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Virgil Revisited

The Aeneid

by Virgil, translated from the Latin by David Ferry
University of Chicago Press, 416 pp., $35.00

One of the most magical passages in the Aeneid occurs when the hero, in search of the golden bough that will allow him entrance to the Underworld, is shown the way by two doves, emblems of his mother, Venus. In David Ferry’s new translation, the moment unfolds as follows:

He stood there where he was and watched to see
What signs he might be given by how they went,
Alighting to feed a little, then flying a little,
Alighting a little again to feed on the grass,
Then flying a little way, and alighting again,
Then flying a little again, feeding and flying,
Keeping themselves just far enough ahead
So that they can be seen by him who follows….

With all translations of the Aeneid into English, extra words are needed to convey the meaning of the more condensed Latin; this passage in Virgil’s text takes only four lines. But it is what Ferry accomplishes—his delighted attention to the movement of the doves, teasing the reader forward, and again forward, along with Aeneas; and his confidence, as a poet, in this instance to take an even more expansive liberty while keeping the diction pure and plain—that makes this new translation such a marvel throughout.

Vatican Palace/Scala/Art Resource
Virgil; detail from Raphael’s The Parnassus, circa 1511

Ferry’s previous outings with Virgil, in his matchless Eclogues and Georgics, had already convinced me that he has some sort of uncanny connection to the great poet. Especially when reading the Eclogues, one hears a new-old voice, as if Virgil had miraculously learned English and decided it might do as well as Latin. This kind of translation almost needs a new name, to distinguish it from all the other worthy efforts to bring the ancient poets to life: it is an iteration, another version, but also—perhaps, almost—the thing itself.

For centuries, schoolboys and girls “construed” Virgil into English. My own Latin education, which came too late to stick, required me to construe some lines from the Aeneid before a frowning, and then sarcastic, doorkeeper to a graduate program in literature. He seemed to regard my poor performance as no better than could be expected, and passed me on with a sigh. My point is that I am no scholar, and like the vast majority of readers I gratefully apprehend the likes of Virgil and Ovid through their English translators. In the twentieth century, the notable poets who devoted themselves to the task of translation were Rolfe Humphries (whose Metamorphoses remains my favorite) and Robert Fitzgerald, whose Aeneid (as his translations of Homer’s epics do) offers a fluid blank verse beauty somewhat absent in the more straightforward, unmetered version by Robert Fagles.

The poet lions Robert Lowell and W.H. Auden, while quite different in many ways, did have in common a classical education and a need to spar with and reinterpret, rather than translate, their ancestors. Notably, Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles” reimagines the scene from the Iliad in which Hephaestos forges the images on the shield. But instead of depicting scenes of a cosmological order and prosperity in time of peace, here Auden shows instead desolate landscapes of the twentieth century ravaged by war:

A plain without a feature, bare and brown,
No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood,
Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down….

Column by column in a cloud of dust
They marched away enduring a belief
Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief.

Auden, here as elsewhere, seeks to “correct” the ancients, as if they were naifs and optimists—an attitude too simple for him to have truly held, but that served its rhetorical purpose for the disappointed rage with which he chronicled contemporary horrors. In “Secondary Epic,” he reproaches, with “No, Virgil, no,” the imperial optimism of the Aeneid and conflates Caesar Augustus, the terrible “blond” conqueror who commissioned the poem from Virgil, with Nazis.

Robert Lowell often used the model of the Roman Empire for its many cautionary tales about warfare, ego, and general human folly. As a keen observer and critic of American public life, he well knew that the Aeneid had been embraced since the time of our founders as a kind of model American epic. Just as Aeneas and his Trojans left their scene of defeat and headed west across the sea, guided by Fate, to settle in a new land and establish Rome and empire, so, too, the Puritans left England, where they had been persecuted, sailed west, and founded a new City on a Hill—and its eventual entitlement to empire as well. Lowell found Roman-era militancy profoundly titillating as well as disgusting, which lends an air of shame to his meditations on the classical age throughout his work, including, memorably, in “Falling Asleep Over the Aeneid”:

And I stand up and heil the thousand men,
Who carry Pallas to the bird-priest. Then
The bird-priest groans, and as his birds foretold,
I greet the body, lip to lip. I hold
The sword that Dido used. It tries to speak,
A bird with Dido’s sworded breast. Its beak
Clangs and ejaculates the Punic word
I hear the bird-priest chirping like a bird.
I groan a little. “Who am I, and why?”

