John Dryden translated Virgil in the late 1690’s when more than fifty Englishmen before him had tried to translate at least some Virgil and many translated after his death in the seventeenth century as John Denham and Edmund Waller. What makes Dryden’s translation the most successful version, the most read and accepted between its competitors? How did Dryden translate his Virgil and why? And what kind of response did his translation receive at the time? “Without invention a painter is but a copier, and a poet but a plagiary of others.
Both are allowed sometimes to copy and translate…” Dryden stated that he used paraphrase and literal translation when translating Virgil, which allowed him the liberty of modernizing it. Dryden believes that he used what was best in matter, form and style in translating Virgil by means of paraphrasing, rephrasing, and changing some phrases which when translated word for word would produce an odd meaning of the terms. “Imitators are but a servile of cattle” says Dryden, the reason why he didn’t want just to imitate Virgil, but personalize and domesticate his translation.
By doing this, Dryden transformed Virgil’s poems, and particularly the Aeneid, into autobiographical and personal statements. So, how did he do this? Dryden used the political background of the events that happened in Rome and paralleled them to recent political events to express his personal opinions. By the way of adding and modifying phrases, Dryden changes the tone of the first Eclogue from melancholy to bitter, transforming the poem to express his own depressed spirit. This spirit changes and develops further in the ninth Eclogue which has a similar background as the first.
Here, Dryden makes full use of the poem to attack literally the Williamite government, where he accuses it of killing his creativity. He substitutes “the corrupt city” of Virgil by “the Court” continuing with his bitter feelings towards the Establishment with phrases like “the Bribes of Court”. Furthermore, the Virgil volume was dedicated to non- Williamite noblemen. Dryden’s loathing of William often makes him bring hostility to foreignness in Virgil. His Virgil has been seen as a Jacobite work, supporting the exiled James II.
Another huge background change was the introduction of Christian universe. Dryden introduces Christian terms to the Virgil, replacing the Roman paganism. He introduces “Heaven” with all its Christian connotations, replacing Virgil’s words for the gods, the fates, and fortune. This new Christian conception changes the character and mission of the hero. Aeneas is transformed into a Christian who bears his misfortunes with patience as he is on a divine mission. “I have endeavour’d to make Virgil speak such English as he wou’d himself have spoken, if he had been born in England, and in this present Age”
As to the language of translation, Dryden’s version has many identical traces with the works of many others who preceded him. Dryden is thought to have read at least forty of the previous Virgil translations. He is thought to have borrowed many of Douglas’s word translations; Chaucer’s rhymed couplets and most of all, Lauderdale’s word rhymes. Dryden “thought it fit to steer betwixt the two Extreams, of Paraphrase, and Literal Translation” and stated that “Some things too I have omitted, and sometimes added of my own”. “But by what Authority? ” , asked Luke Milbourne angrily. From its first appearance, Dryden’s Virgil was canonized.
His most distinguished antagonists are Swift and Wordsworth. Swift wrote “A Tale of a Tub” which takes aim at Dryden, intending his demolition but failed enormously and may have even contributed to Dryden’s sale. Wordsworth wrote “whenever Virgil can be fairly said to have had his eye upon his object, Dryden always spoils the passage. ” Milbourne, in his “Notes on Dryden’s Virgil”, details objections to nearly six hundred separate passages, and supplies many alternatives of his own or Ogilby’s renderings, saying that although his words are not well placed, but they keep the original meaning of Virgil.
Spence in his Polymetis , an illustrated mythology book, advances numerous objections to Dryden’s Virgil. Another attack is from E. M. W. Tillyard who objects on his crudity, vulgarity, or sometimes over-gentility. Samuel Johnson remarked that “Dryden’s faults are forgotten in the hurry of delight, and Pitt’s beauties are neglected in the languor of a cold and listless perusal. ” Dryden’s style aims at the clarification of Virgil and transparency of translation.
By domestication, and parallelism of the political background, Dryden was able to produce an epic which came alive after centuries, by adding to it his passions, senses and the concerns of his own age. Sources: * Dryden’s Virgil: Translation as Autobiography, Thomas H. Fujimura, University of North Carolina Press, 1983 * Dryden’s Virgil, William Frost, CL summer 1984, Volume 36, # 3. * John Dryden, Preface to Ovid’s Epistles, in Of Dramatic Poesy and Other Critical essays, ed. George Watson (London, 1962) II, p. 195.
* Dryden, J ; (1956) “Preface to Ovid’s Epistles” (1680), in E. N. Hooker and H. T. Swedenberg, Jr. (eds), The works of John Dryden, vol. 1, Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press. * Luke Milbourne, Notes on Dryden’s Virgil (1698 ; rpt. New York and London, 1971) pp. 32, 80, 136 * Dryden : The Critical Heritage, ed. James Kinsley and Helen Kinsley (London and New York, 1971), p. 324 * Joseph Spence, Polymetis (1747; rpt. New York and London, 1976) * The Cambridge Companion to Virgil, (ed. ) Charles Martindale: Cambridge University Press, 1997, p. 31