Late in life John Dryden finds favor with Theocritus and Spenser in contradistinction to the higher art of Virgil. His remark on Spenser's pastorals, though brief, set forces in motion that produced effects of great consequence for English poetry: "Spencer being Master of our Northern Dialect; and skill'd in Chaucer's English, has so exactly imitated the Doric of Theocritus, that his Love is a perfect Image of that Passion which God infus'd into both Sexes, before it was corrupted with the Knowledge of Arts, and the Ceremonies of what we call good Manners" p. 3. Within a decade British pastoral had begun the series of experiments culminating in the rural verse of Burns and Wordsworth, Bloomfield and Clare. Dryden's positive assessment of Spenser's diction represents a departure from his remarks in the preface to Sylvae (1685).
The dedication is addressed to "the right honourable Hugh, Lord Clifford, Baron of Chudleigh."
John Oldmixon: "I can't imagine what was said lately, with too much severity, that the Shepherds Calendar excels the Aminta, prejudic'd the world against it; or that any body who have read it, will think Spencer's comparable to the story of the Bee in the first Act, or the account which Daphne gives of Sylvia's admiring herself in the Fountain, in the second Act of the Aminta" preface to Amintas (1698) Sig Av.
Cibber-Shiels: "Spenser's Calendar, in Mr. Dryden's opinion, is the most compleat work of this kind, which any nation has produced ever since the time of Virgil. But this he said before Mr. Pope's Pastorals appeared" Lives of the Poets (1753) 5:223.
John Wilson: "'The Shepherd's Calender of Spenser,' says glorious John, 'is not to be matched in any modern language — not even Tasso's Aminta, which infinitely transcends Guarini's Pastor Fido, as having more of nature in it, and being almost clear from the wretched affectation of learning.... That Spenser shews himself master of 'our northern dialect,' we cannot bring ourselves to think; but true it is that he is 'skilled in Chaucer's English.' We daresay that John Dryden was a better Grecian than Christopher North, yet we demur to his decision, that in the Shepherd's Calendar Edmund Spenser has 'exactly imitated the Dorick of Theocritus'" Blackwood's Magazine 34 (1833) 809.
David Masson: "Dryden thought of the literature of his own tongue and nation with a fine patriotic enthusiasm. The only literatures besides of which he seems to have had any direct knowledge were the Greek and Latin and the French; and he will not lower the English flag to any of them" Life of Milton (1859-94, 1965) 6:379.
George Saintsbury: "the contribution of England is specially interesting as working towards a reconstruction as well as a continuation of criticism. In consequence, very mainly, of Dryden's own magnificent championship of Shakespeare and Milton, it was, by the beginning of the eighteenth century, felt in England that these two older writers at any rate had to be reckoned with; while Chaucer also had the same powerful recommendation, and Spenser had never lost the affection of the fit, though for a time they might be few. With these four to be somehow or other — by hook or by crook — taken into consideration, it was impossible for the worst harm to be done; and the peculiarities of the English character, combined with the more vigorous condition of English creative literature, helped the compromise to work" History of English Criticism (1911) 235-36.
