Verse > John Dryden > Poems
John Dryden (1631–1700).  The Poems of John Dryden.  1913.
Preface concerning Ovid’s Epistles
  The Life 1 of Ovid being already written in our language before the Translation of his Metamorphoses, I will not presume so far upon myself, to think I can add any thing to Mr. Sandys his undertaking. The English reader may there be satisfied, that he flourish’d in the reign of Augustus Cæsar; that he was Extracted from an Ancient Family of Roman Knights; that he was born to the Inheritance of a Splendid Fortune; that he was design’d to the Study of the Law, and had made considerable progress in it, before he quitted that Profession, for this of Poetry, to which he was more naturally form’d. The Cause of his Banishment is unknown; because he was himself unwilling further to provoke the Emperour, by ascribing it to any other reason, than what was pretended by Augustus, which was, the Lasciviousness of his Elegies, and his Art of Love. ’Tis true, they are not to be Excus’d in the severity of Manners, as being able to corrupt a larger Empire, if there were any, than that of Rome: yet this may be said in behalf of Ovid, that no man has ever treated the Passion of Love with so much Delicacy of thought, and of Expression, or search’d into the nature of it more Philosophically than he. And the Emperour, who condemn’d him, had as little reason as another Man to punish that fault with so much severity, if at least he were the Author of a certain Epigram, which is ascrib’d to him, relating to the cause of the first Civil War betwixt himself and Mark Anthony the triumvir, which is more fulsome than any passage I have met with in our Poet. To pass by the naked familiarity of his Expressions to Horace, which are cited in that Author’s Life, I need only mention one notorious Act of his, in taking Livia to his Bed, when she was not only Married, but with Child by her Husband, then living. But Deeds, it seems, may be Justified by Arbitrary Pow’r, when words are question’d in a Poet. There is another ghess of the Grammarians, as far from truth as the first from Reason; they will have him Banish’d for some favours, which, they say, he receiv’d from Julia, the Daughter of Augustus, whom they think he Celebrates under the Name of Corinna in his Elegies. But he, who will observe the Verses which are made to that Mistress, may gather from the whole contexture of them, that Corinna was not a Woman of the highest Quality. If Julia were then Married to Agrippa, why should our Poet make his Petition to Isis, for her safe delivery, and afterwards Condole her Miscarriage; which, for ought he knew, might be by her own Husband? Or indeed how durst he be so bold to make the least discovery of such a Crime, which was no less than Capital, especially Committed against a Person of Agrippa’s Rank? Or, if it were before her Marriage, he would surely have been more discreet, than to have published an Accident which must have been fatal to them both. But what most Confirms me against this Opinion is, that Ovid himself complains, that the true Person of Corinna was found out by the Fame of his Verses to her: which if it had been Julia, he durst not have own’d; and, besides, an immediate punishment must have follow’d. He seems himself more truly to have touch’d at the Cause of his Exile in those obscure verses,
        Cur aliquid vidi, cur noxia Lumina feci? &c.
Namely, that he had either seen, or was Conscious to somewhat, which had procur’d him his disgrace. But neither am I satisfied, that this was the Incest of the Emperour with his own Daughter: for Augustus was of a nature too vindicative, to have contented himself with so small a Revenge, or so unsafe to himself, as that of simple Banishment, and would certainly have secur’d his Crimes from publick notice, by the death of him who was witness to them. Neither have Histories given us any sight into such an Action of this Emperour: nor would he (the greatest Politician of his time,) in all probability, have manag’d his Crimes with so little secrecie, as not to shun the Observation of any man. It seems more probable, that Ovid was either the confident of some other passion, or that he had stumbled by some inadvertency upon the privacies of Livia, and seen her in a Bath: For the words
        Sine veste Dianam,
agree better with Livia, who had the Fame of Chastity, than with either of the Julia’s, who were both noted of incontinency. The first Verses, which were made by him in his Youth, and recited publickly, according to the Custom, were, as he himself assures us, to Corinna: his Banishment happen’d not till the age of fifty: from which it may be deduced, with probability enough, that the love of Corinna did not occasion it: Nay, he tells us plainly, that his offence was that of Errour only, not of wickedness; and in the same Paper of Verses also, that the cause was notoriously known at Rome, though it be left so obscure to after ages.
