As Paul Davis points out in his essay “Dryden and the Invention of Augustan Culture” in the Cambridge Companion to John Dryden (Cambridge University Press, 2004), these days there is little interest among Dryden scholars or their readers in examining Dryden’s “engagement with the culture of Augustan Rome,” and Davis calls it “the kiss of death where modern readers are concerned” (75). In fact, in general, there is a relative dearth of recent scholarship devoted to classical influences on Dryden, Augustan or not. A notable exception is Paul Hammond’s Dryden and the Traces of Classical Rome (Oxford University Press, 1999), which, however, as its title indicates, limits itself to consideration of Dryden’s Roman sources. Angiola Volpi’s book with its consideration of not only Roman influences on Dryden, but also Greek — especially Aristophanes, Lucian, and Pindar — is thus all the more valuable. In addition, Volpi draws our attention to Roman influences, particularly those of Silius Italicus, which have hitherto received scant attention.
The book’s tripartite division focuses in Part I (“La parole et l’action: d’ Annus Mirabilis à la Satire”) on the historical poem Annus Mirabilis, where Volpi sees Silius Italicus as a major influence, and on the satirical poems Absalom and Achitophel and Mac Flecknoe, on which Volpi traces particularly Aristophanic influences; in Part II (“Le Triomphe de la Poésie et la Revanche de l’ Artiste”) Volpi examines in particular the poems To the Pious Memory of Mrs Anne Killigrew and Alexander’s Feast or the Power of Musique and shows how they were influenced by the Pindaric epinician ode; Part III (“Création et Traduction”) considers Dryden’s theory and practice of translation.
Concerning Silius Italicus, Volpi’s thesis is that Dryden was extensively influenced by his Punica, especially in the Annus Mirabilis (1667), a poem in which Dryden commemorates the English naval battles with the Dutch in 1666 and the great fire that destroyed London in the same year. In his prefatory dedication to the Annus Mirabilis, Dryden states that Virgil “has been my master in this poem,” yet Volpi marshals evidence that Silius Italicus’ Punica also, in fact, influenced Dryden in myriad ways in this poem in which, from the beginning, a parallel is made between the Anglo-Dutch war and the second Punic War (ll. 17-20). Dryden’s one and only mention of Silius Italicus occurs in the preface to the Annus Mirabilis, but it is a passing reference and somewhat grudging at that: he is, Dryden says, a “worse writer” than Lucan (a verdict with which few would disagree). In fact, Volpi convincingly depicts Dryden as engaged in a kind of tacit rivalry with Silius Italicus (as, indeed, to some extent with Lucan also, imitated by both Silius Italicus and Dryden) as emulator of and heir to Virgil. In the Punica Silius Italicus revived the memory of a triumphant period in Rome’s history, its Punic Wars, to create for the benefit of the Flavian court an optimistic message to counter memories of Rome’s civil war and the negativity of Lucan’s De Bello Civili, “en indiquant au désespoir lucainien la direction salvatrice du renouveau des vertus anciennes” (43). Similarly, in the Annus Mirabilis, Volpi argues, Dryden’s reading of Silius Italicus’ Punica informs his glorification of Charles II with echoes of Silius’ Roman leader Fabius, and his representation of the year in which the English fleet heroically fought the Dutch (read Carthaginians), and weathered the Great Fire of London — fanned by a “Belgian wind” [l. 917], it is depicted as an outside force reminiscent of Hannibal’s fury as evoked by Silius. A one-to-one correlation between the English and the Romans and the Dutch and the Carthaginians cannot be drawn in any simplistic way (witness, for example, the fact that the English rebuilding of their fleet [ll. 573-80] is compared to the work of bees, echoing Virgil’s image of the Carthaginians at work [ Aen. 1.430-6]). Nevertheless, although Volpi does not draw the conclusions as explicitly as one might like, the evidence she furnishes of Dryden’s extensive debts to Silius Italicus provides valuable evidence about Dryden’s use of ancient literature and about the care with which he crafted his image as heir to the classical tradition: eagerly acknowledging his debt to the canonical writers, less eagerly to the mediocre, and yet transmuting both into some of the finest poetry in the English language. Given that Hammond makes no mention at all of Silius Italicus in his book, Volpi provides a valuable contribution in this respect to our understanding of how Dryden used and acknowledged his Roman sources of influence.
