No one ever wrote a poem on first looking into a translation of Virgil. Perhaps because everyone was busy trying his own hand at it. In fact, the very poet inspired to sing his admiration for Chapman's Homer had himself attempted a version of the Aeneid. But John Keats aban doned this youthful effort, possibly realizing, as have poets before and since, that the essence of Virgil is no more easily grasped than Aeneas's father in the Elysian Fields: recog nizable and vivid but intangible and unembraceable. Many a titan tried, but even Victor Hugo—hulas—con ceded defeat.
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No one ever wrote a poem on first looking into a translation of Virgil. Perhaps because everyone was busy trying his own hand at it. In fact, the very poet inspired to sing his admiration for Chapman's Homer had himself attempted a version of the Aeneid.
But John Keats aban doned this youthful effort, possibly realizing, as have poets before and since, that the essence of Virgil is no more easily grasped than Aeneas's father in the Elysian Fields: recog nizable and vivid but intangible and unembraceable. Many a titan tried, but even Victor Hugo—hulas—con ceded defeat. To begin with the obvious: It is impossible to duplicate Latin word order in an uninflected language.
But this is the least of the problem. The result is irony of the subtlest variety. And this aspect of the poet's style has not always been appreciated.
One made the city of Troy prefigure the city of Rome; the other made the city of Rome prefigure the city of God. In both eases there is a highly sophis ticated orchestration of language, cul ture and attitudes.
Virgil also echoes earlier Latin poets, notably Lucretius and Catullus, but he repeats and refracts his own poetry as well. If this echo were not itself impossible to reproduce, what of the special Roman rever berations in the word urbs? The City. Last but far from least, there is the matter of Virgil's line. Virgil is to Latin hexameter what Milton is to blank verse: the ne plus ultra. Like Milton's, his lines cascade into paragraphs of verse.
After Virgil, as after Milton, it was all artificial emu lation. Interestingly enough, it is through Virgil that the most common Eng lish heroic medium was born.
The very earliest examples of blank verse are the Virgilian translations of Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey, com posed early in the 16th century and published in Surrey rendered only Books Two and Four, favorites among poets like Schiller who start but cannot finish. But Surrey's lines have a rough raw power. O native land! And of the Gods. The mansion place! O warlike walls of Troy! Four times it stopt in th'entry of our gate;. Four times the harness clatter'd in the womb.
But we go on, unsound of mem ory,. And blinded eke by rage per sever, till. This fatal monster in the tone we place. Surrey has his lapses too. John Dryden gave England its first —and perhaps only — successful Aeneid, in what was the heroic me dium of his age, the rhyming couplet. It was published with much fanfare in , and no less a man than William Congreve had checked his verses against the Latin.
Dryden's translation is one of the greatest achievements of the English Augus tan Age, when reverence for Virgil was at its height. There are pas sages in his Aeneid that have never been matched.
Indeed, to the credit of later translators, some have been adopted verbatim, as for example:. Thus Priam fell, and shared one common fate. With Troy in ashes, and his ruined state;. He who the scepter of all Asia swayed,. Whom monarchs like domestic slaves obeyed! On the bleak shore now lies the abandoned king,. A headless carcase, and a name less thing!
Admittedly his verse is less suited to the more tender moments, like the poignant death of young Nisus in Book Nine:. His snowy neck reclines upon his breast. Like a fair flower by the keen share oppressed. The Latin, an echo of Catullus, is far more gentle, the flower merely touched, tactus, by the plow. Still, in the main, his Aeneid is a work of genius and the high point of the couplet as heroic medium. Of the English translations since Dryden, none is really worthy of the name of poetry, with the possible exception of William Morris's ren dering in Dryden may have been outdated but he was never sup planted.
Fortunately the lack of well Englished Virgil was not a serious matter until our own day. For cen turies the bedrock of school curricula, Latin was a living language far long er than our own has been. And of course many of the great vernacular poets have also written Latin verse. I refer not merely to the likes of Donne and Milton, but to Swinburne as well e. Today, wherever Latin is taught, Virgil is almost always the first po etic text. But of course readers of Latin are a precious if happy few.
