John Dryden's translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses

Augustan vs Augustan - Translating the art of storytelling. John Dryden's translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book II, the story of Ceyx and Alcyone

By Thomas Bailey

Then o'er the bounding billows shall we fly,
Secure to live together, or to die.


The Latin poet Ovid composed his renowned Metamorphoses during the reign of the emperor Augustus. The poem is perhaps best described as in a genre of its own - a super-epic. Constructed of approximately 250 epylia interwoven into one continuous narrative, it is still debated whether or not this has the technical and narrative qualifications for an ancient epic. It is definable as a super-epic, though, as it best formulates what Ovid himself was striving to create; a 'carmen perpetuum' [everlasting song], as he vows in his opening in Book I. It could be said that it is a work fuelled by egocentricity. He mocks the epic tradition and its hyperbolic gravity and pushes the limits of the epic genre to the full. His frequent bathos and comic attempts in serious moments can however make him seem more of a Puck, not the intended Oberon. But the key to Ovid's trickery is his beautiful and emotional retelling of the myths. This rich anthology of myth embedded in the poem (varnished with Ovid's fertile imagination) is undeniably what is plundered most from Ovid's work; Chaucer and Shakespeare were frequenters of his poetry. In A Midsummer Night's Dream the Mechanicals' play-within-the-play (the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe) has been plucked from Metamorphoses. Yet these aspects are all but the tip of the aesthetic iceberg. Ovid's genius lies beneath: His technical mastery and his manipulation of the contents. What comprises Metamorphoses' three-dimensional essence is active and sharp imagery, varying narrative perspectives, emotional drama and diversity in mood, pace, tone and subject matter. Though perhaps inappropriate to become engrossed in any allegorical philosophy woven into Metamorphoses', theological threads (i.e. the transmigration of souls) must nonetheless be considered in the poem's meaning. It is Ovid's skill of narrative which turns a set of carved reliefs into a Technicolor film.

Besides imitation and allusion to Metamorphoses, perhaps the greatest task is to translate effectively. John Dryden (1631 - 1700) translated approximately forty-thousand lines of ancient language into Jacobean verse; among them, several of Ovid's epylia. Concentrating on his translation of Ovid's story of Ceyx and Alcyone, I wish to discern whether or not Dryden has captured this three-dimensional aspect of Metamorphoses; whether or not he has translated the components of both the vivid story and the masterful technique of Ovid.

Dryden himself follows in the tradition of Jacobean modernism after Ben Jonson. Though using the classics as a template for all of his work, he nonetheless pioneered in all major literary fields; literary criticism, poetry, drama, translation and satire. In 1666 he published his modern epic Annus Mirabilis charting the heroic reconstruction of the post-Cromwellian state. Months later however, this triumph was somewhat overshadowed by Milton's Paradise Lost, touching on the deep religious unrest. This suggested that Dryden had not written so pertinently. Owing to religious issues, Dryden became reclusive in retirement and chose to write translation as a social shield. The object of his art was to capture beauty, poetic beauty. His writing is based more around this aesthetic than any other.

The episode that Dryden has translated in Ceyx and Alcyone follows Ceyx, the Trachinian king. He is resolved, after certain omens, to go by sea to the oracle at Claros. Alcyone, his beloved queen, begs him in vain not to leave. Ceyx's ship is wrecked in a storm and he dies. The ignorant Alcyone, at home, prays for his return; she angers Juno who orders a dream to be sent to her reporting Ceyx's death. Iris, Juno's messenger, reports this to the god of Sleep. Sleep sends his most capable son, Morpheus, to Alcyone in her sleep. Morpheus imitates Ceyx's ghost and tells her that he is dead. Alcyone, grief-stricken, goes onto the shore where she and Ceyx parted; Ceyx's body returns in the waves to her. She is transformed into a Halcyon bird by Apollo. She kisses Ceyx, who is revived and also transforms into a bird.

