That Most Awful Poem, the Aeneid: A Translator's Tragic Alliance

By Ruden, Sarah | New Criterion, February 2006 | Go to article overview

That Most Awful Poem, the Aeneid: A Translator's Tragic Alliance


Ruden, Sarah, New Criterion


When I was reading Virgil's Aeneid for the first time, in translation, for a Great Books course at the University of Michigan, I heard in lectures what I believe are the usual criticisms. The epic about the founding of Rome is an aluminum-sided monument. It was commissioned for obvious and ephemeral political reasons. It is shallow and defensive in its depiction of women, stilted and depressive in its religion, and hostile to the suspension of disbelief. Yet it represents one of the four or five most significant eras in the history of the West, the Augustan Age. The Aeneid has to be studied--okay?

That is in fact why I come to be translating it for Yale University Press. It's assigned all over the place in world literature surveys. A good version of it can make a name for a translator and open possibilities that works like--um--the Satyricon and Lysistrata do not: The advance can be bigger than $3000, for example. But I started out with great guilt in this arranged marriage, unsure how dedicated I should be, worried about insincerity toward this being I did not love.

But I learned the joys of devotion, which I had failed to when I first experienced the Aeneid in Latin. It was on my doctoral reading list at Harvard, but at the time I was an Ovid fiend. Now, of course, I had to go through Virgil's epic much more attentively, and I got more than the usual benefits from prying into a classic.

What seldom comes across in translations is Virgil's wild but intricate genius, his boldness blended with diligence--as if he had made Breton doilies and set them alight--and I began to go back to the Aeneid every day in genuine eagerness to try to characterize his effects. What justly admired inspiration, for instance, to have turned a cartoonish line from a pretentious poem by Catullus (a line in which a lock of hair dedicated to a god says it was sorry to leave its owner's head) into the heartbreaking cry of Aeneas to the dead Dido: "'Invitus, regina, tuo de litore cessi'" ("It was against my will I left your country"--that's my own translation, not good enough, but I'm still working on it). Virgil was a stud.

I remembered now that my first serious translation project was four of the ten Eclogues, pastoral poems that were Virgil's first published work, which he in maturity wryly recalled as showing a "youthful recklessness." One Roman critic sneered at a startling, recherche use of tegmen (a rather rare word for "covering") for the shade of a beech tree: coverings are for keeping warm, not cool, you dummy. But Virgil's heedful hotdogging only contributed to my excitement as, at twenty, I sprawled on the floor of my room trying (and failing) to reproduce his intense depictions of tender friendship, lost love, and the joys of the country. "A Jove principium, Musae: Jovis onmia plena": "The beginning is from Jove, Muses: all things are full of Jove"--what more packed, more burgeoning line had I ever seen in English? But its full power, in the word order, in the rhythm, kept retreating from my imitation.

The ponderous Aeneid is similar to the agitated Eclogues in some essential ways. Both are highly artificial yet flail of deep feeling. This phenomenon is all but impenetrable to our poetics, which do include the association between profundity and difficulty along the lines of Pound, but usually deny the bond between feeling and structure, especially traditional structure such as the Greek and Roman meters. In fact, our pseudo-intellectuals condemn "greeting-card verse" (everything in symmetrical forms, apparently) as shallow and insincere because of its forms. The ancients believed almost the opposite: that if something was important, it had to be patterned.

Even the prose of orations contained rhythmic tags. The loftier and more learned the content, the stricter and more elaborate the form: Importance was measured by how much work you were willing to put into every part of the project. …

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