When I was a teenager our town’s library was located at the west end of Lincoln Park, near the high school. It had a nice collection of records and I used to spend afternoons there listening to music through bulky headphone and thumbing through interesting-looking books. One book in particular I remember: a folio facsimile edition of Dryden’s translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, bound in cream-colored imitation leather. I wasn’t entirely clear who Virgil was and had no idea how to pronounce the title of the book. On the flyleaf there was a portrait of John Dryden in a curled wig.
The book was hard going for me at the time, thanks to its seventeenth-century poetic diction, irregular spelling, odd use of capitals and italics, and its endless references to Greek gods and heroes. I read it slowly and I’m sure I never finished it, but the story caught me. Some years later I read (and loved) Robert Fitzgerald’s widely respected translation of the Aeneid and in my Latin class attempted, and was quickly defeated by, a long passage from the original.
Remembering the fascination of that old library book, I recently picked up a copy of Dryden’s Virgil in the Penguin paperback edition and read it end to end. I’m sure there are fine reasons one may prefer more modern translations (they’re sometimes more accurate, they don’t force the unrhymed dactylic hexameter of the Latin into rhymed English lines, etc.); I don’t care. Dryden’s Virgil is wonderfully alive in a way that even Fitzgerald’s rendition simply is not.
Consider, for example the following passage from Book II when Aeneas describes Priam at the fall of Troy. Dryden has:
Perhaps you may of Priam’s Fate enquire.
He, when he saw his Regal Town on fire,
His ruin’d Palace, and his ent’ring Foes,
On ev’ry side inevitable woes;
In Arms, disus’d, invests his Limbs decay’d
Like them, with Age; a late and useless aid.
His feeble shoulders scarce the weight sustain:
Loaded, not armed, he creeps along, with pain;
Despairing of Success; ambitious to be slain!
Note the cadence of the lines, how the clauses snap together neatly but in unexpected ways, and the triple rhyme at the end that draws out the pathos of the pitiful old king. The chopped phrasing of the penultimate line mimics overloaded Priam’s shuffling gait, helping us to see him better. By contrast, here’s Fitzgerald:
What was the fate of Priam, you may ask.
Seeing his city captive, seeing his own
Royal portals rent apart, his enemies
In the inner rooms, the old man uselessly
Put on his shoulders, shaking with old age,
Amor unused for years, belted a sword on,
And made for the massed enemy to die.
The lines are about the same length as Dryden’s, in terms of syllables and accents, and the meaning is clear enough, but there is no music in them. Compared to Dryden’s translation, it’s flat, dead prose masquerading as poetry, and the emotion of the scene is muted as a result. Dryden’s rhyme helps to keep things moving, perhaps, but it’s almost beside the point (Milton achieves similar effects without rhyme). Does Virgil’s original include a phrase corresponding to Dryden’s memorable “ambitious to be slain”? I don’t know, but it hardly matters. The idea is there in the description and Dryden’s instincts serve him, and his readers, well. Dryden, in fact, has a passion for spring-loaded, aphoristic descriptions that stick in the mind. When Aeneas describes the murdered Priam, for example, Dryden gives us:
On the bleak Shoar now lies th’ abandon’d King,
A headless Carcass, and a nameless thing.
Fitzgerald renders the lines:
On the distant shore
The vast trunk headless lies without a name.
It’s straightforward enough, but the description of feeble old Priam’s body as “vast” feels odd; and “vast trunk headless lies” is awkward; and, to my ears at least, Fitzgerald’s lines have a faint but distracting echo of the opening lines from Shelley’s Ozymandias. Dryden’s version communicates palpable horror, emphasized by the repetition of the viperish “s” sound in the second line.
Let’s look at another passage. In this one, from Book IV, Dido is plunged deep in her love madness. She suspects Aeneas of making secret plans to depart Carthage for his fated Italy. Let’s give Fitzgerald the first reading:
Furious, at her wit’s end,
She traversed the whole city, all aflame
With rage, like a Bacchante driven wild
By emblems shaken, when the mountain revels
Of the odd year possess her, when the cry
Of Bacchus rises…
And here is Dryden’s version (for his “houl” read “howl”):
Frantick with Fear, impatient of the Wound,
And impotent of Mind, she roves the City round.
Less wild the Bacchanalian Dames appear,
When from afar, their nightly God they hear,
And houl about the Hills, and shake the wreathy Spear.
There seems to be some disagreement on the facts: do the Maenad revels occur “nightly,” per Dryden, or every other year, as Fitzgerald states? It simply doesn’t matter for non-academic readers. What matters is that Fitzgerald’s lines seem to dawdle along distractedly while Dryden’s build force: “Frantick with fear,” “impatient of the wound” (winning phrase), and “impotent of mind” – each of them turns the screw on Dido to rhetorically intensify our appreciation of her jealous passion. Dryden’s “rove the city round” suggests a raving directionlessness, while Fitzgerald’s “traversed the whole city” sounds more like a cross-town errand or a charity walk-a-thon. And again Dryden deploys a lingering triple rhyme at the end, and the wonderful image of the Bacchante’s thyrsus as a “wreathy spear.”
It may be true, as I said, that Fitzgerald takes the prize for accuracy and contemporary “readability” (whatever that’s supposed to mean) but the performance feels like the dissection of a cadaver. Dryden’s translation is a living English poem. There’s no comparing the relative investment of genius in each.
What’s the point of poetry that doesn’t make you want to commit passages to memory? Nothing in Fitzgerald’s Virgil offers itself to us that way. But again and again in Dryden, I found myself marking pages, resolving to make this or that passage a permanent part of my inward life. On the chaos of battle, for example, there’s: “Who fights finds Death, and Death finds him who flies.” On the open road that’s always close at hand to lead us to our mortal end: “The Gates of Hell are open Night and Day; / Smooth the Descent and easie is the Way.” And on the indomitable will to overcome all obstacles: “But thou, secure of Soul, unbent with Woes, / The more thy Fortune frowns, the more oppose.”
Now to hunt down a copy of Pope’s Iliad.