  But to leave Conjectures on a Subject so incertain, and to write somewhat more Authentick of this Poet: That he frequented the Court of Augustus, and was well receiv’d in it, is most undoubted: all his Poems bear the Character of a Court, and appear to be written, as the French call it, Cavalierement: add to this, that the Titles of many of his Elegies, and more of his Letters in his Banishment, are address’d to persons well known to us, even at this distance, to have been considerable in that Court.  2
  Nor was his acquaintance less with the famous Poets of his age, than with the Noble men and Ladies; he tells you himself, in a particular account of his own Life, that Macer, Horace, Tibullus, Propertius, and many others of them, were his familiar Friends, and that some of them communicated their Writings to him; but that he had only seen Virgil.  3
  If the imitation of Nature be the business of a Poet, I know no Author who can justly be compar’d with ours, especially in the Description of the passions. And, to prove this, I shall need no other Judges than the generality of his Readers; for all Passions being inborn with us, we are almost equally Judges, when we are concern’d in the representation of them: Now I will appeal to any man, who has read this Poet, whether he find not the natural Emotion of the same Passion in himself, which the Poet describes in his feigned persons? His thoughts, which are the Pictures and results of those Passions, are generally such as naturally arise from those disorderly Motions of our Spirits. Yet, not to speak too partially in his behalf, I will confess, that the Copiousness of his Wit was such, that he often writ too pointedly for his Subject, and made his persons speak more Eloquently than the violence of their Passion would admit; so that he is frequently witty out of season: leaving the imitation of Nature, and the cooler dictates of his Judgment, for the false applause of Fancy. Yet he seems to have found out this Imperfection in his riper age: for why else should he complain, that his Metamorphosis was left unfinished? Nothing sure can be added to the Wit of that Poem, or of the rest: but many things ought to have been retrenched; which I suppose would have been the business of his Age, if his Misfortunes had not come too fast upon him. But take him uncorrected, as he is transmitted to us, and it must be acknowledged, in spite of his Dutch Friends, the Commentators, even of Julius Scaliger himself, that Seneca’s Censure will stand good against him;
        Nescivit quod bene cessit relinquere;
he never knew how to give over, when he had done well, but continually varying the same sence an hundred ways, and taking up in another place, what he had more than enough inculcated before, he sometimes cloys his Readers instead of satisfying them; and gives occasion to his Translators, who dare not cover him, to blush at the nakedness of their Father. This then is the Allay of Ovid’s writing, which is sufficiently recompenc’d by his other Excellencies: nay, this very fault is not without its Beauties; for the most severe Censor cannot but be pleas’d with the prodigality of his Wit, though at the same time he could have wish’d that the Master of it had been a better Manager. Every thing which he does, becomes him; and, if sometimes he appear too gay, yet there is a secret gracefulness of youth, which accompanies his Writings, though the stay’dness and sobriety of Age be wanting. In the most material part, which is the conduct, ’tis certain that he seldom has miscarried; for if his Elegies be compared with those of Tibullus and Propertius his Contemporaries, it will be found, that those Poets seldom design’d before they writ; And though the language of Tibullus be more polish’d, and the Learning of Propertius, especially in his Fourth Book, more set out to ostentation; Yet their common practice was to look no further before them than the next Line; whence it will inevitably follow, that they can drive to no certain point, but ramble from one Subject to another, and conclude with somewhat, which is not of a piece with their beginning:
        Purpureus, latè qui splendeat, unus et alter
Assuitur pannus, as Horace says,
though the Verses are Golden, they are but patch’d into the Garment. But our Poet has always the Goal in his Eye, which directs him in his Race: some Beautiful design, which he first establishes, and then contrives the means, which will naturally conduct it to his end. This will be Evident to Judicious Readers in this work of his Epistles of which somewhat, at least in general, will be expected.