Most immediately striking about Dryden's translation is the directness of his writing. It is economical, succinct and full of vitality. It many ways it mirrors Ovid's economy and precision. Both the original and the translation have their virtues and their vices. But a naked and literal comparison of Dryden to Ovid, using a checklist as it were, would be a biased approach. Dryden's literary intentions for his translation are tantamount to Ovid's. "I have not tied myself to a literal translation; but I have often admitted what I have judged necessary or not of dignity to appear in the company of better thoughts" [2]. Dryden aims to use Ovid's work as a potentially beautiful sculpture, not yet finished; to then chip away at the jagged and incongruous edges, refining every curve and line to maximise the beauty of the original masonry. Dryden's 'Essay on Dramatic Poesy' gives a more specific glimpse of his approach to Ovid, "who wrote things so near the drama" [1]. Dryden, like countless others, recognised the sublime dramatic, even theatrical potential within Metamorphoses. His translation is very active in exposing capacity for drama within a piece of action. Early in the passage, Ceyx has left and Alcyone returns to their bed:

Alcyonae lacrimas et, quae pars, admonet, absit.

Lit: '[the bed and surroundings renew] tears in Alcyone, and they remind her of that part which is absent'.

Yet Dryden's adds:

Her husband's pillow, the widowed part
Which once he pressed.

Dryden's detailed observation of the bed is indicative of his attempts to rouse sympathy for the abandoned Alcyone and increase the drama. He also draws attention to the bed, a recurrent motif in the passage. Moreover, it is an indication of his liberal use of the text and his licence to modify it to his tastes. On translation, Dryden writes: "But though I grant that here and there we may miss the application of a proverb or custom, yet a thing well said will be writ in all languages, and though it may lose something in translation, yet, to him who reads it in the original, 'tis still the same" [2]. Further, he claims that the elegance of the original words cannot be captured, only the impression of the word upon the line and soul. Dryden's approach is ambitious; in aiming to convey the essence of the piece, he recognises the deeper aspect of the Latin which his work must nurture. The above example immediately suggests that Dryden is trying to recreate this core of intensity and emotion.

There is no doubt that Dryden has the technical skill to match Ovid in ensnaring a feeling. During the shipwreck, Ovid captures the immense force of the waves compressing the sailors into the sea by using phonetically weighty words, such as 'gurgite pressa gravi' [lit: crushed down by the force of the water]. Dryden writes:

Down sinks the ship within the abyss below;
Down with the vessel sinks the main.

Repetition of the plosive 'down' placed emphatically at the beginning of the line resound the impact of the wave, while 'below' is placed just as importantly at the end of the line, trapping the sailors within the line (sea). 'Abyss' is apt word selection by Dryden to heighten the sense of doom for the sailors.

The technical aspects of Dryden's translation are, like Ovid's original, governed by meter and rhythm. Dryden, said to have perfected the use of heroic couplets, uses his forte. Bound by couplet rhyme and iambic pentameter, the form is strict with an ambivalent effect. It can, on the one hand, make his word selection and order more precise, or it can have the opposite effect, filling the line with monosyllabic words and pronouns. Heroic couplets are perhaps limiting, pushing much of the emphasis on rhyme which can often only account for half the beauty of the line. The iambics can result in the reader trundling along to the unchanging rhythm.

Ted Hughes, in his modern translation of some of the Tales from Ovid, takes word selection and placement to be paramount to portraying an emotion. He is similar to Ovid in this respect. Dactyllic hexameter, the stock Latin epic meter, was used by Ovid for his poem to be regarded as within the said genre. It permits six metrons, four of which can vary as either a dactyl [thesis/ arsis] or a spondee [thesis/ thesis]. This gives the opportunity to vary the pace of the piece, to add gravity or levity when required; both giving the writer greater control of the reader's emotions and creating a more lucid image through sound and length: (When describing Sleep's palace)

Ianua nec verso stridores cardine reddit

[Lit: No door gives a creak with the turning of its hinges]

The two out-bursts of shorter syllables (the creaking) break the predominant silence and calmness of the longer syllables in the line. Or both mood and action can be affected: (When Alcyone discovers her dead Ceyx):

"Nulla est Alcyone, nulla est!" ait. "Occidit una"*

[Lit: "Alcyone is nothing, nothing!" She said. "She died as one..."] *a = elided vowel.

