The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VII. Cavalier and Puritan.

X. Antiquaries.

§ 14. Sir Thomas Urquhart.

The birth-year of Thomas, afterwards Sir Thomas, Urquhart, or Urchard  10 —the best Scottish representative of the peculiar seventeenth century character which was exhibited in different ways in England by Burton earlier, and by Browne and Fuller in his own time—used to be assigned to the same date as Browne’s, 1605. But this date has now, on good evidence, been shifted six years later, to 1611. His father, another Sir Thomas, represented the Urquharts of Cromarty, a family whose pedigree has been verified to the year 1300, while it may reasonably be extended to Adam, though the acceptance of the particulars (supplied, with characteristic pedantry and humour mingled, by the subject of this notice) may be facultative. The younger Thomas’s mother was Christian Livingstone of the noble family of that name. His father succeeded to considerable estates; but was either a determined spendthrift or a very bad manager; and, in his later years (1637 to his death in 1641), appears to have been subjected to rather peremptory treatment including personal restraint, by his eldest son and other members of a self-constituted family council. It is certain that, all his life, our Sir Thomas himself was the victim of creditors; though, perhaps—when one considers his foreign travels, and the fact that, at Worcester, he lost four trunks of fine clothes besides three of MSS.—not entirely without his own contribution to the difficulties. He entered King’s college, Aberdeen in 1622, and must have studied there vigorously; while, after completing his course, he travelled much abroad, learnt more, acquired accomplishments of various kinds and, according to his own account, displayed martial and patriotic prowess resembling that of the Admirable Crichton (whose chief celebrator he himself was), and of “Squire Meldrum” still earlier. He emerges into public life at the time of the at first successful but soon suppressed royalist rising in the north of Scotland which is known as the Trot of Turriff (1639).   38
  After the failure of this, he went to England, was knighted by Charles I at Whitehall in 1641, but took no part in the civil war proper, making another excursion to the continent in 1642–5. In the last named year, he returned and settled at Cromarty. Three years later, he was made “officer of horse and foot” and, after the king’s execution in 1649, shared in the abortive rising at Inverness, was declared a traitor, but, in 1650, was dismissed by the General Assembly after examination. He joined Charles II in the expedition to England, fought at Worcester, lost the seven trunks above mentioned, was taken and thrown into the Tower, but leniently treated, transferred to Windsor and, finally, liberated by Cromwell. Then he returned to Scotland and, in 1653, published his great translation of the earlier part of Rabelais. From this time, we know nothing whatever about him. That he died abroad of rapture or laughter on hearing of the restoration is a legend. But, in August, 1660, his brother Alexander laid claim to the hereditary office of sheriff of Cromarty, which practically implies Sir Thomas’s death.   39
  For people who like a clear and consistent character, classifiable under ordinary conventions, Urquhart must be a hopeless puzzle; indeed, most of his critics have got out of their difficulties by the easy suggestion-door of “a little mad,” which may be allowed, but is insufficient. From his portraits—one exhibiting a gentleman in cavalier dress, spruce, mustachioed, beribboned to the very “nines” of the irresistible vernacular, and suggesting, in one of his own admirable phrases, “one of the quaintest Romancealists” of the time; the other, the same gentleman enthroned and crowned by muses and other mythological personages—the enquirer turns to the works they adorn, where the coxcomb, though he remains, shows quite a different kind of coxcombry, and blends it with a pedantry which is gigantesque and almost incredible. His Epigrams (1642) are not specially remarkable for this, being mostly sensible enough commonplaces expressed in hopelessly prosaic verse. But, in the series of elaborately Greek-named treatises which followed, the characteristics are quite different. Mathematicians do not seem quite agreed as to Trissotetras (1645), but at least some competent authorities are said to have allowed it possible merit, if only it had been written in a saner lingo. As it is, it informs us that “The axioms of plane triangles are four viz. Rulerst, Eproso, Grediftal and Bagrediffiu,” while Rulerst branches into Gradesso and Eradetul, and is under the directory of Uphechet. This mania for jargonic nomenclature pursues Urquhart throughout, and seems sometimes to have been the very mainspring or exciting cause of his lucubrations. The indulgence of it must have counted for something in his famous and (even in his own time) much ridiculed genealogy of the Urquharts (Pantochronocanon, 1652) from Adam, with invented names for all the fathers and mothers from Seth’s wife downwards, whom history does not mention or whom he cannot borrow from it. It dictated more than the titles of Logopandecteision (1653), a scheme for a universal language, and Ekskubalauron (1652), a treatise of his own rescued from the gutter after the dispersal of his property at Worcester. When it descends from proper names, it dictates, in its severer moods, remarks about “disergetic loxogonosphericals”; in its lighter, intimations that he will “proceed to the catheteuretic operation” of something, and sneers at “the ministerian philoplutaries” who deprived a friend of his of a living for what Urquhart thought insufficient cause.   40
  Yet he is not mad all round the compass. The best known passage of his work outside Rabelais, the account of the Admirable Crichton, though it may somewhat embroider the plain canvas of truth, is vigorously and effectively written. Intensely patriotic as he is—a very “bur-thistle” in his aggressive proclamation of Scottish merits and virtues—he, in the mid-seventeenth century and in mid-war-time between England and Scotland, argues stoutly and sensibly for a union parliament, representing both divisions of the island. When his coxcomb-familiar is not playing tricks with him on the one side, or his pedant-familiar on the other, or both together—sometimes, in flashes, even when they are doing their worst—he shows himself not merely, what he always is, a scholar and a gentleman, but a man of most excellent differences, acute, fanciful, stocked with pregnant ideas and possessed of a very noteworthy faculty of expression for them, whenever the fiend of jargon does not simply possess and speak through him.   41
  It may be questioned, however, whether his most glaring faults and foibles did not stand him in almost as good stead as his gifts and graces, when he took it into his head to give an English version of Gargantua and Pantagruel. It is true that they led him to exaggerate the peculiarities of his original; and that this exaggeration has undoubtedly passed into the usual English estimate of Rabelais himself. But only a man who had practised jargon, largely combined with learning, for years could, even by exaggerating it, have excogitated a lingo capable of reproducing the wonderful genius-galimatias of Master Francis. Urquhart could coin words as easily as he could write, blenched at no extravagance, would have scorned to rationalise any apparent nonsense, sympathised thoroughly with, and could understand, his author’s undoubted learning, and had quite enough shrewdness, good feeling and even exaltation of thought and sentiment to interpret these qualities when they met him in that author.   42
  The result, as is pretty generally granted, is an almost ideal translation, perhaps enlarging slightly, as has been said, the moles and warts of his subject—the gibberish, the “broad” language, the torrents of grotesque synonyms (in this last respect, Sir Thomas was especially lavish) but reproducing the general effect amazingly. Very often, scholars in originals are the harshest critics of translations. It may be said with confidence that those who have known their Rabelais best in his own shape and language have been the heartiest admirers of his English presenter. Motteux, Urquhart’s successor, did his work very well, but something has departed in it; and Sir Thomas remains the last and greatest of the great translators of the larger Elizabethan period.   43

Note 10. He sometimes, if not always, signed himself so; using, as well, the initials “C. P.,” i. e. “Christianus Presbyteromastix.” [ back ]