I’m finally getting around to reading the copy of Dryden’s translation of the Aeneid (Heritage Press, 1944) which I got as a perk of working at the Occidental College Library circa 1970 — this must be a new record for length of time between acquisition and perusal — and I was struck by this passage in Dryden’s introduction:
I am also bound to tell your Lordship, in my own defense, that, from the beginning of the First Georgic to the end of the last Æneid, I found the difficulty of translation growing on me in every succeeding book: for Virgil, above all poets, had a stock, which I may call almost inexhaustible, of figurative, elegant, and sounding words: I, who inherit but a small portion of his genius, and write in a language so much inferior to the Latin, have found it very painful to vary phrases, when the same sense returns upon me. Even he himself, whether out of necessity or choice, has often express’d the same thing in the same words, and often repeated two or three whole verses which he had us’d before. Words are not so easily coin’d as money; and yet we see that the credit not only of banks but of exchequers, cracks, when little comes in and much goes out. Virgil call’d upon me in every line for some new word, and I paid so long, that I was almost bankrupt; so that the latter end must needs be more burdensome than the beginning or the middle; and, consequently, the Twelfth Æneid cost me double the time of the First and Second. What had become of me, if Virgil had tax’d me with another book? I had certainly been reduc’d to pay the public in hammer’d money, for want of mill’d; that is, in the same old words which I had us’d before; and the receivers must have been forc’d to have taken anything, where there was so little to be had.
The ritual modesty (“I, who inherit but a small portion of his genius”) is par for the course, but I was taken aback by the description of English as “so much inferior” to Latin in terms of vocabulary — of course Latin was seen as the language par excellence, but Dryden was writing in the seventeenth century, when the English vocabulary was exploding and writers were exuberantly coining words right and left. Even odder to me was the assumption that using words again was inherently wrong, that the more you wrote the more new words you had to find. It’s a frame of mind I find hard to enter into, like the idea that an entire drama had to take place within twenty-four hours (a prejudice, inherited from Aristotle, that Dryden also discusses). At any rate, I will soon be enjoying the poetry that has inspired so many in the past three centuries (including Melville, on whose behalf I am finally undertaking the reading).