A review of The Aeneid by Virgil

Reviewed by Bob Williams

The Aeneid
by Virgil
2006, ISBN 0-670-03803-2, $40.00, 486 pages

Robert Fagles is the well known, much applauded, if somewhat controversial, translator of The Iliad and The Odyssey. A friend who knows Greek gave me a slight scolding for preferring Fagles’s translation to that of Richard Lattimore. Lattimore’s translation will take you, I find, to the exact same line in Homer, but his sturdy honesty loses against the imagination and color of Fagles. The introduction by Bernard Knox compares favorably to the introduction that he provided for Fagles’s translations of Homer. The backmatter has an afterword by the translator, notes to Virgil’s text, and a pronunciation guide. This is a handsome book and sturdily constructed with a ribbon bookmark.

I am not a Latinist but I have over the years immersed myself in Latin texts and have a little knowledge of the problems that Fagles faced. Virgil began The Aeneid in the most striking way he could manage and a line or two from near the opening becomes eminently suitable for comparison of the original with Fagles’s translation. Virgil writes:
Pallasne exurere classem
Argivum, atque ipsos potuit submergere ponto

And Fagles translates:
And yet Minerva could burn the fleet to ash
and drown my Argive crews in the sea.

The differences are revealing. Virgil chose words that gave his Latin verses a strong resemblance to Greek. His Pallas becomes Fagles’s Minerva although Fagles uses Pallas elsewhere. He also supplies a ‘my’ that is absent in the original. Later he translates ‘haud cessabit’ as ‘She won’t sit tight.’ The speaker is Venus and she is speaking of Juno. This slangy approach to the lives of the Olympians strikes an unusual note, a note that recurs frequently. The sportscaster voice that describes the funeral games for Anchises is appropriate and amusing, but elsewhere it calls attention to itself for no purpose.

On the topic of translations it should be well considered that that of Dryden is still green and always recommendable.

Rereading The Aeneid reminds me that Aeneas is rather hopeless. Virgil foregrounded his intentions of celebrating the consolidation of the troubled Roman world under the emperor Augustus, and it is this that in a sense takes the place of the kind of hero that we know from Homer. Consequently Aeneas has many of the qualities of a good horse but few of an intelligent and interesting man. In the matter of Dido he acts very poorly even allowing for the fact that he is obeying the will of the gods. Virgil allows him to feel remorse on a ‘told but not shown’ basis, but after a long, bitter, and affecting lament by Dido, Virgil says this:
Such terrible grief kept breaking from her heart
as Aeneas slept in peace on his ship’s high stern.

As a romantic hero Aeneas fails to keep his end up.

In the matter of differences between Virgil and Homer much can be said. Virgil had Homer strongly in mind, but was too great a writer to be subservient. Homer tells his story straight through and although he does so with subtlety, he does not turn aside to deal with events that are outside his original narrative impulse. If something else needs to be told, he will come back to it when it suits his convenience. Virgil, on the other hand, will leave a situation to deal with related events and then return to the original situation to complete his narrative. But although this allows for more sophisticated narrative methods, it is essentially impersonal. The meeting in the midst of battle of Diomedes and Glaucus in The Iliad is illustrative even though it is unique. After they discover that they have obligations to each other as a result of gift exchanges between their families, they agree not to fight and they cement this agreement by an exchange of armor. And about this exchange Homer says:
But the son of Cronus, Zeus, stole Glaucus’ wits away.
He traded his gold armor for bronze with Diomedes,
the worth of a hundred oxen just for nine.
Fagles’s translation

Who is speaking and to whom is he speaking? Homer is the speaker and he is speaking to the reader. This is the only time that Homer does this and it is for the first time in the world of literature. It gives us a glimpse of a man who is practical and wryly amused. There is nothing in Virgil of this sort.