The two elisions at the beginning of the line reflect Alcyone's utter choking with grief, intermittent with sobbing. In a direct comparison, Dryden's initially seems flat:

No more Alcyone, she suffered death

But instead it captures the resoluteness of later in the speech. This is due to Dryden subtly tempering his translation. He does not leap at every opportunity for tragedy, and has "admitted what I judged necessary" [2]. Though in the last example Dryden failed to process the emotion which Ovid enhances, he incorporates this technique at a later point, though Ovid this time does not: (When Alcyone realises that the dead sailor is her Ceyx):

"Tis he, 'tis he," she cries, and tears her cheeks

If an apostrophe is a close relation to the elision, Dryden has succeeded in intensifying Alcyone's tears in the disjointed effect which it brings upon the sentence.

Though the flowing iambics do not permit the control of pace, Dryden uses punctuation to good effect. By his sensitive placement of punctuation and aided by language, he can influence the mood. Here, with up-beat, energetic language: (As Iris enters the palace of Sleep)

The Virgin, entering bright, indulged the day
To the brown cave, and brushed the dreams away;

The two commas in the first line serve to speed the pace, aided by the enjambment into the next line. This acceleration is timely by Dryden. He uses pace to create an entirely fresh mood from the previous line and passage, in which the reader has been introduced to the land of Sleep. (Describing the river running from a rock)

An arm of Lethe, with a gentle flow

By placing a comma in the middle of several lines, having more or less the same number of syllables either side, he gives the passage a balanced, rocking, soporific quality - in a different method from Ovid. The passage ends with a deliberately long thirteen-syllable line, placed by Dryden to again draw out the languid feel of the passage, and at the same time indicate the number of dreams in the place. Again, it has that balanced quality: (In comparison to the number of dreams, there are not as many leaves in a wood)

Nor bearded ears in fields, nor sands upon the shore.

Just as the reader is being drawn into the slow rhythm, Dryden injects pace with the new passage of "The virgin, entering bright...", more so than is notable with Ovid, who at this point chooses to highlight a different matter; Iris's hand physically pushing through these empty dreams through word order. The strength of the hand in the middle of the line (emphasised by a dactyl) parts the dreams:

Quo simul intravit, manibusque obstantia virgo

[Lit: As soon as the virgin entered, she brushed aside the dreams with her hand.]

In comparing many of the more common techniques of Ovid and Dryden (pace, enjambment, alliteration polyptoton, juxtaposition etc.) it is similar to watching a game of chess; the same pieces either side, but moves at different intervals. Dryden is being innovative in this aspect, judging for himself where the minor technicalities help to vitalise the poem. In alliteration, for example:

The winds augment the winter of the sky
And wage intestine wars.

The pounding of 'w' resounds the futility of the tempest. In another area, Ovid chooses to recreate the trickling waters of the river Lethe:

invitat somnos crepitantibus unda lapillis.

[Lit: The water, moaning, invites sleep, drifting with the pattering pebbles].

Repetition is likewise. Though perhaps commonly used by both poets for metrical means, they are placed appropriately, and serve often to alert the reader to emotional intensity. In Dryden, Ceyx's demand for the attention and co-operation of the sailors has a similar effect in gaining the reader's attention:

Strike, strike the top of the sail; let the main sheet fly.

Dryden has also captured Ovid's frequent use of juxtaposition: Used so often in Ceyx and Alcyone to suggest an imbalance in the relationship of things so close - namely the king and queen. In an Ovidian example, when Alcyone is begging Ceyx not to leave:

Nec nisi quae patiar metuam: pariterque feremus
Quidquid erit, pariter super aequora lata feremur.

[Lit: I shall not fear, except for what I am suffering. We shall carry equally
And we shall be carried equally by the sea, what ever it will be.]

