Karl K. Hulley and Stanley T. Vanersall, pp. vii-xiii. Lincoln: The University of Nebraska Press, 1970.

[In the following essay, Bush compares Sandys's translations of and commentaries on Ovid's Metamorphoses to those of John Dryden, Arthur Golding, and others.]

We may look first at the translator, who, like so many writers of his robust and stirring age, was not merely a man of books. George Sandys (1578-1644) came of a prominent family. He was the son of Edwin Sandys, Archbishop of York, and a younger brother of Sir Edwin,...

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Marie A. Powles (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: Powles, Marie A. “Dramatic Significance in the ‘Figures’ Prefacing Each Book of Sandys' Translation of Ovid's Metamorphosis.The University of Dayton Review Vol. 10, no. 3 (summer 1974): 39-45.

[In the following essay, Powles examines the first plate preceding the title page of the 1640 edition of Sandys' Ovid, explaining the symbolic content of the illustration and showing how translator, artist, and engraver worked to present Sandys's version of Ovid's work in a unique way—as a play to be staged and interpreted by the gods.]

Although it is probably commonplace to suggest that the truly representative figures of any given literary...

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Christopher Grose (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Grose, Christopher. Introduction to Ovid's Metamorphoses: An Index to the 1632 Commentary of George Sandys, pp. vii-xi. Malibu: Undena Publications, 1981, 154 p.

[In the following excerpt, Grose discusses Sandys's commentary to his 1632 translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses, contending that it was influenced by Francis Bacon.]

They will repeale the goodly exil'd traine
Of gods and goddesses, which in thy just raigne
Were banish'd nobler Poems, now, with these
The silenc'd tales o'th' Metamorphoses
Shall stuffe their lines, and swell the windy Page,
Till Verse refin'd by thee, in this last Age,
Turne ballad rime. …

Thomas Carew,...

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Lee T. Percy (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Percy, Lee T. “George Sandys: A Translator Between Two Worlds.” In The Mediated Muse: English Translations of Ovid, 1560-1700, pp. 37-70. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1984.

[In the following essay, Percy examines Sandys's translation of Ovid and argues that in this work Sandys displays qualities associated with both the Renaissance and with modern times.]

In 1623, on a tiny ship crossing the Atlantic “amongst the roreing of the seas, the rustling of the Shroude, and the clamour of the Saylers,” George Sandys, newly appointed treasurer of the Virginia Company, sat down to translate two books of Ovid's Metamorphoses.1 Later, in the midst of...

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Jonathan Haynes (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Haynes, Jonathan. “The Literary Character of the Relation.” In The Humanist as Traveler: George Sandys's Relation of a Journey begun An. Dom. 1610. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1986, 160 p.

[In the following excerpt, Haynes offers a detailed analysis of the literary qualities of Relation.]

It is already been said that the Relation is the most “literary” of English Renaissance travel books; the purpose of this chapter is to estimate what this means. The polish of its prose, the poetic translations with which it is studded, and the erudition with which it sometimes bristles are easy enough to notice, but they need to be...

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Jody Hoppe (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Hoppe, Jody. “Illustrations in George Sandys' Translation of Ovid's Metamorphosis.Soundings 20 (1989): 29-36.

[In the following essay, Hoppe maintains that the illustrations included in Sandys's translations of Ovid's Metamorphoses were important not only for their artistry but also for exposing Baroque style to a larger audience.]

Of bodies chang'd to other shapes I sing.
Assist, you Gods (from you these changes spring
And, from the Worlds first fabrick to these times,
Deduced my never-discontinued Rymes.

These are the opening lines of George Sandys' Ovid's Metamorphosis englished, mythologiz'd and represented in...

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Further Reading


Cawley, Robert R. “Burton, Bacon, and Sandys.” Modern Language Notes 56, no. 4 (April 1941): 271-73.

Contends that passages from Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy and Francis Bacon's Natural History have their sources in Sandys's Relation.

Drake, Gertrude C. “Ovid's Metamorphoses, the Facsimile of the Caxton MS, and Sandys's 1632 Version.” In Papers on Language and Literature 7 (1971): 313-35.

Reviews the 1970 edition of Sandys' 1632 version of Ovid's Metamorphoses released by the University of Nebraska Press.

Hardman, C. B. “Marvell's ‘Bermudas’...

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