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Books

Discovering poetry: John Dryden, Jacobite superstar

4 February 2013

9:41 AM

4 February 2013

9:41 AM

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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Dryden had been the poet laureate of Charles II and James II and had converted to Catholicism when James, also a Catholic, had come to the throne. Many were sure he’d changed his faith to keep his job. If he had done, it was a mistake. In 1688 James was overthrown by a Dutch army in what was soon being called the Glorious Revolution. After a war in Ireland he was forced to flee to the continent where, for the next hundred years, he and his descendants claimed the British throne. Major rebellions were crushed in 1715 and, under Bonnie Prince Charlie, 1745.

As a known supporter of the exiled king, Dryden’s choice of the Aeneid as his great masterwork was daring. The Aeneid is about Aeneas, a young Trojan who leads survivors of the siege of Troy to Italy where they form a new community which will grow into the Roman Empire. It’s a story about exiled heroes who are driven abroad by their enemies but come back fighting, eventually ruling the world. In summary it sounds just like the wildest dreams of those still loyal to James.

Dryden doesn’t hide these parallels. In fact he goes out of his way to make them obvious. The opening of the poem calls on the muse of epic poetry to help him and, like an overture before an opera, sets the mood for what’s going to come and introduces some of the major themes. These include how Aeneas:

‘His banished Gods restored to rites divine,
And settled sure succession in his line:’

Dryden is changing Virgil’s poem to remind his readers as much is possible of James II. Virgil writes of how Aeneas took his Trojan gods to Italy – Dryden introduces the idea of them being ‘restored’ which is far closer to his experience as a Catholic in Protestant England where the ‘rites divine’ of the old religion had been supressed. The second line is his own addition. It has no immediate source in Virgil’s text. But James’s supporters were outraged that the royal succession had been broken. They cared deeply about the fact that his heir would never be king and Dryden adds this anguish to his version of Virgil. He also adds a half-line about how Aeneas will be ‘hurried into wars’ (just like James in Ireland) and a reference to the ‘crimes’ which provoked the gods to inflict adversity upon him. The crimes he is thinking of are probably the treachery of the English who abandoned their king.

Dryden’s Aeneid is a finger of accusation pointed at those who have stolen his country from ‘so brave, so just a man’ and a lament for those who have kept the faith. There’d be plenty of romanticising of the Jacobite cause over the next few hundred years. But the pathos of Dryden’s Virgil is powerful. The Glorious Revolution was only glorious for some people – for others, it was a tragedy.

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