Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

The Interplay of Past and Present in Dryden's 'Palamon and Arcite'

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

The Interplay of Past and Present in Dryden's 'Palamon and Arcite'

Article excerpt

The cultural world in which Dryden lived after the Revolution of 1688-89 was in some important respects an imagined world, a world of his own making. Increasingly in the 1690s Dryden turned to translation, not only to earn a living, but also, imaginatively, to fashion a world which was peopled with congenial companions-Juvenal and Persius, Virgil, and, in the Fables Ancient and Modern, published in 1700, just months before his death, Homer, Ovid, Chaucer, and Boccaccio. The textual and temporal world which Dryden created through his translations was eclectic, macaronic: the translation of Virgil was both a foray into the Roman world of the Aeneid and a dialogue with it, a partial translation of its key terms, and a space in which Dryden could address the world around him.1 Translation, for Dryden, was reciprocal, a mutual rendering of past and present, the weaving of a text which looked both ways.

In his poem 'Palamon and Arcite', the first of the translations in Fables, the conceptual space which Dryden creates is particularly complex. The poem is a rendering of Chaucer's 'The Knight's Tale', which is itself based on Boccaccio's Teseida, behind which, in turn, stands Statius's Thebaid. It is the story of the two noble kinsmen who both fall in love with the same woman, Emily, and fight a tournament for her hand. In places it is more of a paraphrase than a translation, with some omissions and many expansions and additions. Dryden fashions a poem which moves between three different worlds-the classical world of Athens and Thebes in which the action is nominally set; the medieval chivalric world which Chaucer created; and the world of late Restoration England which Dryden and his readers actually inhabited.

First, he takes some care to add details which evoke a classical world. This is 'a' classical world rather than 'the' classical world, because the Athens and Thebes of Dryden's imagination are hardly historically accurate. Indeed, the gods of the poem are given Roman rather than Greek names (as they are in Chaucer too): Venus, Mars, Saturn, Jupiter. Dryden accentuates this by adding references to Juno (I. 260; II. 88), Bacchus (III. 99), and Actaeon (I. 258), and to Rome (II. 451), and he uses the Roman greeting to the dead, 'Hail and farewell' (III. 994).2 At the same time, there is a scholarly precision to Dryden's imagination-he was a great frequenter of annotated editions and commentaries-so that we find him deploying the word 'gauntlet' (III. 1001) as the native equivalent which he has devised for the Latin cestus, the leather thong weighted with iron and lead which was wound around the hand by Roman boxers.3 He also imports the Roman custom of decorating door-posts with flowers on festivals (III. 104).4 Linguistically, there are many usages which connect the poem to the Latin language and its literature: the word 'labouring' (III. 591) which invokes the Latin verb laborare, meaning 'eclipse'; the inter-lingual pun when he says that Venus's month, April, 'opens all the year' (III. 134), drawing on the etymological association between 'April' and aperire, 'to open'; the use of 'dome' to mean 'temple', from domus dei (II. 462). From Virgil's famous designation of woman as varium et mutabile semper5 he takes the term 'various' to describe Fortune (I. 408). The idea that each of the champions 'an army seemed alone' comes from Virgil,6 as does the phrase 'barb'rous gold' to describe the trappings on a horse.7 But 'barb'rous gold' is not just a rendering of barbarico auro: it also recalls Milton's 'barbaric pearl and gold'.8 It is characteristic of Dryden's working methods that he associated passages and turns of phrase from diverse poets,9 and here Dryden's imagination is fusing Chaucer, Virgil, and Milton to create an heroic idiom.10

The texture of medieval romance is similarly evoked by a careful use of technical vocabulary. Some of these words are taken or adapted from Chaucer, for Dryden at times reintroduces to the language words for which the OED found no evidence in the period since Chaucer: for example, no one seems to have used 'knares' (II. …

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