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[331] The Aeneid – Virgil

” We are fighting a misguided war, fellow-citizens, against unconquerable heroes and the sons of gods. Battle does not weary them, and even in defeat they cannot take their hands from the sword. ” [Book 11, Lines 306-309]

The Aeneid is so much more readable than The Iliad and The Odyssey. Whether it was the verse structure or the prose translation on which this review focuses, The Aeneid, startlingly similar to Homer, is very clear and straight forward even for a casual reader, without any obscure metaphors, owing probably to the fact that it’s a blatant work of propaganda, designed to give Augustus, Virgil’s patron, and Augustus’ Rome a mythic history to rival that of Greece. Despite the simplicity, the prose of Virgil’s epic is daubed with very vivid incidents: baby strapped to a spear and thrown across the river, an aged hero feasting his eyes on his old friend’s son, the grief of a woman when she meets the Trojan youth who is the same age as her son.

After the fall of Troy, the commands of divine destiny have driven Aeneas, the legendary survivor, his son and comrades to head to Latium (Italy), where they would ask for a little piece of land for his father’s gods. They have sailed desolate seas, taking refuge from the storm in Carthage (Libya), where he dallies on Dido, whom he leaves to die because Fate has forbidden the romantic affair. Jupiter has blocked his ears to all appeals of her love and reassures him his purpose: to lift his shoulder the fame and fate of his descendants.

Rumors flutter everyone’s feather, man and god. The one passage that I find myself savoring, over and over, but extramural to the main events, is an aside on Rumor:

[…] Of all the ills there are, Rumour is the swiftest. She thrives on movement and gathers strength as she goes. From small and timorous beginnings she soon lifts herself up into the air, her feet still on the ground and her head hidden in the clouds. They say she is the last daughter of Mother Earth who bore her in rage against the gods, a sister for Coeus and Enceladus. Rumour is quick of foot and swift on the wing, a huge and horrible monster, and under every feather of her body, strange to tell, there lies an eye that never sleeps, a mouth and a tongue that are never silent and an ear always pricked. By night she flies between earth and sky, squawking through the darkness, and never lowers her eyelids in deep sleep. By day she keeps watch perched on the tops of gables or on high towers and causes fear in great cities, holding fast to her lies and distortions as often as she tells the truth. [Book 4, Lines 176-189]

War ensues when recalcitrant Juno, Jupital’s sister, will not hear of Lavinia’s forthcoming engagement to Aeneas. “If I cannot prevail upon the gods above, I shall move hell.” [Book 7, Lines 313-4] Swathed in the cloud, she descends into the mortal land, throwing tantrum and provoking and instigating the players in the matter. In the queen she induces anger and disappointment. In Turnus she breathes deadly hatred for the Trojan visitor.

With these words the fearsome goddess flew down to earth and roused Allecto, bringer of grief, from the infernal darkness of her home among the Furies. Dear to her heart were the horrors of war, anger, treachery and vicious accusations. … She had so many faces and such fearsome shapes and her head crawled with so many black serpents. [Book 7, Lines 324-8]

Taking one of the snakes from her dark the goddess Allecto threw it on Amata’s breast to enter deep into her heart, a horror driving her to frenzy and bringing down her whole house in ruin. [Book 7, Lines 347-350]

As frequently the divine machinations interfere with mortal lives, and how people constantly live at the caprice and mercy of these finical heavenly creatures, Jupiter reigns over, reiterating that Italy should never clash with the Trojans. Belligerence ensues. The climax of the novel centers strongly around Aeneas and Turnus, with obvious parallels to Achilles and Hecktor. Despite the similarity of actions, and how successful Virgil had been in promoting his Roman virtues in the figure of Aeneas, the pair is drastically different from the Greek one. The epic closes in a very sudden, but suitably dramatic and visceral finish. The book is contemplative of human predicament, portraying human life in all of its nobility and suffering. West’s prose retains the formality which elevates key passages and preserves the flow of the original verse structure.

353 pp. Penguin classics. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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5 Responses

  1. I have the Aeneid in the Fagles translation, and it is on my TBR list for 2011, along with Mandelbaum’s translation of Ovid.

    Matt, I have only recently discovered your blog and I enjoy it very much. Talk of Cafe Floré makes me miss San Francisco, where I lived from 1977-1981. Many was the time I would sit there with a book and a cup of coffee.

    Ah…youth.

    Happy New Year.

  2. My son had to read The Aeneid a few years ago for his high school class and hated it. The translation really put he and all of his classmates off. I picked it up and also struggled with it. I am so happy to read your review and to give the story another try, this time with the Penguin version! You have never steered me wrong in a book recommendation yet!

  3. I loved this. Kathleen – I think these kinds of works are SO dependent on the translator. When I read it in high school, we read portions in Latin, and then the same portions translated by 3-4 different translators. I think I settled on Fagles as my favorite, though we ended up reading Mandelbaum as a class. Regardless, the lesson of the importance of translation has stuck with me all these years.

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