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This great author has left no extensive work in prose: the pieces which he wrote were merely accompaniments to his poems and plays, and consist of Prefaces, Dedications, and Critical Essays. His long dedications are noted for the fulsome and unprincipled flattery in which he seems to have thought himself authorised by the practice of the age to indulge. The critical essays, though written with more carelessness than would now be tolerated in similar productions, embody many sound and valuable opinions on classic authors and subjects connected with polite literature. According to Johnson, Dryden's Essay on Dramatic Poesy' was the first regular and valuable treatise on the art of writing.' It opens with the following graphic and magnificent exordium:
A Sea-fight Heard at a Distance.
It was that memorable day in the first summer of the late war [June 3, 1665] when our navy engaged the Dutch; a day wherein the two most mighty and best appointed fleets which any age had ever seen, disputed the command of the greater half of the globe, the commerce of nations, and the riches of the universe: while these vast floating bodies, on either side, moved against each other in parallel lines, and our countrymen, under the happy command of his Royal Highness [Duke of York, afterwards James II.] went breaking, little by little, into the line of the enemies; the noise of the cannon from both navies reached our ears about the city.* So that all men being alarmed with it, and in a dreadful suspense of the event, which they knew was then deciding, every one went following the sound as his fancy led him; and leaving the town almost empty, some took towards the Park, some cross the river, others down it; all seeking the noise in the depth of silence. Amongst the rest it was the fortune of Eugenius, Crites, Lisideius, and Neander to be in company together. Taking then a barge, which a servant of Lisideius had provided for them, they made haste to shoot the bridge, and left behind them that great fall of waters which hindered them from hearing what they desired: after which having disengaged themselves from many vessels which rode at anchor in the Thames, and almost blocked up the passage towards Greenwich, they ordered the watermen to let fall their oars more gently; and then every one favouring his own curiosity, with a strict silence, it was not long ere they perceived the air to break about them like the noise of distant thunder, or of swallows in a chimney-those little undulations of sound, though almost vanishing before they reached them, yet still seeming to retain somewhat of their first horror which they had betwixt the fleets. After they had attentively listened till such time as the sound, by little and little, went from them, Eugenius, lifting up his head, and taking notice of it, was the first who congratulated to the rest that happy omen of our nation's victory, adding, that we had but this to desire in confirmation of it, that we might hear no more of that noise which was now leaving the English coast.
Scott is as enthusiastic as Johnson in his praise of Dryden's essays and prefaces. The prose of Dryden,' says Sir Walter, may rank with the best in the English language. It is no less of his own formation than his versification; is equally spirited, and equally harmonious. Without the lengthened and pedantic sentences of Clarendon, it is dignified when dignity is becoming, and is lively without the accumulation of strained and absurd allusions and metaphors, which were unfortunately mistaken for wit by many of the author's contem
The engagement took place off the coast near Lowestoft, in Suffolk We took eighteen large Dutch ships, and destroyed fourteen others. The Dutch admiral, Opdam. was blown up, and he and all his erew perished.
poraries.' It is recorded by Malone, that Dryden's prose writings were held in high estimation by Burke, who carefully studied them on account equally of their style and matter, and is thought to have in some degree taken them as the model of his own diction. Dryden himself acknowledged that he had made Tillotson his model. In this saying he must have referred to the easy modern style of the composition. In all other respects, the copy immensely surpasses the model. Besides his Prefaces and Essays, Dryden published two translations from the French-Bonhours' Life of Francis Xavier' (1687), and Du Fresnoy's 'Art of Painting' (1695). The following finely drawn characters of the great Elizabethan dramatists are from the Essay on Dramatic Poesy' (1668):
To begin, then, with Shakspeare. He was the man who, of all modern, and perhaps ancient poets, had the largest and most comprehensive soul. All the images of nature were still present to him, and he drew them not laboriously, but luckily. When he describes anything, you more than see it—you feel it toc. Those who accuse him to have wanted learning, give him the greater commendation. He was naturally learned; he needed not the spectacles of books to read nature; he looked inwards, and found her there. I cannot say he is everywhere alike; were he so, I should do him injury to compare him with the greatest of mankind. He is many times flat, insipid; his comic wit degenerating into clenches, his serious swelling into bombast. But he is always great when some great occasion is presented to him; no man can say he ever had a fit subject for his wit, and did not then raise himself as high above the rest of poets,
Quantum lenta solent inter viburna cupressi. (1)
The consideration of this made Mr. Hales of Eton say, that there was no subject of which any poet ever writ, but he would produce it much better done in Shakspeare; and however others are now generally preferred before him, yet the age wherein he lived, which had contemporaries with him Fletcher and Jonson, never equalled them to him in their esteem. And in the last king's court, when Ben's reputation was at highest, Sir John Suckling, and with him the greater part of the courtiers, set our Shakspeare far above him.
