November 1, 2006


Variations of Virgil (ERIC ORMSBY, November 1, 2006, NY Sun)

The poet Virgil was famed for licking his verses into shape the way a mother bear licks her newborn cub to give it form. He was rough and meticulous at once. In appearance he was large and swarthy; he spoke Latin like a yokel, except when he was declaiming poetry. Clearly, the author of "The Georgics" had thought about how to "make the cornfields happy," as he put it. He wrote beautifully about country matters from beekeeping to viticulture. Even when the details were drastically misinformed (Virgil was hopeless on bees),he sang of such things in a way at once sharp-eyed and melodious. He had a robust love of the Italian earth. But he was also delicate; his health was precarious, he coughed blood. As he lay dying in Brindisi in 19 B.C.E.,barely 50 years old, he ordered that "The Aeneid," on which he'd toiled for more than a decade, be destroyed, presumably because it was still unfinished. But the Emperor Augustus, thrilled by Books Two, Four and Six, which the poet had once recited to him, directed otherwise. This is hardly surprising. "The Aeneid" sees all Roman history and all Roman grandeur, culminating in Augustus. Thanks to imperial vanity, one of the greatest poems in Western literature has survived now for more than two millennia.

Robustness and delicacy coincide in "The Aeneid." The battle scenes are as savage as anything in Homer—his model as well as his unsurpassable rival—but there are also moments of exquisite tenderness."The Iliad" recounts the destruction of Troy and the scattering of the Trojans; "The Odyssey" relates the wanderings of Odysseus in the wake of the Trojan War. But "The Aeneid" does both epics one better: Virgil begins with the sack of Troy, but ends with the founding of a "new Troy," while the desperate itinerary of Aeneas, "driven by fate" and the hatred of Juno, parallels the wanderings of Odysseus. Still, the wily Greek is going home. Aeneas has no home, and his wanderings are more desperate. This is history as seen by the defeated, bound together not only by stubborn memory but by the distinctive Roman code of pietas or "piety." Roman piety linked the family, living and dead, with the city and the city with the gods, in unyielding loyalty, and this piety twines every line of "The Aeneid" together. The old joke about the sailor who thought "pious Aeneas" was a priest, not a hero, is funny enough but misses the point. Roman piety is something Virgil, a man of the soil as well as a Roman sophisticate, knew in his bones.

Robert Fagles, fresh from his triumphant renderings of both "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," has now turned his hand to "The Aeneid" (Viking, 496 pages, $40). The translator of Virgil needs to be steeped in Homer. The Roman poet plundered scenes and passages from his distant predecessor even as he sought to rival him. Mr. Fagles's version is splendidly energetic. It comes with a learned introduction by Bernard Knox, good notes, a map, and a "pronouncing glossary," as well as a genial translator's postscript. Both essays deftly mix the personal with the factual, and rightly so. The translation may not have been like the ascent of Aeneas from the underworld — "there the struggle, there the labor lies," says the Sybil — but it has clearly been a labor of love.

Eve Adler places the poem in context in her Vergil's Empire.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 1, 2006 8:32 AM

Fagles may indeed be a fine translator, but in the NYT review of the new Aeneid on Monday he revealed himself to have a terminal case of BDS, as well as a very very imperfect understanding of Virgil and of empire.

I meant to email you the link Monday, oj, but never got around to it.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at November 1, 2006 3:52 PM

Ms Adler compensates for those misunderstandings.

Posted by: oj at November 1, 2006 3:54 PM

Everyone knows Book I of the Aeneid. The entire work, however, is shot through with vivid, clear, penetrating images.

My favorite was always that line from Book VII, "Aspice qui coeant populi. . ."--"behold, the gathering clans." I have never been able to see people converging to an assembly, such as troops mustering for a morning formation, without forming those words.

Posted by: Lou Gots at November 2, 2006 11:18 AM