Dryden’s Translations of Juvenal and Persius
“In few words, it is only for a poet to translate a poet.”
– John Dryden, from “Discourse on Satire”
With these words, Dryden highlights the two key components of his literary persona; he is both a poet and a translator of poetry. The relative importance of these titles, which are now regarded as equally important to his existence, have been debated by scholars over the centuries, and though he was seen as the dominant literary figure of his age, his status as a master poet has been questioned at times due to his career “dwindling” to the production of translations, rather than the creation of original works, in his later life.
Dryden was born in 1631 in England and was a major literary influence during the Restoration, a period which saw the English, Scottish, and Irish monarchies restored under Charles II. Dryden was a poet, translator, critic, and playwright. Made Poet Laureate in 1668, he was one of the most influential writers and public figures at the time. In his later life, however, he fell out of favor with the court, refusing to pledge his allegiance to the new monarchs William and Mary.
Both Juvenal and Persius were early Imperial age satirists, seen as the successors of Lucilius, who was acknowledged as the creator of the Roman satire genre, and Horace, both Republic-era Roman satirists. Persius (34–62 CE) and Juvenal (fl. 110–30 CE) worked under the emperors Nero and Hadrian, respectively, and their satire evokes a social criticism of their time.
Juvenal is best known for his Satires, a collection of 16 poems famous for their abrasive social commentary, a satirical style that has since become known as “Juvenalian.” This is often contrasted to “Horatian” satire, which is more playful and gentle in its criticism of society, relying on light and clever mockery rather than a caustic tone.
Dryden translated all of Persius himself, but relied on the help of several others to translate Juvenal, including the well known poet William Congreve. Dryden’s style of translation is famously irreverant to the content and style of the souce text. He chooses to translate Latin and Greek works into heroic couplets, However, Bottkol argues that, though he undeniably abandoned the style of the Latin and Greek poets, he did not necessarily depart from the content as much as critics have proposed. Instead, Bottkol puts forth the idea that Dryden translated carefully, consulting contemporary translations that were often marred with errors themselves.
Little is known about the provenance of the edition of Dryden’s translation of Juvenal and Persius present in the Worth, but it has a trade binding dating from around the time it was originally published in 1693. The only hint as to a possible previous owner is the word “Rob” handwritten on the half-title page. This volume was likely acquired by Edward Worth and not passed down to him by his father, as it was published approximately five years after his father’s death.
The binding, a late 17th century English blind-tooled work of mottled brown calf skin, is a classic trade binding and reveals nothing special about the work. This is in line with Jacob Tonson’s work – he focused not only on publishing fine editions of books for a gentleman’s library, but also trade copies produced in larger quantities and sold for smaller amounts of money.
There were multiple editions of this work, which proved to be quite popular. Later editions, some of which were printed after Dryden’s death, include illustrations, while this first edition does not. Dryden was by no means the first person to translate these poems into English; he would have been working from previous English translations. However, he took fault with these earlier translations and aimed to bring English poetic conventions into his own translations, rather than focusing purely on the language as a classicist would.
This edition sits at a curious time in Dryden’s life as a poet. As previous critics have noted, at the same stage when Pope wrote An Essay on Man and Milton wrote Paradise Lost, Dryden translated the Aeneid, a project he worked on from 1693, the year this book was published, until 1697. This invariably colors how we think of the kind of poet Dryden was, and also Dryden’s relationship with his publisher Jacob Tonson, who published many of his works and later translations.
This volume begins with a dedication to Charles Sackville 6th Earl of Dorset, a well-known literary patron and benefactor of Dryden later in the poet’s career. The dedication serves as Dryden’s “Discourse on Satire and Epic Poetry,” a lengthy treatise on the conventions of satire as a genre. Though the translations of the poems themselves are impressive, the discourse within this volume is considered important, and is regarded as a classic English analysis of imperial satire.
This new discourse on satire represents a departure from Dryden’s earlier “Essay on Dramatic Poesie.” Published in 1667, the essay is presented as a dialogue among four speakers: Eugenius, Crites, Lisideius, and Neander, who represents Dryden himself. Dryden’s ultimate goal was to defend English literature, disparaged by the French neoclassicists who regarded it as barbaric, and to argue against the use of blank verse. After the publication of Milton’s blank verse masterpiece Paradise Lost later that year, however, Dryden’s theories on blank verse were put to rest by Milton. In an explanation of his decision to use blank verse published with a revised edition of Paradise Lost in 1674, Milton famously called ryhming “the Invention of a barbarous Age…grac’t indeed since by the use of some famous modern Poets, carried away by Custom, but much to their own vexation, hindrance, and constraint to express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse than else they would have exprest them.”
In his later Discourse, Dryden admits to Sackville that his first essay was the work of an inexperienced poet, though he does state that the reason for Milton’s use of blank verse is his lack of talent in ryhming.
Dryden’s “Discourse on Satire,” however, is a more mature meditation on the conventions of epic and satire, and is still referenced by scholars today. He begins the treatise by discussing modern authors who have written epic poems and detailing their shortcomings, claiming that none is nearly as talented as Virgil or Homer. Dryden goes on to analyze the specifics of satire; rather than comparing it to comedy or tragedy, he treats it as a verse genre by taking a close look at the meter and stylistic presentation of satire.
Bottkol, J. McG. “Dryden’s Latin Scholarship.” Modern Philology. Vol. 40.3, 1943). 241-254.
Braund, Susanna, and Josiah Osgood, eds. A Companion to Perseus and Juvenal. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. Print.
“John Dryden.” Poetry Foundation. Accessed 14 July 2015. <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/john-dryden>
Rossyln, Felicity. “Dryden: Poet or Translator?” Translation and Literature. Vol. 10.1, 2001. 21-32.
Text: Ms Brianna Mac Gregor, Third Year Student, Harvard University.