The story of The Aeneid is soon told. Outcast from conquered Troy, Aeneas and his followers sail to Italy, a promised land. Juno is an enemy of the Trojans and attempts to thwart him, but Venus protects him because he is the child of her liaison with Anchises. It is now the seventh year from the fall of Troy and Aeneas is still struggling to reach Italy. He lapses from his intention during his affair with Dido at Carthage, but, hustled by orders from the gods, he resumes his journey. The ghost of his father appears to him and tells him that he must, before he assumes his role in Italy, visit the realm of the dead. In Italy he finds both allies and foes. He and Turnus, one of the local kings, fight over which of them has the right to marry Lavinia, an Italian princess. By the defeat and death of Turnus, Aeneas succeeds to a position of power that will later lead to the foundation of the Roman state.

The visit to the kingdom of the dead is a regular feature in the story of the Hero. When Odysseus paid his visit, he dug a trench. When Aeneas visits it, the entrance is more elaborate although he sees much that Odysseus had seen before him. When Dante visits it, he passes through an impressive portal and finds himself in an extremely elaborate city of the damned. There seems to be a progression in this matter.

Homer’s gods are a meddlesome bunch, but the reader does not have the sense that the balance is unduly in their favor. His heroes suffer from or thrive on the enmity or help of the gods but they also act on their own. The main situation of The Iliad springs after all from the entirely human – the intransigence of Achilles on the one hand and the mulishness of Agamemnon on the other. In The Aeneid the gods are all and the humans act by a divine thrusting on. This suits Virgil’s intention – the founding of Rome has divine sanction, the blessing of the gods. The one exception, haughty Juno with her unrelenting hate, becomes a plot convenience. Jove wants Rome but Juno hates the Trojans. From this conflict the story takes its vitality and the humans are less actors than puppets. The enjoyment of The Aeneid requires the reader to adjust to this. Sometimes an unusual virtue appears as a fault.

But when the battle between the forces of Turnus and Aeneas begins, Virgil asserts human bravery and human bravery begins – and that quickly – to emerge as greater than divine power. First Nisus and Euryalus, soldiers of Aeneas, conduct a daring nighttime raid on the camp of the Latins. It recalls that of Odysseus and Diomedes in The Iliad, but this raid is tragic. Both men dedicated by their love to each other are equally dedicated to honor and perish at the hands of the enemy. The battle around and within the Trojan fort the next morning is harrowing as Turnus single-handedly almost brings the Trojans to ruin. As Virgil presents the conflict, in the blood and desperation of battle man exceeds himself. He leaves no room until the end of this episode for Juno, viciously vindictive and small of mind and soul, to tamper with heroes. Not only does she have no space for her villainy, Jove’s own order (as well as Virgil’s own artistic need to keep her out of the conflict) restrains her.

Virgil is more rhetorical than Homer. A speech will often begin with the speaker wondering where he shall begin or what he should say when he does begin. This gives him the opportunity to recapitulate and review possibilities and to adjust his editorial slant. As with any fixture of literary convenience, its virtue or the opposite depends on how obtrusive it is. To Virgil’s contemporaries it was probably invisible – they lived in a world that found rhetoric to be important. (Unlike ours where it is one triviality among many, however inescapable.) To the modern reader the formality is a conspicuous and not always welcome device.

But the end of The Aeneid is war. Turnus and Aeneas become berserkers. It is not Aeneas’ natural character and it is the ferocity of Turnus that brings him to it. Both are caught up in the terrible beauty of war, an enthusiasm for which was proper in man’s childhood and still has its attractions for the childish. Within this framework Aeneas overcomes the limitations of the character that Virgil originally gives him. Turnus faces death and asks for mercy, a request hedged with more generous bravery than this bald description would suggest. He must, after all, even to the end be fearless. Aeneas almost complies but, seeing that Turnus wears a relic taken from the dead body of his friend, he kills him without mercy.

Fagles explains in the afterword how he sought a translation that would appeal to the modern reader and one notes how each book is some hundred lines longer than the original. Latin is concise and English expansive but this would not entirely explain such an excess of English over Latin lines. His translation is more florid than that, for example, of Robert Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is, like Lattimore, a translator who seems uncomfortable with English. Fagles is fully at his ease with English, has the poetic sense capable of doing all that a poet like Virgil or Homer needs, and, while one might find fault with some of the things that he does, the overall success of his work is obvious and gratifying to mind and senses. This is a book well worth acquiring.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places