The short poem that may resound with greater familiarity than the typical verse by John Dryden is not entirely of his own making. In addition to being a playwright and prodigious creator of unique poetic flights of fancy, Dryden began to establish yet another reputation in the later period of his life: that of England’s foremost translators of classical works of the past into the English language. “Happy the Man” is representative of this twilight era of Dryden’s long and illustrious career as it is actually part of a comprehensive translation of the Odes of Horace, a major literary figure from the Roman Empire.
Published in 1685, Sylvae, or the Second Part of Poetical Miscellanies also includes translations by Dryden of works of equally legendary literary names of the ancient past including Ovid and Lucretius. Dryden’s “Happy the Man” technically, therefore, qualifies as a translation of Horace’s Ode 29 from his third volume of Odes under the application of logic based on proximity. A translation into one language from another usually carries within it the connotation of an attempt to be as strict as possible on the larger meaning of the original text by allowing for greater flexibility on the nuances of meaning of individual works. This, however, is not the approach undertaken by Dryden and thus is the source of much criticism of his technique.
Dryden never made any attempt to convince readers he was attempting one thing while doing another. He openly admits that his approach was to create a translation of Horace’s original Ode 29 as it might have turned out if Horace was moved to express the same thoughts and emotions that stimulated him to write in his native language during his period of history as if were one of Dryden’s contemporary literary peers born and living in England. The result—the poem “Happy the Man” may technically be less perfect as a word for word translation which could be accomplished today in seconds any of the instant translation sites on the web, but it has gone to become one of Dryden’s most beloved pieces of verse. Beyond that, it is also remains one of the most concise and convincing arguments forwarding an overarching philosophy of life equally applicable to any circumstance that may arise.