Dryden As A Translator
From The Life Of Dryden by Samuel Johnson

Of Juvenal there had been a translation by Stapylton, and another by Holyday: neither of them is very poetical. Stapylton is more smooth, and Holyday's is more esteemed for the learning of his notes. A new version was proposed to the poets of that time, and undertaken by them in conjunction. The main design was conducted by Dryden, whose reputation was such that no man was unwilling to serve the Muses under him.

The general character of this translation will be given, when it is said to preserve the wit, but to want the dignity of the original. The peculiarity of Juvenal is a mixture of gaiety and stateliness, of pointed sentences and declamatory grandeur. His points have not been neglected, but his grandeur none of the band seemed to consider as necessary to be imitated, except Creech, who undertook the thirteenth satire. It is therefore perhaps possible to give a better representation of that great satirist, even in those parts which Dryden himself has translated, some passages excepted, which will never be excelled.

With Juvenal was published Persius, translated wholly by Dryden. This work, though like all the other productions of Dryden it may have shining parts, seems to have been written merely for wages, in an uniform mediocrity, without any eager endeavour after excellence, or laborious effort of the mind.

There wanders an opinion among the readers of poetry, that one of these satires is an exercise of the school. Dryden says that he once translated it at school, but not that he preserved or published the juvenile performance.

Not long afterwards he undertook perhaps the most arduous work of its kind, a translation of Virgil, for which he had shown how well he was qualified by his version of the 'Pollio,' and two episodes, one of ' Nisus and Euryalus,' the other of 'Mezentius and Lausus.'

In the comparison of Homer and Virgil, the discriminative excellence of Homer is elevation and comprehension of thought, and that of Virgil is grace and splendour of diction. The beauties of Homer are therefore difficult to be lost, and those of Virgil difficult to be retained. The massy trunk of sentiment is safe by its solidity, but the blossoms of elocution easily drop away. The author having the choice of his own images, selects those which he can best adorn; the translator must, at all hazards, follow his original, and express thoughts which perhaps he would not have chosen. When to this primary difficulty is added the inconvenience of a language so much inferior in harmony to the Latin, it cannot be expected that they who read the 'Georgics' and the 'Aeneid' should be much delighted with any version.

All these obstacles Dryden saw, and all these he determined to encounter. The expectation of his work was undoubtedly great; the nation considered its honour as interested in the event. One gave him the different editions of his author, and another helped him in the subordinate parts. The arguments of the several books were given him by Addison.

The hopes of the public were not disappointed. He produced, says Pope, 'the most noble and spirited translation that I know in any language.' It certainly excelled whatever had appeared in English, and appears to have satisfied his friends, and, for the most part, to have silenced his enemies. Milbourne, indeed, a clergyman, attacked it; but his outrages seem to be the ebullitions of a mind agitated by stronger resentment than bad poetry can excite, and previously resolved not to be pleased.

His criticism extends only to the Preface. 'Pastorals,' and 'Georgics'; and, as he professes, to give his antagonist an opportunity of reprisal, he has added his own version of the first and fourth 'Pastorals,' and the first 'Georgic.' The world has forgotten his book; but since his attempt has given him a place in literary history, I will preserve a specimen of his criticism, by inserting his remarks on the invocation before the first 'Georgic,' and of his poetry, by annexing his own version.

'What makes a plenteous harvest, when to turn
The fruitful soil, and when to sow the corn.' —Ver. 1.

'It's unlucky, they say, to stumble at the threshold, but what has a plenteous harvest to do here? Virgil would not pretend to prescribe rules for that which depends not on the husbandman's care, but the disposition of Heaven altogether. Indeed, the plenteous crop depends somewhat on the good method of tillage, and where the land's ill manured, the corn, without a miracle, can be but indifferent; but the harvest may be good, which is its properest epithet, though the husbandman's skill were never so indifferent. The next sentence is too literal, and when to plough had been Virgil's meaning, and intelligible to everybody; and when to sow the corn, is a needless addition.

