The Preface to the Aeneis of Virgil (1718) - Part 1

Part 1

The Preface to the Aeneis of Virgil (1718).

by Joseph Trapp.


Joseph Trapp's translation of the _Aeneid_ was first published in two volumes dated respectively 1718 and 1720. Its appearance coincided with his vacation of his chair as Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford, an office which he was the first to hold and to which he had been elected in 1708.[1] The translation may be seen both as a valediction to the University by one whose subsequent career was to be made through the paths of clerical controversy and as a claim for the attention and patronage of the great world. The dedicatee was William, Lord North and Grey, and the list of subscribers is rich with the names of lords temporal and spiritual, including the Lord Primate of Ireland (Thomas Lindsay), who took four sets. Addison, Arbuthnot, Berkeley, Thomas Sheridan, Tickell, Swift, Young, and Thomas Warton (who succeeded Trapp as Professor of Poetry) also subscribed, but not Pope, whose views on Homer, Trapp criticised and misquoted. The University of Oxford was generous in its support (Cambridge was less so). We have, thus, in Trapp's _Aeneid_ a translation of Virgil that was probably read by many of the important figures of the English Augustan cultural milieu. In turn, Trapp, writing with highest academic authority, offers in his Preface an important critical account of Virgil's epic.

Trapp's career was typical of his times, combining literary and critical activity with religious and political partisanship. He was born into a clerical family in 1679 (his father was rector of Cherrington, Gloucestershire) and after proceeding to New College School, Oxford, and Wadham College, he attracted the attention of the wits by a series of paraphrases, translations, complimentary effusions (including "Peace. A poem: inscribed to ... Viscount Bolingbroke, 1713"), and at least one successful tragedy, _Abra-Mule; or Love and Empire_ (1704). In public affairs he was active in the defence of Henry Sacheverell, and his partisanship here must have cemented his relationship with Dr. William Lancaster, one of the bail for Sacheverell, who was Vice-Chancellor of Oxford at the time of Trapp's election to the chair of poetry. Less fortunate was Trapp's a.s.sociation with the dedicatee of the translation of the _Aeneid_, for Lord North and Grey, who was prominent in seeking to quash Sacheverell's impeachment (and became a privy-councillor in 1711), was committed to the Tower in 1722 for complicity in the Atterbury plot and ended his days a wanderer on the continent. That Atterbury himself was a subscriber to the _Aeneid_ serves further to underline Trapp's Tory affiliations. The dedication by Trapp of his Oxford lectures on poetry (_Praelectiones Poeticae_, 1711-19)[2] to Bolingbroke appears to complete a fatal concatenation of literary and political a.s.sociation in the light of events after the death of Queen Anne.

Nonetheless, Trapp survived and prospered. Under the Tories he had been for a time chaplain to Sir Constantine Phipps, Lord Chancellor of Ireland, and shortly afterwards to Bolingbroke, who stood as G.o.dfather to Trapp's son Henry. During the Tory collapse, Peterborough presented him to the rectorship of Dauntsey in Wiltshire; Dr. Lancaster obtained for him the lectureship at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Westminster; and in the 1730s Bolingbroke, restored, preferred him to the rectorship of Harlington, Middles.e.x. Other livings and the presidency of Sion College were to accrue for faithful service, as Trapp turned his pen to the defence of the established church: first against the Roman Catholics (for which, perhaps, the University of Oxford created him Doctor of Divinity in 1728) and later against the Methodists, especially in his discourses on _The Nature, Folly, Sin, and Danger of being Righteous over much_ (1739).

Such engagements left him little time for literary creativity in the years before his death in 1747. However, Trapp finally finished his labors on Virgil by issuing a translation of the works (1731); and his poem _Thoughts Upon the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, h.e.l.l_ (1734-35) shows him attempting to combine literary pleasure with theological instruction--a potent mixture forcibly administered to his parishoners, for it is recorded that he desired in his will that a copy be presented to each "housekeeper" among them. _The Paradisus Amissus, Latine Redditus_ appeared in 1741-44. This translation of Milton into Latin is more than a freak of the neocla.s.sical mind. It is the natural complement to his earlier translation of the _Aeneid_ into Miltonic blank verse as well as his attempt to judge the cla.s.sic sublime by the achievement of the masterwork of Christian epic, a task that had preoccupied him as Oxford's Professor of Poetry.

