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The Return of Virgil

The Aeneid

by Virgil, translated by Robert Fitzgerald
Random House, 402 pp., $20.00

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 our species changes utterly. “Yes, this is true,” we say of such writing, “this is how it is.” There is a second kind of nowness, timely rather than timeless, whereby an old author reemerges and is found to speak with a contemporary voice to the concerns of a particular generation. Donne and Góngora earlier in the century spoke in this way, until the academy stepped in and reclaimed them.

Though he has countless phrases and lines that touch the heart as immediately as any poetry can, Virgil does not possess the first kind of contemporaneity. His art is too distanced, his poem too much the expression of a certain moment in history to be timeless in the sense that Homer’s is. What of the second kind? Will Fitzgerald’s Aeneid guide us, Latinists and Latinless alike, to uncover a timely Aeneid? Though the world has not much marked them, some classicists have been pointing in this direction for a while. The Virgil of R.A. Brooks’s superb paper “Discolor Aura: Reflections on the Golden Bough”1 is distinctly de nos jours; there is nothing antiquarian about the Aeneid proposed by Ralph Johnson is Darkness Visible.2

If the poem is an epic of the foundation of Rome, its theme is the refounding, or possibility of refounding, the res Romana which Augustus (Octavian, as he was then) had in hand when Virgil began writing around 30 BC. The possibility and above all the cost of refounding: for while Virgil steadfastly believes in the city, the ordered human community, he is very conscious of the all but ruinous burdens it imposes, of how much it calls on us to renounce in the way of instinctual gratification. He has or at least understands our sense that any acceptable order should be not imposed but, as Stevens says, discovered—educed or allowed to emerge as the natural configuration of what has to be ordered. Where he goes beyond us is in his allegiance to the city and his willingness to accept the price that must be paid for it. If the poem is able to return its hesitant, brave Yes to the question “is the city worth so much suffering?” the answer would be worth little if it had not taken so fully into account everything that seems to cry “No.”

Virgil announces his theme at the end of the prelude to Book 1: “It was so massive, so burdensome a task [tantae molis erat] to found the Roman people.” He begins to show what this means in the scene that follows, an example of the way he makes the old epic machinery serve new purposes, moral, social, and political. Aeneas is on the last leg of his voyage to Italy when he runs into a storm stirred up by Juno, the poem’s principle not simply of discord but of positive evil, who has persuaded the wind god Aeolus to unleash the winds. Jupiter had imprisoned them in a huge cavern and charged Aeolus with guarding them, for were they to break loose “they would sweep away sea and land and high heaven.” Fearing this, he imposed on them “the mass [molem] of great mountains.” The winds must represent the passions and as such should be morally neutral, but the terrible century of anarchy and civil war from which Rome had only just emerged had shown what havoc the unrestrained passions can play. The passions, man’s natural instincts, can no longer be trusted; he must be forced to behave decently. This is what Virgil seems to imply in some curious words in Book 7 where the people of the golden age of Saturn are described as “righteous not by compulsion or law but of their own free will” (ll.203-204). So perhaps it was once, but in the iron age the poem inhabits man must be policed into virtue, “righteous by compulsion.”

The poem keeps asking how far this is morally possible. How much restraint and denial will human nature bear without being denatured and corrupted? In the figure of Turnus, Virgil presents the old unrestrained heroism of the Homeric world where the passions could enjoy themselves (as Nietzsche said of music) with remarkably few prohibitions. But Turnus, the innocent tragic victim of Juno’s malignant design, is broken and thrown aside, a man history no longer has any use for. In Aeneas, as everyone says, Virgil tries to portray a new, self-denying heroism, but from the Romantic period on many readers have felt that he is simply not a hero at all. “Bigob, I thought he was a priest,” Yeats’s Irishman reportedly said.

The problem, the nearly insuperable problem of post-Homeric epic, is that this “new” hero must perform the old heroic actions, in the later books assume an Achillean, almost superhuman role. We have to try to see these actions as meaning something new and should I suppose say, “how sad that a sensitive person like Aeneas is forced to do such things.” The danger is that we do not really believe he is doing them at all—as though we were asked to imagine a character from Henry James uneasily at large in a Western.

This new heroism is more convincingly represented by what is done to Aeneas, what he has to endure, than by what he himself does. His career is one of continual renunciation. He would sooner have remained at Troy, but is compelled to set out on the fated journey to Italy. He would have been willing to stay with Dido in Africa, a cherished, not altogether disconsolate prince consort; the divine command forces him to abandon her. His military activities in the second half of the poem are impelled by no lust for conquest but again at the bidding of his destiny.