The polyptoton of 'pariterque...pariter' and 'feremus...feremur' is used in a microcosmic sense by Ovid to foreshadow inequality; an upset in the loving harmony of the relationship of Ceyx and Alcoyne - indeed, Ceyx will die. Here polyptoton is used, in the extreme sense, to represent the harmony of life being disrupted to lead to death. Dryden, in a characteristically perceptive and direct manner, translates:

Then o'er the bounding billows shall we fly,
Secure to live together, or to die.

The clear juxtaposition of life and death between Alcyone and Ceyx, as a means of exciting pity in the reader, is a recurring motif used by both poets, often with Dryden mirroring Ovid's placement.

Despite being used to highlight a particular point, juxtaposition is also more concerned with the structure of the poem, in which Dryden rarely differs from Ovid. He is committed to "not meddling with the design [myth elements] or the disposition of it". Moreover, he acts more as the editor of appropriate material and moods, rather than taking a designer's role.

Cohesion was one of Ovid's secondary objectives in Metamorphoses. It was the key to his making the work appear continuous and vital in creating an epic. Ovid works tirelessly to link the epylia together. Also, in a story such as Ceyx and Alcyone where propheticism and the completion of fate play so large a part, he must make each individual story coherent and whole. The more the fate element is highlighted, the more harrowing it is for the reader. Dryden saves himself half the onus by translating only three-quarters of this single epylion; (Ceyx and Alcyone were introduced two stories earlier).

Ring composition is used by Ovid to realise the cyclic cruelty of fate, while also to create a continuity of character. Since Alcyone parted from her husband on the shores of Trachinia, she is compelled by grief (after Morpheus' dream) to return to there. Dryden chooses to augment the sense of Alcyone's grief, by making her destination utterly precise:

That place, that very spot she sought,
Or thither where her destiny was brought.

Dryden observes that Alcyone is caught in a 'sliding doors' complex. He makes her relive exactly the events of before, again highlighting fatalism. Once more, he elucidates the catastrophic outcome of life and death separating the two lovers. The ring composition is echoed when Alcyone "embraced the dead", where formerly she had embraced her husband as he departed. Though first initiated by Ovid, they are clearly also a vital structure of Dryden's work. Dryden is also avid in bringing the reader's attention (more so than Ovid) to the recurring motif of the bed; both Alcyone and the god of Sleep centre around them. He makes it a symbol of where the absent or dead Ceyx and the living Alcyone are joined in dreams, and where the suffering Alcyone endures without Ceyx physically beside her.

The neo-classicist enters whole-heartedly into both aping and embellishing Ovid's structural techniques which are concerned with the narrative. In the similes which Ovid uses, predominantly during the shipwreck scene, Dryden is only too keen to follow suit:

Dat quoque ima saltus intra cava texta carinae
Fluctus; et ut milites, numero praestantior omni,
Cum saepe adsilarit defensae moenibus urbis...

Now all the waves their scattered force unite;
And as a soldier, foremost in the fight,
Makes way for the others, and, a host alone,
Still presses on, and, urging, gains the town.

The simile continues with the soldiers (waves) attacking the beleaguered town (ship). The simile serves to paint a more vivid picture of the nature of the shipwreck, while relating the experience to the reader through human action. The suspense of the action (which Ovid builds) in waiting for the ship to be inevitably destroyed is increased by Dryden, who, of his own accord, incorporates the same soldier simile:

The sea grew white, with rolling waves from far,
Like heralds, first denounce the watery war.

The final line is a preparatory line of Dryden's, used cleverly at the end of the passage to build up the suspense of the next passage and the shipwreck as a whole. His awareness to relate the shipwreck to human experience using personification is furthered by a metaphor he adds, again of his own doing. The victimised ship is diseased in the water:

The frothy white appear the flatted seas,
And change their colour, changing their disease.
Like various fits the Trachin vessel finds,

This very apt and vivid metaphor adds another aspect of the pain and suffering of those in the shipwreck, inducing a further element of pity. The storm scene is intended by Ovid to be deliberately hyperbolic, and Dryden achieves the same effect:

Seas dash on seas, and clouds encounter clouds;
At once from east to west, from pole to pole.