Virgil’s complex relation to how history unfolds always disorients readers, and not only the sleepy ones. Pious Romans believed that history was dictated by Fate, although in incidentals it was guided by the actions of the gods and of human beings. But Virgil’s technical discomfort with how this paradigm plays out in storytelling—where the suspense resides in not what will happen, but how, and where our foreknowledge might make us as readers too detached if the how is not gripping enough—results in, among other things, his famous use of the “historical present” throughout the poem. Again and again, he begins a passage in the past tense and then rushes into the present tense, as if asking us to forget the outcome and join the characters in the suspense of not knowing.

In one such passage, Sybil accompanies Aeneas into the Underworld, where they encounter Cerberus, moving from past to present, and then to past again:

Huge Cerberus, crouching there in the dooryard of
The cavern he was watchdog of, made all
The regions round reverberate with the loud
Barking of his three heads. Seeing the serpents
Bristling around his neck, the Sybil throws him
A drugged pellet of meal, drowsed with honey.
He catches it in his ravenous triple gullet,
Wolfs it down, and at once his monster body
Relaxed, and he sank down….

What results from this shuffling of tenses is a strange, accordion-fold relation to time. We sit far away, even farther away than the gods, since we in the future know that what Fate has decreed will come to pass. And yet much of the time we are “on the ground,” in the thick of the action in the present tense. Moreover, events from this historical present are constantly “predicting” the future—in addition to being given yet another famous shield covered in predictive panoramas, Aeneas is also peppered with auguries, omens, and more casual guesses, promises, and threats of consequence throughout the epic. His job, of course, is to see Fate realized in the most honorable of ways, to make his person serve as vehicle for the story that is so much larger than himself.

So this is one source of anxiety: Will I be good enough, brave enough, pious enough, to justify the fate that has befallen me? Aeneas dutifully carries the household gods (his Lares and Penates) wherever he goes, the hearth fire of piety brought from the old home to the new. “Troy” thus carried forward to become “Rome” seems to change the past itself, Fate overcoming Fate in retrospect. And for Aeneas, it seems that, even if one knows and believes in Fate—and Aeneas is repeatedly told to believe that Fate has decreed he will found Rome—the additional anxiety of not quite believing (because he, like us, lives in ordinary time and cannot actually perceive fate) is overwhelming. And it is from this not knowing, from the possible, though impious, position of disbelief, that Virgil energizes the narrative.

Just one of many instances can be found in Book 5, when Aeneas’s faith is rattled, first by a lightning strike that threatens to burn all the ships of his fleet, then by the rain that quenches the fires, rescuing most of the ships as suddenly as they had been doomed. The saving of the ships is not enough to convince him to go on, despite what he already knows he must do. (Here he is called “father Aeneas,” one of the many epithets Virgil uses for the hero. Others include “Venus’s son,” “the Trojan,” “true scion of the gods,” “goddess-born,” “Dardanian chieftain,” etc.)

But father Aeneas was shocked by what had happened,
And his mind was confused, this way, then that, between
Contending thoughts of what he ought to do,
Whether to stay in the fields of Sicily,
Forgetting what the oracles foretold,
Or strive to find his way to Italy.
Nautes the sage, then, who was renowned for knowing
The way to summon the Tritonian Pallas so
That she would answer, telling him what the wrath
Of the gods portended, or what was fated, what
Its course would be, spoke these words in order
To steady Aeneas and encourage him:

“Let us follow, goddess-born, wherever the Fates
In their spinning draw us on to go; whatever
It is that happens, we must endure and survive.”

Encouraged by Nautes, Aeneas is nonetheless still doubting—until his dead father Anchises appears to him in a dream, directing him onward. So the doubting hero—not entirely resolute, but perhaps all the more heroic for overcoming his doubts—ensures a drama that is as internal as it is external.

Erich Lessing/Art Resource
Aeneas carrying his father, Anchises, from the burning city of Troy; detail of a Greek amphora, circa 520 BC

In the passage quoted above, Ferry’s translation serves lucidly. Blank verse has long been the preferred approximation among translators of classical epics (dactylic hexameters, idiosyncratic to Greek and Latin poetics, being virtually impossible to maneuver over any distance in English.) Although plenty of Ferry’s lines conform to an exact iambic pentameter, he is also comfortable (as were his poetic ancestors before him, from Shakespeare to Frost) with an elegant array of substitutions—trochees reserved for the head of a line or following a mid-line pause; anapests, rare spondees, and enjambments deployed for emphasis and speed; feminine endings where necessary for a hesitant line—but he always returns to the ticking iambic clock for most of the text. (Fagles’s version approximates consistent line lengths throughout, but in offering no regular meter it lacks poise, and often gets prosy.) Ferry’s blank verse is as understatedly traditional, and unflashy, as his diction. The whole accumulates into a stately, inevitable force.

