The publication of a new translation of Virgil’s Æneid is a thing which may not unreasonably be thought to require a few prefatory words of excuse. It is true that the ground has not been pre-occupied of late years by any version which has attained any great degree of popularity. Previous to the present century, the extant translations of the Æneid outnumbered those of the Iliad and Odyssey in the proportion of nearly three to one: now, while the press is sending forth version after version of one or both of the Homeric poems, scarcely any one thinks it worth his while to attempt a translation of the Roman epic. But it may be fairly doubted whether Dryden did not close the question a hundred and seventy years ago for any one not, like himself, a poet of commanding original power. In the century which succeeded him many literary men thought that they could improve upon him in various ways; but the verdict of posterity has shown that they judged wrongly. Pitt is the only one of these whose version can be said to be at present in existence: a dubious privilege which it owes to the fact of its having been included in the successive collections of English poetry of which Johnson’s was the first. Dryden’s style in poetry is sufficiently unlike that which finds most favour in the present day: but it cannot be said to be obsolete. And though in its minuter shades it affords rather a contrast than a parallel to Virgil’s, they have at all events the common quality of being really poetical; that inner identity which far outweighs a thousand points of external similarity, supposing these to be attainable. Pope, writing according to his own genius, has produced something so utterly different, in all its circumstantial features, from the product of Homeric genius, that an artist of confessedly inferior powers need not be discouraged from attempting the task again: but there was no such radical difference between the poet of Augustan Rome and the poet of Caroline England as to render it impossible that the masterpiece of the one should be adequately represented by the work which crowned the literary labours of the other.

True as this doubtless is, it is perhaps nevertheless possible that a justification may be found for an attempt like the present. It may be said that the great works of antiquity require to be translated afresh from time to time in order to preserve their interest as part of modern literary culture. Each age will naturally think that it understands an author whom it studies better than the ages which have gone before it: and it is natural that this increased appreciation should take the concrete form of a new translation. The translation, if in any degree successful, will contribute in its turn to extend and deepen the appreciation. It is not merely that different passages will be better understood as criticism advances, though that is something: it is that the work itself is better comprehended as a literary work; that the poet’s art is more fully realised, as shown in the thousand minutiæ which make the poem what it is. A translation, as I have elsewhere remarked, may have as a piece of embodied criticism a value which it would not possess in virtue of its intrinsic merit. Again, there is something in the mere fact of novelty; something in disturbing the cluster of conventional associations which gathers round an author, and compelling the reader to regard what he has hitherto admired traditionally from a new point of view. It is well that we should know how our ancestors of the Revolution period conceived of Virgil: it is well that we should be obliged consciously to realise how we conceive of him ourselves.

Some may think that the metre I have chosen possesses few recommendations beyond the novelty of which I have just spoken. I certainly do not pretend that it is the one true equivalent of the Virgilian hexameter. Probably a better case could be made out for both heroic blank verse and the heroic couplet: the ottava rima of Tasso also, as has been suggested to me, might put in a claim, not of course as giving the effect of particular lines, but as representing the impression made by the whole. But the question is not so much what is absolutely best, as what is best for the individual translator. Blank verse really deserving the name I believe with my lamented friend Mr. Worsley to be impossible except to one or two eminent writers in a generation. The heroic couplet would be difficult to wield to any one who was constantly reminded that he was exposing himself thereby to a comparison with Dryden. A regular stanza has trammels which would be more sensibly felt in attempting to deal with Virgil’s elaborately complicated paragraphs, than in endeavouring to reproduce the less highly organised structure of Homer’s narrative. My chief reason for adopting the metre which Scott has made popular was that it seemed to give me my best chance of imparting to my work that rapidity of movement which is indispensably necessary to a long narrative poem. An ode of Horace is something to dwell on, to scrutinise minutely: a poem like the Æneid is something to read rapidly and continuously. A metre which gives the translator the hope of making his work interesting as a story is so far successful: a metre which does not give this hope fails.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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