These two lines capture the repeated alliterative sounds of the war of the elements. But Dryden again exceeds Ovid, whose hyperbole is restricted vertically to the "pontus" [sea] and "nubes" [clouds]. Dryden is geographical; his entire world is shaken by the tempest.

Dryden relishes these dramatic moments, frequently commenting upon Metamorphoses's theatrical potential: "Yet he of them who had a genius most proper for the stage was Ovid" [1]. But further than dramatic is Ovid's profound cinematic (by 20th Century standards) sense in his writing. This is imitated closely by Dryden to fulfil its potential to captivate the reader. From the panoramic view to the action-packed view, Ovid again adjusts the camera to zoom in on the suffering individuals:

Non tenet hic lacrimas, stupet hic, vocat ille beatos,
Funera quos maneant: Hic votis numen adorat
Bracchiaque ad caelum...

One weeps, and yet despairs of late relief;
One cannot weep, his fears congeal his grief;
But stupid, with dry eyes, expects his fate.
One with loud shrieks laments his lost estate,
And calls those happy whom their funerals await.
This wretch with prayers and vows the god implores...

It is not only Ovid's individual focus which is cinematic, but switching from person to person, giving in snap-shots a popular account of the suffering of the sailors. Dryden is only too ready to imitate.

Ovid's narrative diversity is further exemplified in speech. The classical epic poems such as Virgil's Aeneid were all told from the third-person. Yet Ovid mocks this tradition and intensifies feeling when he moves from third-person to first-person in character speech. The lens moves into the eye of the character as Ovid combines the form of elegiac poetry with epic poetry, never previously done in the epic tradition before him. Dryden follows suit, besides which he adds something to the translation to increase the drama.

The final key structural matter is dividing elements of comedy and tragedy. Ovid's comedy is made most commonly through (besides those already mentioned) bathos, asides to the reader and anachronism. Perhaps from a narrative perspective; the sense of a looming figure behind the scenes, manipulating the action, adds a hidden depth to the poem. But on the comedy issue, Dryden is apprehensive: "On these [emotional] occasions the poet should endeavour to raise pity; but instead of this, Ovid is tickling you to laugh" [2]. Dryden is not opposed to comedy, having written much himself, such as the mock epic MacFlecknoe. He dislikes the notion of tragicomedy - or at least mixing the two emotions; in his eyes, it is fundamental that the more appropriate of the two must prevail. Ceyx and Alcyone is a love story; a tragedy. Still, Ovid's purpose is to mock its form and coax the reader to laugh at what Dryden considers to be inappropriate times.

Some of the supposed comedy in Ovid is so subtle that the tone of the piece is entirely subjective, according to the reader's immediate attitude. It can be considered as either poking frequent fun at the traditional love story, or dividing into two halves a predominant emotional love story with a quite independent comic interlude. Dryden certainly tries to mould it into the latter. In doing so, he makes a bold attempt to keep to his philosophy on comedy, and treats the 'Sleep episode' as a near separate story. Ovid's text allows for that. After Iris takes off to fly to Sleep's palace, having received her orders from Juno, Ovid switches the scene. New characters are introduced (Sleep, Morpheus, Icelus and Phantasus). Ovid's switch from the love story is definite, and the Sleep episode is unmistakably a more comic piece; Sleep himself is a satirical portrayal of an omnipotent deity. Dryden recognises this switch, increasing its potential. After the eerie, atmospheric introduction to the land of Sleep, Dryden, as mentioned before, injects sudden pace with Iris' entrance:

The virgin, entering, bright, indulged the day
To the brown cave, and brushed the dreams away.

