Of all the great English poets, Dryden must be the least enjoyed. Once honoured ‘rather in the stiffness than in the strength of his eminence’, he was soon ‘laid carefully away among the heroes’, according to Mark Van Doren, the critic who is still, nearly a century on, the most persuasive of his would-be resurrectors. The same melancholy afflicts his most authoritative modern biographer, James Anderson Winn: ‘Any candid teacher of English literature must admit that many students find little pleasure or stimulation in those few selections from Dryden we now ask them to read.’ The difficulty is not confined to students, or to recent times. ‘I admire his talents and Genius highly, but his is not a poetical Genius,’ Wordsworth said; perhaps predictably, since his notion of poetry differed from Dryden’s as much as Romantic ‘imagination’ differed from Augustan ‘wit’. But here is Dr Johnson: ‘to write con amore … was … no part of his character.’ Verse starved of parental love may well have problems attracting affection later. T.S. Eliot took a charitable interest in the case in 1921, but his contribution is rather reminiscent of Mr Brocklehurst in Jane Eyre enjoining the Lowood girls to be glad of their burned breakfast: ‘We cannot fully enjoy or rightly estimate a hundred years of English poetry unless we fully enjoy Dryden.’
The need for help in fully enjoying Dryden becomes clear as soon as one looks at a list of the genres in which he excelled. Most of them either need prior contextual knowledge (or annotation) to make them comprehensible, or are some distance from what, for the last couple of hundred years, have been the main concerns of poets; or both. There are the literary and political satires (Mac Flecknoe, Absalom and Achitophel). There is panegyric: on Cromwell (Heroic Stanzas), on Charles II (Astraea Redux, To His Sacred Majesty), on the new baby heir to James II (Britannia Rediviva); though never on William and Mary. Theological disputation, first Anglican in complexion (Religio Laici), then Roman Catholic (The Hind and the Panther). Historical chronicle (Annus Mirabilis). Translation: from Homer, Juvenal, Persius, Ovid, Boccaccio, Chaucer and others; and of the complete works of Virgil. And then there are the massed and (except All for Love) rather mediocre plays which took up most of his time and earned much of his money: heroic tragedies (The Conquest of Granada, Aureng-Zebe), tragicomedies (Marriage à la Mode) and farce (An Evening’s Love); and many, many prologues and epilogues to other people’s plays as well as his own. Finally, there are the volumes of accompanying criticism (Of Dramatic Poesy, ‘Discourse Concerning Satire’).
This large and not obviously appealing aggregate of writing has not discouraged academic interest; rather the reverse. Drydenian scholarship flourishes, and its crowning glories are the five volumes of the Poems edited by Paul Hammond and David Hopkins and published by Longman between 1995 and 2005. But the pleasures of scholarship are not wholly coextensive with those of reading. Students are probably still encouraged to enjoy the measured venom of the satires. But where to go beyond that? Paul Hammond, in his introduction to the Poems, suggests that Dryden’s ‘translations are far more important, and potentially more attractive to modern readers, than the prevailing consensus would suggest’; this seems plausible, not only because of the translations’ inherent qualities but because of the resurgent interest in translation among contemporary poets. Still, it is an odd and revealing fact about Dryden that his best-liked poems today – ‘To the Memory of Mr Oldham’ and ‘A Song for St Cecilia’s Day’ – are untypical of him, or at least untypical of his output, and not only because they are short. They are both uncharacteristically open: the one frankly grief-stricken, the other frankly virtuosic.
Dryden has long been dogged by the question of sincerity. In accordance with Fortune’s usual bargain, his willingness to please his patrons and audiences has made his work less pleasing in the longer term. One can grant that all published writing, like all public life, requires some accommodation to its readership, and so some liaison with hypocrisy, and yet still be troubled by lines such as these, about Charles II:
Music herself is lost, in vain she brings
Her choicest notes to praise the best of kings.
