In his essay "Discourses on Satire and Epic Poetry," John Dryden asserts that his translations of Persius and Juvenal were intended
... for the pleasure and entertainment of those gentlemen and ladies, who tho' they are not scholars, are not ignorant: persons of good sense, who not having been conversant in the original, or at least not having made Latin verse so much their business as to be critics in it, would be glad to find if the wit of our two great authors be answerable to their fame and reputation in the world.
The English poet certainly adheres to this "populist" principle in his rendition of the Aeneid, steering, to use Dryden's own words, "betwixt the two extremes of paraphrase and literal translation." Cast in vigorous heroic verse, Dryden's translation of the Vergilian epic (published in 1697) constitutes a dialogue between the Age of Augustus and the England in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution. Through this translation the poet familiarizes his reader with the contents of the epic while effectively imposing upon Vergil a modernized and hence (for Dryden's audience) more comprehensible frame of reference. Indeed, the translator's proclivity for interpretation and elucidation is the driving force behind Dryden's rendering of the Aeneid. He imparts to his work not only an "unabated spirit," as one of his encomiasts has put it, but also an endless string of interpretative readings intended to shed light on Vergil's many ambiguities. Certainly, Dryden's interpretations of the Vergilian text are sometimes far-fetched, occasionally even expressing notions unlikely to have occurred to the great Mantuan in his wildest dream. And yet, Dryden's hermeneutic and, in many ways, unique treatment of the epic gave rise to a text that might best be described as a "running commentary" on the Aeneid, a commentary that simultaneously, as per Dr. Johnson, "keeps the mind in pleasant captivity" and reevaluates the Aeneid on aesthetic, ideological and philosophical grounds.
Dryden's translation is difficult to fully comprehend without considering it in the context of late seventeenth century culture and values. This historical embeddedness is especially conspicuous in his portrayal of Aeneas. In Dryden's hands, Aeneas turns into a hero whose fate - as both Paul Hammond and Richard Thomas articulate - is aligned with that of the exiled Catholic king James II. This alignment is already apparent in the opening lines of the translation: ".the Man I sing, who., expell'd and exil'd [Dryden's rather suggestive amplification of Vergil's profugus], left the Trojan shore.." At the same time, Aeneas is recast according to a notion of heroism that privileges unwavering courage, often neutralizing Vergil's own portrayal of the Trojan prince. Thus, for, example, during Aeneas' first appearance in the epic, after the storm breaks out, Dryden's Aeneas is "struck with unusual fright" (l. 135), which loosely translates Vergil's extemplo Aeneae solvuntur frigore membra (Aen. 1.92). The use of the adjective "unusual" here suggests that Dryden is taking pains to project an image of Aeneas as a hero who is typically beyond the reach of fear.
If Dryden's Aeneas is, for the most part, an essentially unambiguous figure, his Dido is a much more complex persona, a combination of Vergilian stereoscopic vision with Dryden's own subtle "reading" of her character. To be sure, Dryden's attitude toward Dido is not unequivocal. In his "Dedication of the Aeneid," by way of justifying Aeneas's departure from Carthage, Dryden comments on the hero's parting words to Dido - neque in haec foedera veni, etc. (Aen. 4.339) - in strikingly ironic fashion. This, according to Dryden, is what Aeneas essentially means by his response to Dido's rebukes:
'I made no such bargain with you at our marriage, to live always drudging on at Carthage: my business was Italy; and I never made a secret of it. If I took my pleasure, had not you your share of it? I leave you free, at my departure, to comfort yourself with the next stranger who happens to be shipwrecked on your coast. Be as kind a hostess as you have been to me; and you can never fail of another husband. In the meantime, I call the Gods to witness, that I leave your shore unwillingly..' This is the effect of what he saith, when it is dishonored out of Latin verse into Latin prose.
In his "dishonored" prosaic exegesis, Dryden, elaborating on Aeneas's speech, gives the Trojan hero absolution and puts the blame for his departure on the gods. As the translator claims: ". Jupiter is better able to bear the blame, than either Vergil or Aeneas."
Nonetheless, this ironic stance and perhaps even mocking tone finds no place in his poetic translation. An anonymous contemporary reader of Dryden's Aeneid summed up the affair between Aeneas and Dido as follows:
O how I see thee in soft Scenes of Love, / Renew those Passions he alone could move! / Here Cupid's Charms are with new Art exprest, / And pale Eliza [Dido] leaves her peaceful rest: / Leaves her Elisium, as if glad to live, / To Love, and Wish, to Sigh, Despair and Grieve, / And Die again for him that would again deceive.
This enthusiastic reader interprets the liaison between the two characters in terms of a contemporary romantic relationship, clearly sympathizing with the Carthaginian queen and putting the blame on Aeneas for its dissolution. Such a reading is rooted in a well-established tradition that goes back to Ovid's Heroides and that was in vogue in Dryden's time. Indeed, the English poet frequently pays obeisance to the cultural codes of his age, as, for example, in his rendition of the first encounter between the Carthaginian queen and Aeneas. He translates Dido's initial reaction to the appearance of Aeneas (obstipuit primo aspectu Sidonia Dido, / casu deinde viri tanto, Aen. 1.613-614) as follows:
The Tyrian Queen stood fix'd upon his Face, / Pleas'd with his motions, ravish'd with his grace: / Admir'd his Fortunes, more admir'd the Man; / Then recollected stood.
