by Resolute John Florio
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Montaigne’s Essays by John Florio is highly regarded as a work of art as well as one of the most popular and influential Elizabethan translations.


“Yet must a man handsomely trimme-up, yea and dispose and range himself to appeare on the Theatre of this world.”


June 4th, 1600 is the day that saw the publication of one of the most popular and influential Elizabethan translations. John Florio’s rendering of Michel de Montaigne’s Essays proved to be an instant success in Elizabethan England. Licensed to Edward Blount, the book was not published until three years later, in 1603. John Florio’s translation of the Essays came to be highly regarded as a literary art during the Elizabethan period. During that period, Florio was so much the most prominent of the group of gentleman instructors in Italian that his appointment as tutor to Prince Henry and reader to the Queen was almost a foregone conclusion.


At the time of the Essex conspiracy, Southampton was sent to the Tower and Florio was left without support. That Florio had been a fairly active partisan is indicated by his defense in A World of Words of “A.B.” that is of Essex, against the rooting and grunting of Hugh Sanford. 1 In that period, John Florio was received into the household of Lady Anne Harington. She was a cousin by marriage of Sir John Harington, the translator of Ariosto. John Florio, in his “Epistle Dedicatorie” explained that at the charge of Sir Edward Wotton he undertook the translation of one of Montaigne’s Essays. Later, Lady Harington, having read it, urged him on.

Lucy Russell, Countess of Bedford (née Harington) (1580–1627) was a major aristocratic patron of the arts and literature in the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, the primary non-royal performer in contemporary court masques, a letter-writer, and a poet. She read the first book of John Florio’s translation of Montaigne’s Essays, and urged him on.


John Florio could not be content to dedicate this magnificent folio of Montaigne’s Essays to any less than a galaxy of six ladies of the court. The first book is, of course, for the Countess of Bedford and her mother. The second is divided between Lady Penelope Rich, Sidney’s Stella, and his daughter, Elizabeth, Countess of Rutland. He also adds an appropriate eulogy of the ‘perfect-unperfect’ Arcadia. The third is given gracefully to two of Florio’s younger pupils. They are Lady Elizabeth Grey, daughter of the Earl of Shrewbury, and Lady Mary Nevill, daughter of England’s Lord High Treasurer. 2


In his translation of Montaigne’s Essays, Florio cast himself in his dedications as “the pitiful Petrarchan lover” accepting the heroic toil assigned to him by his patronesses. The volume is further embellished by sonnets to the various ladies from Dr. Gwinne, under the name “Il Candido”; by an Italian sonnet from the same, “Al mio amato Istruttore Mr. Giovanni Florio;” and by a long poem, “To my deere friend…concerning his translation of Montaigne,” by the well-known Samuel Daniel, who surveyed the work with great admiration. He pictures himself standing at Montaigne’s gate beside the translator 3:

Here at his gate do stand, and glad I stand

So neere to him whom I doe so much loue,

T’applaude his happy setling in our land:

And safe transpassage by his studious care

Who both of him and vs doth merit much,

hauing as sumptuously, as he is rare

Plac’d him in the best lodging of our speach,

And made him now as free, as if borne here….


He describes himself to Lady Harington as the foster-father of Montaigne’s work. The act of translation and its delivery are described in mythological terms. John Florio compares the process of translation to that of giving birth to a baby, and comparing himself to Vulcan, the god of beneficial and hindering fire and god of artisans, who had delivered Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, in a most unusual manner. Suffering from a painful headache, Jupiter asked Vulcan to use his axe to split open his head to relieve the pressure; when he did that, out sprang goddess Minerva, fully grown, wearing armour and ready for battle. 4

So to this defective edition (since all translations are reputed femalls, delivered at second hand; and I in this serve but as Vulcan, to hatchet this Minerva from that Iupiters bigge braine) I yet at least a fondling foster-father, having transported it from France to England; put it in English clothes; taught it to talke our tongue (though many-times with a jerke of the French Iargon) would set it forth to the best service I might; and to better I might not, then You that deserve the best.”


