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.
A successful translation of "The Aeneid" must capture the supple Virgilian line without sacrificing the powerful momentum of the narrative. John Dryden probably did it best. In his 1697 translation, the heroic couplets move inexorably and the phrasing is elegant. Dryden conveys the fiercest and the gentlest moments with equal aplomb. His opening lines set the standard:
Arms, and the Man I sing, who forced by Fate,
And haughty Juno's unrelenting Hate;
Expelled and exiled, left the Trojan Shore;
Long labours, both by Sea and Land he bore …
No later translator has equalled Dryden's version, but it is unmistakably of its time — rhyming couplets aren't much in vogue (and, of course, Virgil's Latin doesn't rhyme), and Dryden's diction is often alien to a modern ear. But in the past century alone, there have been excellent versions by C. Day Lewis, Rolfe Humphries, C.H. Sisson, Allen Mandelbaum, and Robert Fitzgerald, among others. Every new translator is obliged to take these into account, somewhat as Virgil himself did with Homer. The best of these modern translations, in my opinion, is Fitzgerald's 1981 translation. Mr. Fagles generously acknowledges his example, commending Fitzgerald's "Latinity," by which he means, I suppose, that Fitzgerald maintains the difficult balance between Virgil's relentless momentum and his sculptural exquisiteness of phrase.
Mr. Fagles's translation lacks this balance. He isn't as interested in the sonorous line or passage as he is in the hurtling energy of the poem. He approvingly quotes C. S. Lewis's remark on the "enormous onward pressure" of "The Aeneid,"and he conveys this pressure superbly. To give one example: When in Book Two, Aeneas describes the fall of Troy to Dido and her court, he tells of the murder of Priam at the hands of the brutal Pyrrhus, Achilles' son. Mr. Fagles seizes the sheer terror of the episode with great force:
There at the very edge of the front gates
springs Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, prancing in arms,
aflash in his shimmering brazen sheath like a snake
buried the whole winter long under frozen turf,
swollen to bursting, fed full on poisonous weeds
and now it springs into light, sloughing its old skin
to glisten sleek in its newfound youth, its back slithering,
coiling, its proud chest rearing high to the sun,
its triple tongue flickering through its fangs.
The simile is carried forward, a few lines later, when Pyrrhus butchers Priam's son before him and then,
drags the old man
straight to the altar, quaking, slithering on through
slicks of his son's blood, and twisting Priam's hair
in his left hand, his right hand sweeping forth his sword —
a flash of steel — he buries it hiltdeep in the king's flank.
This is brilliantly done. The heavy-handed alliteration and even the occasional hackneyed phrase ("a flash of steel") don't spoil it because the awful snaky speed of the butchery is so swiftly caught. Mr. Fagles is less successful in those passages where pathos prevails. In Book Six, Virgil describes the dead waiting to be ferried across Acheron. In two famous lines he expresses their yearning. The Latin is crafted so that the longdrawn vowels he uses seem to be imploring with the dead: "Stabant orantes primi transmittere cursum, / Tendebantque manus ripae ulterioris amore." Fitzgerald caught this well: "There all stood begging to be first across / And reached out longing hands to the far shore." Mr. Fagles, by contrast, falls prosaic: "There they stood, pleading to be the first ones ferried over, / reaching out their hands in longing toward the farther shore. "Mr. Fagles tries to compensate by lengthening his line, but Fitzgerald showed how the yearning could be augmented by compressing the original. He preserved the integrity of the Virgilian line, which has a weight all its own. Mr. Fagles tends to sacrifice this, but the result is still impressive. In Mr. Fagles's hands, Virgil seems almost fiercer than Homer. His "pious Aeneas"will never be mistaken for a priest.