Austen Saunders

Discovering poetry: John Dryden, Jacobite superstar

From Dryden’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid

Arms and the man I sing who forced by fate
And haughty Juno’s unrelenting hate
Expelled and exiled left the Trojan shore.
Long labours both by sea and land he bore
And in the doubtful war; before he won
The Latian realm and built the destined town,
His banished Gods restored to rites divine,
And settled sure succession in his line:
From whence the race of Alban Fathers come,
And the long glories of majestic Rome.
    O Muse! the causes and the crimes relate,
What goddess was provoked, and whence her hate,
For what offence the Queen of Heaven began
To persecute so brave, so just a man!
Involved his anxious life in endless cares,
Exposed to wants, and hurried into wars!
Can Heavenly minds such high resentment show;
Or exercise their spite in human woe?

Dryden always wanted to write an epic. ‘A heroic poem’, he wrote, ‘is undoubtedly the greatest work which the soul of man is capable to perform’. He was suffering from brain cancer by the time he felt able to write his masterpiece and that masterpiece, it turned out, was someone else’s. Because Dryden’s epic was Virgil’s Aeneid, translated into English and into new times.

Like a remake of a Hollywood classic, literary translation in the seventeenth-century could be a starting point, a framework for something that sits somewhere between our ideas of originality and imitation. Because many more people could read Latin than today educated readers wouldn’t be turning to Dryden’s translation just to read a poem they couldn’t otherwise understand – they’d want something extra. And what they found in the bookshops of London in 1697 was sensational. From its very first lines, it was clear that Dryden’s Aeneid was a piece of breath-taking political provocation by the nation’s greatest literary superstar.

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