And though, paradoxically, Latin may be somewhat out of to day's curricula, the humanities are very in. And since human itas, the glorious Latin word with no real precedent in Greek is allegedly the quintes sence of the Aeneid, Virgil has a wide, if captive audience in paperback. But recent transla tions have been incomprehensi ble to students, inconvenient for teachers and downright in sulting to the English language. By any standards, Virgil has suffered most at the hands of Englishers.
Granted, as already argued, his style is in many ways untranslatable, but it is in no way opaque. Both translations are in current classroom use, assigned by teachers who knew better but had no choice. They now have a choice. For Allen Mandelbaum has pro duced a living Aeneid, a ver sion that is unmistakably po etry.
He has a great feel for the essence of Virgil's line and has reproduced it as much as possible in vital, flowing Eng lish pentameters which read like the words of a poet born in our own age. Was this not Dryden's prime criterion? This Aeneid may not be for all time only Vireil's is , but it is for ours.
And it will enable a wide new audience to realize that Virgil's epic is not the paean to humanitas that legions of ten dentious critics would have us believe. Do I dare challenge T. I do indeed and offer as proof a reading of the entire poem, which be gins arma virumque.
Study the final scene: pius Aeneas, dog gedly faithful to his destiny, has beaten the last antagonist to the founding of a new Troy. He has done so in single com bat, and his adversary lies wounded before him, conceding defeat. Turnus offers peace and begs for mercy, humilis sup plexque, humbly, as a suppli ant. He implores Aeneas to put an end to hatred, to allow him self to be touched by compas sion. The verb is tangere, the very one used earlier by Aeneas himself in awed admi ration of the lacrimae rerum, the tears of compassion for hu man misfortune.
Aeneas hesi tates. After all, has not Turnus bade him think of his own fa ther, and did not Anchises tell Aeneas that Rome's greatness would be in sparing the van quished? There was even a Ho meric precedent for compas sion. In Book 24 of the Iliad, Priam comes as suppliant to Achilles, bids him remember his father, show mercy and return Hector's body for burial.
Achil les, moved to tears, suppresses his hate and acts generously. Our final view of Aeneas is the polar opposite. Virgil does not depict what Mr. Eliot insists is an anima naturaliter Chris tiana. Aeneas is not even Stoic enough to master anger when he catches sight of the belt of Pallas, the young prince whom Turnus has slain. Read now Mandelbaum's version of the very last lines of the poem, a rendering which here far sur passes Dryden:. It is Pallas who strikes, who sacrifices you, who takes this payment from your shameless blood.
His limbs fell slack with chill; and with a moan his life, resentful, fled to Shades below. Yet the most intelligent of critics have ac tively avoided the truth of what he is saying. Even a very recent and respected explicator has argued that Aeneas must kill Turnis to preserve humani tas.
It is not I who propagandize; it is Virgil. For the true intent of the Aeneid is clear even in its opening words, which stood for centuries as the title of the entire work: arma virumque. The emphasis is squarely on arms. Had Virgil wished to stress the man, he could easily have placed virum in a more emphatic metrical position. Arma virumque are not dual subjects for epic celebration; they are irrecon cilable opposites.
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Arma virumque cano
Virgil was born on October 15, 70 B. He attended school at Cremona and Mediolanum Milan , then went to Rome, where he studied mathematics, medicine and rhetoric, and finally completed his studies in Naples. He entered literary circles as an "Alexandrian," the name given to a group of poets who sought inspiration in the sophisticated work of third-century Greek poets, also known as Alexandrians. In 49 BC Virgil became a Roman citizen. After his studies in Rome, Vergil is believed to have lived with his father for about 10 years, engaged in farm work, study, and writing poetry. After the battle of Philippi in 42 B. In the following years Virgil spent most of his time in Campania and Sicily, but he also had a house in Rome.
The Aeneid of Virgil
Virgil was born on October 15, 70 B. He attended school at Cremona and Mediolanum Milan , then went to Rome, where he studied mathematics, medicine and rhetoric, and finally completed his studies in Naples. He entered literary circles as an "Alexandrian," the name given to a group of poets who sought inspiration in the sophisticated work of third-century Greek poets, also known as Alexandrians. In 49 BC Virgil became a Roman citizen. After his studies in Rome, Vergil is believed to have lived with his father for about 10 years, engaged in farm work, study, and writing poetry. After the battle of Philippi in 42 B.