The Literary Salon

A free salon wherein patrons and passers-by may view or contribute ideas on literary and generally intellectual matters. The blog will strive to maintain its commitment to wit, humour and perspicuous analysis.

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Location: Toronto, now Ottawa, Ont, Canada

Thursday, August 18, 2005


I recently procured a long-overdue copy of Plutarch's Lives complete in English (2 vols.). One of my favourite writers being John Dryden, I had to get this particular edition because his name was appended to it ("translated by John Dryden"). I recently read Dryden's translation of the Aeneid, and although it lacks some accuracy, it compensates with rare literary merit and skill (the issue of translations, especially from Latin, will perhaps be a matter for a later post. I know less latin than most babies, but even I can say that most late twentieth century Latin translations into English have little to no literary quality whatever.)
To return to the matter at hand: I was surprised by the find since I had never read about Dryden translating Plutarch in any biographies or biographical sketches. If I translated Plutarch's Lives in its entirety, I would probably make a big deal about it :) Turns out it is usually called "the Dryden translation," which Modern Library (the publisher) considers the same as "translated by John Dryden." As far as I can tell, the work was published in 1683 with a Life of Plutarch by John Dryden; those who had the menial task of translating have remained anonymous: perhaps it was a marketing strategy, but as far as I know, Dryden had not yet attained any significant fame until later.
The issue is further complicated by something I just discovered recently: after Shakespeare, the major English writer about whom we know the least is Dryden. Before the Restoration (1660), we are not sure what he did, except that he had his scholarship at Oxford revoked for reasons unknown. What we know about Dryden for the most part we know through his poems and prose works (for example, his neglected "Dedication to the Aeneis", which is worth a patient read).
Finally, whether Dryden knew Greek is another matter. I will be a Dryden expert someday, but at this stage in my career, I can't say that he did. Frankly, I don't think he did. First, in his various writings, he never cites original Greek lines as other poets and writers do. There is no doubt, by the way, that Pope knew his Greek: not only was he able to retire on the money he made translating Homer, he often sprinkles Greek into his writings. It has been some time since I have read much Dryden (in some cases, years), but I do not ever recall him doing so. Also, as far as I know, he translated very few Greek writers into English: he translated book I of Homer's Iliad and other such authors. One would think that a knowledge of Greek would not go to waste, especially after he fell out of the court's favour following the expulsion of James II.
Perhaps I am the only one who finds this even vaguely interesting; but it is a bit of a mystery to me.
Addendum: I do not believe the massive 21 volume California edition of Dryden's works includes the Plutarch, so there ! :)


Blogger Dr J said...

Actually, we now know considerably more about JD than we used to know. Really, the Major Poet about whom we know the least is (depending on your perspective) either the Beowulf-poet or the Gawain-poet.

9:55 a.m.  
Anonymous RB said...

You're right J. Perhaps I should have said, "the major English poet who's name we know".

1:41 p.m.  

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