—The care of sheep, of oxen, and of kine,
And when to geld the lambs, and sheer the swine.' —Ver. 3.

would as well have fallen under the cura boum, qui cultus habendo sit pecori, as Mr. D.'s deduction of particulars.

'The birth and genius of the frugal bee,
I sing, Maecenas, and I sing to thee.' —Ver. 5.

But where did experientia ever signify birth and genius? or what ground was there for such a figure in this place? How much more manly is Mr. Ogylby's version!

What makes rich grounds, in what celestial signs
'Tis good to plough, and marry elms with vines;
What best fits cattle, what with sheep agrees,
And several arts improving frugal bees;
I sing, Maecenas.

Which four lines, though faulty enough, are yet much more to the purpose than Mr. Dryden's six,

"From fields and mountains to my song repair."—Ver. 22.

For patrium linquens nemus, saltusque Lycaei.—Very well explained!

"Inventor, Pallas, of the fattening oil,
Thou founder of the plough, and ploughman's toil!"Ver. 23, 24.

Written as if these had been Pallas's invention. The ploughman's toil's impertinent.

". . . The shroud-like cypress . . . ."—Ver. 25.

Why shroud-like? Is a cypress pulled up by the roots, which the sculpture in the last Eclogue fills Silvanus's hand with, so very like a shroud? Or did not Mr. Dryden think of that kind of cypress used often for scarves and hatbands at funerals formerly, or for widows' vails, etc.? If so, 'twas a deep good thought.

". . . . . . . . . . . . . . . That wear
The rural honours, and increase the year."—Ver. 26.

What's meant by increasing the year? Did the gods or goddesses add more months, or days, or hours to it? Or how can arva tueri signify to wear rural honours? Is this to translate, or abuse an author? The next couplet are borrowed from Ogylby, I suppose, because less to the purpose than ordinary:—

"The patron of the world, and Rome's peculiar guard." —Ver. 33.

Idle, and none of Virgil's, no more than the sense of the precedent couplet; so again, he interpolates Virgil with that and the round circle of the year to guide powerful of blessings, which thou strewest around. A ridiculous Latinism, and an impertinent addition; indeed the whole period is but one piece of absurdity and nonsense, as those who lay it with the original must find.

"And Neptune shall resign the fasces of the sea"

Was he consul or dictator there?

"And watery virgins for thy bed shah strive." — Ver. 42, 43.

Both absurd interpolations.

"Where in the void of heaven a place is free.
Ah! happy, D—n, were that place for thee." —Ver. 47,48.

But where is that void? Or what does our translator mean by it? He knows what Ovid says God did to prevent such a void in heaven; perhaps this was then forgotten: but Virgil talks more sensibly.

"The scorpion ready to receive thy laws." —Ver.49.

No, he would not then have gotten out of his way so fast.

"Though Proserpine affects her silent seat." —Ver. 56.

What made her then so angry with Ascalaphus, for preventing her return? She was now mused to Patience under the determinations of Fate, rather than fond of her residence.

"Pity the poet's and the ploughman's cares,
Interest thy greatness in our mean affairs,
And use thyself betimes to hear our prayers." Ver. 61-63.

Which is such a wretched perversion of Virgil's noble thought as Vicars would have blushed at; but Mr. Ogylby makes us some amends by his better lines:—

"O wheresoever thou art, from thence incline,
And grant assistance to my bold design!
Pity, with me, poor husbandmen's affairs,
And now, as if translated, hear our prayers."

This is sense and to the purpose: the other, poor mistaken Stuff.'

Such were the strictures of Milbourne, who found few abettors; and of whom it may be reasonably imagined, that many who favoured his design were ashamed of his insolence. When admiration had subsided, the translation was more coolly examined, and found, like all others, to be sometimes erroneous and sometimes licentious. Those who could find faults, thought they could avoid them; and Dr. Brady attempted in blank verse a translation of the 'Aeneid,' which, when dragged into the world, did not live long enough to cry. I have never seen it; but that such a version there is, or has been, perhaps some old catalogue informed me.