Here, as Richard Morton observes, Dryden "significantly alters the Vergilian focus" by portraying love in a manner more appropriate to the Restoration court than to the Augustan empire, "with gender roles exquisitely observed." This modernized reading goes hand in hand with Dryden's constant emphasis of Dido's vulnerability. The theme of Dido as a victim of Aeneas and of the gods is persistent in Books I and IV; in fact, the development of this motif begins with the first mention of Dido by Venus in Book I. Here, Dryden rewrites Vergil's magno miserae dilectus amore (Aen. 1.344) as "and either heart / At once was wounded with an equal dart". If Vergil portrays Dido as a woman who actively loves, Dryden, using a contemporary metaphor for falling in love, describes both Dido and Sychaeus equally as victims of love. In the context of Aeneid Book I, Dido's love for Sychaeus, as Dryden presents it, foreshadows the wound that she receives from Cupid and her passion for Aeneas, as well as the tragic consequences of their affair.
Though he clearly adapted his Aeneid to the tastes and expectations of his audience, Dryden was also well versed in Latin and doubtless aware of the chief Roman values embedded in Vergil's poem. Not the least important of these values, pietas, figures prominently in Dryden's rendering. In the "Dedication," Dryden underscores the importance of pietas for understanding the character of Aeneas:
Piety. takes place of all, as the chief part of his [Aeneas's] character; and the word in Latin is more full than it can possibly be expressed in any modern language; for there it comprehends not only devotion to the gods, but filial love, and tender affection to relations of all sorts.
Paul Hammond observes that the adjective "pious" - which in Dryden's Aeneid commonly translates Vergil's pius - is frequently used by the poet "at a moment when human beings are trying to fulfill their basic human duties in the face of inexplicably hostile supernatural forces." One of the examples that Hammond provides is Laocoon running "with pious Haste" to help his sons in their struggle against the sea serpents. When it comes to Aeneas, Dryden outdoes Vergil in the lavishness with which he utilizes this epithet. Moreover, on three occasions he links the adjective pious to Dido, once in Book I and twice in Book IV. In the first passage, quite in keeping with Vergil's text, Aeneas addresses Dido: "You, who your pious Offices employ / To save the Reliques of abandon'd Troy". Dryden seems to have deliberately transported the adjective pios from the adjacent lines (di tibi, si qua pios respectant numina, si quid / usquam iustitia est et mens sibi conscia recti, / praemia digna ferant, Aen. 1.603-605) to underscore Dido's pietas. In Book IV, rendering the apostrophe in Aen. 4.65-67 (heu, vatum ignarae mentes! Quid vota furentem, / quid delubra iuvant? Est mollis flamma medullas interea et tacitum vivit sub pectore vulnus), Dryden translates as follows, condensing Vergil considerably: "What Priestly Rites, alas! What Pious Art, / What Vows avail to cure a bleeding Heart!" Here pious refers to the rites administered by Dido. In the third instance, the adjective is used in Dido's reply to Aeneas, following her bluntly Epicurean remark "as if the peaceful State / Of Heav'nly Poe'rs were touch'd with Humane Fate" (scilicet is superis labor est, ea cura quietos / solicitat, ll. 379-380):
'Yet if the Heav'ns will hear my pious Vow, / The faithless Waves, not half so false as thou; / or secret Sands, shall Sepulchers afford / To thy proud Vessels, and their perjur'd Lord' (spero equidem mediis, si quid pia numina possunt, / supplicia hausurum scopulis et nomine Dido / saepe vocaturum, Aen. 4.382-384)
Dryden's interpretation of Vergil's text in this passage is rather drastic; it is not the summoned numina, but Dido's own words that are qualified with the adjective pia. These are certainly her words: Dido, whom in his "Dedication" Dryden calls "an infidel," clearly and probably mistakenly believes that pietas is on her side, whereas, according to her, Aeneas is faithless and therefore deserves the curse. And yet Dryden's transposition of the epithet, along with the other two uses of the word, prompts the reader to take Dido's self-avowed pietas seriously and even to sympathize with the tragedy of the Carthaginian queen. By setting Dido's pietas against that of Aeneas, the English poet intentionally juxtaposes these two characters.
Along the same lines, I would like to recap Hammond's observation that in Dryden's Aeneid the adjective "pious" is frequently used to flag many predicaments experienced by the characters of the epic. If Hammond's idea is applied to Dryden's treatment of the Carthaginian queen, the inevitable question arises: when Dido is qualified as "pious," is this just a straightforward, unblinking expression of praise on the part of the English poet, or rather, does Dryden, by way of aligning Dido with her husband/lover, endeavor to contemplate the "insecurity" of pietas in the context of the Aeneid, pietas which is of little or no avail to its possessors? In other words, does Dryden, in his rather provocative manner, attempt to articulate that other, pessimistic reading of the Roman epic?