The importance of Trapp's Preface to his version of the _Aeneid_ (and the extensive notes to the text) lies fundamentally in the fusion of Miltonic example with neocla.s.sical precept in an attempt both to understand the Latin text rationally and to communicate the intensely exciting and moving experience that the _Aeneid_ evokes. This was a new departure. French Aristotelian criticism of cla.s.sical epic was (inevitably) not influenced by Milton. In the English tradition, neither Dryden in his Dedication of the _Aeneid_ nor Pope in the prefatory material to the _Iliad_ (with which Trapp frequently takes issue) used _Paradise Lost_ as the basic touchstone of value. Trapp was to be sneered at in Delany's "News from Parna.s.sus" for claiming in Pythagorean vein that the spirit of Milton had descended to him. This was unfair; he made no such claim. Trapp was trying to discover affinities between past and present in poetic sensibility and in the use of language. In doing so, he sought to place a major English poet in relation to Virgil, and he judged from this example that the English blank verse line had more of the grandeur of the Latin hexameter than the couplet in the hands even of Dryden or Pope. His taste told him that the imaginative invention and force of Milton had more of the Virgilian spirit than the elegant correctness of English Augustanism. He argues his position with vigor in the Preface and in his notes, and often with ill.u.s.trative example.

The conventional view that Trapp wished to change by the interpolation of Milton was that, whereas Virgil merited the laurel for judgment and decorum, Homer possessed greater "fire," "sublimity," "fecundity,"

"majesty," and "vastness" (to use Trapp's terms). Homer was praised as the great original and inventor; Virgil followed in his steps with more refinement and rationality, showing everywhere that good sense and polished concision of expression characteristic of the Augustan age (so, for instance, Rene Rapin claimed in the well-known _Comparaison_).[3]

One blossomed with the wild abundance and grandeur of nature; the other displayed that cultivated order shown in fields and gardens. Trapp accepts all that was granted to the Roman poet, but he claims for Virgil, Homeric qualities also: his borrowings are merely the basis for his invention (witness the tale of Dido); and as for the fire of sublimity, Trapp, like a critical Prometheus, filches that also. Among the many instances of the Virgilian fire given in the Preface, he cites "the Arrival of _Aeneas_ with his Fleet and Forces" in the tenth book.

His translation runs thus:

Amaz'd stood _Turnus_, and th' _Ausonian_ Chiefs; 'Till, looking back, they saw the Navy move Cov'ring the Sea, and gliding make to Sh.o.r.e.

Fierce burns his Helm; and from his tow'ring Crest Flame flashes; and his Shield's round Bossy Gold Vomits vast Fires: As when in gloomy Night Ensanguin'd Comets shoot a dismal Glare; Or the red Dog-Star, rising on the World, To wretched Mortals threatens Dearth, and Plagues, With Baleful Light; and saddens all the Sky. (360 _ff._)

Trapp does not play the trite old game of setting the texts of Homer and Virgil in comparison, but what comes to his mind at once in his note, and rightly, given the language of his translation, is Milton describing Satan:

Like a Comet burn'd, That fires the Length of _Ophiucus_ huge In th' Artick Sky; and from his horrid hair Shakes Pestilence and War. (II. 708-711)

Similarly, when Aeneas hastens to meet Turnus in the twelfth book, Miltonic translation and Miltonic original are brought together to show the similarity between Virgilian and Christian sublime:

_Aeneas_ ... with Joy Exults; and thunders terrible in Arms.

As great as _Athos_, or as _Eryx_ great, Or Father _Apennine_, when crown'd with Okes He waves the ruffled Forest on his Brow, And rears his snowy Summit to the Clouds. (902 ff.)

On th' other Side _Satan_ allarm'd Collecting all his Might, dilated stood; Like _Teneriff_, or _Atlas_ unremov'd: His Stature reach'd the Sky, and on his Crest Sat Horrour plum'd. (IV. 985-989)

In the light of such ill.u.s.tration, it is not surprising that Trapp, in the Preface, when he wishes to give the feel of the Virgilian sublime, quotes Milton's description of the creation:

Let there be Light, said G.o.d; and forthwith Light Ethereal, first of Things, Quintessence pure, Sprang from the Deep. (p. x.x.x)