For the translation of Montaigne’s Essays, John Florio also acknowledges the help of Theodore Diodati. He was the father of Milton‘s friend, with whom he conferred contantly. He had been, as John Florio describes him, “In this rough-rockie Ocean” like “a guide-fish to the Whale”. His “onelie dearest and in love-sympathising friend,” Doctor Matthew Gwinne, had undertaken the vast task of tracing to their sources all the quotations from the classics. Upheld and armed by these two supporters of knowledge and friendship, John Florio has “passt the pikes”:

“I sweat, I wept, and I went on, til now I stand at bay.”


In the letter addressed to the courteous reader, Florio champions translation as the most useful route for advancing knowledge and developing the language and culture of a nation. Again, here he connects this important issue with the recent army of oppositors connected with the medievalism still firmly entrenched at the universities that were the most important sources of opposition 5. No pains, he feels, can be misspent in making known the Englishmen so rare and eminent an author. He admits the objection against all translation that:

“the sense may keepe form; the sentence is disfigured; the fineness, fitnesse, featenesse diminished: as much as artes nature is short of natures arte, a picture of a body, a shadow of a substance.”


In Montaigne’s Essays, for Florio the translator is a mere borrower of another man’s thoughts and words. He is “no theefe, since I say of whom I had it”; whereas many others take “by stealth” , and do not acknowledge their debt. Quoting Giordano Bruno, his “olde fellow Nolano,” “who taught publikely that from translation all science had its offspring,” Florio rests his case all in favour of translation. Drawing a kind of linguistic genealogical tree, he maintains that it was by means of translation that the names of the most popular Renaissance subjects were borrowed from the Greeks, who in their turn inherited them from the Egyptians who drew their own water from “the well-springs of the Hebrews or Chaldees.” 6


Florio further develops and expands the outline of his defence by inserting a set of arguments meant to support and protect honest translators against accusations of plagiarism and theft:

“If nothing can be now sayd, but hath beene saide before (as hee sayde well) if there be no new thing under the Sunne. What is that that hath beene? That that shall be: (as he sayde that was wisest) What doe the best then, but gleane after others harvest? borrow their colors, inherite their possessions? What doe they but translate? perhaps, usurpe? at least, collect? if with acknowledgement, it is well; if by stealth, it is too bad: in this, our conscience is our accuser; posteritie our judge: in that our studie is our advocate, and you Readers our jurie.”


The letter to the Corteous Reader needs to be quoted in full as it is a superbe, ingenious defense of translation. It is written in a style which is a continual pursuit of argumentation. Discussion is dialogical, but also dialectical. It is dictated by a fluctuating back and forth of assertion and replication:Why, Yea, but, Yea, marry. John Florio writes his argumentation with theses and antitheses. Florio’s message is infinite: the heart of knowledge can only be done by translation. The worlds of translation are the universes that we all inhabit as human beings, as communicative beings. This is the very heart of Florio’s message with his defense of translation. Civilization and its history are based on translation. And all of this, with the ethics of respect. Respect for the sources, but also, and above all, for the spirit of a work, which is “like air, fire, water: the more breathed, the clearer; the more extended, the warmer; the more drawn, the sweeter.“:

Shall I apologize translation? Why, but some hold (as for their freehold) that such conversion is the subversion of universities. God hold with them, and withhold them from impeach or impair. It were an ill turn, the turning of books should be the overturning of libraries. Yea, but my old fellow Nolano told me, and taught publicly, that from translation all science had its offspring. Likely, since even philosophy, grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music, and all the mathematics yet hold their name of the Greeks; and the Greeks drew their baptizing water from the conduit-pipes of the Egyptians, and they from the well-springs of the Hebrews or Chaldees. And can the well-springs be so sweet and deep, and will the well-drawn water be so sour and smell? And were their countries so ennobled, advantaged, and embellished by such deriving; and doth it drive our noblest colonies upon the rocks of ruin? And did they well? And proved they well? And must we prove ill that do so?