He successfully undermines the gloomy blackness and ghostly dreams and the "quiet next to death". There is clear bathos in Iris entering with a multicoloured cloak and committing, through light, something near sacrilege. The looming dreams with haunting potential are simply "brushed" aside. The colour black has been mentioned by Dryden thrice in the last seven lines; deliberately to be undermined by the cave now being a normal brown. From here on Dryden, following Ovid, enters precipitously into a new comic style. When Sleep finally awakes, he is comically overcome by his own powers:

Ovid: Excussit tandem sibi se...
Dryden: At length shook off himself...

In the next line, Dryden adds some comedy of his own accord, in the form of an aside:

...he asked the dame
(And asking yawned), for what intent she came?

The power of Sleep is contagious. After Iris has delivered her message, she herself is "unable to support the fumes of sleep".

Then, while discussing what Icelus (Morpheus' brother) can conjure up, Dryden lets his imagination run into the preternatural:

Beasts...dragons...dreadful shapes

Ovid states he merely

fit fera, fit volucres, fit longo corpore serpens

[Lit: becomes animals, becomes birds, becomes a snake with a long body"].

Dryden's deliberately grotesque and hellish version could be perceived as entering further into the spirit of comedy; but it is not without its Christian undertones.

With further bathos, there is perhaps an aristocratic snigger intended, when Dryden has just described what the three dream-creating brothers can display:

These three to kings and chiefs their scenes display,
The rest before the ignoble commons play;

The idea of artificial theatricality (perhaps connected to what Dryden thought of as Metamorphoses' potential for the stage) in which these dreams are performed is highlighted singularly by Dryden. In particular, it is prominent in Morpheus' performance as Ceyx. First, Morpheus is "prepared for flight". Then there is a comic undermining of this "demon" creature having to do a quick change of costume:

Then lays aside the steerage of his wings
...[then] Assumes the king's;

Having delivered his monologue as Ceyx:

Thus said the player god; and adding art
Of voice and gesture, so performed his part.

There is a certain mockery to the whole 'dream-business' of Sleep and Morpheus, which is subtle comedy by Dryden. The joke is perhaps realised with Dryden imitating the comically harsh tone which Ovid gives to Morpheus (as Ceyx):

Rise, wretched widow, rise, nor undeplored...

Full of harsh imperatives, it is perhaps comic that Morpheus is unskilled and insensitive in his art. But at this point the Sleep episode begins to merge back into Ceyx and Alcyone. Where Ovid quite easily and inconspicuously blends his comic tone back into the tragicomic tone, Dryden becomes ambiguous. The analogy of theatre could be either subtle comedy or just imaginative writing. After a somewhat 'iffy' changeover, Dryden realigns himself back to the tragic love story, with not a whiff of comedy throughout the remaining events. So Dryden's structure of comedy and tragedy does not differ greatly from Ovid's, but is certainly more categorised into tragedy, separate comedy, then tragedy. Dryden's inclusion of this comedy may also serve to increase the pity for Ceyx and Alcyone - that there are comic, insensitive gods behind the scenes controlling their two fated lives.

Anachronisms are a common feature of Metamorphoses: This is again Ovid poking fun at the epic tradition by including Roman habit into ancient mythical times. In the previous story of Daedalion and Chione, Ovid mentions that the beautiful Chione's face was 'snow-white'; it was a feature of aristocratic Roman women to wear white make-up. Likewise, in Ceyx and Alcyone, when she finds out that her husband is to leave, Alcyone tore apart her

totos capillos nondum ornata

[Lit: whole hair, not yet decorated].

It was also a feature of Roman women to decorate and style their hair. While Dryden includes these anachronisms he makes a point of including his own. But they are not intended for comic value. They are more connected with elements of romantic poetry, using modern versions of English myth. "Maid" and "court" and "mansion" seem to be used for aiding the English reader to enter into the spirit of myth. However, the ghoulish anachronisms used when describing what Icelus can imitate - " shapes" - are also associated with English myth. Dryden is perhaps not mocking the epic tradition, but the concept of such things being able to exist in unreal dreams.