Ferry keeps his poem at a simmer, avoiding high-flown diction that might call too much attention to itself by boiling over. Rhetorical flourishes for which Latin poetry is famous (chiasmus, alliteration, elision, etc.) are never overdone; Ferry prefers to underscore intense moments with his own style of seesawing repetition-with-a-difference, as when Aeneas recounts his memories from the fall of Troy:

The great front gate of the palace falls in
Under the battering of the battering ram;
Force makes its way, unstoppable; the Greeks
Pour slaughtering in, so many of them, filling
The palace halls with the conquering entering foe.
The force of it and the fury is greater even
Than a foaming flooding river bursting through
All that would hold against its whirling waters
Insanely overflowing and carrying off
Whole herds and their stables with them across the plains.

Ferry allows Virgil’s metaphors the breathing room they need to stretch out and fill the reader’s imagination. One of the moments of highest drama in the poem, indeed in all of literature, occurs when Dido, realizing that Aeneas has sailed away, proceeds to her funeral pyre. Dido, “trembling, her wandering eyes bloodshot and rolling,/Her cheeks blotched red,” makes her farewell speech:

“I will die unavenged, but let me die,
Thus—thus—it is right that I go into the dark.
And may the eyes of the cruel Dardanian drink
These flames that they will see upon the deep
And may he carry with him ever after
These omens of the death I go to now.”

She spoke her last words thus, and as she did,
Her women see her fall upon her sword,
They see the blade of it foaming red with blood,
They see the blood running down upon her hands.
Their screaming rises high in the palace walls….

Ferry retains the collision of tenses, points of view, and even pronouns (Aeneas is “the cruel Dardanian” but his crew are also Dardanians, and observing along with him) from Virgil’s original, makes these ambiguities comprehensible without smoothing them over, and as always is unafraid of repetition (“die,” “thus,” “blood”).

Here is an opportunity to compare translations. The Latin original, for those last five lines after Dido’s speech, is:

Dixerat, atque illam media inter talia ferro
conlapsam aspiciunt comites, ensemque cruore
spumantem sparsasque manus. It clamor ad alta
atria…

Literally, and clumsily, this translates as: “Having spoken, in the midst of all that, her retinue sees/saw [Dido] fall/having fallen on the blade, the sword making a geyser of gore, hands awash in blood. The clamor rose to the roofs of the palace.” Dryden’s famous rhymed-couplet version from the eighteenth century treats the moment thus:

She said, and struck; deep enter’d in her side
The piercing steel, with reeking purple dyed:
Clogg’d in the wound the cruel weapon stands;
The spouting blood came streaming on her hands.
Her sad attendants saw the deadly stroke,
And with loud cries the sounding palace shook.

Dryden’s particular style of editorial enhancement—“reeking,” “purple,” “clogg’d,” and “sad” are all tonal interpolations—delights in small doses, though his heroic couplets certainly pall over the course of the entire text.

Fitzgerald’s version, published in the 1980s, has the advantage of being good blank verse:

Amid these words her household people saw her
Crumpled over the steel blade, and the blade
Aflush with red blood, drenched her hands. A scream
Pierced the high chambers…

But flourishes such as “aflush” and “drenched” suggest the language of the Romantics. Moreover, like Dryden before him, Fitzgerald chooses to limit himself to the simple past tense for the majority of the poem. While this certainly cleans up the tangle of Virgil’s tenses, it eliminates the urgency that the historical present can provide.

Fagles, as I earlier complained, eschews consistent meter, which to my ear makes some of the diction choices here (“doubled over,” “stabbing up”) seem arbitrary:

All at once, in the midst of her last words,
her women see her doubled over her sword, the blood
foaming over the blade, her hands spattered red.
A scream goes stabbing up to the high roofs….

Returning again to Ferry’s version:

She spoke her last words thus, and as she did,
Her women see her fall upon her sword,
They see the blade of it foaming red with blood,
They see the blood running down upon her hands.
Their screaming rises high in the palace walls….