Beaumont and Fletcher.
Beaumont and Fletcher, of whom I am next to speak, had, with the advantage of Shakspeare's wit, which was their precedent, great natural gifts, improved by study; Beaumont especially, being so accurate a judge of plays, that Ben Jonson, while he lived, submitted all his writings to his censure, and, 'tis thought, used his judgment in correcting, if not contriving, all his plots. What value he had for him, appears by the verses he writ to him, and therefore I need speak no farther of it. The first play that brought Fletcher and him in esteem was their Philaster;' for before that they had written two or three very unsuccessfully; as the like is reported of Ben Jonson, before he writ Every Man in his Humour.' Their plots were generally more regular than Shakspeare's, especially those which were made before Beaumont's death; and they understood and imitated the conversation of gentlemen much better; whose wild debaucheries, and quickness of wit in repartees, no poet before them could paint as they have done. Humour, which Ben Jonson derived from particular persons, they made it not their business to describe; they represented all the passions very lively, but above all. love. I am apt to believe the English language in them arrived to its highest perfection: what words have since been taken in, are rather superfluous than ornamental. Their plays are now the most pleasant and frequent entertain
1 Like shrubs when lofty cypresses are near.
ments of the stage; two of theirs being acted through the year, for one of Shakspeare's or Jonson's: the reason is, because there is a certain gaiety in their comedies, and pathos in their more serious plays, which suits generally with all men's humours Shakspeare's language is likewise a little obsolete, and Ben Jonson's wit comes short
As for Jonson, to whose character I am now arrived, if we look upon him while he was himself-for his last plays were but his dotages-I think him the most learned and judicious writer which any theatre ever had. He was a most scvere judge of himself, as well as others. One cannot say he wanted wit, but rather that he was frugal of it. In his works, you find little to retrench or alter. Wit, and language, and humour also in some measure, we had before him; but something of art was wanting to the drama, till he came. He managed his strength to more advantage than any who preceded him. You seldom find him making love in any of his scenes, or endeavouring to move the passions; his genius was too sullen and saturnine to do it gracefully, especially when he knew he came after those who had performed both to Such a height. Humour was his proper sphere; and in that he delighted most to represent mechanic people. He was deeply conversant in the ancients, both Greek and Latin, and he borrowed boldly from them; there is scarce a poet or historian among the Roman authors of those times whom he has not translated in 'Sejanus' and Catiline. But he has done his robberies so openly, that one may see he fears not to be taxed by any law. He invades authors like a monarch; and what would be theft in other poets, is only victory in him. With the spoils of these writers he so represents old Rome to us, in its rites, ceremonies, and customs, that if one of their poets had written either of his tragedies, we had seen less of it than in him. If there was any fault in his language, 'twas that he weaved it too closely and laboriously, in his comedies especially perhaps, too, he did a little too much Romanise our tongue, leaving the words which he translated almost as much Latin as he found them; wherein, though he learnedly followed their language, he did not enough comply with the idiom of ours. If I would compare him with Shakspeare, I must acknowledge him the more correct poet, but Shakspeare the greater wit. Shakspeare was the Homer, or father of our dramatic poets: Jonson was the Virgil, the pattern of elaborate writing; I admire him, but I love Shakspeare. To conclude of him: as he has given us the most correct play, so, in the precepts which he has laid down in his Discoveries,' we have as many and profitable rules for perfecting the stage, as any wherewith the French can furnish us.
Improved Style of Dramatic Dialogue after the Restoration.-From 'Defence of the Epilogue,' &c 1672.
I have always acknowledged the wit of our predecessors with all the veneration which becomes me; but, I am sure, their wit was not that of gentlemen; there was ever somewhat that was ill-bred and clownish in it, and which confessed the conversation of the authors.