  The Title of them in our late Editions is Epistolæ Heroidum, the Letters of the Heroines. But Heinsius has judg’d more truly, that the Inscription of our Author was barely, Epistles; which he concludes from his cited Verses, where Ovid asserts this Work as his own Invention, and not borrow’d from the Greeks, whom (as the Masters of their Learning) the Romans usually did imitate. But it appears not from their writers, that any of the Grecians ever touch’d upon this way, which our Poet therefore justly has vindicated to himself. I quarrel not at the word Heroidum, because ’tis used by Ovid in his Art of Love:
        Jupiter ad veteres supplex Heroidas ibat.
But, sure, he cou’d not be guilty of such an over-sight, to call his Work by the Name of Heroines when there are divers Men, or Heroes, as, namely, Paris, Leander, and Acontius, joyned in it. Except Sabinus, who writ some Answers to Ovid’s Letters,
        (Quam celer è toto rediit meus orbe Sabinus)
I remember not any of the Romans, who have treated this Subject, save only Propertius, and that but once, in his Epistle of Arethusa to Lycotas, which is written so near the style of Ovid that it seems to be but an Imitation; and therefore ought not to defraud our Poet of the Glor of his Invention.
  Concerning this work of the Epistles, I shall content my self to observe these few particulars: first, that they are generally granted to be the most perfect piece of Ovid, and that the Style of them is tenderly Passionate and Courtly; two properties well agreeing with the Persons, which were Heroines and Lovers. Yet where the Characters were lower, as in Œnone, and Herro, he has kept close to Nature, in drawing his Images after a Country Life, though, perhaps, has Romanized his Grecian Dames too much, and made them speak, sometimes, as if they had been born in the City of Rome, and under the Empire of Augustus. There seems to be no great variety in the particular Subjects which he has chosen; Most of the Epistles being written from Ladies, who were forsaken by their Lovers: Which is the reason that many of the same thoughts come back upon us in divers Letters: But of the general Character of Women, which is Modesty, he has taken a most becoming care; for his amorous Expressions go no further than vertue may allow, and therefore may be read, as he intended them, by Matrons without a blush.  6
  Thus much concerning the Poet: Whom you find translated by divers hands, that you may at least have that variety in the English, which the Subject denied to the Author of the Latine. 2 It remains that I should say somewhat of Poetical Translations in general, and give my Opinion (with submission to better Judgments) which way of Version seems to be most proper.  7
  All Translation, I suppose, may be reduced to these three heads:  8
  First, that of Metaphrase, or turning an Author Word by Word, and Line by Line, from one Language into another Thus, or near this manner, was Horace his Art of Poetry translated by Ben Johnson. The second way is that of Paraphrase, or Translation with Latitude, where the Author is kept in view by the Translator, so as never to be lost, but his words are not so strictly follow’d as his sense; and that too is admitted to be amplified, but not alter’d. Such is Mr. Waller’s Translation of Virgil’s Fourth Æneid. The Third way is that of Imitation, where the Translator (if now he has not lost that Name) assumes the liberty, not only to vary from the words and sence, but to forsake them both as he sees occasion; and taking only some general hints from the Original, to run division on the Ground-work, as he pleases. Such is Mr. Cowley’s practice in turning two Odes of Pindar, and one of Horace, into English.  9
  Concerning the First of these Methods, our Master Horace has given us this caution,
        Nec verbum verbo curabis reddere, fidus
  Nor word for word too faithfully translate. As the Earl of Roscommon has excellently render’d it. Too faithfully is indeed pedantically: ’Tis a faith, like that which proceeds from Superstition, blind and zealous. Take it in the expression of Sir John Denham to Sir Rich. Fanshaw, on his Version of the Pastor Fido.
        That servile path thou nobly do’st decline,
Of tracing Word by Word, and Line by Line.
A new and nobler way thou do’st pursue,
To make Translations and Translators too:
They but preserve the Ashes, thou the Flame,
True to his Sense, but truer to his Fame.
  ’Tis almost impossible to Translate verbally, and well, at the same time; for the Latin (a most Severe and Compendious Language) often expresses that in one word, which either the Barbarity, or the narrowness of modern Tongues cannot supply in more. ’Tis frequent also that the Conceit is couch’d in some Expression, which will be lost in English.
        Atque iidem Venti vela fidemque ferent.
