George Sandys Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.