Why, but learning would not be made common. Yea, but learning cannot be too common, and the commoner the better. Why, but who is not jealous his mistress should be so prostitute? Yea, but this mistress is like air, fire, water: the more breathed, the clearer; the more extended, the warmer; the more drawn, the sweeter. It were inhumanity to coop her up, and worthy forfeiture close to conceal her.

Why, but scholars should have some privilege of pre-eminence. So have they: they only are worthy translators.

Why, but the vulgar should not know all. No, they cannot for all this, nor even scholars for much more; I would both could and knew much more than either doth or can.

Why, but all would not be known of all. No, nor can: much more we know not than we know. All know something: none know all. Would all know all? They must break ere they be so big. God only: men far from God.

Why, but pearls should not be cast to swine. Yet are rings put in their noses; and a swine should know his sty, and will know his meat and his medicine, and as much beside, as any swine doth suppose it to be marjoram.

Why, but it is not well divinity should be a child’s or old wives’, a cobbler’s or clothier’s tale or table-talk. There is use, and abuse. Use none too much: abuse none too little.

Why, but let learning be wrapped in a learned mantle. Yea, but to be unwrapped by a learned nurse. Yea, to be lapped up again; yea, and unlapped again. Else, hold we ignorance the mother of devotion, praying and preaching in an unknown tongue: as sorry a mother, as a seely daughter; a good mind perhaps, but surely an ill manner. If the best be mete for us, why should the best be barred?

Why, but the best wrote best in a tongue more unknown. Nay, in a tongue more known to them that wrote, and not unknown of them to whom they wrote.

Why, but more honour to him that speaks more learned. Yea, such perhaps as Quintilian’s orator: a learned man, I warrant him, for I understand him never a word.

Why, but let men write for the most honour of the writer. Nay, for most profit of the reader, and so haply, most honour. If to write obscurely be perplexedly offensive, as Augustus well judged, for our own not to write in our own but unintelligible is haplyto fewer and more critical, but surely without honour, without profit, if he go not or send not an interpreter; who else, what is he but a translator? Obscure be he that loves obscurity. And therefore willingly I take his word, though wittingly I do mistake it: Translata proficit.

Why, but who ever did well in it? Nay, who did ever well without it? If nothing can be now said but hath been said before—as he said well, if there be no new thing under the sun, what is that that hath been? That that shall be (as he said that was wisest)—what do the best then but glean after others’ harvest, borrow their colours, inherit their possessions? What do they but translate, perhaps usurp, at least collect? If with acknowledgment, it is well; if by stealth, it is too bad. In this, our conscience is our accuser, posterity our judge; in that, our study is our advocate, and you readers our jury.

Why, but whom can I name that bore a great name for it? Nay, who great else, but either in part—as Plato and Aristotle out of many; Tully, Plutarch, Pliny out of Plato, Aristotle and many—or of purpose, as all that since have made most know the Greek, and almost the Latin, even translated their whole treatises?

