The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.
§ 30. Translations: Fables Ancient and Modern
The freedom which Dryden had assumed as a translator of the Roman poets he carried a step further in the reproductions of Chaucer and of Chaucer’s frequent source, Boccaccio, which were not published till two months (or rather less) before his death. They were accompanied by versions of the first book of the Iliad and of certain parts of the Metamorphoses, and some original poems; and the whole volume, with a preface dated 1699, has the curious title Fables, Ancient and Modern. Dryden earned the gratitude of all lovers of English literature, when, near the close of his brilliant career, and after recurring to the classical exemplars of his youth, he turned to “our old English poet,” Chaucer. He describes himself in the preface as having been moved by the thought that there was much in Chaucer (it was certainly not the noblest or the raciest elements in his genius) in which he resembled Ovid. But he also observes that, of the great English poets who had found no immediate successor in their insight into the poetic genius of our language, the catena Milton-Spenser-Chaucer was closely linked, and that, in going back to Chaucer, he went back to one whom he accounted the first great writer in English poetical literature. For the sake of the spirit of this tribute, worthy alike of him who paid and of him who received it, Dryden may readily be forgiven some of the blemishes (if they be justly deemed such) in the execution of his task. In a few instances (far fewer than are to be found in the earlier translations), effects are heightened which there was no reason for heightening, and turns of phrase are introduced incompatible not so much with the dignity as with the natural simplicity of thought (naïveté) characteristic of all that Chaucer wrote. (Curiously enough, this criticism, if just, is not applicable to the tales from Boccaccio, who was anything but naïf.) It has been cleverly said that Dryden “scrubbed up” Chaucer—a process which suits fine old plate, but not the total effect of a beautiful old house. The amplifications which Dryden openly permitted himself it would be begging the question to condemn as such; on the other hand, they are not necessarily to be regarded as additional beauties. The most extraordinary, as it is the most extensive, addition is the tag to the version of the exquisite “Character of a Good Parson,” which seems to have been made with the twofold purpose of proving him a nonjuror, and of pointing out that he was the reverse of a type of parsons and priests in general.