One human attachment after another is denied him. How often do we see him stretch out his arms—to his mother, his wife, his father, the woman he loved and deserted—only to see them vanish. In Book 8 he does finally embrace his divine mother Venus when she brings him the shield portraying scenes from the future history of Rome, most prominently the story of Antony and Cleopatra. What Aeneas sees there is a replay with a different ending of his own affair with Dido: a Roman who forsakes or so nearly forsakes his duty for love of an alien woman. Aeneas looks at the actions on the shield and “knowing nothing of the events themselves delights in the pictures.” Literally this is true, otherwise quite untrue. He knows all too well and yet his destiny cruelly forces him to delight in the terrible thing he has done.

How are we to understand all this? The Christians have their answer, no longer I think fashionable but still undeniably persuasive. A good deal in the poem seems to support it, above all what (from the other camp) looks like a lamentable failure of confidence, the sense that the world is simply too difficult and too terrible for man to find his way without constant divine guidance. The Christian reading sees Aeneas as a man with a vocation (in some fashion he obviously is), a man under obedience called on to renounce his own will and carry out the will of God in which, as the Christian poet will say, we find our peace. If Aeneas demonstrably does not find his peace in the poem, it is because the Christian message was still struggling to emerge and could not yet be firmly articulated, least of all in the old unregenerate heroic form.

The Aeneid will take such a reading but, fortunately for some of us, it allows others, and there are those who prefer a tragic or rather a darkly pessimistic Aeneid. For them it is the story of a man who tries to collaborate with God and history and is very, very nearly broken in the process. This in essence is Brooks’s interpretation (“Man does not fit in history,” as he puts it), which after thirty years still seems to me the most convincing we have.

The argument will go on, for like Paradise Lost the Aeneid is a controversial poem and it is here that its greatness consists, not in its “success” but in the profound and perhaps insoluble issues it raises and explores with such passion and truth. No epic “succeeds” after Homer.

A work of this sort demands a great deal of the translator. He must tell the story in a way that holds our attention, as Virgil does, and, as Virgil does, tell it in a way that lets us see through the story to what so richly lies half unspoken behind it. For Virgil’s narrative “means” in a sense that previous narrative does not. To make the old epic genre address his new Roman circumstance he had virtually to invent a new “polysemous” kind of poetry, as his commentator Servius called it, one with many levels of signification, and poetry has never been the same since. This of itself need pose no problem for the modern translator and indeed plays into his hands, since we now expect a poem to be polysemous. What makes Virgil almost untranslatable, in something more than the sense in which all good verse is untranslatable, is that his language, stylized, distanced, and yes, “poetical,” is at the furthest remove from any modern manner and from the natural genius of English.

A soldier has drunk too much wine and lies at night on the battlefield snoring. Shakespeare would have had no qualms about this, nor would Aeschylus, who lets his Furies snore in the very temple of Apollo. Virgil, however, whose stylistic canon does not readily allow for such creaturely activities, writes, “he breathed forth sleep from his whole breast,” and was complimented by Servius for avoiding the low word. Fitzgerald, neatly taking care of Virgil’s refined circumlocution and of our preference for calling spades spades, has the man “snoring loud, lungs full of sleep.” At times, inevitably, Virgil defeats him, as when he describes a pack of hounds as odora canum vis, literally “the keen-scented strength of dogs,” that is, strong dogs with a keen scent. This would be impossibly abstract in English and Fitzgerald sensibly lets it go with “hounds in packs keen on the scent.”

Inevitably again he sometimes gives his diction a more homely edge than the original strictly warrants. At the start of Book 5, as a storm blows up the helmsman Palinurus says, “Father Neptune, what are you brewing for us?” (Virgil merely writes “preparing”) and he tells Aeneas that there is no “bucking” the rough weather ahead (“struggling against,” Virgil writes). Dryden would have thought such “village words” too mean for the occasion, but the genius of our language is against him, and admitted temperately, as Fitzgerald admits them, they are invigorating. Too strident or pervasive a colloquialism would turn the Aeneid into a different poem, too stylized a diction leave the translation dead on the page.