Why, Cardan maintaineth, neither Homer’s verse can be well expressed in Latin, nor Virgil’s in Greek, nor Petrarch’s in either. Suppose Homer took nothing out of any, for we hear of none good before him, and there must be a first; yet Homer by Virgil is often so translated as, Scaliger conceives, there is the armour of Hercules most puissant put on the back of Bacchus most delicate; and Petrarch, if well-tracked, would be found in their footsteps whose very garbage less poets   are noted to have gathered. Why, but that Scaliger thinks that Ficinus by his rustical simplicity translated Plato as if an owl should represent an eagle, or some tara-rag player should act the princely Telephus with a voice as ragged as his clothes, a grace as bad as his voice. If the famous Ficinus were so faulty, who may hope to ’scape scot-free? But for him and us all, let me confess, as he here censureth, and let confession make half amends, that every language hath its genius and inseparable form; without, Pythagoras his “metempsychosis” it cannot rightly be translated. The Tuscan altiloquence, the Venus of the French, the sharp state of the Spanish, the strong significancy of the Dutch cannot from here be drawn to life. The sense may keep form; the sentence is disfigured, the fineness, fitness, featness diminished, as much as art’s nature is short of nature’s art, a picture of a body, a shadow of a substance. Why, then, belike I have done by Montaigne as Terence by Menander, made of good French no good English. If I have done no worse, and it be no worse taken, it is well. As he, if no poet, yet am I no thief, since I say of whom I had it, rather to imitate his and his authors’ negligence than any backbiter’s obscure diligence. His horse I set before you, perhaps without his trappings, and his meat without sauce. Indeed in this specially find I fault with my master, that as Crassus and Antonius in Tully, the one seemed to contemn, the other not to know the Greeks; whereas the one so spoke Greek as he seemed to know no other tongue, the other in his travels to Athens and Rhodes had long conversed with the learned Grecians: so he, most writing of himself, and the worst rather than the best, disclaimeth all memory, authorities, or borrowing of the ancient or modern; whereas in course of his discourse he seems acquainted not only with all, but no other but authors, and could out of question like Cyrus or Caesar call any of his army by his name and condition. And I would for us all he had in this whole body done as much, as in most of that of other languages my peerless, dear-dearest and never-sufficiently-commended friend hath done for mine and your ease and intelligence. Why then again, as Terence, I have had help. Yea, and thank them for it, and think you need not be displeased by them that may please you in a better matter.

Why, but essays are but men’s school-themes pieced together. You might as well say, several texts. All is in the choice and handling.

Yea, marry, but Montaigne had he wit, it was but a French wit: ferdillantlegier, and extravagant. Now say you, English wits, by the staidest censure of as learned a wit as is among you. The counsel of that judicious worthy counsellor (honourable Sir Edward Wotton) would not have embarked me to this discovery had not his wisdom known it worth my pains and your perusing. And should or would any dog-toothed critic or adder-tongued satirist scoff or find fault that in the course of his discourses, or web of his essays, or entitling of his chapters, he holdeth a disjointed, broken and gadding style; and that many times they answer not his titles, and have no coherence together: to such I will say little, for they deserve but little. But if they list, else let them choose, I send them to the ninth chapter of the third book (folio), where himself preventeth their carping, and foreseeing their criticism answereth them for me at full. Yet are there herein errors. If of matter, the author’s; if of omission, the printer’s. Him I would not amend, but send him to you as I found him; this I could not attend. But where I now find faults, let me pray and entreat you for your own sake to correct as you read, to amend as you list. But some errors are mine, and mine are by more than translation. Are they in grammar or orthography? As easy for you to right, as me to be wrong. Or in construction, as misattributing “him,” “her,” or “it” to things alive, or dead, or neuter? You may soon know my meaning, and eftsoons use your mending. Or are they in some uncouth terms, as “entrain,” “conscientious,” “endear,” “tarnish,” “comport,” “efface,” “facilitate,” “amusing,” “debauching,” “regret,” “effort,” “emotion,” and such like? If you like them not, take others most commonly set by them to expound them, since there they were set to make such likely French words familiar with our English, which well may bear them. If any be capital in sense mistaking, be I admonished, and they shall be recanted. Howsoever, the falseness of the French prints, the diversities of copies, editions and volumes—some whereof have more or less than others—and I in London having followed some, and in the country others—now those in folio, now those in octavo—yet in this last survey reconciled all: therefore, or blame not rashly, or condemn not fondly the multitude of them, set for your further ease in a table (at the end of the book), which ere you begin to read, I entreat you to peruse. This printer’s wanting a diligent corrector, my many employments, and the distance between me and my friends I should confer with may extenuate, if not excuse, even more errors. In sum, if any think he could do better, let him try; then will he better think of what is done. Seven or eight of great wit and worth have assayed, but found these essays no attempt for French apprentices or Littletonians. If this done it may please you, as I wish it may, and I hope it shall, I with you shall be pleased. Though not, yet still I am the same resolute John Florio.


The first thing that strikes the reader of Florio’s translation is his passionate delight in words. In the following examples added words by John Florio are italicized. The aim is to have a better understanding of his translation tecnique as well as the particular way he uses words.

