Ours is a great age for classical translation. Just in the past dozen years, Virgil’s “Aeneid” has been tackled by Robert Fagles, Stanley Lombardo, Frederick Ahl, Sarah Ruden and, now, David Ferry, who previously gave us the best modern English version of Horace’s odes . Being the work of an award-winning poet, Ferry’s “Aeneid” can be read with excitement and pleasure — but so can all those other translations. What really matters is to read at least one of them.
Born in 70 BCE, Publius Vergilius Maro, commonly known as Virgil, was the greatest of all Roman poets. After a childhood spent in provincial Mantua, he was educated in Milan and Naples, as we would now call them, and finally arrived in Rome around the time Lucretius brought out his cosmological masterwork, “On the Nature of Things,” and Catullus published his overheated love poems. Virgil’s genius was quickly recognized and his later career, as well as that of his friend Horace, was partly fostered by the proverbially rich Maecenas, an ardent patron of the arts.
According to early biographies, the poet was tall, shy and of a philosophical temperament. The unreliable Suetonius adds that “he very often suffered from stomach and throat troubles, as well as with headache; and . . . ate and drank but little. He was especially given to passions for boys, and his special favorites were Cebes and Alexander, whom he calls Alexis in the second poem of his Bucolics.”
Whether Virgil really was gay remains open to question.
There is no doubt, however, about his literary perfectionism. After his first two collections of pastoral poetry — “Bucolics” (also known as “Eclogues”) and “Georgics” — Virgil spent a dozen years working on “The Aeneid,” his epic account of the Trojan hero Aeneas and the legendary prehistory of Rome. Planning to devote a further three years to polishing his Homeric magnum opus, the unfortunate poet instead fell mortally ill in 19 BCE and ordered his friends to destroy the manuscript. The Emperor Augustus himself countermanded this deathbed wish. Virgil’s self-composed epitaph was laconically modest: “Cecini pascua, rura, duces” — “I sang of pastures, farms and commanders.”
For the next 1,800 years, “The Aeneid” was generally viewed as the preeminent masterpiece of the Western literary tradition. Its famous opening words, “Arma virumque cano” — Ferry translates them straightforwardly as “I sing of arms and the man” — can be found scribbled as graffiti at Pompeii. An awed Dante follows the arch-poet through Hell and Purgatory. In essence, wherever Latin was studied, Virgil’s poetry was revered. An English “Aeneid” first appeared in a 16th-century Scottish version by Gavin Douglas — highly praised by Ezra Pound — and was followed in the 17th century by John Dryden’s classic rendering in heroic couplets.
In the 18th century — the so-called Augustan age of English literature — Virgil was, if anything, even more deeply cherished. Back in the Middle Ages, his Fourth Eclogue had been thought to predict the birth of Christ; by the time of Pope, Johnson and other neoclassicists, “The Aeneid” was practically a sacred text, a majestic argument for self-discipline, religious obedience and sacrifice. After all, its hero was always described as “pius,” a multivalent adjective that blended “pious,” “dutiful” and “loyal.”
However, for the Romantics of the next generation, and for readers ever since, that characterization sounded priggish — or worse. Wasn’t “pius Aeneas” a cad to abandon his lover Dido, the queen of Carthage? Wasn’t he a brute to slay his enemy Turnus when the man was pitifully pleading for his life? Yeats mischievously claimed that a disbelieving Irish sailor once groused, “Aaach, a hero, him a hero? Bigob, I t’ought he waz a priest.” Then, too, didn’t “The Aeneid” fundamentally glorify Roman imperialism as well as suck up to the Emperor Augustus in particular? Even from an aesthetic viewpoint, the epic’s “Iliad”-like second half lacks the variety and excitement of the first, aside from the thrilling battlefield exploits of the female warrior Camilla.
Yet despite numerous cavils, “The Aeneid” still fuels modern imaginations. Bernard Shaw named his witty play about the false romanticization of war “Arms and the Man.” Hermann Broch produced one of modern fiction’s most challenging classics in “The Death of Virgil.” Ursula K. Le Guin’s last major novel, “Lavinia,” focused on the Italian princess that Aeneas eventually weds. And just before his death, Seamus Heaney finished a translation of Aeneas’s eerie visit to the Underworld. As the prophetic Sybil memorably points out, “Facilis descensus Averno” — the descent into Hell is easy. What’s hard is getting out.
Read today, “The Aeneid” often looks all too contemporary. Consider its basic premise: Fleeing a burning, ravaged city in Asia Minor, a group of displaced exiles set sails in desperate search of a new homeland. Instead of welcome, they encounter distrust and hatred. In this light, the poem becomes a tale of human endurance, of hope against hope, as well as a reminder of the fragility of civilization and the paramount need for compassion, forgiveness and reconciliation. Ferry stresses this interpretation in his preface, where he quotes a passage from Book 11:
Aurora rose, spreading her pitying light
And with it bringing back to sight the labors
Of sad mortality, what men have done,
And what has been done to them; and what they must do
This is beautifully said, and yet it’s only one possible approach to these lines. Compare, for instance, Allen Mandelbaum’s mid 20th-century version:
Meanwhile Aurora showed her gracious light
to miserable mortals, bringing back
their work and tasks.
Ferry seems more “poetic” but also wordier.
How does Robert Fitzgerald render the Latin? Or Lombardo or Ruden? For a classic as rich, as inexhaustible as “The Aeneid,” no single translation, however fine, can ever be enough.
Michael Dirda reviews books every Thursday for The Washington Post.
Translated from the Latin by David Ferry
University of Chicago. 416 pp. $35