1. In 1586 Watson published a Latin translation of the Greek hexameter poem Raptus Helenae by the Egyptian Greek Coluthus, of Lycopolis in the Thebais. Coluthus flourished at the end of the fifth century A. D. His Raptus Helenae is usually held in disdain by modern classicists. In his comprehensive history of Greek literature, for example, Albin Lesky dismissively wrote “we are not grateful for it.” NOTE 1 Classicists’ appraisal of the Hero and Leander falsely attributed to the mythological bard Musaeus is not much higher, but the gratitude of the Elizabethans — and consequently of modern English scholars — for these late Greek narratives was considerably greater. This is obviously true of Marlowe’s Hero and Leander (also translated into Latin by William Gager, but unpublished until modern times), and it is barely possible that Marlowe also wrote an English version of Coluthus, based either on the Greek or on Watson’s translation. According to Mark Eccles, NOTE 2
Marlowe is said to have “translated Coluthus’ Rape of Helen into English rhyme, in the year 1587,” according to the “manuscript papers of a diligent collector of these fugacious anecdotes.” Thomas Coxeter [d. 1746]. Warton adds, “I have never seen it,” nor has any later writer. W. C. Hazlitt declares that “Coxeter was a remorseless forger of titles and facts.” On the other hand, it is possible that Marlowe’s poem has disappeared since Coxeter’s time.
2. Such an insubstantial tradition may be easy enough to dismiss, yet it conceals the symbolic truth that the translation efforts of Watson and Marlowe are not entirely dissimilar. Marlowe’s Hero and Leander and Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis have been classified as belonging to a literary form labelled the “Ovidian epyllion” by modern scholarship: NOTE 3
Unlike an epic such as the Aeneid, Ovid’s [Metamorphoses] conveniently divides into numerous discrete episodes involving perennially fascinating topics such as frustrated passion, incest, rape, and murder, all of which, including the last, are aspects of its erotic character. In addition, the overall theme of transformation or change of identity makes for keen psychological interest. With Ovid the epic’s customary sphere of action broadens to include something of a more reflective dimension, so that the poet seems not merely to be presenting a startling event but also musing on what may underlie its occurrence.
3. The Raptus Helenae conforms to some, although not all, of the points in this definition. It is a narrative poem of the same compact proportions. Its subject is eroticism, and although it is not explicitly analytic, both its narrative contents and its characterizations encourage the reader to react evaluatively. But the poem differs from the Ovidian epyllion in that the evaluation made is moral rather than psychological, and the poem contains no transformation or change of identity. Furthermore, although the author of the above quotation did not include this in his list, the Ovidian epyllion is also marked by pathos, although pathos that may be tempered by humor or irony. In Coluthus’ poem there may be nothing pathetic about the situation of its lovers, but considerable pathos is to be found in a quite different quarter: in the suffering their love inflicts on those around them, beginning with Helen’s orphaned daughter Hermione.
4. One can see why Coluthus’ poem appealed to Watson. To be sure, it contains details that have affinities with his previous works: the allusion to Phyllis of Thrace in 222f. speaks the name of his own creation, and the transformation of Hyacinth into a flower serving as the encapsulated tale at 246ff. serves to recall the similar ending of Amyntas (and also, for what it may be worth, of Venus and Adonis). More cogently, however, both these subordinate tales point to the same conclusion as the poem’s main story: all three are object-lessons about love’s ruinous consequences, for the poem repeatedly reminds us that the ultimate outcome of its action will be the destruction of Troy. The principals in the story are given thoroughly unpleasant characterizations, primarily delineated by their speeches. These show Venus to be petty and spiteful in victory (180ff.), Paris as headstrong and arrogant (286ff.), and Helen as callous and indifferent to her responsibilities as wife and mother (318ff.). Menelaus is elsewhere, mentioned but not described; we are given no especial reason to think he deserves what he gets, but since he is offstage we receive no encouragement to sympathize with him. The only sympathetic character in the poem is Hermione, frantic over her mother’s decampment. Her very real anguish prefigures the suffering Helen’s defection will inflict on many others, and the poem ends on a note of impending doom. The Raptus Helenae presents anything but a positive report on the value of love. This theme of the unhappy outcome of love resonates with the way Watson has presented eroticism in his previous works: the attraction of Coluthus’ poem is that it too illustrates the premise that one cannot love and be wise.
5. Although the poem’s narrator himself passes no judgment on his characters, the reader is supplied with plenty of hints that he is supposed to make his own appraisal, and furnished with an abundance of evidence to assist in its making. Watson recognized and responded to this, and prefaced his translation with an ironic quotation of Horace’s thumbnail portrait of an unswervingly just person. This is a definition of precisely what Paris and Helen are not; Horace’s lines supply the ethical baseline against which they can be measured and found wanting. Watson perceived that Coluthus’ authorial strategy is peculiarly congenial to Sidney’s morally evaluative theory of literary characterization. In the Antigone’s Pomps and Themes, he instructed his readership in Sidney’s analytic technique by performing an explicit diagnosis of the chief characters in Sophocles’ play. An analysis of the unreasonable nature of love is likewise presented explicitly in the Ἑκατομπαθία. In the present translation, as in Amyntas, an initial epigraph invites the reader to apply the method for himself. Hence, though at first sight the present translation might seem to be minor and incidental to Watson’s important works, it in fact marches in very much the same direction with them and is a further development of the now-familiar theme that serves as their common denominator.