And this leads me to the last and greatest advantage of our writing, which proceeds from conversation, In the age wherein those poets lived, there was less of gallantry than in ours; neither did they keep the best company of theirs. Their fortune has been much like that of Epicurus in the retirement of his gardens; to live almost unknown, and to be celebrated after their decease. I cannot find that any of them had been conversant in courts, except Ben Jonson; and his genius lay not so much that way, as to make an improvement by it. Greatness was not then so easy of access, nor conversation so free, as it now is. I cannot, therefore, conceive it any insolence to affirm, that by the knowledge and pattern of their wit who writ before us, and by the advantage of our own conversation, the discourse and raillery of our comedies excel what has been written by them. And this will be denied by none, but some few old fellows who value themselves on their acquaintance with the Black Friars; who, because they saw their plays, would pretend a right to judge ours. .
Now, if any ask me whence it is that our conversation is so much refined, I must freely, and without flattery, ascribe it to the court, and in it, particularly to the king, whose example gives a law to it. His own misfortunes, and the nation's, afforded him an opportunity which is rarely allowed to sovereign princes, I mean of travel
ling, and being conversant in the most polished courts of Europe; and thereby of cultivating a spirit which was formed by nature to receive the impressions of a gallant and generous education. At his return, he found a nation lost as much in barbarism as in rebellion: and as the excellency of his nature forgave the one, so the excellency of his manners reformed the other. The desire of imitating so great a pattern, first awakened the dull and heavy spirits of the English from their natural reservedness; loosened them from their stiff forms of conversation, and made them easy and pliant to each other in discourse. Thus, insensibly, our way of living bccame more free; and the fire of the English wit, which was before stifled under a constrained melancholy way of breeding, began first to display its force by mixing the solidity of our nation with the air and gaiety of our neighbours. This being granted to be true, it would be a wonder if the poets, whose work is imitation, should be the only persons in the three kingdoms who should not receive advantage by it; or if they should not more easily imitate the wit and conversation of the present age than of the past.
Translations of the Ancient Poets.-From Preface to the Second Miscellany,' 1685.
Translation is a kind of drawing after the life; where every one will acknowledge there is a double sort of likeness, a good one and a bad. It is one thing to draw the outlines true, the features like, the proportions exact, the colouring itself perhaps tolerable; and another thing to make all these graceful, by the posture, the shadowings, and chiefly by the spirit which animates the whole. I cannot, without some indignation, look on an ill copy of an excellent original; much less can I behold with patience Virgil, Homer, and some others, whose beauties I have been endeavouring all my life to imitate, so abused, as I may say, to their faces by a botching interpreter. What English readers, unacquainted with Greek or Latin, will believe me or any other man, when we commend these authors, and confess we derive all that is pardonable in us from their fountains, if they take those to be the same poets whom our Oglebies have translated? But I dare assure them that a good poet is no more like himself in a dull translation, than his carcass would be to his living body. There are many who understand Greek and Latin, and yet are ignorant of their mothertongue. The proprieties and delicacies of the English are known to few; it is impossible even for a good wit to understand and practise them without the help of a liberal education, long reading, and digesting of those few good authors we have amongst us; the knowledge of men and manners, the freedom of habitudes and conversation with the best company of both sexes; and, in short, without wearing off the rust which he contracted while he was laying in a stock of learning. Thus difficult it is to understand the purity of English, and critically to discern, not only good writers from bad, and a proper style from a corrupt, but also to distinguish that which is pure in a good author, from that which is vicions and corrupt in him. And for want of all these requisites, or the greatest part of them, most of our ingenious young men take up some cried-up English poet for their model; adore him, and imitate him, as they think, without knowing wherein he is defective, where he is boyish and trifling, wherein either his thoughts are improper to his subject, or his expressions unworthy of his thoughts, or the turn of both is unharmonious.