The advantages of Ferry’s version seem obvious to me: regularity of meter, clarity of image, simplicity of language, understatement of the horrific. Throughout, Ferry maintains a coolness even amid the most terrible drama. It is as if he were writing not in our still-Romantic (even if post-Romantic) personal vein, but altogether in another mode: a classical, fatalistic one, to be sure, but also one in which emotion and achievement matter communally. Aeneas, for all the time we spend with his actions and his doubts, matters because he embodies the people—of the past, of his present, and yet to come. That is why it matters, as Ferry tells us, that we hear the poet’s “truth-telling pitying voice” chronicling this history—a history that, no matter the good end promised, is filled with suffering and cruelty.

One metaphor for which the Aeneid is justly famous is Virgil’s description of Rumor, which amounts to a blazon, or anti-blazon:

               She, enormous
Monster fleet of foot and fleet of wing,
Feathered all over and under every feather
An eye, unwinking, ever vigilant, and,
A tongue in a mouth, mouthing, whispering, and,
A pair of pricked up, ever-listening ears.
At night you can hear her screeching as she flies
Through the darkness, gliding exactly midway between
The heavens above and the earth beneath, and sits,
Nightwatcher, on the ledges of roofs, or on
The towers of cities, and calls down on the ones
Below, her frightening mingle of truth and lies,
Rhapsodically singing about them in the darkness….

In Ferry’s rendering, it is not just the apt repetition, but the location of each “mouth, mouthing” under every feather, alongside every eye, that makes Rumor—Fama—more revolting and alarming than in any other version I have read. And the possibility is there in the syntax of the original: “tot linguae” (those tongues) can be located anywhere on Rumor’s body, but Ferry chooses to place them physically where the phrase appears in the text, right next to the eyes. This does not make his version any more or less accurate than others, but it suggests the degree to which he has given himself over to the voice of Virgil. And though coherent translation frequently mandates that some choices left ambiguous in the Latin must be resolved in English, Ferry as much as possible makes use of the fluidity of associations in the original text.

On a single sour note, I must say that it is unfortunate that the publisher of this new translation has not made it more attractive to general readers. Except for a very handsome map of Aeneas’s journey on the endpapers, this book lacks the accessories—especially a glossary—required to make reading the Aeneid comfortable for all but the most expert. I found myself checking the user-friendly Fagles edition, with its bibliography, family trees, and pronouncing glossary, the entire time that I was reading the Ferry. It is to be hoped that Ferry’s publisher will include more material for the paperback edition.

Notably, Ferry’s translations of the Eclogues and Georgics from twenty years ago came equipped not only with useful notes and glossaries but also, as is easier with these briefer texts, with the Latin on the facing page. These are miraculous volumes; in particular, in the Eclogues there is a seamless match between Ferry and Virgil—these sometimes melancholy, sometimes sunny pastoral poems seem, next to the epical import of the Aeneid, almost frivolous. Since Caesar Augustus commissioned the Aeneid, we might guess that some of its heavier passages, especially in the details of war that occupy the second half of the epic, may not have best suited Virgil’s personality.

I’d certainly like to think that his “true” personality comes through in the Eclogues, some of which, in Ferry’s renditions, have the flavor almost of café songs. That is a terrible anachronism, of course; these pastoral poems are sung by shepherds in the fields, not Édith Piaf—or rather, they are supposed to be sung by shepherds, shepherds who have magically acquired the gift of poetry. Lost love, loneliness, lost lives, and retold stories of the ancients fill the shepherds’ songs—and usually, at the close of each small “competition” among them, they leave their poetic flights to come back down to earth, tending their sheep and goats and eating their bread and cheese as the evening star rises.

In the eighth Eclogue, Damon the shepherd calls for a return to the Golden Age, or maybe just a fanciful “opposite day”:

Let wolves run away from sheep, let golden apples
Suddenly be the fruit of mighty oaks,
Narcissus bloom on the boughs of alder trees,
And amber ooze from the bark of tamarisks;
Let owls compete with swans….

Earlier, Damon expressed the reason for his wish that the world change utterly, in these lines:

I know what Love is. He was born on the rocks
Of Tmaros or of Rhodope or else
Far in the Garamantian Desert. Love
Is not of our blood and he is not of our kind.

Here Virgil (or is it Ferry?) hangs perfectly poised between the personal and the general, between private suffering and the public good made from it—the public good that, in an ocean of lies, continues to survive in poetry’s truth.