Guide: The Aeneid of Vergil

The Aeneid of Vergiltranslated by Sarah RudenYale University Press, 2008From kingdom to republic to empire, the ancient Romans have transfixed the imagination of the ages, inspiring bestselling novels, plays, poems, movies, and TV productions (not to mention several nations and more than a few dictatorships). Throughout 2009, Steve Donoghue will trace their pomp and circumstance in "A Year with the Romans."

Surgeons and fire-fighters may scoff, but still, translating Virgil’s Aeneid has got to rank as one of the most nerve-racking things a person can attempt. Certainly in purely literary contexts, things just don’t get much harder, and the great laurelled mass of her predecessors must at times have laid on Sarah Ruden like snow on the Donner Party, tempting her to desperation, madness, and snack-breaks. Every age since that of Augustus has sung the praises of the Aeneid and its wan, reserved poet. We hear of no Horace-style roistering (and the sex-crazed mad eloquence of Catullus is entirely absent), no government appointments or military commands – there is the work and nothing else (he shares this concentration with his near-contemporary the historian Livy, with oddly similar results).And what a work! It’s an allowable truism that matters of great merit can have mean or even malevolent origins, but has that contrast ever been starker than in the case of Virgil? (Ruden quietly changes the name, opting for “Vergil” as an acceptable shorthand for Publius Vergilius Maro and not even bothering to engage the 2000-year-old tradition that probably springs from the later scholar Donatus and links the man’s name with the virga legend says was planted in his memory; it’s a daring choice – at least, by classicist terms – made without fanfare on Ruden’s part) The generating cause of the poem couldn’t be crasser: Rome’s sniveling, parvenu emperor, Octavian-now-called-Augustus, instructed his cultural procurer Maecenas to find a poet willing to sing the praises of the new state born of Pharsalus and Actium – in effect, to justify Augustus’ power-grab by creating a new national epic. Virtually every major poet in Rome at the time was approached – Tibullus, Ovid, Horace, Catullus all turned down the job (it’s perhaps a sign of how little Augustus personally liked our poet’s work that he was chosen so late in the day). Virgil had done willing poetic service for Augustus before, writing his Georgics and Ecologues in part to extol the virtues of old-fashioned Roman morals but also, crucially, in part to offer an instruction manual to demobbed legionaries on what the hell you do with an apiary.Those two earlier poem-cycles did something else, too: they demonstrated that this bookish scholar born on a farm outside of Mantua could craft a gorgeously, dauntingly stylized Latin, shaping the language in ways like no previous writer. Augustus and Maecenas had their national poet.Unfortunately. Virgil took the assignment and went to ground, laboring for ten years (sometimes, if legend is to be believed, at the rate of only a line or two a day). There were work-in-progress readings given to friends and colleagues (who assured those not present that a great work was being born), and we may presume that when Augustus met with Virgil in Athens in 40 B.C. the emperor inquired after more than the weather. But even after ten years, there was no finished epic. Virgil grew sick during a trip to the East, gave the standard poet-deathbed instructions to destroy his work, then promptly expired, leaving behind literature’s single most impressive fragment, which, of course, Augustus ordered preserved.

Aeneas Introducing Cupid Dressed as Ascanius to Dido by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1757

But even given the occasional outsized particular, this is still a familiar enough outline. It certainly doesn’t prepare the newcomer for the staggering scope of Virgil’s subsequent fame. To give you an idea: when Jan Ziolkowski and Michael Putnam put together their 1,200 page study of that subsequent fame, published by Yale in 2008 as The Virgilian Tradition: The First Fifteen Hundred Years, they had to condense. “He has been cited,” wrote 19th century critic F.W.H. Myers, “in different centuries as an authority on the worship of river-nymphs and on the incarnation of Christ.” Augustine was wary of the lure his perfect Latinity posed to the faithful; Savonarola took inspiration from his rolling lines; the writers of the Italian Renaissance worshipped him to a man, and of course he is the object of the most famous literary tribute of them all: he is Dante’s guide and secular patron saint in the Divine Comedy.