Dr Johnson was scandalised: ‘Of this kind of meanness he never seems to decline the practice, or lament the necessity: he considers the great as entitled to encomiastick homage, and brings praise rather as a tribute than a gift, more delighted with the fertility of his invention than mortified by the prostitution of his judgment.’ Of course there were many strong reasons for approving of Charles, especially in the early years of his reign; and Johnson gives insufficient weight to the fact that panegyric was then a flourishing mode. Still, after the notably measured praise of the Heroic Stanzas in memory of Cromwell, Dryden does seem to have given himself over to acclaiming and defending the Stuart monarchs with a readiness that at least challenges the border between loyalty and servility.
One explanation lies in his financial circumstances. He was the eldest son of a not very wealthy family of gentry, obliged to keep up the style of a gentleman without quite having the means, the more so as he had made a grand but not lucrative marriage to the daughter of the Earl of Berkshire. His salary of £200 a year as poet laureate and historiographer royal was vital to him, as was his income as a shareholder in the king’s theatre company. Money was tight after the Theatre Royal burned down in 1672, and again in 1689, when he was sacked from his official posts because he was a Catholic: translating Virgil appealed to him not only for artistic reasons but as a source of cash. For a taste of the discomforts attaching to his position, sample the brutal class scorn directed against him by the Earl of Rochester after they had fallen out in the mid-1670s: ‘He is a Rarity which I cannot but be fond of, as one would be of a Hog that could fiddle, or a singing Owl.’ Various of his relations and acquaintances were much better off: after her apotheosis to intimacy with the king, Dryden’s former colleague Nell Gwyn was granted £5000 a year, plus houses, plus land, plus a share of some state revenues. With such associates, and with three sons to put through Westminster and Charterhouse, one can see how the Drydens, like the Blairs, could find it possible to think of themselves as not that rich.
Still, Marvell and Milton got by on much less, their narrower means sufficing to nourish their independent spirits. Dryden’s comfortable accommodation with Stuart power must be put down to inclination more than necessity. The developing pressure of his religious feelings has a bearing: he was brought up a puritan, but once you have traced his readings in theology, taken into account the Catholic leanings of his wife and many of his friends, and sampled the relentless doctrinal clarity of The Hind and the Panther, little is less persuasive than the claim that his conversion in 1685 after the accession of James II was merely opportunistic. But there also, simply, seems to have been a peace-loving element to his character: ‘common quiet is mankind’s concern,’ he wrote in Religio Laici. In his mild way, he was unprincipled on principle.
Clearly, apologism – in poetry as in life – is less easy to admire than antagonism or independence. But there is a poetry of pliancy which differs from mere propaganda or self-abasement. In this poetry, the words on the page bring with them an awareness that they might have been different: the strain on the bent knee is kept in view. No one, after all, would take praise in a panegyric as being merely true: the ‘judgment’ it embodies must therefore concentrate on gauging what will be effective or can be got away with. It follows that one function of panegyric is polite exhortation: when Dryden admires Charles, in To His Sacred Majesty, because ‘Your love is destined to your country’s peace’, he also implies – quietly, but nevertheless audibly – that the king should keep looking to his country’s peace if he is to continue being worthy of admiration.
This tactical poise is what distinguishes Dryden’s panegyric from the wad of similar works by other writers. Waller, for instance, wrote a poem called ‘On St James’s Park, as lately improved by His Majesty’: Dryden steps onto the same ground when he fleetingly praises the new canal dug through the park to the Thames:
Here in a royal bed the waters sleep,
When tired at sea within this bay they creep.
The couplet is absurd, the sort of thing that was to outrage Dr Johnson. In fact, its indulgence of the ‘fertility of invention’ is so obvious as to be thought-provoking – even, if he ever read it, for Charles. One can imagine the first flush of pleasure on the royal cheeks evolving into a blush as he registered the triviality of what he was becoming known for. Implicitly, Dryden nudges his attention away from garden design towards what the poem wants to go on to consider: the pressing question of whom to select as his queen.
When he wrote to his friends, Dryden could give his compliments a sharper second edge, as for example in ‘To My Honoured Friend Sir Robert Howard, on His Excellent Poems’ (Howard later became his brother-in-law). Discussing Howard’s translation of Book IV of the Aeneid, Dryden says:
Elisa’s griefs are so expressed by you,
They are too eloquent to have been true.