With not much better success, Trapp, when his Tragedy and his ' Prelections' had given him reputation, attempted (1718) another blank version of the 'Aeneid,'; to which, notwithstanding the slight regard with which it was treated, he had afterwards perseverance enough to add the 'Eclogues' and 'Georgics.' His book may continue its existence as long as it is the clandestine refuge of schoolboys.

Since the English ear has been accustomed to the mellifluence of Pope's numbers, and the diction of poetry has become more splendid, new attempts have been made to translate Virgil; and all his works have been attempted by men better qualified to contend with Dryden. I will not engage myself in an invidious comparison by opposing one passage to another; a work of which there would be no end, and which might be often offensive without use.

It is not by comparing line with line that the merit of great works is to be estimated, but by their general effects and ultimate result. It is easy to note a weak line, and to write one more vigorous in its place; to find a happiness of expression in the original, and transplant it by force into the version: but what is given to the parts may be subducted from the whole, and the reader may be weary, though the critic may commend. Works of imagination excel by their allurement and delight; by their power of attracting and detaining the attention. That book is good in vain which the reader throws away. He only is the master who keeps the mind in pleasing captivity; whose pages are perused with eagerness, and in hope of new pleasure are perused again; and whose conclusion is perceived with an eye of sorrow, such as the traveller casts upon departing day.

By his proportion of this predomination I will consent that Dryden should be tried; of this, which, in opposition to reason, makes Ariosto the darling and the pride of Italy; of this, which, in defiance of criticism, continues Shakspeare the sovereign of the drama.

His last work was his 'Fables,' in which he gave us the first example of a mode of writing which the Italians call rifaccimento, a renovation of ancient writers, by modernizing their language. Thus the old poem of Boiardo has been new-dressed by Domenichi and Berni. The works of Chaucer, upon which this kind of rejuvenescence has been bestowed by Dryden, require little criticism. The tale of the 'Cock' seems hardly worth revival; and the story of 'Palamon and Arcite,' containing an action unsuitable to the times in which it is placed, can hardly be suffered to pass without censure of the hyperbolical commendation which Dryden has given it in the general preface, and in a poetical dedication, a piece where his original fondness of remote conceits seems to have revived.

Of the three pieces borrowed from Boccace, 'Sigismunda' may be defended by the celebrity of the story. 'Theodore and Honoria,' though it contains not much moral, yet afforded opportunities of striking description. And 'Cymon' was formerly a tale of such reputation, that, at the revival of letters, it was translated into Latin by one of the Beroalds. Whatever subjects employed his pen, he was still improving our measures and embellishing our language.

In this volume are interspersed some short original poems, which, with his prologues, epilogues, and songs, may be comprised in Congreve's remark, that even those, if he had written nothing else, would have entitled him to the praise of excellence in his kind.

One composition must however be distinguished. The 'Ode for St. Cecilia's Day,' perhaps the last effort of his poetry, has been always considered as exhibiting the highest flight of fancy and the exactest nicety of art. This is allowed to stand without a rival. If indeed there is any excellence beyond it, in some other of Dryden's works that excellence must be found. Compared with the 'Ode on Killigrew' it may be pronounced perhaps superior in the whole; but without any single part equal to the first stanza of the other.

It is said to have cost Dryden a fortnight's labour; but it does not want its negligences: some of the lines are without correspondent rhymes; a defect which I never detected but after an acquaintance of many years, and which the enthusiasm of the writer might hinder him from perceiving.

His last stanza has less emotion than the former; but is not less elegant in the diction. The conclusion is vicious; the music of Timotheus, which raised a mortal to the skies, had only a metaphorical power; that of Cecilia, which drew an angel down, had a real effect: the crown therefore could not reasonably be divided.