In more recent times, inspiration has yielded pride of place to translation. The Earl of Surrey rendered fragments of Virgil into the very first English blank verse, and full-scale translations with portentous forwards and copious annotations have become virtually a rite of passage for classically-minded public intellectuals since the days of Dryden (whose Aeneid is justly proclaimed the ne plus ultra in English, despite the fact that its diction creaks rather audibly to the modern ear). The translation W. F. Jackson Knight did (in prose, as half of all Aeneids have been) for Penguin in 1956 was one of their best-selling titles for several decades, and the late 20th century saw much-heralded and much-lauded versions by Allen Mandelbaum, Robert Fitzgerald, Stanley Lombardo, and just a few years ago Robert Fagles. Every one of these translators has loudly cried the enormity of his task. Knight could write, simply, “On the whole, the Aeneid has usually been considered the best book. It has always been easy to argue that it is the best poem.”(Which isn’t to say there haven’t been naysayers. Because Virgil wrote his work to imperial order, it’s always carried the whiff of toadyism. And more dangerously in the mind of the reading public, the high style of Virgil’s Latin has always signaled a synonimity with artifice, with a certain soullessness that is always suspected of things done perfectly or near perfectly. An anonymous reviewer in 1857 put it pithily enough:

Homer walks in the open day, Virgil by lamplight. Homer gives us figures that breathe and move, Virgil usually treats us to waxwork. Homer has the full force and play of the drama, Virgil is essentially operatic. From Virgil back to Homer is a greater distance than from Homer back to life.

The work gets the last laugh on this accusation, however. People keep reading it.)And into this Olympian fracas has quietly slipped a new contestant, again produced by Yale (three cheers for the great academic presses!): Sarah Ruden, whose Aeneid marks the first full translation of the poem ever published by a woman. In one of those happy convergences that the arts sometimes produce, the occasion is doubly significant – not only has Ruden broken an embarrassing gender-barrier, but she’s produced the single best Aeneid of modern times, the only English translation of the work that a) doesn’t feel like a translation and b) may finally replace Dryden as the yardstick by which all Virgils are measured. Dryden has no greater appreciator under the sun than I, but still, 400 years is a good enough run for anybody.The supple greatness of the job she does is announced right at the start, in the epic’s famous opening poetic assertion:

Arms and a man I sing, the first from Troy,A fated exile to Lavinian shoresIn Italy. On land and sea, divine will –And Juno’s unforgetting rage – harassed him.War racked him too, until he set his cityAnd gods in Latium. There his Latin race rose,With Alban patriarchs, and Rome’s high walls.Muse, tell me why.

Already on display here are some of the qualities that will shape the whole of Ruden’s poem, especially her precisely controlled willingness to pack lines with information – there’s scarcely a term or phrase in those eight lines that other translators haven’t spun into whole lines, but tight constructions like “fated exile” or “unforgetting rage” do twice the work in half the space, and Ruden seems to have an inexhaustible supply of them (the enjambments work as well, giving readers some slight sense of the loose speed of Virgil’s work).Although such things shouldn’t matter, Ruden’s unassuming manner shines a favorable light on her whole project. When she makes casual allusion to “a typical translator (like me),” readers familiar with an all-too-rare convention will be alerted for some very, very nice things. This sense is furthered by the refreshingly down to earth note struck in Ruden’s Translator’s Preface (usually an elephant’s graveyard of orotundities), as for instance this bit on Virgil’s words:

Whereas the vocabulary is plain and powerful, the word order is extremely artful yet manages to enhance the power of the words. When the target language is English, with its strict word-order rules, to approach Vergil’s effects is beyond fantasy, but monotony is well within reach.

A translator who intentionally raises the specter of monotony might, we hope, be on doubled guard against it and other evils. No doubt the potential for translator evils abounds in the Aeneid … Latin poetic meter was determined by the length of syllables rather than by their inflection as in English, but inflection was also an important tool; the two could often be used in a coruscating kind of tension, sometimes working against each other, sometimes working together against the reader’s expectations. Because English bears such tensions very poorly (case in point: a totally effective way to signal a character in a movie is a space alien would be in inverted word-order to have him speak), there’s simply no way to reproduce the full amazement of what Virgil’s Latin is doing (Beware of any translator who says he’s doing just that – he’s lying and ought to be slapped). And so translators, like Reformation Christians, must face a bitter choice: representation or transubstantiation?

