In Swift’s Battle of the Books, Dryden makes an appearance as a Moderns cavalier. Coming face to face with Vergil, he talks him into an exchange of armor and horses. He cuts a ridiculous figure, however, for the Ancient’s “glittering armour” neither fits nor becomes him, and “when it came to the trial, Dryden was afraid and utterly unable to mount.”1 In placing Dryden’s Aeneis at the heart of the Ancients vs. Moderns debate and presenting Dryden as an aspiring but hopelessly doomed Ancient, Swift pinpoints the tension at the center of the epic translation: its commitment both to an (idealized) heroic past and to an unheroic present. He also acknowledges its significance as a product of a watershed moment in English history and literature. Yet these two vital aspects of Dryden’s Vergil have been overlooked since the day of its publication, and Dryden has been condemned for his incompetence as translator by considerably lesser classicists than Swift—and than Dryden himself. The discounting of translation as a legitimate literary mode aside, a single factor seems to be responsible for the misunderstanding and neglect of what is not only one of Dryden’s most powerful and important works but a crucial document in the history of generic developments between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The gulf between Dryden’s translation and earlier seventeenth-century portrayals of Vergil and notions of the heroic has been attributed to Dryden rather than to the historical and literary contexts from which his Georgics and Aeneis arise. Swift’s portrait, quite simply, is unfair and misleading. The problem was not that Vergil’s armor did not fit Dryden, rather that it was out of date. As Brean Hammond has most recently pointed out, the key issue in the debate that was rooted in cultural and political turmoil is not the superiority of Moderns or Ancients but the relevance and relation of the present to the past.2 This crisis over the use and usefulness of History is also at the center of Dryden’s Vergil, which is as much a product of an age of transition as the Ancients/Moderns controversy itself.
When he set about translating Vergil’s works, Dryden had just been deposed from what he viewed as his rightful positions as poet laureate and historiographer royal. He was also ill, feeling his age, in extreme