Montaigne, speaking of those who voluntarily mortify the flesh, had written:

Montaigne: “J’en ay veu engloutir de sable, de la cendre, & se travailler a point nomme de ruiner leur estomac, pour acquerir les pasles couleurs.” I, 339

While Florio translates it as:

Florio: “I have seen some swallow gravell, ashes, coales, dust, tallow, candles, and for the-nonce, labour and toyle themselves to spoile their stomacke, only to get a pale-bleake colour.”


In this example it is evident how John Florio takes an abandoned joy in elaboration. He loves what is, to him, a fine excess.

Montaigne is talking of his servants:

Montaigne: “Je ne voy rien autour de moy que couvert & masque”

And Florio plunges ahead with:

Florio: “I see nothing about me, but inscrutable hearts, hollow mindes, fained looks, dissembled speeches, and counterfeit actions

Sometimes John Florio puts in additional words in the attempt to heighten the situation by emphasis. He adds adjectives with a strained emotional pitch foreign to Montaigne. He writes “these boistrous billows” for Montaigne’s simpler “ces flots”. Or “lowring vexation and drooping melancholy” for “le chagrin & la melancholie”. Another example is “the minde-quelling authoritie of his countenance, and awe-moving fiercenesse of his words” for “l’autoritè de son visage & la fiertè de ses paroles”.


In his defense of translation, John Florio explained that there are many likely French words in his translation of Montaigne’s Essays that, by being coupled with common words to explain them, may be “familiar with our English, which well may beare them.” He cites a number of such words he created, which he says some critics may object to:

“entraine, conscientious, endeare, tarnish, comporte, efface, facilitate, ammusing, debauching, regret, effort, emotion.”

In the pages “Of the Caniballes” he borrows French words which were already in circulation but of late introduction and of restricted use. Some examples are febricitant, supplant, puissant. And at least one which appeared in an English text for the very first time: contexture. A key word for Montaigne which was used later by Bacon. 7. Florio consciously experimented with English, grafting into it words and phrases from other languages. This led him to create not just new words, but also new grammatical constructions. For example, he was the first writer to use the genitive neuter pronoun “its“.


In his love of doubling, John Florio had taken the freedom of inventing compounds. “L’ame plaine” becomes “a mind full-fraught”, “doux & aggreable” is “a pleasing-sweet and gently-gliding speech”. Words are combined in almost every fashion, and often with an extraordinarily fine effect. For example: “marble-hearted“. While the note of the sonnet cycles is caught in “Pride-puft majestie”, “the fresh-bleeding memorie“. Another great compound is “with hight-swelling and heaven-disimbowelling words.” While a suggestion of the stage lies in the substitution of this phrase:

Montaigne: “D’une voix tremblante”

Florio: “With a faint-trembling voyce and selfe-accusing looke”

Florio’s combination possess a substantial richness as in “a rough-hewen fellow” for “un grossier”. Or “a lingering-toylsome life” for “une vie peneuse.” He also makes the greatest use of doubling. His aim is to gain the rhetorical ornament of successive phrases or clauses of approximately equal lenght. In many cases, he doubles the image or idea:

Montaigne: “Ce n’est pas a dire que le muletier n’y trouve son heure”

Florio: “A groome or a horse-keeper may finde an hour to thrive in; and a dog hath a day.”

Montaigne: “D’Avoir trouvè la feve au gasteau”

Florio: “To have hit the naile on the head, or to have found out the beane of this Cake.”

John Florio experimented, too, with the rhetorical style, and shared love of alliteration:

“Carke and care” I, 84

“Pricke and praise” II, 41

“Bounds and barres” I, 18

“So fained and fond a ceremonie” I, 23

“Tedious and mind-trying idlenesse” I, 258

or the more elaborate:

“Being absent I….should lesse feele the ruinois downe-fall of a Tower, than being present, the fall of a Tile.” – III, 195


Florio always considered his duty to explain any terms he thought might be difficult, and frequently to instruct his readers in details that Montaigne had left to their discretion. 8 He also help the Englishman to understand the references to foreign history.