With regard to Dryden’s two satirical mock-epics, Absalom and Achitophel (1681) and Mac Flecknoe (1682), Volpi focuses in particular on the theme of the perversion or misuse of language which, as she shows, is embodied by Dryden’s characters Achitophel and Mac Flecknoe: in the one in the form of a demagogue who seeks an unhealthy influence over people by his rhetorical wiles (Achitophel, i.e. the Earl of Shaftesbury), and in the other in the shape of a bad poet (Mac Flecknoe, i.e. Thomas Shadwell). Volpi sees the classical roots of Dryden’s Achitophel — who as the Earl of Shaftesbury fostered a rebellion by the Duke of Monmouth (Absalom) against his father, Charles II — in characters such as Homer’s Thersites and Virgil’s Drances, and the Aristophanic “vendeurs de fausses vérités” (193), Peisetairos, Cleon, and Hyperbolus as well as, more generally, in Aristophanic views on the nature of true eloquence and on the role of the poet, and in Lucianic satire such as the Pseudologista. In Mac Flecknoe Dryden besmirches the literary reputation of his rival, the playwright Shadwell (c. 1642-92), and suggests an ironic parallel between Aeneas’ handing down of Roman empire to Ascanius and the handing down of the empire of dullness from the poet Richard Flecknoe (c. 1600 – c. 1678) to Shadwell. When we are told that “thick fogs, instead of glories” graced Shadwell’s brows and that “lambent dullness played around his face” (ll. 110-11), we are clearly supposed to think, by ironic contrast, of the fire that plays around Ascanius’ face as his glorious destiny is signalled from heaven ( Aen. 2. 682-4), but also, as Volpi points out, of the clouds and nebulousness that are associated with sophistry by Aristophanes.
Dryden continued his meditations on the role of poetry and the poet in two poems, To the Pious Memory of Mrs Anne Killigrew (1686), and Alexander’s Feast or The Power of Music: An Ode in Honour of St Cecilia’s Day (1697), which, as Volpi demonstrates, reflect the aesthetics of Pindar’s epinician odes. Volpi’s thesis is that as an imitator of Pindar, Dryden, unlike his predecessors, such as Abraham Cowley, truly grasped the essence of Pindar’s art and “sa leçon de cohérence et de continuité dans la discontinuité apparente” (247). Whereas Cowley, like other seventeeth-century imitators of Pindar, misinterpreted Pindar’s technique as a quest for the unexpected and as aimed at disorienting the reader by means of digressions and discontinuities arising from a bold manipulation of time and space, Dryden had a much more subtle understanding of Pindar, which is exemplified both in his Pindaric poetry as well as in his pronouncements about Pindaric imitation in his Preface to Sylvae (1685).
As Volpi points out, Juvenal (and to some extent also Persius) occupied a central place in the “paysage littéraire” (361) of seventeenth-century England, France, and Italy. Translations proliferated, among them those of Richard Busby, Dryden’s schoolmaster at Westminster School and a seminal influence on Dryden, who published (1656) an expurgated translation of the satires of Juvenal and Persius for use in his school. Dryden himself published (1692) a collaborative translation of Juvenal’s satires. Volpi shows that Juvenal influenced Dryden not only on the level of his moral thought — as in his poem To My Honour’d Kinsman (1700), a eulogy of Dryden’s cousin, which praises him for his choice of a simple country life, and for his celibacy, generosity, and honesty — but also stylistically: Dryden’s use of the well-turned sententia and alliterative sound-effects can also be attributed to his familiarity with Juvenalian satire.
Among his translations from the classical authors and in addition to Juvenal, Dryden also translated from Horace ( Odes and Epodes), Lucretius, Ovid ( Ars Amatoris, Epistles and Metamorphoses, Persius, Tacitus,Virgil ( Eclogues, Georgics, but, of course, most notably the Aeneid) and Theocritus. Volpi discusses in detail Dryden’s theoretical pronouncements about the practice of translation, including his oft-quoted recognition in the Preface to Ovid’s Epistles of three different approaches to translation: “First, that of Metaphrase, of turning an Author word by word, and Line by Line, from one Language into another . . . 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 amplyfied, but not alter’d . . . 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.” Of these three modes of translation, Dryden firmly elected the second. So imbued was Dryden’s poetry with the influences of classical writers that on occasion, as Volpi shows, Dryden actually incorporated into his translations echoes of his own work which had no doubt been influenced by the same classical models in the first place, a practice that Volpi calls “auto-imitation.”
Angiola Volpi’s book is not for the casual or undetermined reader. As a camera-ready reproduction of a dissertation, and at 600 pages long, it has no indices of any kind, not even an index locorum (and, incidentally, numerous typographical errors.) It has, however, an excellent and exhaustive bibliography. The book assumes a thorough knowledge of Dryden’s life, education, and work, his literary contemporaries, and seventeenth-century English politics. Its somewhat tired rhetorical style quickly palls. That said, however, this is an erudite and original contribution to scholarship on John Dryden’s life-long dialogue, as a poet and critic, with the classical writers. As such it is very welcome.