‘Elisa’, as the Longman note reminds us, is Virgil’s alternative name for Dido. Dryden’s couplet is sarcastic – surely? – and yet this possibility appears to be shut out by the tone of the rest of the poem, no less than by its title. The couplet carries the sort of barb which may be smiled over between friends, but which may also fester. It is perhaps relevant to the intonation of these lines that Dryden and Howard became estranged not many years later (in part because of a dispute over the value of rhyme); as also that at the end of their lives they were reconciled.
Dryden’s awareness of the prickles within his praises is clear from the shape taken by his first foray into satire. Mac Flecknoe is (mostly) a mock encomium spoken by Flecknoe, a prolific poet here figured as ‘monarch’ of ‘nonsense’, to Thomas Shadwell, the rival of Dryden who was later to take his place as poet laureate, but who is here represented as Flecknoe’s heir:
Shadwell alone, of all my sons, is he
Who stands confirmed in full stupidity.
Just as in the lines to Howard, it is one word, the last of the couplet, that twists the tone from milky encomium to something more acidic: change ‘stupidity’ to, say, ‘celebrity’, and ‘true’ to ‘new’, and both couplets are rendered equally anodyne. The acid, of course, is much stronger and more consistent in the satire; but the flick of the pen that applies it is the same. Since the damage is done by a single word, one gets a vivid impression that the word has been chosen; but, because it slots into the space cut out for it by rhyme, one is also made to feel that the choice is inevitable.
This mixture of signals is what gives Dryden’s verse its strong, considered quality, so different from the insouciant brilliance of Pope’s couplets. The lines may lack the swoon of ‘con amore’ expressivity (that phrase came into 18th-century English via music) but they are not therefore unemotional. Even when writing with an eye to the main chance, Dryden allows himself a raised eyebrow or a curl of the lip.
Not that he never swoons, but when he does the moment is often placed in a parenthesis or as half of a simile, so as to seem an intermission to the business of the poem in hand. Annus Mirabilis (1667) gives a rosy account of naval battles in the Second Dutch War, and of the Fire of London (for a darker view see the ‘Advice to a Painter’ poems by Marvell). At one point, after much martial talk of ‘flagging sails’ and ‘raking chase-guns’, Prince Rupert’s ship, its mainmast down, is suddenly transformed into a dog, exhausted from chasing a hare:
With his lolled tongue he faintly licks his prey,
His warm breath blows her flix up as she lies;
She, trembling, creeps upon the ground away,
And looks back to him with beseeching eyes.
‘Flix’ is surprising: a dialect word for ‘fur’, it is lifted into prominence by the unexpected rhyme with ‘licks’. The word can stand as a reminder that the ‘poetic diction’ which Dryden was so often praised by later Augustans for having perfected, was not the prissily abstract and monotone vocabulary denounced by Wordsworth but rather a harmonious interlacing of words of different kinds. But what is really startling about this passage is how little it helps us see or understand the naval situation it is presented as an image for. The modest and (in context) pointed phrase ‘upon the ground’ tips us the wink that Dryden is, for the time being, not at all interested in boats, but is writing simply for the pleasure of it. It is a telling sign of what sparked his pleasure that this image, which seems so refreshingly oxygenated, has its roots in Ovid (Hammond’s note informs us) as much as or more than in outdoor observation.
If the best of Dryden’s verse is – as traditionally thought – to be found in the satires, it may be because there, unusually, the surge of con amore writing and the discipline of socio-political appraisal merge. This passage is from Mac Flecknoe:
Some beams of wit on other souls may fall,
Strike through and make a lucid interval,
But Shadwell’s genuine night admits no ray,
His rising fogs prevail upon the day.
Besides, his goodly fabric fills the eye,
And seems designed for thoughtless majesty:
Thoughtless as monarch oaks that shade the plain,
And, spread in solemn state, supinely reign.