“Le Duc de valentinois” becomes “Caesar Borgia, Duke of Valentinois,”

“Le feu Chancelier Oliver” becomes “Lord Oliver, whilome Chauncerler of France,”

“Solyman” becomes “Soliman, the great Turke”

“L’Ostracisme et le Petalisme” becomes “the Ostracisme amongst the Athenians, and the Petalisme among the Siracusans.”

“Le Louvre” becomes “Louvre, the pallace of our Kings in Paris.”

“l’endroit du diaphragme” becomes “Diaphragma, which is a membrane lying overthwart the lower part of the breast, separating the heart and lights from the stomache.”


In his translation of Montaigne’s Essays, John Florio shares sheer joy in elaborating every detail of a situation illustrating the force of imagination. An example is the story of Marie Germain, an old man who had thought he was a girl until he was twenty-two years old 9:

Montaigne: “Faisant, dit-il, quelque effort en saultant, ses membres virils se produsirent: & est encore en usage entre les filles de là, une chanson, par laquelle elles s’entradvertissent de ne faire point de grandes enjambées, de peur de devenir garcons, comme Marie German” – I, 107

Florio: “He saith, that upon a time leaping, and straining himselfe to overleape another, he wot not how, but where before he was a woman, he suddenly felt the instrument of a man to come out of him; and to this day the maidens of that towne and countrie have a song in use, by which they warne one another, when they are leaping, not to straine themselves overmuch, or open their legs too wide, for feare they should bee turned to boies, as Marie Germane was.” I, 92.


John Florio ‘s love of horses and his interest in them is quickly manifest in the essay “Of Steeds, called in French Destriers,” where the reason for the riot of language obviously lies in the translator’s devotion to his subject:

Montaigne: “Ce que j’ay admiré autresfois, de voir un cheval dressé à se manier à toutes mains, avec une baguette, la bride avallée sur ses oreilles” – I, 400.

Florio: “That which I have other times wondered at, to see a horse fashioned and taught, that a man having but a wand in his hand, and his bridle loose hanging over his eares, might at his pleasure manage, and make him turne, stop, run, cariere, trot, gallop, and whatever else may be expected of an excellent ready horse.” – I,337.


In his translation of Montaigne’s Essays, John Florio is constantly trying to discover a way to substitute the concrete for the abstract, to give color to an idea by an image. For example, when Montaigne states an aphorism, “Mais aucun bien sans peine,” Florio pours new life into it with: “But no good without paines; no Roses without prickles.” On the occasions where Montaigne himself had used an image, Florio develops it more fully with uncalled-for but charming detail. An example can be found when he translates “cercher le vent de la faveur des Roys” into “the seeke after court holy-water and wavering-favours of Princes.”


Frequently in his works John Florio added metaphors from the sea-terms to explain a personal feeling or a situation. He described the critics to Second Fruits a shipwreck, in A World of Words described “these notable pirates in our paper-sea”, while comparing himself to a man on a ship who did all by himself to not sink. In Montaigne’s Essays too, he uses a good amount of the same metaphors. Some examples can be found when he writes “have no other anker” for “qui n’ont appuy que”, or “being once embarked, one must either go on or sinke” for the less distinct “depuis qu’on y est, il faut aller ou crever,” or “les orages et tempestes se piquent” becomes more visual in “the sea-billowes and surging waves rage and storme.”, or “Aristote qui remue toutes choses” which becomes “Aristotle that hath an oare in every water and medleth with all things.”


