A great poem? Yes, of course, but not in the very front rank, not quite in the same class as the Iliad and The Divine Comedy. So, I think, the common judgment on the Aeneid now runs. Eliot struck the note when, contrasting Tennyson’s “Ulysses” with the twenty-sixth canto of the Inferno, he described the “Tennyson-Virgilianism” of the diction as “too poetical in comparison with Dante to be the highest poetry.” If Virgil has not, like Milton in the Thirties, been “dethroned,” it is because, a few cantankerous poets apart (Pound, Graves), those who go in for such demolition work have not cared enough one way or the other. Let the Mantuan gather dust in his niche. What harm is he doing?
Secure in his lofty station for century after century (“the chastest poet, and royalest, that is to the memory of man known,” Bacon said), Virgil began to lose ground in the Romantic period and today his position is deeply ambiguous. Although fewer and fewer people have the classical languages, Homer and the Greek tragedians are present to the literary consciousness; Virgil is not, or not to the same degree, partly no doubt because he survives translation so much less well. Tell the story of the Iliad and still more of the Odyssey and a good deal of what Homer has to say comes across. The Aeneid is also a narrative poem and Virgil’s story is no less, in many ways far more, important, but the narrative action is refracted through a dense linguistic medium which conditions and controls the way we take that action. This medium, the incomparable language admired even by the poet’s adversaries, is not represented in either of our classic versions (Gavin Douglas writes, splendidly, a different kind of poetry; Dryden’s Augustan preconceptions are subtly, sometimes grossly, distorting), and has up to now defeated every modern translator.
Hence the news some years ago that Robert Fitzgerald was at work on the poem aroused the keenest expectations. The finest Greek translator of our age, how would he meet the supreme challenge of Virgil’s Latin? His enchanting Odyssey showed his command of a narrative style; if the Iliad proved less amenable to his genius, his version did suggest that here perhaps was the man uniquely qualified by taste and conviction to tackle the Aeneid. Now at last we have it, Fitzgerald’s Aeneid, a translation that lets us all come close to this famous poem and decide what, from its troubled past, it may have to say to our troubled present, and whether the old claims, however rephrased, can still be sustained.
A work of the past can possess the quality of “nowness” in two ways. It may treat so directly of what is permanent in the human condition that time can get no hold on it. The parting of Hector and Andromache in Book 6 of the Iliad asks for no exercise of the historical imagination: the best poetry of Thomas Hardy will not date unless…
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