Book Review

Call to arms

A new translation of 'The Aeneid' brings attention to a rousing and relevant classic

CorrespondentNovember 12, 2006 

If a poet acquaintance told me that he had undertaken a translation of Virgil's epic, "The Aeneid," my first reaction might be, "Some nerve you've got there, dude." Not only is it one of the most famous and influential poems in world history, but there already exist several celebrated English translations. So, let me say at once that Robert Fagles' new translation is more than sufficient; it is yeomanlike, swift and generally trustworthy.

Fagles, a professor emeritus at Princeton University, emphasizes narrative. He seems to have looked at his earlier translations of "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," and decided that he had another rattling good story on his hands. He tackles the job with gusto and dispatch.

As well he might, for "The Aeneid" is indeed an entrancing tale. It sets out in vivid and authoritative terms the story of the fall of Troy to the Greek army; the flight of the hero Aeneas with a large Trojan force across the Mediterranean to the city of Carthage; his affair there with Queen Dido; and his journey onward to the shores of Italy, the country that was promised to his defeated people by Jove, the greatest of the gods. Inside this framework are mounted exciting war battles and fights with monsters; accounts of perilous sea travel to exotic sites; encounters with numerous divinities; a visit to the Underworld; and two love stories, one tragic, one with a happy ending.

Some readers know this story well. But when I try to imagine a reader coming to it without prior knowledge and in all innocence, I wonder what the reaction might be. How will they respond to a book whose story, in barebone terms, tells of an army of war refugees who impose upon the hospitality of various generous nations and tribes along the eastern seacoasts and then land upon an unknown shore, eager for an instant land grab?

What is their justification for such high-handed behavior? The fact that a god told them it was the right thing to do.

Already in Book One of the 12, Jove, the "Father of Gods and Men," says of the future race of Romans, "On them I set no limits, space or time/ I have granted them power, empire without end." When Aeneas deserts Dido, the proud queen he has courted and left a pregnant corpse on her funeral pyre, he is not blamed by the gods for his scurvy betrayal. They scold him for letting love distract him from the task of holy territorial conquest.

Of course, it is not fair to hold Virgil (70-10 BCE) to current standards of political correctness and it disserves the story to bring the ideals of modern liberalism to bear upon it. But "The Aeneid" is a political poem, and part of its purpose was to glorify the reign and the imperial policies of the emperor Augustus. The Victorians accepted these facts with better grace than many readers are likely to do today.

One of the most common rationalizations for territorial conquest is religious duty. ("God has told us the land is ours; those who dwell there now are only squatters and must be exiled or wiped out.") The Latin adjective habitually attached to Aeneas is "pius," which Fagles renders as "dutiful" or "duty-bound" to emphasize that this hero sees himself principally as an instrument of divine will. When in Book Eleven the native Italians send a truce delegation to the invading Trojans, Aeneas explains: "I'd never have come if Fate had not ordained me here/ a house and home."

And in Book Twelve, when the poet speaks in his own voice of the necessity of writing about war, the same religious reasoning is offered: "Now what god can unfold for me so many terrors?/ Who can make a song of slaughter in all its forms -- / the deaths of captains down the entire field ...?/ Did it please you so, great Jove, to see the world at war,/ the peoples clash that would later live in everlasting peace?"

Here is Manifest Destiny in unvarnished terms. Rudyard Kipling famously described the process as "The White Man's Burden": "Take up the White Man's burden -- / The savage wars of peace." Yet both Virgil and Kipling, while avowing imperialism, also viewed it with apprehension and regret. In "MacDonough's Song," Kipling warned, "But Holy State (we've lived to learn),/ Endeth in Holy War."

Just as Kipling described those native peoples brought by force under British rule as "lesser breeds without the Law," so Aeneas is entitled to the Latin territories by reason of genetic heritage. "You are the one whose age and breed the Fates approve,/ the one the Powers call," the Etruscan king, Evander, tells him.

My point in discussing "The Aeneid" as a political document is that it might have some relevance to contemporary American foreign policy. Yet while I believe it is true that Virgil's poem offers sometimes jarring insight into the nature of imperialism, I would not recommend it to readers on those grounds alone.

"Why should I, in this day and tumultuous age, spend time reading a 2000-year-old poem about the founding of Rome?" I take it for granted that most people who ask this question will never read Virgil, no matter what answer is offered. The single best reason to read the work is that it is a masterpiece, immense in scope, brilliant in execution and often moving in its separate episodes.

This being so, an intimidating onus falls upon the translator. John Dryden's 1697 translation will remain best, as almost all following translators recognize. It is the stateliest and the most consistent in tone, but 500 pages of rhymed couplets may not be congenial to all modem tastes. Among litterateurs, Gavin Douglas' 1513 translation holds repute, but it is couched in Scots dialect. In modem times, there are C. Day Lewis' slangy trial and Patrick Dickinson's pedestrian one, neither of which I recommend.

Still supreme in our time stands the 1983 translation of Robert Fitzgerald. Like Dryden, Fitzgerald had the advantage of being a fine poet in his own right. His lines are cast in a more measured rhythm and tone than are those of Fagles and if he lacks some of that pell-mell energy, he gives the work dignity and, when fitting, lyricism. If any reader cares to test the versions against each other, I recommend a page-by-page comparison of Book Four, called by Fagles "The Tragic Queen of Carthage" and by Fitzgerald, "The Passion of the Queen."

But, as I say, the new rendition of "The Aeneid" by Robert Fagles is a worthy achievement. He has problems with some of Virgil's involved syntax and resorts to annoying sentence fragments. He lapses into contemporary cliches like "cut and run" and he can produce lines of staggering awkwardness ("And I as I walk, I recognize a little Troy"), yet he mostly does pretty well. I think his heart must lie with Homer, but his affection for Virgil is obviously genuine and he does not betray it.

(Fred Chappell was inducted Friday into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame.)

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