On the one hand, the crescendo of invective: the gathering of sources of darkness and blockage, night, fogs, and the ‘goodly fabric’ which is a goad at Shadwell’s girth. On the other, the growth of the natural image, from ‘beams’ through many of the words mentioned above on to ‘oaks’. The simile makes a vicious point: given that Shadwell is as thoughtless as an oak, if only he were thoughtless like an oak – i.e. quietly – instead of in the way of jobbing writers who keep on coming out with words. But, equally, the beauty of the imagined scene seems to mitigate the invective, as though Dryden were trying to make even Shadwell smile at the idea of being transformed into an oak, a latter-day English Daphne. A few years later, Dryden wrote a letter to Richard Busby, his sons’ headmaster at Westminster, appealing against the rustication of one of them for some misdemeanour. He sugared the protest like this: ‘None complaine, but they desire to be reconcild at the same time: there is no mild Expostulation at least, which does not intimate a kindnesse and respect in him who makes it.’ Dryden’s satires are often far from kind; but often, too, they keep open the possibility, if not of reconciliation, at least of human warmth.
Since Dryden’s writing was so various, the question of what to include in an edition of his poems is vexed. The plays – though largely verse – are excluded from Hammond and Hopkins’s volumes, quite justifiably of course (for them, and for all else that is absent from the Longman edition, we must turn to the 20-volume California edition of The Works of John Dryden, compiled by generations of editors, and published serially between 1956 and 2000). Likewise, and no less justifiably, the prose is absent; save for the prose passages which prefaced or dedicated poems or volumes of poems, such as the ‘Discourse Concerning Satire’. Happily, all the verse translations are included: all, that is, except The Works of Virgil, which, though the editors hope eventually to add it, has been ‘excluded from the present scheme because of its bulk’ – reasoning which, if generally adopted, will open the way for quite startlingly economical editions of many major poets.
Very much present, on the other hand, are the prologues and epilogues Dryden wrote for his own and other people’s plays: though spoken in the theatre, many of them also had semi-independent second lives, being included, for instance, in Miscellany Poems (1684). The rationale is unimpeachable, but it makes for an odd reading experience, to be told of the theatre magic one is about to encounter, and then of the theatre magic one has encountered, with only an inch of blank page between the two. But this feeling of incompleteness is cultivated by the editors, who want to point up the contradiction between the shifting, fragmented existence of Dryden’s writing during his lifetime and its re-presentation now in monumental volumes. Not unusually for his period – but unlike later poets such as Pope or Browning – Dryden seems to have felt ‘a reluctance to build a canon over his own name’. Some works were allowed to go out of print; others, including Absalom and Achitophel, were published and republished anonymously, even though their authorship was widely known.
This carelessness about the assertion of his identity through publication tallies with another self-effacing aspect of Dryden: his swamp-like openness to influence. Introducing Annus Mirabilis, he wrote that Virgil ‘has been my master in this poem: I have followed him everywhere … my images are many of them copied from him, and the rest are imitations of him’; and he added notes pointing out his greatest debts. He would, I’m sure, have been glad of Hammond and Hopkins’s plenteous annotation, which is both more erudite and better focused than that of the California volumes. Footnotes can look like a pedestal to the column of verse whose canonicity they serve to reinforce; the notes in this edition are more like a root system, leading not only into Dryden’s vast classical reading, but towards the ephemeral pamphleteering by which his poems were equally nourished. They are a work of great editorial tact, and they not only satiate, but stimulate, one’s curiosity.
Unlike most scholarly editions these days, the Longman series encourages its editors to modernise the spelling and punctuation of poems printed before the advent of modern standard, or nearly standard, English (one can argue about when that was, and as the general editors of the series note, ‘the requirements of a particular author take precedence over “principle”’: it would be foolish to modernise the spelling of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, for instance, since it is purposely archaic). One justification for modernisation is that often, and certainly in Dryden’s case, the spelling and pointing of the first-printed texts owe more to the compositor than to the poet. Still, it was in this unreliable and only semi-authorial way that the poems appeared to their first readers and, as Hammond sensibly admits in his introduction, ‘some nuances of meaning, rhythm and rhyme are undoubtedly lost through modernisation.’
For example, in ‘To My Dear Friend Mr Congreve’, Dryden imagines Congreve inheriting his place as king of poetry:
High on the throne of wit; and seated there
Not mine (that’s little) but thy laurel wear.