Purcell's "Dido & Aeneas" at Sadlers Wells Theatre in London, 2007

Readers face that choice too, and the Aeneids they encounter on a trip to the bookstore can batter them with unwanted individuality. And yet, there’s no way to avoid it: if we’re to assess Ruden’s achievement, we’ll need to indulge in at least a brief bout of side-by-side analysis. Fortunately, the remarkable fluidity, the revelatory concision – the success, in other words – of Ruden’s efforts will be readily obvious even on one go-round, so we’ll pick a moment and look at a short parade of the usual suspects. Let’s make the moment typically Virgilian in its multiplicity: the scene at the end of Book Five when the Trojan fleet is sailing away from a disastrous near-mutiny at Sicily.Aeneas has left behind the women, the weak and injured, the doubters … he’s sailing for Italy with only the best and the brightest of the refugees he led from Troy’s destruction, and Neptune has guaranteed safe passage to Italy for everybody – except Palinurus, the fleet’s guide. Virgil is hinting that the great founder of Rome sailed blind to his destiny, and he dramatizes that blindness by putting words of pompous incomprehension into his hero’s mouth when he discovers his guide’s disappearance. This cannot have been the straightforward call-to-greatness Augustus wanted, but his poet could only produce something more complex, and he did so in a bare half-dozen lines that fold and re-fold upon themselves. Let’s start with Dryden:

Scarce were his limbs extended at their length,The God, insulting with superior strength,Fell heavy on him, plung’d him in the Sea,And, with the Stern, the Rudder tore away.Headlong he fell, and strugling in the Main,Cry’d out for helping hands, but cry’d in vain …

Right away it must be admitted that this is not Dryden at his best, and the intervening centuries haven’t helped it any. “Insulting” to our ears has only one meaning, and that meaning isn’t in Virgil’s mind (it wasn’t in Dryden’s either, but that’s scarcely the point), and likewise the temporary confusion while the reader wonders who exactly tore away the stern and rudder. “Cry’d out for helping hands, but cry’d in vain” is good, but it can’t save the muddle of the rest. As for Aeneas’ apostrophe, Dryden gives it thus:

“For Faith repos’d on Seas, and on the flatt’ring Sky,Thy naked Corps is doomed, on Shores unknown to lye.”

This is the irony of Virgil’s passage, that Aeneas is unaware of what we’ve seen in the lines immediately preceding – that Palinurus in fact fights his fate, fights the god of sleep and is rudely, physically thrown overboard for his troubles. Aeneas assumes that his guide, lulled by the peaceful sea around them, fell asleep and fell overboard – and at this point in the epic, only the readers know the injustice of the characterization. Dryden captures the low-key arrogance of the captain’s pronouncement, but that doubled fussing in the first line is off-putting. Here’s Knight trying it in prose:

Scarcely had the unwanted repose begun to creep along his members and relax them, when Sleep bowed over him and flung him overboard into the transparent waves, still holding the tiller and also a part of the stern, which he had wrenched away with it; and he fell headlong, calling again and again on his friends in vain.

And Aeneas’ lament: “Ah, Palinurus, you were too trustful of the calm sky and sea. So you will lie, a shroudless form, on an unknown strand.”Even given the surface handicap of prose instead of poetry, that isn’t half bad. ‘Creep’ and ‘sleep’ slide into ‘over’ and ‘overboard’ and then into ‘still’ and ‘tiller,’ and the effect is wrapped up delicately with ‘again and again’ and ‘vain.’ And we’re closer to Virgil in the final apostrophe, since as in the original (but not in Dryden), Palinurus is named. Naming him is a tough choice for English poets concerned with feet and meter, since it eats up four precious spaces that could be used to describe other things. Of course, you’ll be less concerned with such parsimony if you’ve already decided to play a little looser with Virgil’s celebrated concision. Let’s see how Fagles does things:

Just as an instant sleep stole in and left him limp,The god, rearing over him, hurled him into the churning surf,And down he went, headfirst, wrenching a piece of the rudder offAnd the tiller too, and crying out to his shipmatesTime and again – no use –

That’s quite different, but not necessarily quite better. The question of agency – god or sleep? – is enhanced, but there’s quite a bit of invention: ‘churning’ implies the opposite of Virgil’s calm seas, and “down he went” needlessly doubles the action of “headfirst.” The “no use” set off by dashes replicates something of fragmentary, dreamlike idiom Virgil often uses to highlight doubt and double meanings, but it reads distinctly odd when set amidst the rest. Fagles has Aeneas say this:

“You trusted – oh, Palinurus –Far too much to a calm sky and sea.Your naked corpse will lie on an unknown shore.”

The addressing of Palinurus by name is here even more dramatic, but it’s accomplished by a little cheating – Fagles just expands the rhythm to allow it. There’s a calm to the exposition here, a muted observational tone that makes Aeneas sound like a fatuous moron reporting the obvious – and in the Aeneid, Aeneas needs no extra help in being a fatuous moron.Ruden handles the scene like this:

The stealthy doze sank in, and he relaxed.Sleep bent to pitch him into limpid waves,With the rudder and the piece of helm he clung to.His comrades didn’t hear the cries he gave.

The brevity is obvious – instead of five or six lines, we get four – but it hasn’t forced a cramped feeling. Thanks to Ruden’s economy of language, there’s even possible the slight relaxation of that “the cries he gave,” to flesh out the rhythm and provide the suggestion of a rhyme. She has to waste precious space with “piece of the helm” because she’d rather not trust in “tiller” (it’s just faintly possible that her audience is less well-educated than previous generations), and so she must sacrifice what none of our other exemplars did, Virgil’s specified “head-first” stage direction – but “pitched” is a much leaner, better choice than ‘hurled’ or ‘fell’ and does quite a bit to make up the loss. And “limpid” sure as hell beats “transparent.” The apostrophe goes like this:

“Oh, trusting victim of calm sea and sky,Unburied on some strange shore, Palinurus!”

The feeling here is wonderfully sharp, the sense that Aeneas’ grief over losing his friend and guide interrupts his statelier comments, erupts through them into a heartfelt cry. It renders the whole moment immediate in a way not approached by the other versions, and Ruden’s Aeneid is full of such eye-opening moments. Time and again while reading, places and tableaux long familiar to the habitué of Virgil come bursting to fresh life under Ruden’s skillful management. This is especially noticeable in passages that have traditionally tempted translators to bathos, like Aeneas’ famous (and famously sniveling) plea to scorned Dido:

A little on the facts, though: don’t imagineI meant to sneak away, and as for ‘husband,’I never made a pact of marriage with you.If fate would let me live the life I chose,If I had power over my decisions,I would have stayed at Troy, were I could tendBeloved graves; Priam’s high citadelWould stand; I would restore Troy for the conquered.But Grynean Apollo and the edictsOf Lycia drive me into Italy.My love, my home are there. You are Phoenician,But love to see your towers in Libya.How can you then resent us Trojans settlingIn Italy – our lawful foreign kingdom?

Her Aeneas still doesn’t come off as likeable (even translators are only human, and Virgil’s Aeneas is, after all, the biggest horse’s patoot in all of literature), but unlike with so many translators, when he speaks his reprehensible lines in Ruden’s work, you can at least hear a person speaking them. Far too often in translations of the Aeneid, the poem’s hero opens his mouth and little blocks of marble come spilling out, but this never happens in Ruden: she’s a born playwright.This edition of the great poem comes with a minimal glossary of proper names and no explanatory notes at all, and such encumbrances will not be missed. What stands all the taller in their absence is the stunning accomplishment of this Aeneid. May it have four unchallenged centuries of its own.___Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He hosts the literary blog Stevereads and is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly.Join the Open Letters facebook page!Return to the Main Page