I have found it not more difficult to Translate Virgil, than to find such Patrons as I desire for my Translation. For though England is not wanting in a Learned Nobility, yet such are my unhappy Circumstances, that they have confin'd me to a narrow choice. To the greater part, I have not the Honour to be known; and to some of them I cannot shew at present, by any public Act, that grateful Respect which I shall ever bear them in my heart. Yet I have no reason to complain of Fortune, since in the midst of that abundance I could not possibly have chosen better than the Worthy Son of so Illustrious a Father. He was the Patron of my Manhood, when I Flourish'd in the opinion of the World; though with small advantage to my Fortune, 'till he awaken'd the remembrance of my Royal Master. He was that Pollio, or that Varus, who introduc'd me to Augustus: and though he soon dismiss'd himself from State-affairs, yet in the short time of his Administration he shone so powerfully upon me, that like the heat of a Russian-Summer, he ripen'd the Fruits of Poetry in a cold Clymate, and gave me wherewithal to subsist at least, in the long Winter which succeeded. What I now offer to your Lordship, is the wretched remainder of a sickly Age, worn out with Study, and oppress'd by Fortune: without other support than the Constancy and Patience of a Christian. You, my Lord, are yet in the flower of your Youth, and may live to enjoy the benefits of the Peace which is promis'd Europe: I can only hear of that Blessing: for Years, and, above all things, want of health, have shut me out from sharing in the heppiness. The Poets, who condemn their Tantalus to Hell, had added to his Torments, if they had plac'd him in Elysium, which is the proper Emblem of my Condition. The Fruit and the Water may reach my Lips, but cannot enter: And if they cou'd, yet I want a Palate as well as a Digestion. But it is some kind of Pleasure to me, to please those whom I respect. And I man not altogether out of hope, that these Pastorals of Virgil may give your Lordship some delight, though made English by one, who scarce remembers that Passion which inspir'd my Author when he wrote them. These were his first Essay in Poetry, (if the Ceiris was not his:) And it was more excusable in him to describe Love when he was young, than for me to Translate him when I am Old. He died at the Age of fifty two, and I began this Work in my great Clymacterique. But having perhaps a better Constitution than my Author, I have wrong'd him less, considering my Circumstances, than those who have attempted him before, either in our own, or any Modern Language. And though this Version is not void of Errours, yet it comforts me that the faults of others are not worth finding. Mine are neither gross nor frequent, in those Eclogues, wherein my Master has rais'd himself above that humble Stile in which Pastoral delights, and which I must confess is proper to the Education and Converse of Shepherds: for he found the strength of his Genius betimes, and was even in his youth preluding to his Georgics, and his Aeneis. He cou'd not forbear to try his Wings, though his Pinions were not harden'd to maintain a long laborious flight. Yet sometimes they bore him to a pitch as lofty, as ever he was able to reach afterwards. But when he was admonish'd by his subject to descend, he came down gently circling in the air, and singing to the ground. Like a Lark, melodious in her mounting, and continuing her Song 'till she alights: still preparing for a higher flight at her next sally, and tuning her voice to better musick. The Fourth, the Sixth, and the Eighth Pastorals, are clear Evidences of this truth. In the three first he contains himself, within his bounds; but Addressing to Pollio, his great Patron, and himself no vulgar Poet, he no longer cou'd restrain the freedom of his Spirit, but began to assert his Native Character, which is sublimity. Putting himself under the conduct of the same Cumaean Sybil whom afterwards he gave for a Guide to his Aeneas. 'Tis true he was sensible of his own boldness; and we know it by the Paulo Majora, which begins Fourth Eclogue. He remember'd, like young Manlius, that he was forbidden to Engage; but what avials an express Command to a youthful Courage, which presages Victory in the attempt? Encourag'd with Success, he prceeds farther in the Sixth, and invades the Province of Philosophy. And notwithstanding thatPhoebus had forewarn'd him of Singing Wars, as he there confesses, yet he presum'd that the search of Nature was as free to him as to Lucretius, who at his Age explain'd it according to the Principles of Epicurus. In his Eighth Eclogue, he has innovated nothing; the former part of it being the Complaint and despair of a forsaken Lover: the latter, a Charm of an Enchantress, to renew a lost Affection. But the Complaint perhaps contains some Topicks which are above the Condition of his Persons; and our Author seems to have made his Herdsmen somewhat too Learn'd for their Profession: The Charms are also of the same nature, but both were Copied from Theocritus, and had receiv'd the applause of former Ages in their Original. There is a kind of Rusticity in all those pompous Verses; somewhat of a Holiday Shepherd strutting in his Country Buskins. The like may be observ'd, both in the Pollio, and the Silenus; where the Similitudes are drawn from the Woods and Meadows. They seem to me to represent our Poet betwixt a Farmer, and a Courtier, when he left Mantua for Rome, and drest himself in his best Habit to appear before his Patron: Somewhat too fine for the place from whence he came, and yet retaining part of its simplicity. In the Ninth Pastoral he Collects some beautiful passages which were scatter'd in Theocritus, which he cou'd not insert into any of his former Eclogues, and yet was unwilling they shou'd be lost. In all the rest he is equal to his Sicilian Master, and observes like him a just decorum, both of the Subject, and the Persons. As particularly in the Third Pastoral, where one of his Shepherds describes a Bowl, or Mazer, curiously Carv'd.
In medio duo signa: Canon, & quis fuit alter,
Descripsit radio, totum qui gentibus orbem.
He remembers only the name of Conon, and forgets the other on set purpose: (whether he means Anaximander, or Eudoxus, I dispute not,) but he was certainly forgotten, to shew his Country Swain was no great scholar.