The theatricality which Dryden draws upon is one of the many aspects of his own which he mixes into the story. Dryden intends to make this a grave and emotional love story, adhering to the love story tradition rather than mocking it. This is initially indicated by the point at which he starts his translation. After a brief prologue explaining the background of events, Dryden launches straight into Ovid's 'serious bit'. Ceyx has been portrayed by Ovid as a wimpish, neurotic king. Dryden does not give this background, but immediately creates Ceyx as a "pious prince" who is "more perplexed" by the portents, rather than Ovid's "anxia" [lit: fearful] Ceyx. For Dryden, piety and love are the virtues of Ceyx. During the shipwreck, when Ovid highlights the comic helplessness and non-heroic nature of Ceyx, the Dryden reader is more compelled to regard Ceyx as a pious victim of the gods' will.

"I comprehend the passions and, in a larger sense, the descriptions of persons and their very habits" [2], Dryden immodestly writes. But by no means does Ovid leave Dryden with much to create with the characters, who are perfectly apt and two-dimensional for a love story. Dryden does observe characters appropriately and does not add independent actions or speeches to what Ovid has already written. Moreover, the neo-classicist increases some of the detail with which things are done, whilst always ready to highlight issues surrounding the separation of the two, as exemplified when Alcyone returns to the shore. This is a successful technique to further excite pity for Ceyx, but predominantly distressed Alcyone (whom most of the story observes). The only other minor difference here between the original and the translation is that Dryden's Alcyone seems to have extra elements of strength and resoluteness, as mentioned before. This idea of endurance of the human soul links well with Ceyx's piety.

Dryden is also keen to emphasise the situation in which Ovid places his characters - two inferior human lovers versus the immensity of nature and the fate of the gods. This very Hardy-esque idea emerges from Dryden's frequent reference to propheticism. Where it is implied by Ovid, Dryden prefers to state it. When Alcyone begs Ceyx not to leave, having seen visions of tombs without names on the shore:

And fears are oft prophetic of the event.

Then, when she sees the dead Ceyx in Morpheus' dream:

And my prophetic fear presaged too true.

The semi-conscious sense which Alcyone has of being aware of her own tragedy adds a further emotional element to the story. It also intensifies the theme of fate running through Ceyx and Alcyone.

Both poets' attention to the descriptive lighting elements of the story are vital in creating fuller images. But another continuous theme which Dryden includes, this time of his own accord, is the opposition of vision and blindness. During the shipwreck, he not only paints an appropriately black, Acherontic picture (as Ovid does) but he further mentions:

So swirl the seas, such darkness blinds the sky.

There is also the conflict of Alcyone's foresight and then its cyclic fulfilment in the dream. She is adamant that she saw the real Ceyx:

I saw, I saw him manifest in view.

Then there is a further sight element when Alcyone, mourning, stands on the shore and sees a dead sailor float towards her; her eyes cannot make out who it is; "...Who could judge aright?", as Dryden moves Ovid's narrative camera to behind Alcyone's eyes. Then, when the body is closer, she sees truly and realises it is Ceyx. The sight element is closely linked with fate, and again it indicates Alcyone's consciousness of her own fate.

Mistrust and misjudgement of sight is also suggested, and serves to heighten the pathos felt for Alcyone when she so desires Ceyx to be physically with her. Her hopes are betrayed by sight, and she is grappling with what is truth and what is illusion. There is a slight philosophical element here about perceiving truth, perhaps referring to the empirical theories of contemporary philosophers such as John Locke (1632 - 1704), and the ability to find truth through the five senses. In his poem Veni, Creator Spiritus, a prayer to God, Dryden begs for God to "Submit the senses to our soul" and "Make us Eternal Truths receive" [4]. This quest for truth can possibly only be fulfilled by God, and the human senses are unreliable to the eternal soul. This issue of whether man was able to act independently of God was a subject of contemporary philosophical debate, highlighted by Milton's Paradise Lost. Dryden's Augustan successor, Pope, discussed this topic in his Essay on Man.

