Virgil: Aeneid

September 4, 2019


Aeneid

Virgil
Translated from the Latin by John Dryden
(Penguin Classics, 1997) [19 BC]
480 p.

Aeneid, Book VI
Virgil
Translated from the Latin by Seamus Heaney
(Faber & Faber, 2016)
xiii + 53 p.

What Diomede, nor Thetis’ greater son,
A thousand ships, nor ten years’ siege, had done:
False tears and fawning words the city won.

Kierkegaard wrote The Concept of Irony, with Constant Reference to Socrates; Virgil might well have titled his poem Aeneid, with Constant Reference to Homer. Not only do many episodes in Homer find echoes and analogues in this poem, but the story itself is the mirror image, as it were, of the Odyssey: both launch from the sack of Troy, but whereas Homer follows the victorious Greeks as they return home, Virgil follows the defeated Trojans as they seek a new homeland in which to found a new city, great Rome itself.

We join the story in medias res, Aeneas and his men having been blown off course on their journey and landed at Carthage in North Africa. There they are feasted at the court of Dido, and the Aeneid relates, in verse that is grippingly dramatic, the backstory of the Trojan Horse and the sack of Troy. Sent into exile, they endure various hardships and adventures before washing up at Carthage. (One amusing episode has them land on the island of the Cyclops. A Greek comes rushing unexpectedly out to meet them, begging them to take him on board. This, it turns out, is a sailor left behind by Odysseus when he visited the island a few weeks before! (Odyssey, IX)) During the telling of this tale Dido falls in love with Aeneas, but when he insists that the gods have destined him for other things, she commits suicide. This tragic love story forms one of the more satisfying sub-plots in the poem.

Pressing on toward Italy, they eventually make landfall, but despite their intentions to build a new city and live in peace, their neighbours, inflamed by the ill will of Juno, march to war against them. The entire second half of the poem is devoted to this war, and the poem ends abruptly when Aeneas at last kills his rival, Turnus:

He rais’d his arm aloft, and, at the word,
Deep in his bosom drove the shining sword.
The streaming blood distain’d his arms around,
And the disdainful soul came rushing thro’ the wound.

*

If you have ever wondered why Dante chose Virgil as his guide through Hell and Purgatory, you need only turn to Book VI, which relates the journey of Aeneas to the underworld in search of his father. Each time I read it, my hair stands on end, and I can feel the atmosphere again of Dante’s epic, through a glass darkly. It is among my favourite parts of the poem, so I was pleased to supplement my reading of Dryden’s translation with the recent translation of Book VI which Seamus Heaney made shortly before his death. He says he undertook it partly as a way of reflecting on his own father’s death, and on the birth of his granddaughter, but also as a way of honouring his childhood Latin teacher.

Heaney’s version has not the incantatory power of Dryden’s, but I nonetheless found it very good on its own terms. He writes in blank iambic pentameter. Let’s compare a few passages.

When Aeneas makes his first entry to the underworld, Dryden writes

Obscure they went thro’ dreary shades, that led
Along the waste dominions of the dead.
Thus wander travelers in woods by night,
By the moon’s doubtful and malignant light,
When Jove in dusky clouds involves the skies,
And the faint crescent shoots by fits before their eyes.

while Heaney gives us

On they went then in darkness, through the lonely
Shadowing night, a nowhere of deserted dwellings,
Dim phantasmal reaches where Pluto is king —
Like following a forest path by the hovering light
Of a moon that clouds and unclouds at Jupiter’s whim,
While the colours of the world pall in the gloom.

In this case I think I prefer Heaney; the ‘shoots by fits’ in Dryden sounds awkward, but ‘clouds and unclouds’ is a nice phrase, and I think Heaney, with his ‘darkness’, ‘shadowing’, ‘nowhere’, ‘deserted’, ‘pall’ and ‘gloom’ captures better the desolation of the place.

Moving downward, Aeneas comes upon a mysterious tree which Dryden describes in this way:

Full in the midst of this infernal road,
An elm displays her dusky arms abroad:
The God of Sleep there hides his heavy head,
And empty dreams on ev’ry leaf are spread.

and Heaney:

\; \; \; \; \; \; \; \; \; \; Right in the middle
Stands an elm, copious, darkly aflutter, old branches
Spread wide like arms, and here, it is said,
False dreams come to roost, clinger together
On the undersides of the leaves.

That ‘darkly aflutter’ is a nice touch, but I think the rhymes in Dryden add to the solemnity of the moment. Heaney, though, does tell us that the dreams are on the undersides of the leaves; I don’t know what this means, but it does seem an important detail, if indeed it is in Virgil.

For one last comparison, let’s take one of the more gruesome moments. Aeneas sees, Tityos, ‘the foster-son of Earth’, bound to the ground while a vulture of perpetual appetite perpetually consumes his liver. Writes Dryden:

There Tityus was to see, who took his birth
From heav’n, his nursing from the foodful earth.
Here his gigantic limbs, with large embrace,
Infold nine acres of infernal space.
A rav’nous vulture, in his open’d side,
Her crooked beak and cruel talons tried;
Still for the growing liver digg’d his breast;
The growing liver still supplied the feast;
Still are his entrails fruitful to their pains:
Th’ immortal hunger lasts, th’ immortal food remains.

Fantastic! And Heaney:

Tityos, his body stretching out
Over nine whole acres while a huge, horrendous
Vulture puddles forever with hooked beak
In his liver and entrails teeming with raw pain.
It burrows deep below the breastbone, feeding
And foraging without respite, for the gnawed-at
Gut and gutstrings keep renewing.

It’s good, but for me it’s simply not as good.

**

Toward the end of Aeneas’ underworld sojourn, the shade of his father, Anchises, foretells the future history of Rome, from the city’s founding down to the reign of the mighty and stupendous Augustus. When I have read the poem in the past, I have stumbled through this section, needing constantly to refer to the notes. But this time, rafter having spent the better part of two years reading Roman history, I read it with understanding! A nice pay-off.

To my mind the Aeneid is front-loaded with its best material. I love the story of the Trojan Horse and the fall of Troy in Book II, and the fateful romance of Dido and Aeneas in Book IV, and the journey to the underworld in Book VI, but once the Trojans make landfall in Italy and begin the long process of forming alliances and fighting battles with the locals it seems to lose its forward momentum, becoming a blur of minor characters and shifting allegiances. I feel about the first half as I feel about the Odyssey, but about the last half as I do about the Iliad.

This was my first time through the poem with Dryden; in the past I have read the Fitzgerald translation. There is no contest: Dryden prevails. His poem has the high epic tone. He carries the reader aloft. By all means, let there be other translations, but for English-speaking readers I am convinced he is essential. It is one of the few examples of a translation that stands on its own as a poetic masterpiece.

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