6. Coluthus’ poem had previously been published at Basel in 1556, in a literal Latin prose translation (printed stichically to match the lineation of the original poem) by René Perdrier, with annotations by Bernard Bertrand. Watson appears to have used this translation as a “trot,” just as he had previously relied on Naogeorgus’ Latin translation of Sophocles’ Antigone, as pointed out here. It is perhaps only coincidental that copies of Perdrier’s translation and Forcatulus’ Epigrammata, a work highly esteemed by Watson and repeatedly laid under contribution in the Ἑκατομπαθία, exist together in a very old binding, now owned by the Beinecke Library of Yale University. But, since both of these works were of considerable importance to our poet, one cannot help wondering if he has something to do with the history of this volume. Certainly this compound book is of English provenance, since it bears the seal of the Order of the Garter on its cover. The idea that Watson relied on Perdrier is suggested by many similarities of verbal detail. Here, for example, is Perdrier’s beginning (p. 6) with parallel or at least near-parallel diction underlined:
Nymphae Troianae, fluminis Xanthi proles
Quae comarum ornamentis, et sacris ludis manuum,
Saepe patriis in arenis relictis,
In chorum Idaeis proceditis tripudiis:
Huc, accedite iudicis sententiam, pastoris ovium,
Sequimini me, sonanti ruentes a flumine,
Ex montibus unde venit, insuetum pontum remigans,
Ignorans maris opera: quid vero erat navibus,
Principiis malorum, ut pontum similiter et terram commoveret
This may be compared with Watson’s first ten lines:
Iliacae nymphae, Xanthi pulcherrima proles.
Quae sacros manuum ludos, nexusque comarum
Saepe relinquentes in flava patris arena,
Turmatim choreas Phrygia dixistis in Ida,
Egressae gelidos amnes, fluviosque sonoros,
Iudicium memorate mihi pastoris, et illum
Quae causa impulerit descendere montibus altis,
Ignarumque salis, ponti gentare labores.
Damnosis illi quid erat cum navibus? Amplum
Cur mare turbavit simplex terramque bubulcus?
And so on throughout the poem.
7. The theory that Watson was following Perdrier renders intelligible a couple of textual problems. NOTE 4 At line 69 of the present poem there is no mention of the third competitor for the apple of the Hesperides, Minerva, although Coluthus includes her at lines 67f. of the original text:
Mῆλον ἔχειν ἐπόθεσεν, ὅτι κτέρος ἐστὶν Ἐρώτων·
Ἥρη δ᾿ οὐ μεθέηκε οὐχ Ἀθήνη.
In the parallel passage in Perdrier (p. 8) this omission has already been made:
Omnium vero post quam Venus praestantior genita
Pomum habere desideravit, quod possessio est amorum.
At 221 Watson mistakenly wrote Pangaeus for Pangaeum, the name of a Thracian mountain. The cause of this error may well have been that in Perdrier (p. 14) the word is written in the genitive form Pangei, and Watson, unfamiliar with the geological feature in question, wrongly misinterpreted it as a masculine rather than a neuter noun. Then too, at line 250 there is a serious mistranslation of the Greek, more accurately rendered “and the people of Amyclae marveled, if perhaps Leto had also conceived and borne to Zeus Hyacinth.” When Watson wrote that the people feared lest Latona do injury to Hyacinth, he only repeated a similar statement of Perdrier (p. 15), who appears to have misunderstood the original Greek:
Populus Amyclaeorum graviter verebatur ne Iovi Latona
Irata eum reduceret.
8. Coluthi Lycopolitani Poetae Helenae Raptus Latinus, periphraste Thoma Watsono Londinensi, Londini, Apud Ioannem Wolfium was printed at London in 1586. A copy is in the possession of the University Library (Cambridge), and I am informed that a second copy exists in a private collection.
NOTE 2 Op. cit (1934) p. 160.
NOTE 3 John Roe, The Poems: Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, The Phoenix and the Turtle, The Passionate Pilgrim, A Lover’s Complaint, in the New Cambridge Shakespeare series (Cambridge U. K., 1992) p. 15. This is a genre that must be distinguished from the Alexandrian epyllion, represented by “Amyntas’ Dream” embedded in Eclogue IV of the Amintae Gaudia. Albin Lesky’s definition of the Alexandrian epyllion will be quoted in the Introduction to that work. Cf. also Tanka Demetriou, “The Non-Ovidian Elizabethan epyllion: Thomas Watson, Christopher Marlowe, Richard Barnfield,” originally published in Janice Valls-Russell, Charlotte Coffin and Agnes Lafont (edd.), Intereweaving Myths in Shakespeare and his Contemporaries (Manchester, 2017), pp. 41 - 64. available for reading here.
NOTE 4 Although not the one at 103f. Also, on the subject of textual problems, 68f. comprise a separate syntactical unit that seems to lack a main verb, but the reader is probably supposed to supply vendicat from line 67, so there is inadequate reason for thinking that either he or his printer has accidentally omitted a line.