However, it is presumptuous to attribute personal truths to Dryden in the translated text. He has written a poem "which I hope I have translated closely enough and given them the same turn of verse which they had in the original" [2]. Translating was a means for Dryden to make a living. Having lost his office as poet laureate upon the accession of the Protestant William III in 1689, Dryden, a convert to Roman Catholicism, was urged to become more guarded in his opinions and beliefs. Translating was a way of doing this.

Despite this, there is a clear Christian theme running through Ceyx and Alcyone - an extension, perhaps, of the anachronism. The structure of Ovid's story is close to the English romantic structure like that of Sir Gawain. In this, for example, the hero leaves the Christian sophistication of Arthur's court, entering into the preternatural heathen world on his quest, until he finds a haven-castle by the will of God. The action then comes in the hunts of his host and the moral is given, somewhat subversively in this case, by the Green Knight at the end of the tale. In Dryden's translation Ceyx is the "pious prince" who sails off into the shipwreck (the action), then the gloomy world of Sleep (in which Dryden places Christian images concerned with Hell) and then the resolution, with Ceyx coming back to life. "I have endeavoured to choose such fables, both ancient and modern, as contain each of them some instructive moral" [2].

If Dryden does intend to include an instructive moral in Ceyx and Alcyone, it is difficult to recognise and state precisely without being tenuous. At best, love, Platonic love, is eternal. However, this is perhaps what Ovid himself was trying to say - and thus the reason Dryden translated it. Themes are indeed captured by Dryden. But to be instructive would be rash and anaesthetically blunt: This is the intelligentsia being written to. It is also worth considering that quite what constituted a moral parameter by which to instruct in late 1600s society was significantly doubtful. I prefer the suggestion that this is a faint moralising stab of an ostracised and ageing conservative Catholic to the emerging sceptical materialists of the cosmopolitan class - the class which Pope was soon to satirise in The Rape of the Lock.

"I have but a house where I intended but a lodge" [2], wrote Dryden on his composition of translation poetry. This is indicative of the creative process through which he has gone in translating Ceyx and Alcyone. He entered it with strong intentions and has proved an effective judge of appropriate material. If his ultimate objective was to capture "Ovid's beaux" [2], as Dryden puts it, he has succeeded. His ability to imitate Ovid and innovate to equal Ovid's technical brilliance has resulted in Dryden's translation being thorough, full of imagery, diverse and energetic. Moreover, his sensitivity towards the reader's emotions (rather than the egotism engulfing Ovid's work) has created a temperate piece of poetry.

Dryden has overcome the language barrier and captured that all-important three-dimensional effect of Ovid's. The dramatic scenes, the cinematic element, the descriptive vigour and the narrative diversity of both poets bring the work alive. Dryden's translation apes those techniques and descriptions which create the effect, and where the drama can be increased, does so suitably. Though his moral intention is not clear, the work has emotional and some philosophical depth.

On translation, the present-day poet Seamus Heaney writes; "It is one thing to find lexical meaning for the words and to have some feel for how the meter might go, but it is quite another thing to find the tuning fork that will give you the note and pitch of the overall work" [3]. In a brief modern comparison with Dryden, Heaney's translation of Beowulf also both innovates and imitates. Heaney does not conform to the strict, alliterative Anglo-Saxon meter, yet his word selection and creation resounds the organic and onomatopoeic feel to every Anglo-Saxon word. For both translators it is fundamental to retain a feeling of the work. For Dryden it is essential to convey this to the soul, and he uses all necessary means to do this. In his own words: "An author is not to write all he can, but all he ought" [2].

1 Dryden's Essay on Dramatic Poesy.
2 Dryden's Preface to Fables Ancient and Modern.
3 Heaney's Introduction to Beowulf.
4 Dryden's Veni, Creator Spiritus.
NB: Literal translations are my own, with great help from C. S. Dammers. I have attempted in these lines to show a basic reading of the Latin, in order that the reader may see the extent of Dryden's invention.

© Thomas Bailey, May 2004

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