After all, I must confess that the Boorish Dialect of Theocritus has a secret charm in it, which the Roman Language cannot imitate, though Virgil has drawn it down as low as possibly he cou'd; as in the "Cujum pecus," and some other words, for which he was so unjustly blam'd by the bad Criticks of his Age, who cou'd not see the Beauties of that "merum Rus," which the Poet describ'd in those Expressions. But Theocritus may justly be preferr'd as the Original, without injury to Virgil, who modesly contents himself with the second place, and glories only in being the first who transplanted Pastoral into his own Country; and brought it there to bear as happily as the Cherry-trees which Lucullus brought from Pontus.
Our own Nation has produc'd a third Poet in this kind, not inferiour to the two former. For the Shepherd's Kalendar of Spencer, is not to be match'd in any Modern Language. Not even by Tasso's Amynta, which infinitely transcends Guarini's Pastor-Fido, as having more of Nature in it, and being almost wholly clear from the wretched affectation of Learning. I will say nothing of the Piscatory Eclogues, because no Modern Latin can bear Criticism. 'Tis no wonder that rolling down through so many barbarous Ages, from the Spring of Virgil, it bears along with it the filth and ordures of the Goths and Vandals. Neither will I mention Monsieur Fontinelle, the living Glory of the French. 'Tis enough for him to have excell'd his Master Lucian, without attempting to compare our miserable Age with that of Virgil, or Theocritus. Let me only add, for his reputation,
—Si Pergama dextra
Defendi possint, etiam hac defensa fuissent.
But Spenser, being Master of our Northern Dialect; and skill'd in Chaucer's English, has so exactly imitated the Doric of Theocritus, that his Love is a perfect Image of that Passion which God infus'd into both Sexes, before it was corrupted with the Knowledge of Arts, and the Ceremonies of what we call good Manners.
My Lord, I know to whom I dedicate: And cou'd not have been induc'd by any motive to put this part of Virgil, or any other, into unlearned Hands. You have read him with pleasure, and I dare say, with admiration in the Latine, of which you are a Master. You have added to your Natural Endowments, which without flattery are Eminent, the superstructures of Study, and the knowledge of good Authors. Courage, Probity, and Humanity are inherent in you. These Vertues have ever been habitual to the Ancient House of Cumberland, from whence you are descended, and of which our Chronicles make so honourable mention in the long Wars betwixt the Rival Families of York and Lancaster. Your Forefathers have asserted the Party which they chose 'till death, and dy'd for its defence in the Fields of Battel. You have besides the fresh remembrance of your Noble Father; from whom you never can degenerate.
—Nec imbellem, feroces
Progenerant Aquilae Columbam.
It being almost morally impossible for you to be other than you are by kind; I need neither praise nor incite your Vertue. You are acquainted with the Roman History, and know without my information, that Patronage and Clientship always descended from the Fathers to the Sons; and that the same Plebeian Houses had recourse to the same Patrician Line which had formerly protected them: and followed their Principles and Fortunes to the last. So that I am your Lordship's by descent, and part of your Inheritance. And the natural inclination, which I have to serve you, adds to your paternal right, for I was wholly yours from the first moment, when I had the happiness and honour of being known to you. Be pleas'd therefore to accept the Rudiments of Virgil's Poetry: Coursely Translated I confess, but which yet retains some Beauties of the Author, which neither the barbarity of our Language, nor my unskilfulness cou'd so much sully, but that they appear sometimes in the dim mirrour which I hold before you. The Subject is not unsuitable to your Youth, which allows you yet to Love, and is proper to your present Scene of Life. Rural Recreations abroad, and Books at home, are the innocent Pleasures of a Man who is early Wise; and gives Fortune no more hold of him, than of necessity he must. 'Tis good, on some occasions to think beforehands as little as we can; to enjoy as much of the present as will not endanger our futurity; and to provide our selves of the Vertuoso's Saddle, which will be sure to amble, when the World is upon the hardest trott. What I humbly offer to your Lordship, is of this nature. I wish it pleasant, and am sure 'tis innocent. May you ever continue your esteem for Virgil; and not lessen it, for the faults of his Translatour; who is with all manner of Respect and sense of Gratitude,
Your Lordship's most humble, and most Obedient Servant,