This magnificently illustrated book is the first edition of John Dryden’s translation of Virgil, the ancient Roman poet. The collection includes the Pastorals or Eclogues, a source for the Renaissance Arcadian ideal; Georgics, an agricultural poem in four parts; and Virgil’s masterpiece the Aeneid, an epic poem chronicling the adventures of Aeneas, legendary ancestor of the Romans.
The Works of Virgil (1694–97) was conceived, created and circulated by Dryden and the publisher Jacob Tonson. Their successful partnership established publishing methods and an aesthetic movement that shaped and defined literary production in the 18th century.
Dryden did not translate Virgil’s work directly or literally into English. Instead, he revised, added to and reworked the classical Latin to make the poetry vivid and relevant to late 17th-century readers. In his ‘Dedication to John, Lord Marquess of Normanby, Earl of Mulgrave’, Dryden explains that his alterations were done with great reverence, and were only ever intended to extend and expand upon Virgil’s poetry: ‘They will seem (at least I have the vanity to think so), not struck into him, but growing out of him’ (sig. E4v).
This translation technique was immensely popular. It sparked a new, more intuitive appreciation for classical literature and its translation which, in turn, grew into the clever, confident literary movement of the early 18th century known as the English Augustan Age, a period characterised by the poetry of Alexander Pope, the drama of John Gay and Jonathan Swift’s satire.
Dryden’s work translating the text and the overall publishing costs were funded in advance by private subscribers, all of whom are named and acknowledged at the opening of the book (Sig. ††1r–††2v) and within cartouches at the bottom of the intricate illustrations that appear throughout. This innovative way of financing a large and lavish text was, like Dryden’s approach to translation, adopted with great success in the 18th and 19th centuries. Dryden probably earned somewhere between £1,200 and £1,500, which was a very substantial amount at the time.