What Poet of our Nation is so happy as to express this thought Literally in English, and to strike Wit, or almost Sense, out of it?
  In short, the Verbal Copier is incumber’d with so many difficulties at once, that he can never disentangle himself from all. He is to consider, at the same time, the thought of his Author, and his words, and to find out the Counterpart to each in another Language; And besides this he is to confine himself to the compass of Numbers, and the Slavery of Rhime. ’Tis much like dancing on Ropes with fetter’d Legs: A man can shun a fall by using Caution, but the gracefulness of Motion is not to be expected: And when we have said the best of it, ’tis but a foolish Task; for no sober man would put himself into a danger for the Applause of scaping without breaking his Neck. We see Ben. Johnson could not avoid obscurity in his literal Translation of Horace, attempted in the same compass of Lines: nay Horace himself could scarce have done it to a Greek Poet:
        Brevis esse laboro, obscurus fio.
either perspicuity or gracefulness will frequently be wanting. Horace has, indeed, avoided both these Rocks in his translation of the three first Lines of Homers. Odysses, which he has Contracted into two.

        Dic mihi, Musa, Virum, captæ post tempora Trojæ
Qui mores hominum multorum vidit & urbes.
Muse, speak the man, who, since the Siege of Troy,
So many Towns, such Change of Manners saw.
Earl of Rosc.    
  But then the sufferings of Ulysses, which are a Considerable part of that Sentence, are omitted:
  The Consideration of these difficulties, in a servile, literal, Translation, not long since made two of our Famous Wits, Sir John Denham, and Mr. Cowley, to contrive another way of turning Authors into our Tongue, called, by the latter of them, Imitation. As they were Friends, I suppose they communicated their thoughts on this Subject to each other; and, therefore, their reasons for it are little different: though the practice of one is much more moderate. I take Imitation of an Author, in their sense, to be an Endeavour of a later Poet to write like one, who has written before him, on the same Subject: that is, not to translate his Words, or to be Confin’d to his Sense, but only to set him as a Pattern, and to write, as he supposes that Author would have done, had he liv’d in our Age, and in our Country. Yet I dare not say that either of them have carried this libertine way of rendring Authors (as Mr. Cowley calls it) so far as my Definition reaches. For in the Pindarick Odes, the Customs and Ceremonies of Ancient Greece are still preserv’d: but I know not what mischief may arise hereafter from the Example of such an innovation, when Writers of unequal parts to him, shall imitate so bold an undertaking; to add and to diminish what we please, which is the way avow’d by him, ought only to be granted to Mr. Cowley, and that too only in his translation of Pindar; because he alone was able to make him amends, by giving him better of his own, when ever he refus’d his Authors thoughts. Pindar is generally known to be a dark Writer, to want Connexion, (I mean as to our understanding) to soar out of sight, and leave his Reader at a Gaze. So wild and ungovernable a Poet cannot be translated literally, his Genius is too strong to bear a Chain, and, Sampson-like, 3 he shakes it off: A Genius so elevated and unconfin’d as Mr. Cowley’s was but necessary to make Pindar speak English, and that was to be perform’d by no other way than Imitation. But if Virgil, or Ovid, or any regular intelligible Authors be thus us’d, ’tis no longer to be called their work, when neither the thoughts nor words are drawn from the Original: but instead of them there is something new produced, which is almost the Creation of another hand. By this way ’tis true, somewhat that is Excellent may be invented, perhaps more Excellent than the first design; though Virgil must be still excepted, when that perhaps takes place: Yet he who is inquisitive to know an Authors thoughts, will be disappointed in his expectation. And ’tis not always that a man will be contented to have a Present made him, when he expects the payment of a Debt. To state it fairly, Imitation of an Author is the most advantageous way for a Translator to shew himself, but the greatest wrong which can be done to the Memory and Reputation of the dead. Sir John Denham (who advis’d more Liberty than he took himself,) gives this Reason for his innovation, in his admirable Preface before the Translation of the second Æneid. Poetry is of so subtil a Spirit, that, in pouring out of one Language into another, it will all Evaporate; and, if a new Spirit be not added in the transfusion, there will remain nothing but a Caput Mortuum. I confess this Argument holds good against a literal Translation; but who defends it? Imitation and verbal Version are, in my opinion, the two extreams, which ought to be avoided: and therefore when I have propos’d the mean betwixt them, it will be seen how far his Argument will reach.  15