When he wants to show what grandeur with propriety the English language can achieve (even in the teeth of Dryden's rendering of Virgil, which he pertinently censures), he chooses his prime examples from Milton: witness the account of Satan "Hurl'd headlong, flaming from th' ethereal Sky...." It was a bold undertaking by Trapp, for Pope's version of Homer, elegantly correct in couplets, was in the press. Many a man was to suffer more in _The Dunciad_ for less.[4]

Trapp's immediate critical a.s.sociates in England clearly are John Dennis and Joseph Addison, and the origins of Trapp's thinking in cla.s.sical antiquity may be found in Longinus. Dennis had united Milton with the poets of antiquity as an example of the pa.s.sionate effects of the religious sublime,[5] while Addison (who had already translated a fragment of _Aeneid_ III into blank verse) in his _Spectator_ papers on _Paradise Lost_ had tastefully combined the structural formalism of Aristotelian criticism of the epic with enthusiastic comment on the grandeur and beauty of Milton's verse. To these must be added Trapp's favorite, Roscommon, who in _An Essay on Translated Verse_ (1685)[6] had interposed an imitation of Milton to ill.u.s.trate how English verses might rise to Roman greatness. But it would be unfair to Trapp merely to reduce him to a series of component sources. He adopts and adapts; and as far as the criticism of Virgil was concerned, his Preface and his notes are a refreshing plea for something that he felt had not been sufficiently emphasized in the _Aeneid_: the ever-varying energetic pa.s.sion that Longinian criticism had claimed was an essential quality of the greatest literary works. Trapp's choice of Miltonic example is only one means by which he emphasises that to truly respond to the _Aeneid_ (as to any major poem) was to be ravished by an overwhelming emotive experience. "The Art, and Triumph of Poetry are in nothing more seen, and felt, than in _Moving the Pa.s.sions_," he comments in his "Remarks"

on the tragical action of the fourth book to which he prefaced "_An Essay upon the Nature, and Art of_ Moving the Pa.s.sions _in Tragedy, and Epic Poetry_" (I. 377). "A Man cannot command his own Motions, while he reads This; The very _Verses are alive_" (II. 942) is a typical comment from his "Remarks" (on breaking the truce in the twelfth book). He introduces the third book by citing Horace: the poet's art is like magic, transporting us now to Thebes, now to Athens (I. 365). Sometimes he throws up his hands in rapture at the _je ne sais quoi_: "Some Beauties are the more so, for not being capable of Explanation. I feel it, tho' I cannot account for it" (I. 339). It is to the text the Preface lays the foundation for this kind of response in its emphasis on the emotive range of Virgil--on his power to burn and to freeze, to raise admiration, terror, and pity. "The _Greek_ Poet knew little of the Pa.s.sions, in comparison of the _Roman_" his argument runs, setting Virgil on the peak of Parna.s.sus.

This enthusiastic excitement is firmly controlled in the Preface by the disciplines of more formal criticism, and here, inevitably, Trapp follows the same kind of standard authorities as Dryden in his translation. It would be untypical of the man not to give positive guarantees of his learning and respectability. He shows that he had absorbed the arguments of Rene le Bossu's _Traite du Poeme Epique_ (1675) and knows Jean Regnauld de Segrais' translation of the _Aeneid_ (1668). He was familiar with Rene Rapin's _Reflexions sur la Poetique d'Aristote_ (1674) and Andre Dacier's _La Poetique d'Aristote Traduite en Francais. Avec des Remarques_ (1692). The name of J. C. Scaliger intrudes, if only to be mentioned with distaste; for the pedantic querulousness of Scaliger's extended comparison of Homer with Virgil attracted Trapp no more than it did Addison, both critics, in the English humanistic tradition, being more concerned with an appreciative and elegant brevity than with exhaustive scholarship. It was necessary also to show some knowledge of the quarrel of the ancients and moderns; but Trapp is concerned with the integrity of European culture, not with the inane counting of points for or against past or present and not at all with scoring off personal antagonists. In comparison, he makes Swift, who always sneered at him, and even Pope seem sometimes trivial and b.i.t.c.hy.

