I have a nicely-bound, Heritage Library edition of John Dryden’s translation of the Aeneid by Virgil. I’m working my way through it, or at least the first 4 books of it, as research for the deep edit that’s going into The Meditations of Caius Caligulia before I publish it. It also makes for a fun refresh of the rhetorical schemes and tropes I studied in grad school: my notes are filled with Greek terms codified by Roman scholars.
But more than that, Dryden’s lively pentameter lifts the story. As my Latin is poor, I could not dare read the original, but this Early-Modern translation has the right archaic feel for something that, like the Iliad and Odyssey, is at least partly a funeral oration for the collapse of the Bronze Age, an event that left its echoes in Scripture as well. Virgil, long-winded as he could be, also had a marvelous sense for imagery:
And here and there above the waves were seen,Aeneid, Book I
Arms, pictures, precious goods, and floating men.
I like that Dryden satisfies himself with the half-rhyme in order to give the second line it’s full weight: our mind can form the picture quite easily, and it gives an immediacy to what amounts to the opening scene of our story. Note something else: Virgil chooses to begin the story in media res, with Aeneas, son of Troy, already driving his fleet halfway across the Mediterranean, already on his way to become the distant founder of Rome. We then flashback to the sack of Troy by the Greeks, as Aeneas, blown ashore on Carthage, tells his tale to Queen Dido.
And had not Heav’n the Fall of Troy design’d,Aeneid, Book II
Or had not men been fated to be blind,
Enough was said and done t’inspire a better mind.
This is a triplet, i.e. three lines rhyming, of which I have found several scattered throughout. Most of the poem is couplets, so these stand out. Given that Virgil wrote in a dactylic hexameter, this is no doubt Dryden’s interpolation, as he was well-known for throwing triplets around. Dryden has been criticized for too loosely translating Virgil, a criticism he embraced, decreeing that the poem would read too dull in English if translated to plainly. I have to say I’m with Dryden on this. Here’s another example:
We leave the narrow lanes behind, and dareAeneid, Book II
Th’unequal combat in the public square:
Night was our friend; our leader was despair.
The closing chiasmus is so tasty that I want to find excuses to quote it. Book II is filled with grand phrases that capture the horror that Homer finishes the Iliad before relating:
On the bleak shore now lies th’abandoned king,Aeneid, Book II
A headless carcass, and a nameless thing.
The strenght of this couplet fills me with admiration, especially the “nameless thing”, the translation of a great and powerful man into nothing makes clear that this story is playing for keeps, and to hear the hero speak it gives him a genuine pathos. I had heard this poem sneered at in my youth, as a dull gong banging in blood. I am glad to know that, as always, “they” are wrong.