Our book today is Allen Mandelbaum’s 1971 translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, with thirteen drawings by Barry Moser, a fine, collection-worthy volume that I have as a sturdy deep-green paperback from the University of California Press and that I’ve read probably two dozen times – a reflection, probably, of the oddly questing nature of my relationship with Virgil’s great big poem. I don’t love that poem with anything near the raw, personal love I feel for its Homeric templates, and nobody ever has (including Virgil), and every time I read it I at least try to figure out why. Translators are always trying to figure out why; they take on this enormous work and sink years of their lives into dressing it out in some kind of English, the whole time knowing it’s not just an echo and a pastiche but a self-conscious knockoff by a poet who didn’t even bother to hide his ambivalence with his whole project. It’s the combination of that toe-in-the-water diffidence and the at times almost incomprehensible level of poetic artistry that makes the Aeneid such a riddle; it’s impossible either to simply write it off as nationalistic propaganda or to embrace it as an honest, barbaric yawp on the level of the Iliad or Beowulf. It’s too self-aware to outright amaze us; it feels – and always has felt – like school. It’s a tame epic – which feels like it ought to be a fundamental contradiction.
Naturally, all that confusion bounces me around from preferring one English-language translation to another. My heart will always belong to John Dryden’s great version, and I find my estimation of Robert Fitzgerald’s translation lessens with each reading (there’s so much of Fitzgerald in it that the whole thing comes off feeling more like a collaboration than a translation); there are contemporary versions I like very much, but I keep returning to Mandelbaum’s translation – and to his stellar Introduction, in which he, too, grapples with the feeling of unease Virgil doesn’t bother to hide from his readers, an unease Mandelbaum hears as sadness:
Far from belief in miracle and magic, in the utopian leap, there is in Virgil a sense of the lost as truly irretrievable. He was indeed a celebrator of dominion, of the rule of law …But he is able to look with longing not only at the rule of Saturn (the gods, too, have their vicissitudes: Saturn had been evicted by Jupiter) … but also at Latinus’ description of his people as “needing no laws” …
Maybe one of the reasons I’ve loved the Mandelbaum version since it first appeared is sentimental: he was the first modern translator I’d ever encountered who esteemed Dryden instead of reflexively sneering at him (the entire body of his poetic work is still mostly only the object of reflexive sneering, which would have baffled the finest minds of his own day, and which baffles my own less-fine mind today). But I’ve also always loved how alive he is to Virgil’s enormous brain at work throughout the poem:
I have tried to impress what Macrobius heard and Dante learned on this translation, to embody both the grave tread and the speed and angularity Virgil can summon, the asymmetrical thrust of a mind on the move. I have tried to annul what too many readers of Virgil in modern translation have taken to be his: the flat and unvarious, and the loss of shape and energy where the end of the line is inert – neither reinforced nor resisted – and the mass of sound becomes amorphous and anonymous. In the course of that attempt, a part of the self says with Dryden …” For my part, I am lost in the admiration of it: I contemn the world when I think of it, and my self when I translate it” …
And I love the end result, the lilting English verse Mandelbaum labors to make out of Virgil’s Latin, as when Aeneas and his men, fleeing the fires on the Carthage shore (and just about guessing what caused them), encounter black, rough seas immediately:
But when the fleet had reached the open waters,
with land no longer to be seen – the sky
was everywhere and everywhere the sea –
a blue-black cloud ran overhead; it brought
the night and storm and breakers rough in darkness.
And from the high stern, even Palinurus,
the pilot, cries, “And why these tempest clouds
surrounding heaven? Father Neptune, what
are you preparing?”
“The sky was everywhere and everywhere the sea” is a line Virgil himself would have approved, I think, and Mandelbaum is equally good at evoking the oppressive moods Virgil could do so well: his opening scenes in burning Troy – marauding soldiers racing through the flame-dancing shadows, Aeneas himself running from flashpoint to flashpoint, sword drawn, desperate to save what he can see with his own eyes is past saving. His mother Venus eventually appears to him, asking essentially ‘what madness is this?’ – she pulls an Immortal trick, removes the veil from his eyes and allows his mortal eyes to see the Olympian gods rampaging in the Trojan night. She does it to underscore to him that all his old causes are lost, that he must focus on his family and on survival. She lends him and his men her protection all the way to the house of his aged father Anchises (in one of the many perfect little dramatic moments Virgil simply ignores, Venus doesn’t linger in that courtyard to say hello to her old lover, or to kiss his cheek one last time), where at first the old man refuses to leave Troy – it’s neither Venus nor Aeneas but a random shooting star that convinces him to become an exile:
No sooner had the old man spoken so
than sudden thunder crashed upon the left,
and through the shadows ran a shooting star,
its trail a torch of flooding light. It glides
above the highest housetops as we watch,
until the brightness that has marked its course
is buried in the woods of Ida: far
and wide the long wake of that furrow shines,
and sulphur smokes upon the land. At last,
won over by this sign, my father rises,
to greet the gods, to adore the sacred star:
you lead, I am. Gods of my homeland, save
my household, save my grandson. Yours, this omen;
and Troy is in your keeping. Yes, I yield.
My son, I go with you as your companion.’
To his credit, Barry Moser takes a decidedly non-classical approach to his illustrations; they’re dark and elegiac (and, in the case of doomed Palinurus falling from his tiller into the sea, scandalously weird – it’s not exactly the angle Palinurus’ mother would have chosen) and all the more memorable for it. The more I look at them with every re-reading, the better I think they enhance Mandelbaum’s own reading of Virgil’s epic – how unresolved it is, how powerful it is (and embarrassed of its own power) … and how weird it is. Other interpreters always seem embarrassed by that weirdness; Mandelbaum and Moser seem to revel in it.