The restrained humanism of the Preface is noticeable. Thus, although the critical concerns of the age lead Trapp to seek to annex "clear Ideas"

"to the Words, _Action_, _Fable_, _Incident_, and _Episode_," there is nothing in his writing resembling the prolegomena to the _Aeneid_ in the Delphin edition,[7] prolegomena that define epic from the doctrine of Aristotle as the imitation of one action, ill.u.s.trious, complete, of a certain magnitude, which by narration in hexameter verse raises eminent men to the prime virtues by delight and admiration, proceeds to define the _actio_, _fabula_, _mores_, _sententia_, and _dictio_ in the abstract, and then demonstrates that the definitions fit the _Aeneid_ (_ergo_ it is an epic poem). This is scientific method ossified. On the other hand, if one compares Dryden's Dedication of the _Aeneid_, Trapp equally eschews the quirky digressiveness (and the wholesale borrowings), which give to Dryden's writing both its sense of personal and spontaneous insight and yet its prolixity and mere messiness. Trapp had studied the art to blot. The reader is spared Dryden's extended and pointless discussion (at second hand) of how long the action of the _Aeneid_ takes, let alone whether this is the right length for an epic action or whether Aeneas was too lacrymose to be a hero (presumably Trapp thought that those who will believe that will believe anything).

Likewise, Dryden's political insights, gathered as much from his own experience as from Roman history, are also swiftly pa.s.sed by for more aesthetic concerns. Perhaps the view of Dryden (and Pope) that the _Aeneid_ was a party piece like _Absalom and Achitophel_ was unbalanced,[8] but Trapp might have reflected that, if any man knew about political poetry, it was John Dryden and that the _Aeneid_ has a place in the history of the Roman civil wars. But the Oxford professor was more concerned with the sublime and beautiful.

As a critic of cla.s.sical epic there can be little reasonable doubt that Trapp stands comparison with either Dryden or Pope, and the honesty and value of his critical endeavor are worth respect. He can be cool and a.n.a.lytical when dispa.s.sionate reason is required (witness his account of how in brevity and morality Virgil Homer); but he is in no sense tied by a rigidly formalistic approach, happy to praise even that "_Variety_" which "justifies the Breach of almost any Rule" (Preface p.

xlvi), or the organic development of structure that seems to be "_no Method_ at all" (II. 953). Essentially, behind this firm but flexible criticism, there is a compelling sense that to read a great poem is to submit to an overwhelming experience; and his criticism is always hastening to ill.u.s.tration, with the tacit appeal, "It is like this, isn't it?" What is particularly stimulating, whether one accepts the claim or not that Virgilian style and sensibility are reflected in Milton, is the continual illumination of the cla.s.sics by the vernacular and particularly by modern example. It seems as if he is claiming that, to understand the past, we must respond to the literature of our own culture and that there are no important barriers between antiquity and the modern world, the appreciation of foreign languages and our own tongue. All true culture is always immediate and felt vitally as part of our being. In attempting to express this, Trapp is in touch with what is best in neocla.s.sicism.

University of Reading.


[1] He had held the chair for the maximum period of ten years permitted by the original statute. For further particulars, see Thomas Hearne, _Remarks and Collections_, ed. C. E. Doble (Oxford, 1886), entries for 14 July and 27 July 1708.

[2] There is a translation by William Bowyer, a.s.sisted by William Clarke, ent.i.tled _Lectures on Poetry_ (London, 1742).

[3] _Comparaison des poemes d'Homere et de Virgile_ (Paris, ?1688).

[4] He is identified by the Twickenham editor as the "_T--_" of the line "_T--s_ and T--the church and state gave o'er," in _The Dunciad_ of 1728 II. 381, but was dropped from the _Variorum_ in 1729. In the Warburton note of 1743, I.33, he may be alluded to in the gibe at "Professors."

[5] Notably in _The Advancement and Reformation of Modern Poetry_ (London, 1701) and _The Grounds of Criticism in Poetry_ (London, 1704).

[6] The Miltonic pa.s.sage was added to the second edition (1685). The poem originally appeared the previous year.

[7] Ed. Carolus Ruaeus, i.e. Charles de la Rue (Paris, 1675).

[8] I have further discussed this point in "What G.o.d, What Mortal? The _Aeneid_ and English Mock-Heroic," _Arion_ 8 (1969), 359-79.


The Preface to Joseph Trapp's translation of _The aeNEIS of Virgil_, Volume I (1718) is reproduced from a copy of the first edition in the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library (Shelf Mark: *FPR3736/T715V3/1718). A typical type-page (p. vii) measures 231 x 156 mm.



Professor of Poetry in the University of _Oxford_.

_----Parna.s.sia Laurus Parva sub ingenti Matris se subjicit umbra_.