POETRY, TRANSLATION & SUBVERSION: THE CASE OF WILLIAM DOBSON’S PARADISUS AMISSUS (1750/53)
In 1750 the Oxford academic William Dobson published an intriguing artifact - a Latin translation of Milton’s great English epic poem Paradise Lost (1667). But this is strangely curious – Milton’s poem it has been claimed was “by Englishmen for Englishmen” - and provokes the critical question: Why translate Paradise Lost into Latin? One defining feature of the European Epic is that it is always written in the vernacular for patriotic reasons, thereby reducing Dobson’s Paradisus Amissus to an anomaly. What could be the cause of such a perverse literary enterprise? In this paper I propose six possible rationales. The first two propositions are that the translator seeks to show off his language skills, or that his motivation is purely one of financial gain and/or fame; the third rationale is that the translation was aimed at a foreign readership and was accordingly composed in the international language of educated Europeans; the fourth and fifth arguments variously propose that a Latin translation of Milton’s epic is a natural logical conclusion: Milton himself was one of the greatest writers in Latin in the Seventeenth-century, and as a literary classic Paradise Lost is in direct competition against, and in dialogue with, Virgil’s Latin classic The Aeneid. But my final
conjecture is the most subversive. Dobson’s Paradisus Amissus is an attempt by the English middle-class intelligentsia to reclaim from the popular masses the pre-eminent English non-Biblical religious text. This conclusion underlies the disturbing paradox apparent throughout the history of Milton studies: Milton the great radical author of the common Englishman - the proponent of freedom of the press, divorce for incompatibility, and democracy – must be deradicalised,
indeed emasculated, for the English higher classes to remain the guardians of the Miltonic sublime.
Keywords: Milton, Latin, translation, subversion, radical, paradox