Early Augustan Virgil: Translations by Denham, Godolphin, and Waller

Early Augustan Virgil: Translations by Denham, Godolphin, and Waller

Early Augustan Virgil: Translations by Denham, Godolphin, and Waller

Early Augustan Virgil: Translations by Denham, Godolphin, and Waller


Early Augustan Virgil prints for the first time in its entirety the substantial version of Virgil comprising most of Aeneid II-VI by the young royalist poet Sir John Denham in the 1630s. Denham's later published versions, The Destruction of Troy of 1656 and The Passion of Dido for Aeneas printed in his Poems and Translations of 1668, are also included for comparative purposes, alongside the couplet version of Aeneid IV by Sidney Godolphin and Edmund Waller published in 1659 with the title later used by Denham, The Passion of Dido for Aeneas. Critical introductions establish the interrelation of these versions and the pioneering status of the poets as practitioners of the Augustan style later perfected by Dryden and Pope.

Early Augustan Virgil makes accessible a substantial text by a pioneer in couplet writing and in the theory and practice of translation, vindicating Pope's distinction when he enjoins his reader to 'praise the easy vigor of a line, / Where Denham's strength and Waller's sweetness join.' The volume thus puts Denham's version of Virgil sympathetically into a context where it can be seen to make an important contribution to the development of the English Augustan style, thus making a case for the formative influence of classic translation upon the development of English poetry. It also makes a contribution to the reception of Virgil and will be of interest to readers of classical and English poetry alike.


Denham is deservedly considered as one of the fathers
of English poetry. “Denham and Waller,” says Prior, “im
proved our versification, and Dryden perfected it.”

He is one of the writers that improved our taste, and
advanced our language, and whom we ought therefore
to read with gratitude, though, having done much, he
left much to do.

He appears to have been one of the first that under
stood the necessity of emancipating translation from
the drudgery of counting lines and interpreting single
words. How much this servile practice obscured the
clearest and deformed the most beautiful parts of the
ancient authors, may be discovered by a perusal of our
earliest versions, some of them the works of men well
qualified, not only by critical knowledge, but by poetical
genius, who yet, by a mistaken ambition of exactness,
degraded at once their originals and themselves.

As one of Denham’s principal claims to the regard of
posterity arises from his improvement of our numbers,
his versification ought to be considered. It will afford
that pleasure which arises from the observation of a
man of judgment naturally right forsaking bad copies by
degrees, and advancing towards a better practice, as he
gains more confidence in himself. in his translation of
Virgil, written when he was about twenty-one years old,
may still be found the old manner of continuing the
sense ungracefully from verse to verse. … From this
kind of concatenated meter he afterwards refrained,
and taught his followers the art of concluding their
sense in couplets; which has perhaps been with rather
too much constancy pursued.

—Samuel Johnson,
Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets

In his life of denham samuel johnson evidently saw Denham’s Virgil translation as having an important literary, historical interest in view of what he regarded as Denham’s pioneering status in two significant areas: the theory . . .

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