Turn to the California edition, which retains the original spelling, and Congreve is wearing something slightly different: a ‘Lawrel’ (this spelling is common in Dryden’s printed texts and elsewhere in the period). Does it matter? The capital letter does not, since poems in Dryden’s time were liberally and irregularly scattered with them, but the spelling does. You wear a ‘Lawrel’ on a ‘throne’; it ‘descends’ to you, the poem says, and allows you to ‘reign’. This familiar analogy between poetic and political power is energised because the name of the poet’s leafy crown includes the word ‘Law’.
On the other hand, much that is different in the early texts doesn’t carry meaning, and it requires a good deal of mental discipline not to be distracted by the buzz of capitals, italics and surprising semicolons. One can take an antiquarian delight in them; but that is obviously not something Dryden intended to supply. On the contrary, he felt strongly that old texts needed to be kept readable, hence his translation – or rather his very radical modernisation – of Chaucer, which he justified in terms that harmonise with those used by the Longman editors: ‘Something must be lost in all transfusion, that is, in all translations; but the sense will remain, which would otherwise be lost, or at least be maimed, when it is scarce intelligible, and that but to a few.’ One of the great virtues of the Longman series is that it is aimed not at a few professional scholars but, to quote its founder F.W. Bateson’s campaigning statement from the 1960s, at ‘university students and teachers, and the general reader’. That ambition has had to battle against economic factors (if nothing else): few general readers will wish to fork out for the five hardback volumes of the full edition. The generous paperback selection is therefore particularly welcome.
The ‘transfusion’ of modernisation suits Dryden’s poems because – despite their attachment to contemporary events – they stretch imaginatively through time, both back to the past and on towards the future into which they are set to drift on the current of affairs. Their persistent classical allusions connect them to antiquity, yet they also give particular attention to what may be about to happen: in Annus Mirabilis the first ‘scattering sparks’ of the Great Fire are already ‘big with the flames that to our ruin rose’, while children are called ‘future people’, palimpsests of what is to come. Dryden’s first lines often establish an uneasy relation to the present, seeming somehow both to place the poems in a moment of time and to unseat them from it. Heroic Stanzas begins: ‘And now ’tis time’. ‘Now’, of course, hooks into the present; but ‘and’ pulls the poem back towards things that have gone before (‘And’ was not unprecedented as a first word, but it is enduringly strange: Blake used it in ‘Jerusalem’ and Pound in the Cantos). The first line of Astraea Redux is similarly assertive and uncertain about ‘now’: ‘Now with a general peace the world was blessed.’ In this case, the unsettling is done by ‘was’.
This interweaving of times shows why translation was so important to Dryden. ‘Translation’ means a bringing-across, from the Latin; ‘metaphor’ means the same, but from the Greek. The etymological coincidence is especially suggestive for Dryden because the texts he translated were also sources of metaphor: he saw his own time through them, or gauged it against them. One clear example is the account of ‘Nisus and Euryalus’ from Virgil, a story of friendship unto death which Dryden draws on for a simile in his poem ‘To the Memory of Mr Oldham’:
Farewell, too little and too lately known,
Whom I began to think and call my own;
For sure our souls were near allied, and thine
Cast in the same poetic mould with mine.
One common note on either lyre did strike,
And knaves and fools we both abhorred alike:
To the same goal did both our studies drive,
The last set out the soonest did arrive.
Thus Nisus fell upon the slippery place,
While his young friend performed and won the race.
The lines open with Dryden’s characteristic attentiveness to time’s complexity: ‘began’, not quite at the beginning of the poem, is ambushed by ‘farewell’. But what becomes cumulatively moving is the way the pairing of words which might seem like a laziness of style – ‘too little and too lately’, ‘think and call’, ‘knaves and fools’ – finds its point as an echo of the pairing of souls which the poem celebrates and whose dissolution it mourns. The Virgilian simile (simile is another kind of pairing) refers to a running race instituted by Aeneas as part of the anniversary games in commemoration of his father. Nisus had been in the lead but slipped, and extended his leg to trip the second-placed runner so that his young friend Euryalus could triumph. The heroes disputed with a toddler’s vehemence over who was the true winner; luckily Aeneas had a stash of prizes in reserve. Dryden does not mention this squabble, but it may nonetheless be present in the imaginative penumbra of his words as a figure for the literary marketplace: Oldham had recently been more successful than most poets in securing patronage. But what is certain is the incongruity of the image. In its new context, that Euryalus ‘won the race’ takes on the meaning that Oldham died first. The verbal contortion by which Dryden conveys this while also asking us to imagine something quite different is an exquisite example of grief’s eloquent inarticulacy.