  No man is capable of translating Poetry, who, besides a Genius to that Art, is not a Master both of his Authors Language, and of his own: Nor must we understand the Language only of the Poet, but his particular turn of Thoughts and of Expression, which are the Characters that distinguish, and as it were individuate him from all other Writers. When we are come thus far, ’tis time to look into our selves, to conform our Genius to his, to give his thought either the same turn, if our tongue will bear it, or, if not, to vary but the dress, not to alter or destroy the substance. The like Care must be taken of the more outward Ornaments, the Words; when they appear (which is but seldom) literally graceful, it were an injury to the Author that they should be chang’d: But since every Language is so full of its own proprities, that what is Beautiful in one, is often Barbarous, nay sometimes Nonsense, in another, it would be unreasonable to limit a Translator to the narrow compass of his Author’s Words: ’tis enough if he chuse out some Expression which does not vitiate the Sense. I suppose he may stretch his Chain to such a Latitude, but, by innovation of thoughts, methinks he breaks it. By this means the Spirit of an Author may be transfus’d, and yet not lost: and thus ’tis plain, that the reason alledged by Sir John Denham has no farther force than to Expression: For thought, if it be translated truly, cannot be lost in another Language; but the words that convey it to our apprehension (which are the Image and Ornament of that thought) may be so ill chosen as to make it appear in an unhandsome dress, and rob it of its native Lustre. There is therefore a Liberty to be allowed for the Expression; neither is it necessary that Words and Lines should be confin’d to the measure of their Original. The sense of an Author, generally speaking, is to be Sacred and Inviolable. If the Fancy of Ovid be luxuriant, ’tis his character to be so; and if I retrench it, he is no longer Ovid. It will be replied, that he receives advantage by this lopping of his superfluous Branches; but I rejoyn, that a Translator has no such Right: when a Painter Copies from the life, I suppose he has no priviledge to alter Features, and Lineaments, under pretence that his Picture will look better: perhaps the Face, which he has drawn, would be more Exact, if the Eyes, or Nose were alter’d; but ’tis his business to make it resemble the Original. In two Cases only there may a seeming difficulty arise; that is, if the thought be notoriously trivial, or dishonest: But the same Answer will serve for both, that then they ought not to be Translated:
                        ——— Et quæ
Desperes tractata nitescere posse, relinquas.
  Thus I have ventur’d to give my Opinion on this Subject against the Authority of two great men, but I hope without offence to either of their Memories, for I both lov’d them living, and reverence them now they are dead. But if, after what I have urg’d, it be thought by better Judges, that the praise of a Translation consists in adding new Beauties to the piece, thereby to recompense the loss which it sustains by change of Language, I shall be willing to be taught better, and to recant. In the mean time, it seems to me, that the true reason, why we have so few versions which are tolerable, is not from the too close pursuing of the Authors Sence, but because there are so few, who have all the Talents, which are requisite for Translation, and that there is so little Praise, and so small Encouragement, for so considerable a part of Learning.  17
  To apply in short, what has been said, to this present Work, the Reader will here find most of the Translations, with some little Latitude or variation from the Author’s Sence: That of Œnone to Paris, is in Mr. Cowley’s way of Imitation only. I was desir’d to say that the Author who is of the Fair Sex, understood not Latine. But if she does not, I am afraid she has given us occasion to be asham’d who do.  18
  For my own part I am ready to acknowledge that I have transgress’d the Rules which I have given; and taken more liberty than a just Translation will allow. But so many Gentlemen whose Wit and Learning are well known being joyn’d in it, I doubt not but that their Excellencies will make you ample Satisfaction for my Errours.  19
Note 1. Text of 1683. Some passages are omitted in several editions. [back]
Note 2. Whom you find … of the Latine] This passage is omitted by some editors. [back]
Note 3. Sampson-like] Sampson like 1683. [back]

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