The Road to Sligo

Tom Paulin

Perhaps all verse translation must begin and end with a version of the Aeneid, or with an essentially Virgilian concept of art’s relation to society? In these islands, the first translator of Virgil was Gavin Douglas, whose Eneados was completed in 1513. Although my Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Literature appropriates Douglas as the earliest translator of the classics ‘into English’, his version was of course written in Scots and is an ennobling monument to Scotland’s separate cultural identity. For Douglas, Virgil is a holy, original and perfect figure, a divine lawgiver who inspires his readers with the pure form and essence of culture. He is end and beginning, both cedar tree and ‘A per se’. And as James Kinsley suggests, Virgil’s best translators acquire something of his luminous stature: ‘the ancient author becomes culturally effective, and the translator a “noble collateral” with him.’

Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, relied heavily on Douglas’s Eneados when he translated Books Two and Four of Virgil’s epic into English. Surrey rejected Douglas’s use of rhyming couplets and drew on Italian verso sciolto to create the earliest form of blank verse in English. His lines are often supple and beautiful, and his translation is a remarkable pioneering work, a rich seed which has produced a sacred wood. However, it wasn’t until Dryden’s translation of 1697 that the Aeneid became naturalised as a major English poem. Like Gavin Douglas, Dryden writes out of pride in his nation and his native language, and he aims to create a consolidating, monumental work. In a long, dedicatory preface he states that his expressed confidence in his own translation may appear arrogant: ‘yet is intended for the honour of my country.’ He attacks the ‘affected purity’ of the French language and asserts that the self-conscious perfectionism of French writers has ‘unsinewed’ their heroic verse.

Virgil identifies Aeneas’s founding of Rome with Augustus’s long stable rule, and Dryden’s version is informed by his experience of civil war, restoration, rebellion and the Williamite revolution. Dryden had a fundamentally Hobbesian love of law and order, and his career was a slippery mixture of principled conviction and clever accommodation to the ruling powers. There is a curious moment in his preface where he goes out of his way to assert that Virgil was ‘still of republican principles in his heart’. He then contrives to make Augustus sound like a constitutional monarch and so edges a step closer to the new Whig establishment which had stripped him of the laureateship and given it to his old enemy, Shadwell.

A hostile critic would call Dryden an opportunist, but it would be more accurate to say that he is attempting to heal old wounds and soften his ‘stern age’ into peace. Similarly, C. Day Lewis’s translation of the Aeneid (1952) might be regarded as a shrewd strategy by an establishment operator who hoped one day to succeed Masefield as Poet Laureate. More charitably, it could be argued that Day Lewis’s translation had patriotic inspirations in the movement of consciousness that led to the Festival of Britain. Also, Day Lewis was writing for radio and his version therefore has significant connections with the democratic idea of ‘court’ poetry and drama which MacNeice and other members of the Thirties generation brought to the BBC. Day Lewis’s relaxed verse line has affinities with Whitman’s free verse and with the egalitarian ideas that inform it. His version was therefore appropriate to post-1945 Britain and to the great achievements of Attlee’s government.

The central theme of the Aeneid is the establishment of national identity, and Dryden’s translations of Virgil, Ovid, Juvenal, Horace and other Classical authors were intended as weighty contributions to the Neoclassical cultural ideal which he initiated. His intention was to turn the Classical poets into living Englishmen and make them speak a noble and refined language. As Rossetti said, the only true motive for translating poetry into ‘a fresh language’ must be to endow ‘a fresh nation ... with one more possession of beauty’. The translator, therefore, can resemble a Washington or a Jefferson as much as a traditional monarch, and like Aeneas he plants the old gods in a new place and a new language.

The Virgilian theme and the language question are subtly explored in Brian Friel’s Translations, a play that was first performed at the Guildhall, Derry, in 1980, and published the following year. It is set in an Irish hedge-school and although all the characters, with the exception of two British soldiers, are Gaelic speakers, the play exists as a ‘translation’ of their speech into Irish English. Towards the end, the schoolmaster addresses his sleeping friend:

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[*] Czerniawski has also translated some of his own poems into English. Modern Poetry in Translation 1983 (edited by Daniel Weissbort, with an introduction by Ted Hughes, Carcanet, 214 pp., £6.95, 5 May 1983, 0 85635 481 3) contains three fine auto-translations.

[†] The poem appears in Why Brownlee left (Faber, 1980).