Florio continually makes such alteration for the sake of a fuller picture. Such striving for action are always uppermost in his mind. It is an instinct of his nature to write “with a vaile over his face” for “le visage couvert,”, or the striking “headlong tumbled downe from some rocke” for “precipitez,”. He can always relied upon to produce a shock of delighted surprise. The desire for a feeling of motion is the force underlying nearly all his additions. He wants always to increase the emphasis, to heighten and magnify. This reveals in the use of a strong verb. “I flie a lower pitch,” he writes for “je suis d’un point plus bas”. In his compounds this sense of movement is even greater: “harme-working eyes,” and “certaine terror-moving engines,” for “nuisans,” and “espouventables.” “Cette ridicule piece” becomes “that laughter-moving and maids looke-drawing piece,”. In practically every case, as has already been suggested, these alterations of Florio’s are dictated by a theatrical sense. 10

For Matthiensen, the habit of seeing and saying things dramatically is one of his most distinctive qualities:

“The dramatist’ method, therefore, consists in taking a situation and heightening its pitch by a skillful exaggeration of tone and by a hint of action in the swing and cadence of his words. Such also is Florio’s method, and it permeates his treatment of Montaigne.”

Matthiensen, Translation, An Elizabethan art, pg 146

Another example is the solemn, dramatic, rhythmic translation of this passage, which has Bruno’s influence:

Montaigne: “Encore se faut il testonner, encore se faut il ordonner & renger pour sortir en place.”

Florio: “Yet must a man handsomely trimme-up, yea and dispose and range himself to appeare on the Theatre of this world.”

Matthiensen points out that:

“Florio’s sense of the dramatic is the central force molding his prose. it determines not only the manner in which he builds upon Montaigne’s situations, but also his addition of words, not for their meaning, but for their rhythm. When Florio heightens the content, sometimes it is the splendor, sometimes the pathos, more often the sheer excitement of the situation that catches him.”

Matthiensen, Translation, An Elizabethan Art


In his translation of Montaigne’s Essays, Florio plunges so deeply into the spirit of a situation and feels it so poignantly that it becomes his own. And he is no longer translating, but envisaging the scene anew. “L’entree libre aux soldats” for example, becomes “the needie, bloudthirstie and prey-greedie soldiers.” In any situation it is the element of contrast that focus his attention, and he develops them with the instinct of the dramatist, doing everything he can to heighten the effect. 11 Examples are so common that they can be chosen almost at random. But sometimes, however, Florio outsdoes himself. Then the scene absorbs him so completely that he is practically writing a new book. For instance, in the essay “Of Physiognomy,” where Montaigne gave an account of how, although unarmed, his resolute appearance once caused an enemy captain to withdraw from his hall, Florio’s imagination dramatizes the picture far more fully 12

Montaigne: “Il remonte à cheval, ses gens ayants continuellement les yeux sur luy, pour voir quel signe il leur donneroit: bien estonnez de le voir sortir et abandonner son advantage.” – IV, 203.

Florio: “What shall I say more? He bids me farewell, calleth for his horse, gets up, and offreth to be gone, his people having continually their eyes fixed upon him, to observe his lookes, and see what signe he should make unto them: much amazed to see him be gone, and wondring to see him omit and forsake such an advantage.” . III, 325


The wealth of English words which Florio had at his command is phenomenal. And perhaps the most astonishing example of all, where words run riot, and yet Florio succeeds in maintaining strenght of unity and adding a fullness and color, is this passage:

Montaigne: “L’avaricieux le prie pour la conservation vaine & superflue de ses thresors: l’ambitieux de sa fortune: le voleur l’employe à son ayde, pour franchir le hazard & les difficultez, qui s’opposent à l’execution de ses meschantes entreprinses: ou le remercie de l’aisance qu’il a trouvé à desgosiller un passant. Au pied de la maison, qu’ils vont escheller ou petarder, ils font leurs prieres, l’intention et l’esperance pleine de cruauté, de luxure, & d’avarice.” – I, 443

Florio: “The couvetous man sueth and praieth unto him for the vaine increase and superflous preservation of his wrong-gotten treasure. The ambitious, he importuneth God for the conduct of his fortune, and that he may have the victorie of all his desseignes. The theefe, the pirate, the mortherer, yea and the traitor, all call upon him, all implore his aid, and all solicite him, to give them courage in their attempts, constancie in their resolutions, to remove all lets and difficulties, that in any sort may withstand their wicked executions, and impious actions; or give him thanks, if they have had good successe; the one if he have met with a good bootie, the other if he returne home rich, the third if no man have seen him kill his enemie, and the last, though he have caused any execrable mischiefe. The Souldier, if he but go to besiege a cottage, to scale a Castle, to rob a Church, to pettard a gate, to force a religious house, or any villanous act, before he attempt it, praieth to God for his assistance, though his intents and hopes be full-fraught with crueltie, murther, covetise, luxurie, sacrilege and all iniquitie.” – I, 373-374.