Here and there we feel that Fitzgerald had to keep himself in check, chastening to Virgil’s sterner purposes the sprightly interventions which the Odyssey so readily allowed him. This is clearest in passages where Virgil is writing with the Greek poem in mind. In Book 4 he describes how Jupiter sent Mercury to tell Aeneas that he must leave Dido and get under way again, just as in Book 5 of the Odyssey Zeus sent Hermes to Odysseus with a similar message. Here is Fitzgerald’s account of the Greek:

No words were lost on Hermês the Wayfinder,
who bent to tie his beautiful sandals on,
ambrosial, golden, that carry him over water
or over endless land in a swish of the wind.

Such vivacity, compound of delight and a kind of detached amusement, will not do for Virgil:

He finished and fell silent. Mercury
Made ready to obey the great command
Of his great father, and he first tied on
The golden sandals, winged, that high in air
Transport him over seas or over land
Abreast of gale winds.

In Homer it is important for Odysseus and for his poem that he set out once more on the journey home; in Virgil the whole history of the world depends on Aeneas reaching Italy. For actions so momentous the translator must devise a weightier style; he cannot, as it were, take time off and enjoy himself en route. Not that Fitzgerald doesn’t give us an occasional grace note, as when in the famous scene where Venus and Vulcan make love he describes her as “cherishing him in her swansdown embrace.”

This is not the tear-drenched nineteenth-century Aeneid, but it is a painful, even grievous reading, above all a deeply serious reading. Its greatest single virtue is that it does what translation can seldom do: force us to think about and into what we read as hard as the original does. This must be what makes the almost insurmountable problem of translating Virgil’s marvelous language here seem less intractable. As Dryden knew (“I contemn the world when I think on it,” he wrote, “and myself when I translate it”), it cannot be directly translated. You cannot, that is, meet it head-on: what sane writer could suppose himself capable of wielding “the stateliest measure ever molded by the lips of man”? Fitzgerald’s achievement is that he has reached so deeply into what is said that the how of its saying comes to seem, almost, unimportant and his words take on their own sufficient dignity. Think of what Aeneas does and the kind of man he is, and the old dilemma of how to English pietas and pius Aeneas solves itself, by means that appear very simple. He is “a man apart, devoted to his mission.” So too with the opening words, hackneyed as a quotation from Hamlet, Arma virumque cano, where so many translators have come to grief. “I sing of warfare and a man at war,” Fitzgerald begins.

Without consciously trying to be Virgilian, he sounds like Virgil—a minor Virgil, to be sure, but that is already a great deal—by feeling as Virgil does and taking seriously the things he takes seriously. The Virgilian religio is here, his sense of the piety of elder days: “I paid / My homage to that shrine of ancient stone.” The Virgilian note of sorrow for all those who fail and fall is truly struck again and again: “The Teucrians on the shore wept for Misenus, / Doing for thankless dust the final honors.” Virgil’s tenderness is here: “And I could not believe that I would hurt you / So terribly by going,” Aeneas says to Dido in the underworld.

This is for many pages a quiet translation. (Sometimes it is salutary to turn back to Dryden for a harder, brisker Virgil.) Fitzgerald’s language does not draw a great deal of attention to itself, yet how seldom in this long work does it go dead on him. His ear, practiced on so many thousand lines of Homer, is very cunning, his fingering consistently sure. Here is Cleopatra at Actium: “The queen / Amidst the battle called her flotilla on / With a sistrum’s beat, a frenzy out of Egypt”—the slight metrical irregularity giving life to the picture. Here is the virgin warrior Camilla: “If she ran full speed / Over the tips of grain unharvested / She would not ever have bruised an ear, or else…”—the beautiful hypermetric syllable conveying the lilt and lightness of her passage. A sudden dactylic thrust gives us a famously onomatopoeic line: “Hoofbeat of horses shaking the dust of the plain.” Small things, it may seem, but the success of a translation depends on many minute effects.

Fitzgerald’s is so decisively the best modern Aeneid that it is unthinkable anyone will want to use any other version for a long time to come. Latinists, as they read it, will be led to consider their original afresh. Those without Latin are going to find, to their surprise, and I hope their pleasure, that the poem is still as good as anyone ever said it was. Virgil is back. Onorate l’altissimo poeta; l’ombra sua torna, ch’era dipartita. And with the next breath let us honor the American poet who has served his master so faithfully. A word should be said too in praise of Random House which has done him proud with a most handsome piece of bookmaking.

  1. 1

    American Journal of Philology 74 (1953), pp. 260-280.

  2. 2

    Darkness Visible: A Study of the Aeneid (University of California Press, 1976).

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