The 12+12 Books of Christmas #3

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Every time someone asks me about my favorite authors I include John Dryden (1631-1700) in my list. Not many people outside English departments read him. They should, because to me he seems like one of the first people in print who comes across as an agonizingly self-aware modern human being. This can be seen in his critical prose, but he was much more than a critic.

He wrote plays and poetry as the Poet Laureate. When he was kicked out of the court, he did translations to earn a living. One of these, the Roman epic Aeneid, is in my opinion one of his greatest achievements. When I say that, I refer to his entire oeuvre–poetry, criticism, drama. I’ve read most of Dryden’s works and have not found anything that surpasses his translation of Virgil. The book is a translation, but we have to remember that translation was viewed quite differently in Dryden’s time. We can read the poem as Dryden’s version of the Aeneid. However we look at it, it’s an incredible and often overlooked piece of work.

I’ve loved ancient Greek and Roman legends since I was a boy. And it’s not because I was a snobbish brat. That came much later. Take this description of a battle from Book 11 of Dryden’s Aeneid where our heroes and heroines do what they do best:

He seems to follow, and she seems to fly.
But in a narrower Ring she makes the Race;
And then he flies, and she pursues the Chase.
Gath’ring at length on her deluded Foe,
She swings her Axe, and rises to the Blow:
Full on the helm behind, with such a sway
The Weapon falls, the riven Steel gives way:
He groans, he roars, he sues in vain for Grace;
Brains, mingled with his Blood, besmear his Face.

That scene is metal, pure and simple. Axes, helmets, battles, Amazons, blood and brains! The seventeenth century didn’t have Manowar, Yngwie Malmsteen, Sleep or even Black Sabbath, but they had this.

 

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