Thus it appears necessary that a man should be a nice critic in his mother-tongue before he attempts to translate in a foreign language. Neither is it sufficient that he be able to judge of words and style, but he must be a master of them too: he must perfectly understand his author's tongue, and absolutely command his own; so that to be a thorough translator, he must be a thorough poet. Neither is it enough to give his author's sense, in good English, in poetical expressions, and in musical numbers; for, though all these are exceeding difficult to perform, yet there remains a harder task; and it is a secret of which few translators have sufficiently thought. I have already hinted a word or two concerning it; that is the maintaining the character of an author, which distinguishes him from all others, and makes him appear that individual poet whom you would interpret. For example, not only the thoughts, but the style and versification of Virgil and Ovid are very different; yet I see, even in our best poets, who have translated some parts of them, that they have confounded their several talents: and by endeavouring only at the sweetness and harmony of numbers, have made them both so much alike, that if I did not
E. L. v. iii.-4
know the originals, I should never be able to judge by the copies which was Virgil and which was Ovid. It was objected against a late noble painter, that he drew many graceful pictures, but few of them were like. And this happened to him, because he always studied himself more than those who sat to him. In such translators I can easily distinguish the hand which performed the work, but I cannot distinguish their poet from another. Suppose two authors are equally sweet; yet there is as great distinction to be made in sweetness, as in that of sugar, and that of honey. I can make the difference more plain, by giving you-if it be worth knowing-my own method of proceeding, in my translations out of four several poets in this volume-Virgil, Theocritus, Lucretius, and Horace. In each of these, before I undertook them, I considered the genius and distinguishing character of my author. I looked on Virgil as a succinct and grave majestic writer; one who weighed not only every thought, but every word and syllable; who was still aiming to crowd his sense into as narrow a compass as possibly he could; for which reason he is so very figurative, that he requires-I may almost say-a grammar apart to construe him. His verse is everywhere sounding the very thing in your ears whose sense it bears; yet the numbers are perpetually varied, to increase the delight of the reader, so that the same sounds are never repeated twice together. On the contrary, Ovid and Claudian, though they write in styles differing from each other, yet have each of them but one sort of music in their verses. All the versification and little variety of Clandian is included within the compass of four or five lines, and then he begins again in the same tenor, perpetually closing his sense at the end of a verse, and that verse commonly which they call golden, or two substantives and two adjectives, with a verb betwixt them to keep the peace. Ovid, with all his sweetness, has as little variety of numbers and sound as he; he is always, as it were, upon the hand-gallop, and his verse runs upon carpet ground. He avoids, like the other, all synalæplas, or cutting off one vowel when it comes before another in the following word; so that, minding only smoothness, he wants both variety and majesty. But to return to Virgil: though he is smooth where smoothness is required, yet he is so far from affecting it, that he seems rather to disdain it; frequently makes use of synalæphas, and concludes his sense in the middle of his verse. He is everywhere above conceits of epigrammatic wit and gross hyperboles; he maintains majesty in the midst of plainness; he shines, but glares not; and is stately without ambition.
He who excels all other poets in his own language, were it possible to do him right, must appear above them in our tongue, which, as my Lord Roscommon justly observes, approaches nearest to the Roman in its majesty; nearest, indeed, but with a vast interval betwixt them. There is an inimitable grace in Virgil's words, and in them principally consists that beauty which gives so inexpressible a pleasure to him who best understands their force. This diction of his-I must once again say-is never to be copied; and, since it cannot, he will appear but lame in the best translation. The turns of his verse, his breakings, his propriety, his numbers and his gravity, I have as far imitated as the poverty of our language and the hastiness of my performance would allow. I may seem sometimes to have varied from his sense; but I think the greatest variations may be fairly deduced from him; and where leave his commentators, it may be I understand him better; at least I writ without consulting them in many places. But two particular lines in Mezentius and Lausus I cannot so easily excuse. They are, indeed, remotely allied to Virgil's sense; but they are too like the trifling tenderness of Ovid, and were printed before I had considered them enough to alter them. The first of them I have forgotten, and cannot easily retrieve, because the copy is at the press. The second is this:
When Lausus died, I was already slain.
This appears pretty enough, at first sight; but I am convinced, for many reasons,' that the expression is too bold; that Virgil would not have said it, though Ovid would. The reader may pardon it, if he please, for the freeness of the confession; and, instead of that, and the former, admit these two lines, which are more according to the author:
Nor ask I life, nor fought with that design;
Having with much ado got clear of Virgil, I have, in the next place, to consider the genius of Lucretius, whom I have translated more happily in those parts of him