In none of these instances above do Florio’s additions clog the movement of his prose. He possesses a strong sense of rhythm, and frequently introduces words purely for the sake of it. 13. He cannot understand thought-pattern without sound-pattern, so that the periods should advance in the balanced, musically adorned manner that he knew and loved. He had a noble sense of rhythm, of the rise and fall of periods moving majestically to their appointed end. 14 Sometimes he attains a rich fullness, sometimes a movement of force and solemnity:

Montaigne: “Mais a ce dernier rolle de la mort & de nous, il n’y a plus que faindre, il faut parler Francois; il faut montrer ce qu’il y a de bon et de net dans le fond du pot,” – I, 81

Florio: “But when the last part of death, and of our selves comes to be acted, then no dissembling will availe, then it is high time to speake plaine English, and put off all vizards: then whatsoever the pot containeth must be shewne, be it good or bad, foule or cleane, wine or water.” I, 70.


Florio was able to bring Montaigne’s Essays closer to the spirit of his time, to give it intimacy and warmth. It was probably one of the most influential books ever published in England. The brilliance of Florio’s achievement was so generally acknowledged that even those English readers with very good command of French – John Donne, Walter Raleigh, Francis Bacon, Robert Burton, to name a few – chose to encounter Montaigne through Florio’s English.


A copy of the 1603 edition of Florio’s Montaigne’s Essays is in the British Museum. It contains Ben Jonson signature and his Timber shows its influence. Sir Walter Raleigh took it into the Tower with him and there pondered deeply upon it. Burton quotes verbally from Florio in his Anatomy of melancholy. The book left its mark upon the dramatist Webster 15 To read Montaigne’s Essays in Florio’s translation is to read them, as it were, over the shoulders of some of England’s greatest writers. 16

For Frances Yates:

“Who shall say how much the rich treasure of our tongue owes to this Italian (whose influence was widespread through his lessons) working with the artistic virtuosity which was his inheritance from an older civilisation upon the English language, still in a state of uncertainty when he first came to England?”

Yates, F. p. 227

John Florio’s superlative translation is among the great works of the early 17th century, up there with the King James Bible – beautiful, sonorous, and melodious. John Florio was genuinely an artist and his translation of Montaigne’s Essays a classic of English literature, second only to the translation of King James Bible. Translation as an art has rarely, perhaps never, reached such a high level as in Florio’s Montaigne.


How to cite this entry:

“Resolute John Florio”, “Montaigne’s Essays”, URL=

This entry was first published on November 13, 2019. It was last modified on November 25, 2019.

  1. Yates, F. A., John Florio The Life of an Italian in Shakespeare’s England, 1934, Cambridge At The University Press, p. 216
  2. Matthiensen, O., Translation, an Elizabethan art, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, p. 116
  3. Yates, F. A., John Florio, cit., p. 222
  4. Zaharia, Translata Proficit: Revisiting John Florio’s translation of Michel de Montaigne’s Les Essais, 2012, p. 125
  5. Yates, F. A., John Florio, cit., p. 223
  6. Zaharia, Translata Proficit, cit., p. 120
  7. Morini, M., Tudor Translation in Theory and Practice, Routledge, 2006, p. 88
  8. Ivi, p. 134
  9. Ivi, p. 137
  10. Matthiensen, Translation, cit., pg 146
  11. Ivi, p. 147
  12. Ivi, p. 148
  13. Ivi, p. 149
  14. Yates, F. A., John Florio, cit., p. 239
  15. Ivi, p. 241
  16. Greenblatt, S., Shakespeare’s Montaigne: The Florio Translation of the Essays, A Selection, NYRB Classics, 2014, X

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