At about the same time as he wrote ‘To the Memory of Mr Oldham’, Dryden was translating the Nisus and Euryalus story – not only the race but the later night-time commando mission during which both are killed – for the miscellany Sylvae, published by the young entrepreneur Jacob Tonson. As Hammond notes, Dryden’s version ‘emphasises the bond between the friends’: for instance, when Nisus outlines his daring plan but begs Euryalus to stay safely behind, Euryalus protests with a plaintive gulp which is audible in the Latin (‘mene igitur socium summis adiungere rebus,/ Nise, fugis?’) but louder in Dryden’s English: ‘All this alone, and leaving me behind!’
In the newish discipline of translation studies, Dryden is known for having introduced a simple technical distinction between ‘metaphrase’ (word for word translation), ‘paraphrase’ (freer translation) and ‘imitation’ (no gloss needed). As you might guess, these categories begin to melt into one another as soon as they have been erected: what is more persistently thought-provoking is his tendency to see translation in affective terms. This is why he was so responsive to the lineaments of friendship in Virgil: not only because he saw reflected in them friendships of his own, but because, for him, translation was a friendly art. ‘A translator is to make his author appear as charming as possibly he can, provided he maintains his character,’ he wrote in the preface to Sylvae. Sometimes the friendship becomes passionate: translation is a ‘disease’, like the disease of love; it is ‘more pleasing’ than ‘my ordinary productions’; to translate is to follow ‘natural impulses’.
After Dryden’s death, William Congreve – himself Dryden’s ‘dear friend’ – paid tribute to his power of friendship, but also remembered that ‘he had something in his Nature that abhorr’d Intrusion into any Society whatsoever.’ Translation offered him the freedom to pursue imaginative but not merely imaginary friendships without the risk of seeming to intrude. Repeatedly, he selects passages which have to do with desire, companionship or the dissolution of companionship in death; and he translates them so as to suggest continuities between the relationships that are translated and the relationships established in translation; of English to the other languages of Dryden to the original authors.
Translating Lucretius (‘Concerning the Nature of Love’), he achieved a frank sensuality which – as Rochester scoffed – eluded him in his autonomous writing:
They gripe, they squeeze, their humid tongues they dart,
As each would force their way to t’other’s heart –
In vain; they only cruise about the coast,
For bodies cannot pierce, nor be in bodies lost:
As sure they strive to be, when both engage
In that tumultuous momentany rage …
What is so amusingly right about this is the slackening and resurgence of resolve: ‘bodies cannot pierce’ – oh yes they can, let’s strive again. And what releases Dryden’s imagination is the implicit analogy between the lovers’ attempt to ‘force their way to t’other’s heart’ and his attempt to get to the heart of Lucretius (that line is tellingly, self-destructively, his interpolation).
And when he translates the metamorphosis of Baucis and Philemon from Ovid, he is unusually adventurous in allowing the verse itself to seem to metamorphose:
New roots their fastened feet begin to bind,
Their bodies stiffen in a rising rind;
Then, ere the bark above their shoulders grew,
They give and take at once their last adieu;
At once, ‘Farewell, O faithful spouse,’ they said;
At once th’encroaching rinds their closing lips invade.
The verbal and phonetic repetitions have a solidifying effect; but it is Dryden’s way with tenses that is most brilliantly metamorphic. Ovid does not switch to the present tense until after he has finished narrating the metamorphosis: ‘Even to this day the Bithynian peasant in that region points out two trees,’ in the Loeb translation. Dryden, often flexible with tenses, shuffles past and present to suggest the creeping finality of the change (and notice the way the 12-syllable last line seems to resist the encroachment of ‘invade’). But another imaginative ripple created by this oscillation of tenses is the thought that what has happened to Baucis and Philemon as they are transferred from the unique, historical lifespan of people to the reiterative, natural life-cycle of trees is also what happens in translation. Like the Bithynian peasant, the English reader can (even to this day) point to the result of a Metamorphosis: an Ovid with his roots translated into another language, his feet fastened into different rhythms, and a tight new binding of rhyme.
