Heavens Wide-Bounding Vault

“Florio’s greatest gift was the ability to make his book come to life for the Elizabethan imagination. Approximately the same forces surged through France and England in the Renaissance, but if Montaigne was to be fused into an integral part of the English mind and not left as a foreign classic, not only his spirit but the form of his expression had to be naturalized. And throughout his translation, sometimes consciously, more often instinctively, Florio creates a Montaigne who is an actual Elizabethan figure.

“His speech assumes the high-flung pitch of his new surroundings. Florio was no poet, but he shared some of the qualities which make it so often appear that the Englishman of the late-sixteenth century wrote with greater ease in poetry than in prose. He speaks of the ‘heavens wide-bounding vault,’ ‘swift-gliding Time,’ the sun’s ‘all-seeing eye,’ and ‘manyheaded confusion,’ with absolutely no hint from Montaigne. ‘Sa pyramide’ is ‘his high-towring Pyramis, or Heaven-menacing Tower,’ ‘de l’ombre et du doubte,’ ‘from out the shadow of oblivion or dungeon of doubt.’ Similar phrases characterize the great flow of Elizabethan verse; and Florio’s, to be sure, have no originality, but are repetitions of the accepted convention. In accordance, too, with the demands of this convention he introduces classic allusions. ‘Le soleil’ becomes ‘Phoebus’ bearing his ‘mourning weedes.’ ‘No human judgment is so vigilant or Argos-eied’ is his rendering of ‘Il n’est jugement humain si tendu.’ Usually these poeticisms add little, but once at least we feel the alchemy of imagination, when ‘la verdeur des ans’ becomes ‘the Aprili of my yeares.’

“The translator is constantly trying to discover a way to substitute the concrete for the abstract, to give color to an idea by an image. When Montaigne states an aphorism, ‘Mais aucun bien sans peine,’ Florio pours new life into it: ‘But no good without paines; no Roses without prickles.’ In addition to the general statement is an illustration; there is not only an appeal to the mind, but an appeal to the eye. ‘Men of their coate’ for ‘hommes de leur sorte’ achieves power of suggestion through being definite. In countless other cases the introduction of a graphic detail brings a new vividness and intimacy to the plain statement of the idea. Examples are everywhere: ‘to play the wilie Foxe’ for ‘de faire le fin,’ ‘in the twinkling of an eye’ for ‘en un moment,’ and the especially felicitious ‘to goe about to catch the winde in a net’ for ‘de negocier au vent.’ On the occasions where Montaigne himself had used an image, Florio develops it more fully with uncalled-for but charming detail. To the French proverb ‘Ce sont les pieds du paon, qui abbatent son orgueil,’ Florio adds, ‘It is the foulenesse of the Peacockes feete, which doth abate his pride, and stoope his gloating-eyed tayle.’ And when he translates ‘cercher le vent de la faveur des Roys’ into ‘to seeke after court holy-water and wavering-favours of Princes,’ he uses a phrase that may have caught Shakespeare’s eye, and have been appropriated for the Fool’s speech in Lear: ‘O Nunkle, court holy-water in a dry house, is better than this rain-water, out o’ doore.'” (F. O. Matthiessen, 1965, Translation, An Elizabethan Drama)