Sunday, July 10, 2011

John Fell (1625-1686)

John Fell was Bishop of Oxford and Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. He was an active scholar, author, and translator, at one point publishing at Oxford a translation of the Bible into Malay. He was not the most scrupulous translator if his Latin translation of Anthony Wood's History and Antiquities of the University of Oxford is any indication. He removed all positive references to philosopher Thomas Hobbes and replaced them with disparaging remarks.

At Oxford, he presided over the completion and construction of many new buildings, most notably the entrance gate and bell tower Tom Tower, designed by Christopher Wren. He was a strict disciplinarian, even visiting local taverns to round up the students. One of the students called up on his carpet was Tom Brown, a future satirist facing expulsion by Fell. Fell said he would pardon Brown if he could translate, on the spot, an epigram from the Latin author Martial. The 32nd epigram reads Non amo te, Sabidi, nec possum dicere - quare; Hoc tantum possum dicere, non amo te. Brown translated it like so, swapping out the name Sabidi for someone closer at hand:
I do not love thee, Dr Fell,
The reason why I cannot tell;
But this I know, and know full well,
I do not love thee, Dr Fell.
And thus, Brown was spared and Fell became a victim of mistranslation himself. Not everyone got off this easy; Acton Cremer had to translate the whole History of Lapland.

Though he was not expelled, or so the story goes, Brown never graduated Oxford. The satirist spurned authority, and patronage, the rest of his life. Immediate posterity was not kind to Brown's reputation, likely because Brown was not kind to the reputations of many who were the victims of his wit. But his work was championed by Jonathan Swift and it was likely a significant influence on him.

Fell died on July 10, 1686. Both Fell and Brown are forgotten today, except for four short lines and one of the more amusing anecdotes from British literary history.

No comments:

Post a Comment