It is cause for celebration that both ‘Baucis and Philemon’ and ‘Lucretius: Concerning the Nature of Love’ are included – along with a good sampling of other translations – in the Selected Poems. And it is cause for regret that the editors have been unable to include The Works of Virgil even in what ought to be the complete edition. Of course its ‘bulk’ is not the whole reason for its exclusion: it might well be thought a little odd to place volumes entitled The Works of Virgil within an edition of The Poems of John Dryden. This verse is not fully his in the way his autochthonous poems are; and it is not even quite so much his as the other translations are, for at least he has extracted or selected those, adopted them by anthologising as well as by translating. If any poems have to be excluded, it should be these ones.
But to say this is not only to underestimate the imaginative challenge of translation; it is to mistake the character of Dryden as a writer. He is very much himself in the generous, perceptive act of translating another person’s words; and most himself when the other person is Virgil. His account of Virgil’s political accommodations, in the ‘Dedication of the Aeneis’, casts fleeting but illuminating reflections on his own sense of himself as a public writer under the Stuarts: ‘To infuse an awful Respect into the People, towards such a Prince: By that respect to confirm their obedience to him; and by that Obedience to make them Happy … it is possible for a Courtier not to be a Knave.’ And the spin he puts on discussions of kingship in the poem amounts to his most frank statement of opposition to the Williamite regime: for instance, in the opening flash-forward he writes that when Aeneas arrived in Italy: ‘His banish’d Gods restor’d to Rites Divine,/And setl’d sure Succession in his Line’ (this is the old spelling of the California edition). The poor publisher – still Jacob Tonson – was reduced to adjusting the illustrations so that Aeneas’ nose looked a bit like King William’s.
But Dryden does not merely use Virgil as a political Trojan horse. When it doesn’t concern affairs of state, the translation is an exemplary act of understanding, both honouring the particularity of other characters from other times, and imaginatively reaching out to them. Here, for instance, is Hecuba, Troy collapsing around her, faced with the aged Priam, improbably geared up for combat:
The Queen, when she beheld her trembling Lord,
And hanging by his side a heavy Sword,
What Rage, she cry’d, has seiz’d my Husband’s mind;
What Arms are these, and to what use design’d?
These times want other aids: were Hector here,
Ev’n Hector now in vain, like Priam wou’d appear.
With us, one common shelter thou shalt find,
Or in one common Fate with us be join’d.
Dryden slightly exaggerates Virgil’s movingly direct language, like an actor sensitively interpreting his lines. He introduces the weak syntactical structure of ‘and hanging by his side’ – so that the clause itself appears to hang – and the flicker of a pun across ‘arms’; the momentary uncertainty after ‘were Hector here’ (you half-expect Hecuba to continue: ‘he’d sort things out’) is Dryden’s touch, as is the repetition of ‘one common’.
A forceful appeal to common feeling sounds throughout the scene: it is there in the newly plain words for Priam, ‘the poor old Man’, and the newly shocked description of his being dragged by Pyrrhus ‘slidd’ring through clotter’d Blood, and holy Mire’; there too in the reiteration of the phrase ‘one common Fate’ when Priam comes to share it. Oddly, Dryden adds a note to the line describing the body that is no longer Priam (‘A headless Carcass, and a nameless thing’): ‘This whole line is taken from Sir John Denham.’ It is the only note in the whole translation, and the point of it is to show Dryden not only sharing the words of another English poet, but momentarily snuffing his own light as Priam’s is extinguished. Dryden is at his most appealing in the creative fidelity of his translations; and it is here too that he offers the sharpest stimulus to contemporary poets who are so attracted by and yet also (it sometimes seems) a little bit shifty about the partial liberty of the ‘version’ from another language. Dryden’s Virgil is a great work – perhaps the great work – of the kind of imagination that is less an originative than a sympathising power.